SOON AFTER Chopin's death at the age of 39 from consumption - that most Romantic of all diseases - a cartoon appeared in a Parisian periodical portraying and elegantly dressed woman, weeping in despair, "Ah," sympathizes a bystander, "she is the only countess in whose arms Chopin did not die."
The legends had already begun. In fact, one of the few things upon which accounts of Chopin's death agree, is that he was there. Saying much more about his death, or life, means sifting through a mass of apocrypha and through more than a century of fulsome prose about the "sylph" of the keyboard.
Both Ruth Jordan, author of a recent gently perceptive life of George Sand, and George R. Marek, author of numerous biographies of musical figures (and here aided in his Polish researches by Maria Gordon-Smith), are experienced in such demythification. Moreover, each calls attention to the problems surrounding Chopins life.
Few biographical documents survive. (Even the date of his birth is uncertain whether February 22 or March 1, 1810.) George Sand, the iconoclastic French novelist with whom Chopin lived for nine years, deliberately burned all her letters to him; other letters were destroyed during the following century in Warsaw's conflagrations.
And many of Chopin's personal possessions disappeared in a public auction after his death. There has even been disagreement over material that has survived. For example, after World War II, a Polish musicologist claimed to have discovered a series of love letters from Chopin to Delphina Potocka, chronicling an intimate affair which both preceded and followed the central relationship with George Sand. In these, Chopin writes unblushingly about sex, and speculatively about music, as he does nowhere else in the extant correspondence. But somewhere the original letters disappeared, and the ambitious musicologist seemed caught in a series of lies, with only photostats and typescripts remaining. Jordan accepts this materials as authentic; Marek, on the other hand, discusses teh controversy at length, having obtained a graphologist's opinion that while some of the correspondence is authentic, other parts had been subjected to meticulous cutting and pasting.
But mysteries would remain, even if every detail of Chopin's life were clearly illuminated. For the facts themselves are all too suggestive of the myth we have come to expect - that Chopin was another - worldly Romantic artist. George Sand herself articulated it: "I believe he is too fine, exquisite and perfect a nature to live for long in our gross and heavy terrestrial existence." He concertized rarely ("Crowds intimidate me. . . ") and preferred playing in the refined Parisian salons. He dressed meticulously, even in the late days of his illness. He had friends to pamper and protect him. (he instructed one to scent his drawing room with violets, saying,. "Let me find a little poetry when I come home.") And he carefully kept letters from an early romance, wrapped in a ribbon, inscribed "My Sorrow."
Of course, there was also illness. George Sand wrote: "His spirit was rubbed raw: the crease of a rose petal, and shadow of a fly, made him suffer." And at a corner at Manchester, during a miserable tour a few months before he died, he had to be carried on and off the stage.
It would be easy with this material to create a Romantic Biography, written by a "devout biographer" who would demonstrate in Chopin what James Huneker, a turn-of-the-century biographer, found: "the great heart throb of the universe." Fortunately, both Marek and Jordan fill in the details of the composer's playful childhool in Poland, and offer interpretations of those internecine struggles of the Chopin-Sand household which encompassed nearly every possible combination of Freudian trauma. 'Marek's account is, in general, more detailed and better documented than Jordan's; he is also more skeptical, particularly about the Delphina correspondence. But Jordan, despite an occasional error, has written a more restrained and readable book. Marek is indulgent; he drifts off into unwarranted speculation; also, his book is drafty and overwritten. (We read of Chopin "sprinkling over his life a bit of the powdered sugar of flirtation," and of his fantasy flowing "as a summer shower sprays a field of wheat.") Neither biography is definitive or decisive, but at least Jordan resists such confectionery delights.
The two conceptions of the man, though, are similar. Chopin was passionate and intense, all the while controlling those feelings under a careful, mannered veneer; in his vulnerability he needed a protective, dominant woman, yet in his art he was absolutely confident and certain. The major problem with both these books is the omission of his art, apologized for in each, but crippling in the end.
For the music is at the center of the life, and to omit, or to cavalier dismiss the originally of Chopin's early works, as Marek does, is to misinterpret that life and its place in its contemporary world. Without the music, the life would never have become myth.
It has, in fact, been subject to the same distortions as the life. But no one who hears it is indifferent to it. It is "classical" music that is, more than any other, "popular." The music speaks with a single voice, articulated by the player at the keyboard, a voice both forceful and plaintive, distant and intimate, exotic and familiar, formal and passionate, exacting and improvisatory, comforting and vulnerable. And as radical and as daring as it was at the time, it found immediate and intense response. For it was not only Chopin's voice, spoken through his own paradoxes, but the voice of his time, of Sand, of Balzac, of Delacroix, of the salon, and of the new listening public. The music, while universal in its appeal, was unique in its intimacy. Later, Tolstoy was to comment, "While I listened I became as one with Chopin; I felt as if I had composed the piece myself." For under the surface elegance, and the loosening formal structure of the music, the society, the life-lay the passions of the individual will, fearful, yet sure of its inheritance, creating a new mythology. Even today, in our gross terrestrial existence, who does not feel some identification with Chopin's certainity of his frailty, or some sympathy for that distraught weeping countess? CAPTION: Illustration, Drawing by David Levine. Reported with permission from the New York Review. Copyright (c) 1978, NYREV, Inc.