A Pianist Reflects upon Chopin
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
By Byron Janis
“I write beautiful music to cover all of the ugliness in the world.”
So wrote the great Polish composer and pianist, Frederic Chopin. His traditionally given birth date is March l, but his baptismal records in Zelazowa Wola, the Polish village near Warsaw where he was born, show otherwise. He was actually born on Feb. 22. It was said that his parents’ reason for changing the date was none other than taxes.
What is it about the music of Chopin that its spectacular popularity has never waned? The great pianist/composer Franz Liszt was said to have often introduced him as “The man who comes from another planet.” Chopin’s music reflects that comment as there was nothing like it ever written before or since. Surprisingly, he never studied with a pianist, but with a violinist and a composer.
Chopin was not only a great musician but also a great humorist. He loved playing practical jokes as well as finding humor in the mundane: “There is no need for me to shave the left side of my face when performing — the public won’t see it anyway!” His talent for the theater made such an impression on many who saw him that they said, “Why bother with the piano? You should become an actor.”
From childhood, I seem to have been drawn to Chopin — not only the composer, but also the man. Somehow, my life has been filled with many events pertaining to him.
Some 50 years ago I went with my first wife to visit Nohant, the French country house of George Sand, the famous writer and political activist. Chopin spent eight summers at Nohant as Sand’s lover, where he wrote some of his most beautiful music.
I had not known that Aurore, George Sand’s granddaughter, was still alive until a guide at the country house’s museum told me. My heart skipped two beats — I had to meet her. I wrote her a note and, giving the guide all my French francs, asked him to deliver it. I was soon told, “Madame Sand will see you for just five minutes.” The “five minutes” became four hours.
Aurore was brought up by her grandmother until age 11, when Sand died. After her death, she told me that she decided to completely dedicate her life to her grandmother’s memory.
“Chopin was an ingrate!” she told me. “My grandmother ran the house solely for him, disrupting all our lives, and yet when he left, there was never any communication from him, not even a letter.”
She also spoke of a dinner party attended by many great artists including Delacroix, Heine and Turgenev. At one point Sand turned to her daughter, Solange — “I saw you flirting with Chopin. If you’re so crazy about him, why don’t you marry him?” Whereupon Solange replied, “What? Marry that sick old invalid?”
There has been much conjecture about their true relationship and how far it went. I was told by Madame Ferra (the guardian of Chopin and Sand’s monastery rooms in Majorca) that she was told that Solange’s brother, Maurice, had confided to a friend, “All the way.”
When Aurore asked me to play for her, I could hardly contain my emotions — this was the same room in which Chopin had spent so many hours playing and composing his glorious music. I chose a nocturne, and after playing it she came to the piano and emotionally embraced me. This day at Nohant has remained one of the most magical days in my life.
Roger de Garate, a friend of Aurore’s and curator of the house in Nohant, became a close friend. Several years before he died he gave me one of the three original death masks of Chopin, a green corduroy dinner coat and a locket belonging to Aurore that held the combined hairs of both Chopin and Sand. No words could express my feelings. I treasure them always.
Six years ago I met Andrew Borey, the great-grandson of Chopin’s sister Louise, and we developed a rare friendship. In his mother’s house in Warsaw, it was known that she had one of Chopin’s pianos. When Alfred Cortot, the celebrated French pianist, came to visit, he “got down on his knees and kissed every one of the piano’s keys.”
Chopin often talked about other worlds. A letter in my possession written by Sand says, “He believes that he believes in some kind of fantastic and divine immortality. In fact, these were just the waves of his genius.”
It seemed the “earth” of Sand was living with the “heaven” of Chopin. He had suffered from tuberculosis half of his life but, upon his death on Oct. 17, 1849, his autopsy revealed that this was not the cause of death. His close friends all agreed — he died of a broken heart.