Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars. Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high. A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man. Fréderic Chopin
When Susan and I were interviewed once for a radio show about professional couples—couples who work in the same profession, that is—we were asked about our individual musical tastes. Susan’s choices matched her way of thinking: rational, logical, carefully structured, controlled and tasteful of emotional expression—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. Mine were more of an emotionally flamboyant kind: Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, the Romantics, Chopin above all.
Music is supposed to be like politics: under 40, you’re a fool not to be a Socialist, over 40, it’s the reverse. Same with music. It’s okay to love the gushers when you’re young, but age should bring appreciation of more subtle nuances. Well, it does. I have great and ever-growing respect for Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, so on. But when it comes to emotional solace I also I want my ears grabbed.
That’s why Chopin heads my list. In Swann in Love, Proust talks of Chopin’s “long sinuous phrases … so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to reach … only to return more deliberately—with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of making you cry out—to strike at your heart.” In the year or so when I was living alone and feeling sorry for myself, I’d stand in the dark on my apartment balcony eating a tub of strawberry Hagen-Daaz and let the nocturnes feed my self-pity. The music’s structures are meticulously wrought, but there is no emotional holding back. He indulges you. He expresses, Liszt said, the sorrows we save for our secret communications with God.
For years I’ve watched pianists play. The flexibility and speed of movement are of course always amazing; if you concentrate on looking at the hands themselves you can find yourself slipping into a zone of suggestibility where the hands are separate creatures, agents of manipulation even, manufacturing this cascade of notes and melody that you are submerged in. In that zone, which is something like the hypnagogic zone between sleep and waking, you seem more vulnerable than normal to the emotional effect of the music. At least, I am. If I watch a pair of hands playing say a Chopin polonaise I go somewhere quite else: the heart stirs and the restraints of the day relent. Emotion is raw. There’s a bright fullness in my brain and everything around me is distant and I feel that if I want to weep I can. I sometimes think I should take up the piano again so that I could play Chopin, but I know it would only break my heart.
We made a pilgrimage one summer to George Sand’s manor house at Nohant. It was where Chopin wrote much of the best of his music. We drove from Paris, a slow, leisurely wander along the side roads of the Loire valley, a world away from the rumble and thunder of the autoroutes, stopping at vineyards and chateaux and wayside inns set in lush, quiet landscapes—landscapes of a beautiful blue colour that turns, George Sand used to say, to violet and black on stormy days.
The mood at the chateau was quiet, evening coming. We wandered the rooms in a mood of reverence—the upright piano with its two candelabra, the oval, cherry-wood salon table surrounded by eight Louis XVI chairs, the dining-room table set as if for one of George Sand’s celebrated literary gatherings, the blue and amber glassware that Chopin gave her. Later we sat on the grass under the tree in the little square outside the old family church and talked about the two of them. A gold evening light threw its ancient Romanesque lines into sharp relief.
She was the love of his life, looked after him, nursed him when he was sick, inspired him. Some people think she was his destroyer. They broke up, a couple of years before he died, and he never wrote much after that. But she gave him his space. She was his muse at the time when he needed her most. He never stopped loving her. All of which you can hear in his music if you listen.
His story also has a lot to tell us about ideas of home and belonging, and of course love and (look at how he ended, and so soon) the vulnerability of the flesh. I’ve always thought of Chopin as someone truly heroic. Although he lived most of what there was of his adult life outside his homeland, and for all his attachment to his audiences and his ultimate mistress, he longed to go home. He kept a vial of Polish earth with him on his travels around Europe, and one of the two books they found in his Paris apartment when he died was a collection of Polish poetry. Whether Chopin expresses the essence of Poland in his work, or whether his work became the essence of Poland, is a moot point, though perhaps not to the Polish: they call him Poland’s national composer, they play his music at take-off and landing on the Polish national airline, the watermark on Polish passports is a reproduction of Chopin’s music in his own hand, they even named the main Warsaw airport after him. When we think today of Polishness—that strange, compelling mix of hauteur and vulnerability, pride and melancholy—the thought of Chopin is rarely far away.
In a sense, he did go home. After he died they cut out his heart and sent it to Warsaw, and you can visit it: it’s embedded in a marble pillar of one of the city’s churches. On the pillar is a quote from St. Matthew’s Gospel: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Penitents line up beside it while they wait their turn to confess, then kneel in pews nearby to say their prayers of penance. On a sunny morning, the tall, white interior of the church seems filled with light. The heart is apparently pickled in brandy, and in 2014 they opened up the pillar to check that the spirit hadn’t evaporated. We have odd attitudes to human remains.
A few minutes walk away from the church is a little museum filled with scores and knickknacks from Chopin’s life. At the centre of the main room is his last piano, a boxy Pleyel in light, gold-brown wood. They sent that back, too. You’re not allowed to play it, of course—the keyboard is under a plastic cover—but you can touch the wooden surround if you want to. I didn’t. He was coughing an awful lot in those last days.
One of the mementoes in the museum is a small package wrapped in crumpled, liver-coloured paper, a faded pink ribbon knotted around. On it is written Moya Bieda, My Sorrow. He was 26 when he met Maria Wodzinska in Dresden; she was 17, a bit of a flibbertigibbet by all accounts, but the second great love of his life. He proposed, and her parents accepted him on condition that he take care of his health and that the engagement, for a trial period, be kept secret. It didn’t work out, of course, and the following year the family wrote to say the engagement was off and enclosed this package of correspondence—including Maria’s rejection letter.
My Sorrow. No wonder he’s the patron musical saint of heart-stricken lovers.
© Max Wyman, 2016