For Chopin Music Lovers:

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For a century and a half, Chopin has been generally accepted by both critics and ordinary people as the greatest composer of music for the piano. Despite his fame and familiarity, however, there is scarcely another composer whose image has been more distorted by the media, then and now.

Chopin's father was a Frenchman who emigrated to Poland, married a Polish woman, and became an ardent Polish patriot. He had lived in his adopted land more than 20 years by the time Fryderyk--to give his un-Frenchified name--was born. The child swiftly developed as a piano prodigy and in short order was performing before the rich and the royal.

Poland was under one of its many foreign dominations at the time, and the expanding ranks of nationalists and revolutionaries turned to the young pianist as one of their symbols of hope for independence. He was not to disappoint them, even though he moved more or less permanently to Paris at age 21 in search of wider recognition and greater fortune. He stayed in close touch with Polish expatriates in Paris, and generously supported Polish artists and musicians.

This he could well afford, since he was one of the earliest composers to get rich through his music. The Parisian nobility fawned over him as giddily as had the Polish--especially aristrocratic ladies, who found the gaunt, dreamy-eyed Chopin the paragon of Romantic idealism. He, in turn, charged them enormous fees for private lessons.

Despite the availability of countless countesses, Chopin chose for his one passionate love an older woman who dressed like a man, smoked cigars, and professed socialism. Aurore Dudevant--known to literature and posterity as "George Sand"--was a novelist of dumpy figure and limber mind. In addition to a husband, she was known to have several lovers besides Chopin, including Prosper Merimee (who wrote the novelette Carmen), the poet Alfred de Musset (whose texts several French composers set to music), and probably Franz Liszt. Not surprisingly, one of the principal themes of her novels was a disdain for the institution of marriage. The peculiar affair lasted for nine years, until constant bickering, much of it involving wrangles with "George's" two adult children, drove them apart. Meanwhile Chopin had ruined his always delicate health; what was intended for a romantic idyll on Majorca in the winter of 1838-39 turned into a miserable ordeal of damp weather that dangerously weakened his lungs. He was not yet 40 when he died of tuberculosis. He was buried in France, but accompanying his body was a silver urn containing Polish soil which Chopin had brought with him from his native land two decades before.

The incidents of his life have proved irresistible to novelists and filmmakers of sentimental tendencies. Through them much of the public has received an image of the dainty, swooning pianist of the glittering salon, succumbing to the Freudian lure of an androgynous woman, and paying for his neurotic obsession by dying a tragic early death, clutching a couple of crumpled polonaises in one withered hand. This is an exaggerated picture. His body was indeed frail, and his pianism delicately refined, but he had a hard business head as his publishers learned to their dismay. He may have seemed effeminate, but he had no homosexual liaisons, and before taking up with the mannish but man-eating George Sand he had had several physical relations with attractive young women. And though he was sincerely patriotic, he did not hesitate to take up residence in Paris for half of his life in order to live in luxury.

But the most significant distortion that needs correcting is that Chopin's music is insubstantial. A few decades ago it was fashionable on Tin Pan Alley to arrange Chopin's most striking melodies into syrupy popular songs or backgrounds for tearjerker movies. True, Chopin wrote dozens of suave melodies, strongly influenced by early Italian opera, which he loved. But he also loved Bach, and underpinning these gorgeous tunes there is a solid and sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic structure that almost never fails to save them from triviality. The "pop" versions, stripped of the composer's rich textures, give a falsely cloying impression of the music. But even in Chopin's day many did not see beneath the deceptive prettiness of his work's surface. It took another great composer, Robert Schumann, to characterize it perfectly: "Cannon--buried in flowers."

[Excerpted from Bill Parker: The International Guide to Building a Classical Music Library, 4th ed., copyright 1997 and used with permission of the author. This copy may not be use or reproduced without written permission, except for short quotations as provided by law.]