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  • Written by Benita Eisler
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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 240 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42525-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Frédéric Chopin’s reputation as one of the Great Romantics endures, but as Benita Eisler reveals in her elegant and elegiac biography, the man was more complicated than his iconic image.

A classicist, conservative, and dandy who relished his conquest of Parisian society, the Polish émigré was for a while blessed with genius, acclaim, and the love of Europe’s most infamous woman writer, George Sand. But by the age of 39, the man whose brilliant compositions had thrilled audiences in the most fashionable salons lay dying of consumption, penniless and abandoned by his lover. In the fall of 1849, his lavish funeral was attended by thousands—but not by George Sand.

In this intimate portrait of an embattled man, Eisler tells the story of a turbulent love affair, of pain and loss redeemed by art, and of worlds—both private and public—convulsed by momentous change.


Lacrymosa ies illa: "What weeping on that day"

On a sparkling Paris morning, Tuesday, October 30, 1849, crowds poured into the square in front of the Church of the Madeleine. The occasion was the funeral of Frédéric Chopin, and for it, the entire facade of the great neoclassical temple had been draped in swags of black velvet centered with a cartouche bearing the silver-embroidered initials FC.

Admission was by invitation only: Between three thousand and four thousand had received the black-bordered cards. Observing the square with its crush of carriages, the liveried grooms and sleek horses, the throngs converging on the porch, Hector Berlioz reported that "the whole of artistic and aristocratic Paris was there." But another who surveyed the crowd, the music critic for the Times of London, suspected that of the four thousand who filled the pews, a large number had been admitted just before noon, strangers to the dead man, mere bystanders even, "many of whom, perhaps, had never heard of him."

If death is a mirror of life, Chopin's funeral reflected all the disjunctions of his brief existence. The most private of artists, his genius was mourned in a public event worthy of a head of state. Canonized as "angelic," a Shelleyan "poet of the keyboard," Chopin seemed to personify romanticism, and before he was buried, its myths had already embalmed him: a short and tragic life; an heroic role as Polish patriot and exile; doomed lover of the century's most notorious woman; and finally, his death from consumption, that killer of youth, beauty, genius, and of courtesans foolish enough to fall in love.

In reality, he was the least romantic of artists. While the generation that had come of age just before his own in France, including the Olympian Victor Hugo, had defined romanticism as a holy war of the "moderns" (themselves) against the "ancients" (their literary elders), setting off riots in theaters to make their point, Chopin clung to the past. His musical touchstones were Haydn, Mozart-but especially Bach. He harbored doubts about Beethoven's lapses of taste, was incurious about the music of Schubert, and generally contemptuous of his other contemporaries: Schumann, Berlioz, and Liszt, towards whom his feelings were further tangled by rivalrous friendship. In art, he preferred the marmoreal neoclassicism of Ingres and his followers to the radical inventions in color and form of his friend Delacroix. Socially and politically, he was still more conservative.

The same aristocratic circles that had embraced Chopin the child prodigy in Warsaw were waiting to welcome the twenty-one-year-old sensation of Paris. Chopin arrived in France in 1831. One year before, revolution had replaced the Bourbon Restoration with the Orleanists swept in by Louis Philippe and his July monarchy. It was still a world of fixed hierarchies: of titles, birth, and breeding, buoyed by a flood tide of fresh money coined by the financiers and industrialists whose entertainments outshone the Sun King in splendor, if not in style. Chopin made some friends among the professional middle class-a less grand banker or diplomat, a few fellow musicians. He had a horror of "the People" as a force of upheaval or even change (which he dreaded in any form), and he was suspicious of those who championed their cause. He was appalled by that quintessentially romantic belief, whose most ardent proponent was George Sand, that art must serve the cause of social justice-or, indeed, any other cause except itself.

Like many who have thrived as "exceptions," propelled by talent from modest origins to a place among the privileged, Chopin was repelled by marginality: by poor Poles, by Jews, by the ill-dressed and ill-mannered, by coarseness or slovenliness, in art or life.

Most likenesses of the composer suggest that he was far from handsome. He had pale, colorless hair, a thin, hooked nose, a pursey mouth, and rabbity, lashless eyes. In these images, Chopin bears only a glancing resemblance to his famous portrait by Delacroix-the portrait of romantic genius itself, with his tousled chestnut mane and burning inward gaze. Chopin's famous dandyism, then, must be understood as another labor of creation, like his music an imperious quest for perfection. The dandy enlists distinction-in dress, speech, manners-along with distance, to create a masterpiece: himself.

What appeared to many-then and now-as the snobbery of a provincial, self-invented aristocrat and aesthete, had deeper sources. Chopin needed the reassurance that a fixed social order provides. Dependent and childlike in many ways, he clung to the security of protective institutions-the monarchy, the Church, and the family-which defined themselves proudly as patriarchal, stern but loving fathers keeping watch over children, dedicated to exalting an ideal past and to keeping present chaos at bay.

