A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions
By Annik LaFarge
Like many people, I learned about Chopin’s “Funeral March” at an early age, on the family couch, watching Saturday morning cartoons. Cartoons, like fairy tales, often require death as a plot device, but they want it slightly defanged. Chopin’s march was a convenient, campy shorthand — foreboding but comic, no more serious than the words “game over” at the end of a video game. It is therefore almost impossible for me to imagine a world in which the piece is both fresh and tragic, where its death is real.
Annik LaFarge’s charming and loving new book, “Chasing Chopin,” attempts to recover this world. A combination of biography, cultural commentary and personal reflection, it radiates out from the “Funeral March,” the third movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, in many directions. Looking back in time, LaFarge describes the composer’s loves and pianos (often the same); she explores his handwriting, his fingerings, his Polish identity. But she also turns to the present day, consulting aspiring pianists, authorities in historical performance and Zibi, the creator of the video game “Frederic: The Resurrection of Music.” For a book about death, it’s bursting with life and lively research. LaFarge writes passionately about Bach’s influence on Chopin, and the virtues of listening to period pianos to know what Chopin heard and imagined.
“Chasing Chopin” is only a partial biography, with much of its focus falling on the odd celebrity couple of Chopin and George Sand: tubercular composer, gender-bending author. Their relationship was a constantly revised arrangement, forged against norms — a precursor of pods and friends with benefits. LaFarge links this modern lifestyle to the revolutionary quality of their work. She charts the couple’s tumultuous beginnings, including an epic letter in which Sand outlines “a vision of ideal love that eschews ‘the bonds of everyday life’ and favors a true friendship based on ‘chaste passion and gentle poetry.’” A week later Sand seemingly changes her mind — the relationship is consummated. After a year or so, she changes her mind again, and they become platonic lover-friends. Sand’s interactions with Chopin acquire aspects of mothering, enabling and nursing — not uncommon when you date an artist (ask any of my exes!). Eventually, they have a falling-out, and LaFarge makes you feel the decline of this ideally modern relationship, maybe even more than Chopin’s looming physical decline.
Toward the beginning, LaFarge, the author of a book about the High Line as well as an amateur pianist, confesses that the motivation for “Chasing Chopin” was a performance of the “Funeral March,” and in particular one striking contrast: between the march’s somber main theme and a ravishing major key section that comes later. She describes this middle section as a “rampant joy … smuggled into the heart of a death march.” She continues: “It seemed daring but also fundamentally true, that our experience of death should be animated, not haunted, by a force of beauty. Of life.”
It’s hard to argue with such a personal interpretation, and I love the word “smuggled,” but there are other ways to read this contrast. It’s not so much what Chopin does, as what he doesn’t do. Chopin was an incomparable crafter of transitions, and he loved asymmetry, but his “Funeral March” has almost no transitions, and heaves back and forth in symmetrical twos and fours. The form is static and ritualized. The minor march and its major antidote stare at each other across section breaks, socially distanced, unable to interlace.
This book took me into many unexpected corners — often I wished LaFarge had taken more time to explore the nooks she uncovered. I especially wish she had spent more time on the march’s sequel, the last section of the grand sonata, an epilogue to a funeral. This movement is a middle finger lifted to every convention. It has no tunes, little variation, no clear drama: a minute of hushed, running unison between the hands, darkly forming and re-forming. People have long struggled to describe its perverse genius. Anton Rubinstein’s “night winds sweeping over churchyard graves” is the most famous image, but seems a little too lush and evocative — too Halloween. LaFarge cites Chopin’s description: The two hands “gossip in unison.” That touch of bitterness and contempt feels closer to the mark. You could imagine proud Chopin, facing disease and death every day, refusing to give people or even himself the triumph they crave, or an easy answer, or any answer at all. When you hear the piece in concert, and that last minute comes to a close, it always seems wrong to applaud. You sense that Chopin wants your discomfort. The audience hesitates, as if asking the questions we’re asking ourselves, day after quarantined day: Is it over? And, What now?
The post From Concerts to Cartoons: Chopin’s Most Famous Composition appeared first on New York Times.