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.