Two centuries after his birth, Fryderyk Chopin remains a puzzle. Heralded for his piano playing, he nevertheless dreaded the stage. Although shy and assiduously proper, he engaged in a very public affair with the notorious cigar-smoking, cross-dressing George Sand. His supremely lyrical gifts (tapped successfully by 20th-century pop composers in songs such as ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows’) were tempered by a classical restraint. Yet his conceptions often rested on an experimental harmonic sensibility that might easily have relegated him to the artistic outer fringes. His musical voice, though suffused with a Polish accent and spirit, found nearly universal acclaim.
His influence on later composers is incalculable: Scriabin, Prokofiev, Fauré and Ravel all succumbed to it; the title page of Debussy’s Twelve Studies includes a dedication ‘to the memory of Frédéric Chopin’. Robert Schumann described Chopin’s sound as ‘cannons buried in flowers’. The Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski finds in Chopin ‘the Slavic soul in all its breadth and depth, its generosity, the expression of a whole continent extended eastward, all dressed up in an impeccably tailored French suit … Perfectly cut. European. Western. But what screams and wailing are stifled within!’
Any biography of Chopin must search for the origins of these contradictory strains and account for the complexity of his character. Numerous authors over the years have focused on small slices of his life and career: