The Chopin Touch

Fryderyk Chopin: Pianist from Warsaw

by William G. Atwood
Columbia University Press, 305 pp., $30.00

How Chopin played the piano, though a puzzling question, is not beyond all conjecture. For almost the last hundred years, we have been given an image of the past by records and tapes, but that specious patent from oblivion is generally misleading and always distorted—and subtle distortions are the most difficult to compensate for (no recording will adjust to the acoustics of your living room as a live performer would). Before recording, we have only uncertain memories, twisted by time and prejudice, inaccurately set down, and letters or reviews, dusty, crumbling, and not to be trusted.

If we still try to raise the dead, to conjure up some ghostly idea of Chopin as a pianist, it can only be because of the lasting monuments in which he subsists, the productions in which he lives—his music. We feel that knowing the way he performed would help us give meaning to the scratches he made on paper. The assumption is not wrong, but it has its dangers: the composer and the performer are not exactly the same man, even if they inhabit the same body, and the former often outstrips the latter in originality and daring. The performer understands best about a piece of music only what his limited technique and manner can deal with most effectively, and many composers have been enlightened as well as surprised by a kind of performance that they had not foreseen. The notes often understand one another better than the composer understands them—this was a paradox familiar to romantic aesthetics. Still, a knowledge of contemporary performance is never entirely irrelevant, and the composer’s performance is the least irrelevant of all.

Fryderyk Chopin: Pianist from Warsaw by William G. Atwood is not about Chopin as a composer: his music is mentioned only in passing. Nor is it about the way Chopin played the piano, except incidentally: the most reliable witnesses to that were Chopin’s pupils, and they are not called up here for their testimony on the subject. What interests Atwood is the concert career of Chopin, and he deals almost entirely with that and the way the career fitted into Chopin’s sentimental life, in particular his affair with George Sand, a subject on which Atwood has written a previous book. Atwood is by profession a physician, and one might have thought that the details of Chopin’s many illnesses would interest him, but these, too, appear only incidentally—when he has a headache after playing a concert, for example.

I ought not to complain that Atwood did not set out to write a different book, even if the relation of Chopin as a pianist to his progress as a composer would clearly have been more rewarding. It is, however, only fair to point out that Chopin’s concert career is not a particularly interesting subject, since he did not, in fact, have much of a career. He made very little money by public appearances—or by composing, for that matter, and lived largely by teaching. He grew terrified of…

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