Two years and only two public concerts after his arrival in Paris, Chopin ranked among those few artists who moved in every circle that counted. Ignoring protocol, older, established musicians called upon him. He was a fixture at the grandest houses, where, arriving in his own carriage, he was welcomed as a lionized guest who never failed to charm and amuse; if he could be prevailed upon to perform, he hypnotized every listener. The musically knowledgeable drew close to the piano to study the wizardry of his technique and his famous inventions in fingering, third finger crossing the fourth, that made his impossibly difficult compositions appear effortless. Fellow exiles heard laments for a homeland in the languorous rubato of the mazurkas, with their heart-catching drop from major to minor keys, but the mood of elegy was as often shattered by discordant salvos of unleashed rage. Even those guests whose attendance was simply an occasion to wear the new diamonds, to remark casually at the bourse that the reception last evening at Baron James's had been more than usually delightful, stayed well past midnight, straining to hear the final note, when the pianist, pale and exhausted, rose wearily to take his bow. It was uncanny how Chopin's music spoke so intimately to their most private, long-buried thoughts and memories, evoking childhood happiness and lost love; innocent, nobler selves trampled by the harsh rules of life.

Seventeen years later, he died, destitute, in an apartment paid for by friends at the most fashionable address in the most expensive quarter of Paris.

Now, at the funeral, emissaries from the world of music were outnumbered by mourners from the ranks of the rich and titled. The Polish émigré aristocracy and its French counterpart among the old noblesse were in turn outshone by new money: bankers and speculators whose wives and daughters had also been among Chopin's pupils. Certain of the fashionable, one reporter noted, appeared indecorously attired in brilliant colors, glittering with jewels.

While the crowd filed through the portal, the closed casket was carried from the sanctuary and placed under an elaborate catafalque ("utterly pretentious," in the view of Paris's leading music critic) at the transept. Chopin's embalmed body had lain in the crypt for almost two weeks since his death on October 17, aged thirty-nine. His dying had been long and terrible, the disease that killed him still not diagnosed with certainty: tuberculosis of the larynx, cystic fibrosis, mitral stenosis, or a rare viral infection?

With a dandy's discipline, in his final agony of slow suffocation, Chopin had planned the musical program whose principal offering was to be a performance of Mozart's Requiem. Unknown to the dying man, women were not permitted to sing in the city's parish churches; it had taken days of pleading on the part of Chopin's most powerful friends before a special dispensation was issued by the Archbishop of Paris. The decree allowed female participation provided it remained invisible; thus the women singers, including Chopin's friend Pauline Viardot among the featured soloists, were hidden from view behind a black velvet curtain.

As the mourners took their places, the organist played the funeral march from Chopin's own Sonata in B-flat Minor. Then, the choir of the Paris Conservatory sounded the opening notes of the Requiem's Introitus, followed by the first solo-"Te decet hymnus, Deus," Viardot sang, her glorious mezzo-soprano soaring above the chorus and orchestra. Then, voices and instruments were stilled while the priest chanted the High Mass for the Dead.

The pallbearers emerged from their pews. Two princes, Adam and Alexandre Czartoryski, represented the community of Polish exiles. The painter Eugène Delacroix mourned the friend he had both loved and revered, calling him "the truest artist among us." From the world of music, the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, decorations glinting against his dark mourning attire, appeared the personification of success. He had been the merest acquaintance, but Chopin, passionate for opera, had been a fan, like millions of others who had made Meyerbeer a rich man. In contrast, cellist and composer Auguste Franchomme was known to few. But the modest, scholarly professor at the Conservatory had been the inspiration for the only music Chopin would ever write for an instrument other than the piano. Franchomme was followed by a collaborator of another kind, Camille Pleyel, manufacturer of the pianos that Chopin, more than any other composer who ever lived, had made the instrument of genius.

Shouldering the massive coffin, the six men moved up the nave to the sounds of the organ playing Chopin's Preludes in E Minor and B Minor. Many of those now leaving had heard the composer play these pieces-his favorites-in their own houses, in the salons of friends, or in Pleyel's concert rooms. The familiar notes on the somber instrument spoke of the voice they would never hear again, and they wept.

