by David Blake, Fiction Department, Central Library
Benita Eisler’s Chopin’s Funeral is a biography of an affair, a love affair drenched in regret and melancholy for lost ephemeral moments of sublime beauty. Fittingly, it opens with the 39-year-old genius’s funeral at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, mobbed by thousands. Few would have known Chopin or would have heard him play. They knew him through the sheet music they bought and played at home on their new pianos. His great love, the novelist George Sand, was not at the Madeleine. Sand and Chopin were estranged at the end.
Frederick Chopin and George Sand (the pen name of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) were opposites. He was very short, very slight, fair, sickly, and reticent; she was warm, dark, amorous, large, and exuded health. But both of them were pioneers of the Romantic Movement and were among the first artists making their way by sales to the general public, rather than living off the patronage of aristocrats. They were celebrities and they lived well in 1840’s Paris and at her French country chateaux, in the company of their friends, Franz Liszt and Eugene Delacroix. Sadly, the passionate natures they held in common, drove them apart.
Chopin’s sicknesses, primarily tuberculosis, were his unwelcome companions from his youth in Warsaw, Poland. As one reads, one wonders how such a small weak man could achieve such masterful compositions for the piano, an instrument new to the world in his day.
Ultimately Sand was cruel to Chopin, but she went to great lengths to care for him during the years they were together, as he struggled to breathe for months and months at a time. His sickness often prevented him from working, and he felt humiliated by her financial support. Nonetheless, all who heard Chopin play were struck by the strength of his performances.
Chopin’s Funeral fills in many historical blanks for those of us seeking to understand the glory of French art and the art scene of that era when they and their friends Delacroix, Hugo, and Balzac were young.
Benita Eisler’s biography of a British Romantic Movement avatar, Byron, Child of Passion, Fool of Fame has also drawn high praise.
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