~ Book reviews, biographies, recommended reading, reference, etc. ~

Books on Chopin and his music by Jim Samson

(Samson is perhaps our foremost authority and writer on Chopin)

1. The Cambridge Complete (?) to Chopin , Cambridge University Press, 1994

2. The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, Cambridge University Press, 1992

3. Chopin, Schirmer Books, 1996

4. Chopin : the Four Ballades, Cambridge University Press, 1992

5. The Music of Chopin, Oxford University Press, 1994

6. Chopin Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1995

Other titles available online

Chopin: Pianist & Teacher as Seen by His Pupils, Jean Eigeldinger, Roy Howat, Cambridge, 1989

Chopin the Man & His Music, James Huneker, Dover Publications, 1976

The Chopin Companion: Profiles of the Man and the Musician, Alan Walker, Norton, 1973

Chopin the Composer & His Music, John F. Porte, Scholarly Press, 1976

Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Vienna House, 1973/ ???

Fryderyk Chopin: Pianist from Warsaw, William G. Atwood, Columbia University Press, 1987

The Great Piano Virtuosos of Our Time from Personal Acquaintance: Liszt, Chopin, Tausig, Henselt Wilhelm von Lenz/ Madeleine R. Baker (Translators), Da Capo Press, 1973

In Search of Chopin, Alfred Cortot, Greenwood, 1975

Isaak Ignaz Mocheles: The Life of the Composer & His Encounters with Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin & Mendelssohn, Emil F. Smidak, Charlotte Moscheles, Ashgate, 1989

The Skein of Legends around Chopin, Adam Harasowski, Da Capo Press, 1980

A Catalogue of Early Printed Editions of the Works of Frederic Chopin in the University of Chicago Library, University of Chicago Press, 1998

Chopin, Arthur Hedley, J M Dent & Sons Ltd, 1974

Chopin and George Sand in Majorca, BartolomE, FerrA (?), Haskell House Pub Ltd,1974

Nocturne : A Life of Chopin, Ruth Jordan, Taplinger Pub Co, 1978

Chopin the Composer : His Structural Art and Its Influence on Contemporaneous Music, Edgar Stillman Kelley, Cooper Square Pub, 1913

Abby Whiteside on Piano Playing : Indispensables of Piano Playing- Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays, Amadeus Press, 1997

A Handbook to Chopin's Works : For the Use of Concert-Goers, Pianists and Pianola-Players, G. C. Ashton Jonson, Ayer Co Pub, 1972

Chopin Playing : From the Composer to the Present Day , James. Methuen-Campbell, Taplinger Pub Co, 1981

Chopin in Paris : The Life and Times of the Romantic Composer, Tad Szulc, Scribner, 1998

Short reviews of books I have read about Chopin

1. Chopin, The Reluctant Romantic by Jeremy Siepmann, Northeastern University Press, 1995

This is the first of only two biographies I have read on Chopin. However, because it is written in very understandable text and is a real "page-turner", I devoured the text in a single day. Siepmann is the former head of music for the BBC World Service, and is a broadcaster, writer and pianist specializing in the piano literature of the 19th Century. As the subtitle suggests, "The Reluctant Romantic", Siepmann attempts to get as close to the soul of Chopin as is possible (NOT an easy task, as any Chopin biographer would testify). A (mostly) non-technical text, the biography follows Chopin from before his birth to after his death in a way that is not dry and flows smoothly from chapter to chapter. Academic but very readable, Siepmann brings Chopin to life, and the reader is riveted to the story as if reading a novel. Although this might only seem so to a Chopin fan, I believe that Chopin's life and times, as well as Chopin's mysterious and contradictory persona, make for a fascinating biography for anyone who likes to read them. The reader becomes attatched to and interested in Chopin as if he were alive, and by the time Chopin dies, one feels like he has just lost a friend. Siepmann details, among other things, the real-life soap opera that is Chopin's relationship with George Sand, as well as the break-up and soap-opera-like pathos that follows. I was thrilled by this book because it gave me just what I was after : a real and riveting sense of Chopin the man. This is based on well-documented accounts from a variety of sources. Chopin remains to every biographer still very much a mystery at the most intimate levels, and Siepmann is careful not to indulge in speculation. He does, however, guide the reader through the incredible saga of Chopin's life, and ultimately through the tragedy of his early death, in a way that is most readable and enjoyable. As well as a wonderful biography, Siepmann also includes what he calls "interludes" - descriptions of and some history behind some of Chopin's genres which are completely accessible to the layman (like myself). Also included are descriptions of many historical and important performers of Chopin's music like Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Cortot, Rubenstein, Arrau, Horowitz, and even right up to Kissin. He also includes a very interesting conversation with some contemporary Chopin performers like Ashkenazy, Ax, Brendel and others. This book reads like the most interesting of historical novels, but this time the characters and events are real. For the Chopin enthusiast and the book lover alike, Siepmann has written a wonderful account of Chopin and his life and times. Two thumbs up!!