Outside the church, the mourners gathered around the corbillard, the wagon hearse particular to Paris. Drawn by black plumed horses, it aroused shivers of dread, but also of excitement: Parisians loved a funeral. By this time, most of the mourners had dispersed; Chopin had forbidden any graveside ceremony. With the exception of the pallbearers, freed now of their burden, those who remained were women. They surrounded the small figure of the composer's older sister, Ludwika, summoned from Warsaw by the dying man at the end of June. "Please come, if you can," he had begged, even if she had to borrow the money, of which, he, alas, had none to advance. "Apply for a passport immediately," he urged, and lest he should sound like his familiar hypochrondriacal self, he invoked the advice of others close to him and concerned for his health who had agreed that no medicine would help him as much as the sight of his sister. At the same time, he tried to deny the urgency of his condition. "I don't know myself why I yearn to see Ludwika," he wrote, with a wan coyness, to the rest of the family. "It's like those whims of pregnant women."

Chopin might have spent the last twenty years in the most emancipated company of Paris, but it was still natural to him to ask permission of his brother-in-law for Ludwika to make the journey: "A wife must obey her husband," he wrote. "Thus, I am asking you as the husband to accompany your spouse." With the intervention of the czar's ambassador to France, whose wife was Polish, the endless passport process was hastened and Ludwika, accompanied by her husband, Józef Kalasanty Jedrzejewciz, and fifteen-year-old daughter, arrived in Paris in August. But the grumpy Kalasanty returned to Poland in September; it was only Chopin's sister and his little niece Louisette who remained with him to the end.

Another young mourner, Adolf Gutmann, thirty years old, was one of Chopin's few pupils training to be a professional musician. Others, including pianists said to be just as talented, could not have performed by virtue of birth; they were women and aristocrats of title or wealth; indeed, the most gifted of all Chopin's students was a princess, Marcelina Czartoryska, who had walked to the cemetery accompanied by Countess Delfina Potocka. Sumptuously beautiful of face and body, her golden hair as bewitching as her soprano voice, Delfina, long separated from her husband, was so prodigal with her sexual favors that she had been crowned "the Great Sinner"-no small distinction in the Paris of the July Monarchy. Chopin was rumored to have been one of her many lovers. She had rushed to Paris from her villa in Nice at the news that he was dying. With only hours to live, he had begged Delfina to play and sing for him. A piano was moved to the open door of his bedroom. But the sounds of the voice so dear to him or the music she played or sang caused spasms of choking and he motioned for her to stop.

Sending their carriages ahead, the Polish noblewomen walked the distance, east along the grand boulevards, skirting the slums of Paris to Père Lachaise Cemetery. Others, arriving earlier in hired cabs, stood waiting by the open grave: a brawny red-haired sculptor, Auguste Clésinger, and his young wife, Solange, daughter of George Sand. Clésinger had been summoned to the dying man's bedside to mold the death mask, but the resulting likeness-bald head, drooping eyes, mouth contorted by agonized efforts to breathe-was rejected by the horrified Ludwika. Working swiftly, the sculptor had applied another layer of wet plaster, which, after removal, he reworked, smoothing away all evidence of struggle and pain until the dead man's features were composed into an expression of Christian peace. Clésinger's reward was the commission for a funerary monument, and he now surveyed the site where his marble tribute, featuring a Muse holding a lyre, would rise above a small oval profile of the composer.

Towering over the Clésingers, Ludwika, the priest, the Polish nobles, and the pallbearers was the angular figure of Miss Jane Stirling, a Scottish heiress, Chopin's pupil and patroness, who had supported the composer in the last year of his life. It was Stirling who had paid the bill for the funeral-five thousand pounds-of which two thousand were spent on the orchestra and chorus alone.

In the silence ordained by the dead man, his coffin was lowered. The mourners pressed closer together for a last look. But they also seemed to close ranks, filling an empty place among them.

Absent from the small circle of those who had been closest to the dead man was George Sand.
Benita Eisler|Author Q&A

About Benita Eisler

Benita Eisler - Chopin's Funeral

Photo © Jerry Bauer

Benita Eisler is the author of Byron and O’Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance. She lives in Manhattan.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Benita Eisler author of CHOPIN'S FUNERAL

Q: Your subjects have included artists, painters, poets, musicians. How do you go about selecting a subject and how do you shift gears?

I’m ever more fascinated by the difference between talent and genius, and the way these play out in terms of both the artist’s character or psychology, their medium of expression and the work of art. Georgia O’Keefe is a perfect example of how talent tends to trump genius, because it’s so much more marketable. “You can’t keep a good second-rater down” applies perfectly to this painter. And my book was really about the brilliant way Alfred Stieglitz marketed O’Keefe.

Byron attracted me, in part for the same reasons. He obsessed his contemporaries and continues to fascinate us: he was handsome, well-born, brilliant and seductive with a kind of Nietzcean will to power often found in those with physical deformities. And his poetry is marvelous; the great revelation to me was what a great satirist he was; savage, unsparing. With Byron, too, I feel there is more intelligence, talent and sheer will in his poetry than the kind of irreducible genius we recognize with Keats and Chopin.

Q: How did you come to Chopin and why did you decide to make his funeral the set piece for this book?

