Book Review: “Chopin and His World”—A Kaleidoscopic View of His Works, His Life as a Polish Exile in Paris, and Even His Remarkable Hands

By Ralph P. Locke

Chopin and His World establishes multiple new starting points for further studies of one of the world’s greatest composers, yet it can be read with pleasure by people who merely (!) love the music.

Chopin and His World. Edited by Jonathan D. Bellman and Halina Goldberg. Princeton University Press, 369 pages, $80.00 hardcover, $35.00 paperback; also available as an e-book (price varies)

Every summer, Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson NY) puts on a festival, with many public lectures, all devoted to one great composer from the past. Princeton University Press publishes a book on that summer’s composer, and copies of the book are on sale during the festival. Each year’s book is edited by one or two specialist scholars, yet the books are aimed at a wide readership, such as concertgoers, music teachers and students, and people who love listening to classical music (sometimes now called “Western art music”) whether at home, in the car, at work, or on the gym treadmill. The Bard/Princeton books have been well received, and the Brahms volume is now available in a second, revised edition.

The volume under review comes from the festival of summer 2017, which was dedicated primarily to Frédéric Chopin. Plus performances of a Dvořák opera: Dimitrij. Chopin didn’t compose an opera, so a nineteenth-century composer from a neighboring Eastern European country was called upon.

The composer this past summer was Rimsky-Korsakov, and the 2019 festival will focus on Erich Walter Korngold, a masterful composer of concert works and opera who wrote marvelous film scores for Hollywood after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1934.

And in the summer of 2020, though the press releases haven’t gone out yet, the central figure will be, for the first time, a woman: Nadia Boulanger (1889-1979), who, after early efforts as a composer became a major force in musical life as organist, conductor, music critic, and, most of all, teacher and trusted adviser to vast numbers of musicians over her long life. Boulanger’s many students ranged widely in style and career track: composers as varied in style as Aaron Copland, Darius Milhaud, Astor Piazzolla, Quincy Jones, and Philip Glass, but also notable conductors and performers such as Dinu Lipatti, Daniel Barenboim, and John Eliot Gardiner. The extent to which Boulanger coached Stravinsky on some of his major compositions has only recently become clear in two books by Kimberly Francis: a study of their relationship and an edition of their correspondence.

The chapters in the Chopin volume are diverse and fascinating. Some give new insights into Chopin’s style: there are discussions of, for example, the polonaises; the Barcarolle, Op. 60, and barcarolle-like moments in important Chopin pieces not so labeled (e.g., the Fourth Scherzo); Chopin’s transformation of techniques found in “popular” (easily accessible and performable) piano music of his day; and Chopin’s complex relationship to the art of improvisation. Other chapters focus more on the man and what made him special: for example, his special position as a Polish exile in Paris; the physiology of Chopin’s hands (based on the evidence of some drawings and plaster casts made while he was alive or, in one case it seems, shortly thereafter); Chopin and dreams; and his sometimes prejudicial remarks about Jews and his use of a tune that was called “the Little Jew.” There are also extended and often little-known writings about Chopin and about Polish music by Chopin’s contemporaries. These have been freshly translated and helpfully annotated.

Frédéric Chopin — chapters focus more on the man and what made him special.

The eleven contributors include many of the most prominent North American and French authorities on Chopin or, more generally, on nineteenth-century piano music. In addition to co-editors Bellman and Goldberg, they are: Leon Botstein, Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Jeffrey Kallberg, David Kasunic, Anatole Leikin, Eric McKee, James Parakilas, John Rink, and Sandra P. Rosenblum. Most are accomplished performers as well as scholars. Anatole Leikin has recorded piano works by Chopin, Scriabin, and Cope. Botstein is, among other things, a much-recorded conductor.

The chapters are deeply researched and written with grace and nuance. Informative endnotes allow a reader to pursue matters further. I was glad to learn, along the way, about a 2016 book that translates the letters that Chopin wrote in Polish (and whose renderings are presumably more reliable than those in Arthur Hedley’s old book) and about two editions-in-progress of Chopin’s complete works: the Online Chopin Variorum Edition and Chopin’s First Editions Online.

Chopin and His World establishes multiple new starting points for further studies of one of the world’s greatest composers, yet it can be read with pleasure by people who merely (!) love the music. To get a taste of what awaits you, I recommend the editors’ lively introduction, which can be found online (and, along with it, the table of contents and selected passages from various chapters).

(This review is a lightly revised version of one that appeared in American Record Guide. It appears here by kind permission.)

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.

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