2. Chopin by Jim Samson, Schirmer Books, 1996

Jim Samson is probably our foremost authority on Chopin's music and the most prolific writer thereof. Samson is a former professor of musicology at Exeter University in England, and current professor of music at Bristol University. Samson has written a variety of books on Chopin's life, as well as world-class texts on his music, including books on Chopin's Ballades and Etudes (and I assume, many more to come.) I found this book, therefore, a perfect companion to my biography by Siepmann. Samson comes from a decidedly academic and musicalogical background, and he applies his expertise to a biography that is rigorous in its text about Chopin as well as its extensive examination of Chopin's music. Samson has written "something for everyone" among his numerous books on Chopin, from the advanced musicologist to the informed layman. I was very happy with this book because it includes a small fortune of this musical expertise woven into a thoroughly academic and "fresh" look at Chopin. This very up-to-date book is unique among Chopin biographies as it takes a healthy, academically skeptical approach to Chopin the man, examining many of the assumptions that have almost become folklore about Chopin. He even goes on to describe some of these assumptions as a "Cult of Chopin". At almost 150 years after the departure of one of music's greatest and most well-loved figures, it is indeed high-time that an author as meticulous and devoted to Chopin examine Chopin's life and music anew. Ever cautious and rigorous, this new look at Chopin is exhaustively researched and documented. Samson does not as much paint a picture of Chopin's life but lays out the facts, and makes clear distinctions about what we know about Chopin and what we don't (any why that is). A good example of Samson's academic rigor is how he refuses to draw parallels between Chopin's life events and the music he was writing at the time, and he makes a very convincing argument as to why. Along with a fresh look at Chopin the man, Samson offers a good dose of highly sophisticated technical analysis of Chopin's music. The musical layman (such as myself) may not find this useful, but for the seriously musically inclined, there is probably no better source than Samson for thorough musical analysis of Chopin's music, as evidenced by his extensive writings on the subject. But even for the musical layman, the fresh, academic perspective of Samson makes it a valuable resource for the Chopin enthusiast, especially those of us committed to trying to gain a realistic and honest picture of this fascinating man. Appropriate to a more academic text, the book also includes the usual appendices (calendar of his life events, personalia, bibliography) and of particular use is a very complete list of his works listed by opus number, posthumous opuses, and works without opus numbers, including dates of both composition and publication. I can highly recommend this book.

3. Chopin's Letters compiled by Henryk Opienski, Dover Books, 1988

As the title suggests, this book is a collection of Chopin's correspondences- letters to friends, family, publishers and the like. Not included here are letters to Chopin from the same. I believe it is the most complete collection of such as possible. There are a total of 294 individual letters which are dated and footnoted. Since it includes every letter that Chopin wrote over his lifetime (that is, all the publishers could identify) it is obviously not riveting from start to finish, but that obviously is not its purpose. However, it gives the reader valuable and sometimes fascinating insights into Chopin's thoughts, feelings, state of mind, his life events, and even business transactions. The reader can learn, among other things, what he told (and didn't tell) his family, his direct communication with family, friends, George Sand, publishers, etc. Also his observations of the different places he traveled to, some fascinating accounts of historic performances by the likes of Paganini and Rossini, his personal thoughts about his career and his life, accounts of political turmoil in Paris and throughout Europe in the 19th Century, his own accounts of his rare public performances, conversations about pieces he was working on, accounts of his daily life and routine, Chopin bargaining for better prices for his works from his publishers and agents, candid opinions of some of his own works, his personal reflections of his relationship and breakup with George Sand, his encounters with famous musicians and political figures like Queen Victoria, and even thoughts about his own death. From the age of six until his very last days, everything Chopin wrote to anyone that can be retrieved is in here. For the hard-core Chopin enthusiast, this collection of letters is a wonderful and invaluable resource. Even for the less enthusiastic, the text offers a fascinating account of Europe in the 19th Century (especially the vibrant Paris) from a luminary of his time.

