Stuart Isacoff

Life in a Minor Key

Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times


Faber & Faber 727pp £30 order from our bookshop

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!’

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'One of the reasons for its longevity is that it has virtually nothing to say about science and technology at all,… ,
    • 'The characters in many of these stories are trapped in the obsessive present tense of their own thoughts; in the m… ,
    • 'Libraries, for much of their existence, have embodied in microcosm many of the characteristics of the totalitarian… ,
    • 'Moss and Cynthia buy several properties through which to launder their ill-gotten gains, take lots of drugs, have… ,
    • 'Never mind the imperial cult. This is the cult of Boris. What happened to Rome?' From the LR archive:… ,
    • Thirty-two years ago this month, we published Muriel Spark's short story, 'A Playhouse Called Remarkable' Read it… ,
    • Time travel, bicycles and white horses populate @WomackPhilip's roundup of children's books by @marcussedgwick,… ,