In This Review

Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times
Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times
By Alan Walker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 768 pp

Fryderyk Chopin’s music is one of Europe’s great cultural legacies. Many of his compositions were based on Polish folk tunes and reflected Chopin’s nostalgia for a homeland that he left early and to which he never returned. Chopin did not live long: he was born in 1810 and died in 1849. Yet those 39 years were extraordinary, and not one paragraph of this meticulously researched and often poignant account is wasted. Chopin began composing memorable works at the age of seven; a few years later, he dismissed his only piano teacher. Despite his virtuoso talent, he hated playing in public so much that he did so less than two dozen times as an adult, in part because his uniquely delicate tone could not fill large spaces. Chopin’s music often seems improvised, yet he was a dogged perfectionist, drafting and redrafting even his shortest pieces. He was a fastidiously polite, almost aristocratic figure. Yet for a decade, he scandalized society by living with the cross-dressing author George Sand. Chopin suffered from tuberculosis for nearly 20 years, sometimes coughing up bowls full of blood, until it finally killed him. Yet throughout, he found ways to sublimate longing, frustration, and pain into transcendent masterpieces.