Chopin represents the only real “shift of gears” for me. Although I spent years “stuck” as an “advanced” music student, I never realized how terrifyingly hard it is to write about music: The effort gave me new respect, if not awe, for the daily reviewers who manage to bring back alive the sound, qualities and style of a performer. I’d always loved playing Chopin-my piano teacher used the mazurkas as a “reward” for swotting at those hateful Czemy exercizes. Once you’ve played Chopin, you realize how much a certain “simplicity” defines genius-one that will ever after be recognizeable.

Q: What is it about funerals that make them so ripe for drama?

Ghoulish as it sounds, I love writing about funerals. (So do novelists and screenwriters: Amsterdam, The Big Chill, not to mention Four Weddings and . . .are a few recent examples that come to mind. “In our end is our beginning,” Eliot wrote, and our end, along with the ceremony that marks it, tells us volumes about the life lived in between these events. Chopin’s funeral, in particular, its splendor, pomp-like a head of state--provided the most dramatic contrast to the composer’s last years and his death: a homeless wanderer, he died destitute. My story is-How did this happen?

Q: In researching this book what surprised you most about Chopin?

: To go back to Chopin as a genius, I was constantly reminded, in my research, of the disconnect between the greatness of the artist and the ordinariness of the man. Perhaps musical genius is related to mathematics, in the sense of being utterly unrelated to anything else. In his world view, and especially his prejudices, Chopin had more in common with a 19th Century Polish peasant than with the “enlightened” artists and intellectuals who were his friends-starting with George Sand herself.

Q: You are writing about a time when Classical musicians were really full-blown celebrities. What changed?

There are still classical musicians who are celebrities and even cult figures-I’m thinking of the late Glenn Gould—and crossover artists like Pavarotti, but now, there are competing forms of musical stardom and it’s largely teenagers’ taste that determines performer celebrity.

Q: You bring to life the dramatic love story of Chopin and George Sand. What do you think drew these two amazing talents together? And what were the biggest forces that tore them apart?

The story of Chopin and George Sand is probably the most famous love affair of the last two hundred years. Certainly, it’s the best known chapter of Chopin’s life and possibly the only thing many people know a bout Sand. No pair of lovers, to my knowledge, has had two movies devoted to them: the favorite of my own adolesence was-A Song to Remember from which Liberace is said to have derived his inspiration of placing candelabra on the piano and I loved the witty “post-modern” Nocturne; Hugh Grant as a foppish, virginal Chopin has more truth than poetry. The universal element of their liaison is the attraction of opposites: the private, aristocratic composer; politically and socially conservative; nostalgic for the old Order and the writer, social activist,”intellectual of the Left”, as we would now call Sand. She was most drawn to Chopin’s genius and it’s a less known aspect of their relationship, that she brilliantly managed his career as a performer. In Sand, Chopin found sexual liberation, along with a maternal presence. In the decade they were together, she took charge of her lover’s life, allowing him the freedom to devote himself to music. At Nohant, her estate in the Berry, Sand created an artist’s Utopia, where Chopin composed over half of his oeuvre.

The end of their “paradise” (Sand’s word) had many causes, the most predictable being that Sand grew tired of an increasingly sick, difficult and possessive companion. Her role had changed from lover, companion and friend, to caretaker of a critical, querulous boarder. What finally ended their relationship were the shifting alliances in the Freudian family romance.

Q: You write about the special relationship Chopin had with Sand’s daughter Solange, a relationship that lasted beyond the collapse of Chopin and Sand’s romance. What special bonds held these two together?

When Chopin first became part of Sand’s family, her son Maurice was still an adolescent and Solange, Sand’s daughter, was nine years old. As they left childhood behind, Chopin was caught in the middle of roiling oedipal dramas. He stood in the way of the son’s need to become the man of the family and tried to protect Solange from her mother’s hostility and a disastrous marriage. For both of these sins, he was punished, banished from the only family he had known since his exile from Poland.

Q: Chopin died at age 39. What do you think the future might have held in store for him?

Chopin was ill for so much of his adult life; the beginnings of consumption were apparent from the time of his arrival in France. This was a disease for which there was no cure and as his condition deteriorated, both his earnings as a performer and teacher, along with the energy required to push the compositional innovations of his last style to completion were exhausted. Had he been granted a decade more, it’s tempting to reflect how far in the direction of musical modernism he might have traveled.



“A wonderfully evocative melding of music and life.” —Financial Times

“[Written] with poetic insight and admirable brevity, combining analytical skill with that of a novelist.” —New York Times Book Review

“A captivating narrative. . . . [Eisler] manages to infuse cultural history with heartbreak.” —New York Sun

“Psychologically compelling. . . . Eisler writes beautifully about Chopin’s music.” --The Christian Science Monitor

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