4. Lucrezia Floriani by George Sand, Academy Chicago Publishers, circa 1842

Lucrezia Floriani is a work of fiction (?) by the 19th century novelist George Sand, A.K.A. Aurore Dudevant, who was Chopin's lover and confidant for some eight years. Published around 1842, it came out not only when Chopin was still alive, but while the two were still together. It is indisputable that the two main characters were based on Sand herself and Chopin. It is basically the story of a reclusive playwright (Sand's character, Lucrezia Floriani) and the sickly and selfish Prince Karol (Chopin's character). It is the story of a pathological and ill-fated love affair between these two characters. Published first in France, the book took Parisian high society by storm as it was so nakedly based upon the relationship of 1840's Paris' hottest item, the relationship of Fryderyk Chopin and George Sand. The book would have been titillating enough had it been about either of Paris' most famous and influential personas - so it was all the more so as they were lovers. The book is of interest to some of us Chopin junkies as it potentially offers some rare insights into their relationship directly from one of the parties to it, as well as into Chopin himself. However, as far as I'm concerned, the reader is quickly and thoroughly disappointed. The novel was written towards the end of the real-life characters' relationship, and it obviously betrays the resentment that Sand felt towards Chopin.

This work is probably best broken-down into it's three main components : first as a work of literature, secondly as a feminist study or essay, and thirdly as a personal statement about Chopin, Sand, and their relationship. In the first sense it disappoints. In the second it may be seen as quite revolutionary and valuable for its time. However, let me first focus on the primary source of interest to myself - a source of possible insight into the nature of Fryderyk Chopin (from the person who undoubtedly knew him best). As already stated, the book was written and published towards the end of Sand and Chopin's relationship, which ended unhappily. Anyone familiar with Chopin by way of biography knows that Chopin was quite capable of being selfish, petty, moody, cold, and quite willing to take advantage of people, especially those closest to him. In reading about their relationship, one naturally feels Sand's frustration with Chopin. Sand sacrificed much of her freedom and happiness to care for and look after Chopin, and he often was not very appreciative of this.

However, this book exaggerates the qualities of the two parties to absurdity. Lucrezia Floriani is made out to be a saintly and wise figure whose only fault is passion. Prince Karol is made to be spoilt, selfish, manipulative, insanely jealous and uncaring. The sickly Prince Karol happens upon Lucrezia more or less by accident. He falls very ill and Lucrezia's irrepressible maternal instincts warp into a rather improbable and unbelievable crush on and love for the mostly unconscious Prince Karol. The vulnerable and morally pure Lucrezia falls deeply in love with a man who is unconscious most of the time, and to make things even more absurd, does so despite a total lack of redeeming qualities in Prince Karol. Of course, the angelic Lucrezia does so, apparently, because she confuses the maternal instinct for love. Naturally, her maternal power nurses Prince Karol back to health where, naturally, he begins to exploit her, take her for granted, and mistreat her. Only after exhaustive attempts to keep her hopes alive does Lucrezia see the error of her ways and send poor Prince Karol on his way.

As a work of fiction it is a miserable failure. The characters are purely good and purely bad, respectively. This seems to be a cardinal sin of literature. There is no ambiguity or realistic sense of humanity in either protagonist (or antagonist). It is well beyond Sand's literary skills to make sympathetic characters of people at such bizarre and unrealistic extremes of humanity. The book is also punctuated with intellectual propaganda, in the form of dialogue which is long-winded, inappropriate for the setting, unbelievable, disruptive to the flow of the book, and just plain unnatural. The characters, in the midst of a conversation, break-out into pages-long diatribes about the nature of you-name-it. The story is completely improbable and unbelievable. Lucrezia falls helplessly in love with a man for no good reason, and who has absolutely no redeeming qualities besides the imaginary and delusory. This man is also unconscious most of the time that she is falling for him.

As a piece of feminist literature in the 19th Century it is probably a milestone. If one can overlook the vindictive and bitter nature with which the characters are based on real people, it is a vivid, fanciful, and very valuable warning to women about some of the reasons NOT to fall in love with a man. In this case, the lesson in particular is a warning to women not to confuse the maternal instinct for love. This is the fatal mistake that Lucrezia makes, and sadly it is one that happens all the time today. The fable also portrays the now well documented cycle of neglect and affection that lures some women into a vicious circle of pathological infatuation. I have to confess that I don't know much at all about the history of feminism, so I can't really say how new or revolutionary these ideas were at the time. I assume they were. If so (and even if not), it is a most valuable lesson, and to someone without knowledge of the people on whom the story is based, it is an intriguing and effective elucidation of her point. All other criticism aside (literary and personal), Sand deserves high marks for sending a vivid if awkwardly written warning to the women of the 19th Century. Women of all ages would be wise to heed her warning.

So, in my hopes for gaining rare insights into Chopin's persona, I was naturally quite disappointed. I would hope that anyone in search of Chopin the man (as opposed to the composer) would do so through a credible and documented biography. After reading two of such, the qualities of Chopin and Sand are visible enough, without such a gross distortion of them. The reader familiar with the real story of their relationship is left with the sense that at best it is a landmark of feminist literature, and at worst it is an unfortunate case of the intermingling of bitterness and antipathy with an otherwise important story or lesson to tell. Let the reader be ware (or at least informed).