Chopin in Paris Analysis

Chopin in Paris (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

CHOPIN IN PARIS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE ROMANTIC COMPOSER encompasses roughly the second half of the great composer’s life. Tad Szulc presents Chopin as influenced by nearly every major trend in thought of the Romantic Period. Szulc’s Chopin debates the superiority of Neo-Classical and Romantic art with Eugene Delacroix. He lives for the opera, especially the works of Vincenzo Bellini whom he met in 1831. He follows recent developments in literature and radical politics through his liaison with George Sand.

Chopin’s years in Paris also brought him contact with many of the leading figures in nineteenth century music: Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Felix Mendelssohn were all either acquaintances or friends. He heard Niccolo Paganini and the sisters Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot, both stars of the operatic stage. Most of all, Chopin loved the poetry of his native Poland. The poet Adam Mickiewicz became a close friend of Chopin. Chopin set a number of his works to music, as he did those of the Polish author, Stefan Witwicki.

Szulc’s strength is his ability to move with ease among this motley cast of characters, explaining the role that each of them played in shaping the style of the great genius. Szulc is as comfortable discussing piano construction in the early nineteenth century as he is addressing performance practice, social history, and political developments. Given least attention is Chopin’s music itself. Szulc is not a musicologist and is content to allow earlier musical analysis of Chopin stand unchallenged. The result is that CHOPIN IN PARIS is much more a biography and work of cultural history than it is a critique of Chopin’s oeuvre. It brings to life the spirit of a fascinating city that left a major impact on the art of so many Romantic composers.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 742.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, March 1, 1998, p. 326.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 15, 1998, p. 144.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 26, 1998, p. 10.

Music Educators Journal. LXXXV, July, 1998, p. 54.

The New Leader. LXXXI, April 6, 1998, p. 18.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 5, 1998, p. 37.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, January 26, 1998, p. 74.

Chopin in Paris (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Tad Szulc’s credentials as a biographer were well established with his highly successful Pope John Paul II: The Biography (1996). Two of Szulc’s other works, Fidel: A Critical Portrait (1987) and Then and Now: How the World Has Changed Since WWII (1990), received the prestigious Overseas Press Club of America award for best book of the year on international affairs. Szulc’s background as a biographer, journalist, linguist, and student of world politics serves him well in Chopin in Paris, a highly readable account of the composer’s most productive period.

Chopin in Paris begins shortly after the establishment of the French July Monarchy (1830) and continues until the year of Chopin’s death. Between these two events Szulc uncovers a wide range of information about nearly every aspect of early nineteenth century social and cultural life. Like many of the Romantics, Chopin produced works that were influenced by diverse trends in contemporary thought. He debated the superiority of Neoclassical and Romantic art with Eugène Delacroix. He loved the opera, being especially fond of the works of Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), whom he met in 1831. He learned about recent developments in literature and radical politics through his liaison with George Sand. Chopin’s years in Paris also brought him into contact with many of the leading figures in nineteenth century music: Ferenc Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Felix Mendelssohn were all close, though not always amicable, acquaintances. He heard Niccolò Paganini perform often and knew the sisters Maria Malibrán and Pauline Viardot, both stars of the operatic stage. Most of all, Chopin loved the poetry of his native Poland. The poet Adam Mickiewicz became a close friend of Chopin during Mickiewicz’s own stay in Paris. Chopin set to music the works of Mickiewicz and those of the Polish author Stefan Witwicki.

Szulc’s strength is his ability to move with ease among this motley cast of characters, explaining the role that each of them played in shaping the style of the great genius. Szulc is as comfortable discussing piano construction in the early nineteenth century (Sébastian Erard’s perfection of the double escapement made it possible for Chopin to repeat notes at full volume far more quickly than could occur in the works of his predecessors), as he is addressing performance practice, social history, and political developments. Given least attention is Chopin’s music itself. Szulc is not a musicologist and is content to allow earlier musical analyses of Chopin to stand unchallenged. The result is that Chopin in Paris is much more a biography and work of cultural history than it is a critique of Chopin’s oeuvre. It brings to life the spirit of a fascinating city that left a major impact on the art of so many Romantic composers.

By all rights, Chopin should never have been in Paris at all. Traveling on a Russian passport he was forced to acquire due to the Russian occupation of Poland, Chopin was granted a visa to journey only through Paris. His real destination was officially recorded as London, and a stay in Paris was permitted only “in passage.” Chopin would later joke that he remained on French soil “in passage” for the rest of his life. He arrived in Paris in September, 1831, and became a French citizen four years later. Although Chopin maintained strong ties to his native country—Chopin’s father always wrote him in French from Warsaw and Chopin always responded in Polish from Paris—Szulc finds no evidence to support the claim that Chopin seriously considered returning to the land of his birth. Descended from a family that had long been of mixed Polish and French heritage, Chopin was at home in both worlds. He flourished in the bustling environment of Paris, although he had forged his soul in the mixed German and Slavic culture of his native Poland.

Szulc’s image of Chopin differs in several ways from the fragile, tubercular genius depicted by previous biographers. To begin with, Szulc makes it clear that Chopin’s illness never really interfered with the composer’s demanding schedule. Even as his health began to fail, Chopin taught private lessons at least six hours each day. (For most of his life, Chopin earned more from teaching than he did from publishing compositions.) In the evenings Chopin would frequently attend the opera or fulfill other social commitments. He would finally begin writing music late at night, then catch a few hours sleep before the whole exhausting process would begin again.

Chopin’s compositions were rarely, if ever, the result of a flash of inspiration. He would work on each piece as long as a decade, setting it aside so that he could begin new works and then return to it whenever he had a spare moment. Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before him, Chopin had the ability to work productively despite family tragedies,...

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