The First Romantic

By Phillips, Peter | The Spectator, January 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

The First Romantic


Phillips, Peter, The Spectator


Peter Phillips on the life and times of Chopin, who was born 200 years ago

The year 1810 may seem a little late to look for the beginning of the Romantic movement in music, but with the births of Chopin, Schumann and S.S. Wesley one could make a case. Think of the difference in the lifestyles of these composers, especially Chopin's, when compared with those of their immediate predecessors.

Where Mozart was tied to a court and lived more or less the life of a servant, these three travelled as they liked, the original freelancing musicians. Where Haydn was emotionally tied to the Church (and physically to a court), only Wesley relied on the Church for employment, and was famously outspoken about the low standards he found there, making himself thoroughly unpopular. Where Beethoven and Schubert travelled little and chose solitary lives struggling to make ends meet - forever composing by candlelight in garrets if the illustrators are to be believed - our anniversarians had more modern relationships, with well documented passions and stormy scenes (though not a lot of children). When one adds Mendelssohn, born the previous year, into the equation, the whole aspect of classical composition and its practitioners does seem to have undergone a fundamental change at about that time.

Of the three, Chopin - his unPolish name comes from the fact that his father was a French emigre - lived the most bohemian life, replete with restless travel, a famous mistress, ambivalent sexuality, an almost superhuman technique at the keyboard, a romantically early death from modish diseases and a love of nightlife which meant he was always tired. Much of this would resurface in the lives of the High Romantics, especially worship of the hero performer, but taken with his music Chopin's world had a naivety in it which suggests the early stages of the movement. No doubt his constant illnesses and his longing for his native Poland depressed him in a thoroughly modern way, but there is an innocence alongside the passions which contrasts starkly with the internal struggles of someone like Wagner.

There is nothing especially complicated about the total blackness in his Funeral March, nor about the delight in his 'Black Keys' Study in G-flat major. In fact, he himself said to his pupil Friedrike StreicherMuller, 'Simplicity is everything. . . . After having played immense quantities of notes, and more notes, then simplicity emerges with all its charm, like Art's final seal. It is no easy matter.' Of course many composers have wanted to pay tribute to simplicity.

There are plenty around now who think they are children of nature and that their music comes from somewhere outside themselves, leaving them to be the modest vehicles of transfer. These days such talk is designed to be disarming; but I suspect Chopin meant it.

And I suspect his affair with George Sand was similarly short on heavy-duty analysis.

Like Byron and Wordsworth, Chopin was so wrapped up in himself that he found it hard to love anyone else fully. This attribute of the Early Romantics caused some of them to share their lives, and sometimes their beds, with their siblings. Chopin himself was close to his sister Ludwika. After a visit she made to France in 1844, he wrote: 'We are mad with happiness'; but for most of his life his take was either to flirt with young and beautiful girls, or to find something like the opposite. …

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