Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions

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Release Date: 
August 11, 2020
Simon & Schuster
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Chasing Chopin is well worth reading. It is instructive, engaging, and sincere.”

For Annik LaFarge, it makes “cosmic sense” that “rampant joy . . . [be at] the heart of a death march.” Frederick Chopin’s famous “Opus 35,” known as the Funeral March, shows “our experience of death . . . animated, not haunted, by a force of beauty. Of life.” Her loving pursuit of the man behind such music is an intriguing collage of people, places, relationships, instruments, and national struggles.

At “the heart of the story I’m about to tell,” LaFarge writes in the introduction, is a “startling, original statement about death and life.” She asks how, for so many, it “hits some kind of bulls-eye in my soul”?

The piano was invented around 1700, and “humanized” as “capable of imitating all the attributes and techniques of the human voice.“ In an age of “extraordinary technological and artistic creation,” with everyone getting “louder and bigger,” Chopin stuck with piano,  pursuing a tone so subtle, he was called “weak.” We meet George Sand, the “notorious, cigar-smoking, cross-dressing writer” with whom Chopin traveled to Majorca, Spain, to work on “Opus 35” in a chilly, medieval monastery. And always in the background is the “very hard story” of Poland, which Chopin left to “pour out my grief on the piano.”

The well-known third movement of “Opus 35” emerges “from silence in the death-haunted key of B-flat minor . . . [followed by] one of the most perfectly beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.“ Right from the start, arriving in Paris in 1831, after the revolution in Poland had been crushed, Chopin used a “new kind of musical language to disrupt the listener’s expectations and tell a different kind of story.”

But what story? Why is “rampant joy” at the heart of death? We don’t in fact get an answer. We’re told of juxtapositions: gloom/joy, minor/major. But this is not what it means to see life in death. In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Ippolit, who is dying, declares: “So be it! I will die looking straight into the well spring of force and life.” Ippolit speaks truth. The art of living is the art of dying.  

We die each moment. Existence is decay. We deny it, as Ippolit goes on to say, fixing on some “hobby horse” like “hope.” It’s why radical social philosopher, Ivan Illich, declared in the ’80s, “to hell with life.” He meant an idea of life, banishing death. It arose in Europe and became a worldview, informing how we see ourselves and how we think. Thomas Mann exposes it in The Magic Mountain. Settembrini, the sunny liberal optimist, despises “the tie that binds [us] . . . to disease and death.” But he’s dying. He praises science, denying his own reality, like “ancient Gauls who shot their arrows against Heaven.”

It is exemplified by George Sand herself who spent “virtually all her 72 years composing her own life,” as if a life can be ordered and made coherent. It doesn’t work. LaFarge points out that Chopin lived between the Enlightenment and the Romantic era, and somehow “stands, in many ways, beyond them.” But it would have been because he spoke “the language of life as well as death.” Illich argues that the denial of death is, precisely, the supposed opposition between reason and emotion, mind and body, and the resulting incapacity to feel, and to know experientially, the inevitable insecurity at very heart of existence, even in beauty.

There are two clues to an answer to the introduction’s question. The first is a remark early on that “at [music’s] heart beats a simple truth: it’s all about vibration.” Vibration is life and death, growth and decay. To feel it is to know insecurity, to understand, as Einstein (supposedly) said, that we are not discrete entities but part of the unfolding of the universe, complex and mysterious. Yet we try, as Adrienne Rich wrote, to get “an intellectual fix” on such feeling: to name and control, as Sand did.

The second revealing comment regards Chopin’s teaching. One of his favorite students, Emily Von Gretsch, said his emphasis on souplesse (subtlety) was “the most difficult task I know.” It meant relinquishing cramped expectations from both mind and body. Chopin’s teaching is said to have been about love, but it seems to have been love as humble openness to nature, involving detached and active listening: brokenness rather than the ebullient fullness associated with the term “love” today.

Chasing Chopin is well worth reading. It is instructive, engaging, and sincere. It would be a shame, though, to take the book’s central question about Chopin to have been answered. It is not.