Friday, February 14, 2020

It's not you, It's us

I may have been a little hard on Fred Chopin a couple of years ago. I shared a little waltz of his, which has since become a Valentine's Day staple around here, and suggested that he had written it in order to break up with his girlfriend--actually, to break off their engagement. It seemed better than a text message, but still.

I'm not sure now where I got the information that led me to that conclusion, but a Chopin biography I read more recently says that in fact Chopin very much wanted to marry the young woman, but her parents didn't think Chopin was marriage material, and they made her break it off. It was a distraught Chopin, then, that wrote that little waltz, not an irresponsible one.

When you are dealing with human motivations and behaviors you have to be careful. It is easy to deify persons of genius, and to think they can do no wrong. Scholars today general do not fall into that trap as they did in centuries past, and will often remind us, as Malcolm MacDonald did in his biography of Brahms, that regarding Brahms's emotional life "like most of us, he tended to make a mess of it." They are human, after all.

But it isn't all about individual choice, either. There are always powerful prejudices over which we have no control. One of them was that for centuries anytime a girl's parents saw a musician coming they presumed he was no good. Artists in general don't tend to swim in money, at least not their own. Some of our greatest have made piles of the stuff for subsequent generations: Mozart has spawned an entire industry and created who knows how many jobs by now, but it took awhile to take off: this was paying it forward two centuries before dot coms were not expected to turn a profit for a decade.

Chopin himself seems to have made a decent living by the end of his short life, mostly be selling his compositions (his unique brand of piano playing didn't fit the contemporary fad so his performing career was not very successful). That seems hard to believe given that there could not have been many who could actually play them, but it worked, apparently.

Still, in a capitalist economy, the people who create things can never really compete with the people who distribute them. Better to marry a merchant, a man of business. Or at least a musician who, like Clementi, went into business manufacturing piano so he could play them on the side.

Chopin spent most of his adult life in exile in Paris, away from his native Poland, and apparently without his early flame. The scholar who wrote the article for the New Grove dictionary thinks he barely even missed Poland, perhaps in order to counter  earlier writers' descriptions of an eternally homesick composer who turned out native dances as a source of ethnic pride and grief management.

The image of a composer seems to change with every generation. New evidence emerges, new writers see themselves or their era in their subject, reputations have to be made challenging the status quo, so that the more one reads the less sure one can be that they've gotten it right. And this is all before the era of fake news and bots.

But I'd like to apologize to Mr. Chopin. I think there is a very good chances that he was dealt with unjustly in this case. He may not always have been the easiest fellow to deal with, and his subsequent relationship with George Sand was stormy enough, but I'll let him and his frustrations rest in peace and not assume he had any more control over his destiny than most of us.

And in any case, he left us a very nice waltz.

see what I got you for Valentine's Day on

No comments:

Post a Comment

I don't bite...mostly.