Magazine article The Spectator

Blood and Sand

Magazine article The Spectator

Blood and Sand

Article excerpt


by Benita Eisler

Little, Brown, L16.99, pp. 231,

ISBN 0316860212

Among those whom in adolescence I wanted to be when I grew up was Chopin. His music seemed very close to sex and the misery of not having it. His etudes were a brown study, his very nocturnes suggested emission, he expressed every lad's rebellion in the marching feet of the polonaise, stirring the blood. When Cornel Wilde played him in the movie, even the quavers of real blood dancing their arpeggio up and down the white notes did not put me off the tubercular genius who was essentially myself. It required a later reading of James Agate's review of A Song to Remember, which throughout called him Showpahn, striking the right Hollywood note, to bring me to my senses - no, what actually shows me I have grown up at last is this fine no-nonsense biography. When not calling him Fryk-Fryk, his lover (styling herself George though christened Aurore) addressed him as Chip-Chip. It sounds worse in French, but in her writing Eisler never gilds the lily when silence is the more golden comment.

So her book is entirely fair to the master except between the lines: in that eloquent limbo she offers you the pleasure of looking for the silly, petulant divinity that was the real Frederic. After leaving Poland, having condemned the Poles as 'a pack of imbeciles', never to return, perhaps so as to feel more homesick with every next mazurka that dripped from his pen, Chopin in the mid-1830s hit his moment in Paris as a pianist playing himself. Within a decade of his debut a tenth of Paris could tickle the ivories of the 60,000 instruments that chic had sold to their drawing-rooms and the streets were paved with Chip-Chip's sheet-music. All too briefly he was in the money. Concerts sold out before even the date was announced; everyone from Balzac to Berlioz gave ear to his 'heart-catching rubato', the familiar elevated into the agony of the mysterious.

Not only in music was Chopin viewed as a walking revolution. In lavender gloves and a silk waistcoat, he had the glitter of a fugitive, a foreign agitator who had arrived from nowhere to bring dissonance into tired old harmonies. He gives 'everything but himself,' said Liszt enviously. Yet he detested performing, to the neurotic extent of feeling himself gang-raped by his audience, his touch producing that 'stroking' movement which 'coaxed from certain final notes a magical afterlife'. He was five foot tall and weighed seven stone. He was already a dream patient for psychiatry. …

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