On October 30, 1849, a crush of people gathered in the square outside the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. The occasion was the funeral of Frédéric Chopin, one of the most noted pianists of his time and one of the world’s most enduring composers, dead at age thirty-nine after a long battle against tuberculosis. Between three thousand and four thousand people received printed invitations to this ceremony. Not everyone came, and absent was George Sand, at that time perhaps the most notorious female author in France, if not in Europe. Sand was Chopin’s constant companion and presumably his mistress for more than a decade, the two having first met in the autumn of 1836.
Benita Eisler, in this piquant and well-crafted account of Chopin’s life, comments, “If death is a mirror of life, Chopin’s funeral reflected all the disjunctions of his brief existence.” She goes on to say that, quite ironically, “Chopin seemed to personify romanticism, and before he was buried, its myths had already embalmed him.” In this statement she highlights one of the most frequent misapprehensions associated with the life of this famed composer: He was not a romantic.
Chopin, as Eisler goes on to demonstrate, was astoundingly conservative, venerating the music of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Johann Sebastian Bach while looking scornfully upon the music of such contemporaries as Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt. (Liszt was, incidentally, one of Chopin’s closer friends.) Chopin valued the paintings of artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres over those of his friend Eugène Delacroix, a radical experimenter with color.
In his social and political thinking, Chopin was even more conservative than in his attitudes toward the arts, making no effort to mask his anti-Semitism and his scorn for the poor, consistently casting his lot with the reigning powers rather than with the radicals seeking their ouster. He was openly antidemocratic, viewing the people—the masses—much as Henry L. Mencken did a century later when he labeled the vast American electorate “a Boobocracy.”
Sand, unquestionably the most influential person in Chopin’s life for more than a decade before he died, was as liberal as Chopin was conservative. She was not hesitant to voice her radical social and political sentiments, using her role as a journalist and well-known novelist to disseminate these views broadly. Sand, despite the irony of her espousing a liberality that ran completely counter to Chopin’s conservatism, was not only presumed to be his long-term mistress but, six years his senior, was also a surrogate mother who was faithful in seeing him through his bouts with tuberculosis that quite often brought him close to death.
Ironically, Sand more or less abandoned Chopin in the year before his death. Although she knew of his critical condition, she did not rush to his deathbed, explaining to a friend that Chopin had always bounced back from his health crises and citing his almost miraculous recovery following their stay in Majorca a decade earlier. Sand’s daughter, Solange Clesinger, attended Chopin as his death approached. He died in the arms of Solange, who was holding him up to drink some water. Sand, notified of Chopin’s death, chose not to attend his funeral. At the time, she was said to be at her country place in Nohant, although Solange swore that she saw her mother in Paris only days before Chopin died.
Ten years before Chopin’s death, he had come close to dying. His consumption was weakening him, and the thought of enduring a Parisian winter was daunting to both Chopin and Sand. They decided to spend the winter on Majorca, the largest of the Balearic islands in the west Mediterranean Sea, 145 miles off the coast of Spain. They departed from France late in 1838.
It soon became apparent that the trip was a mistake. The conservative Roman Catholic population of the island recoiled from the unmarried pair when they arrived in Palma with Sand’s children in tow. They were further concerned that the newly arrived couple did not attend church. When Chopin required medical attention, three local physicians treated him and spread the word that he was tubercular. A law passed in Majorca shortly before their arrival decreed that those suffering from tuberculosis must be evicted from their dwellings and that the furnishings of such dwellings be burned at the expense of the person afflicted with the disease.
Sand and Chopin had not reckoned on what the weather would be like on Majorca in winter. It rained continuously and was damp and cold. Unable to find a...
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