Poles apart, linked by one instrument

Chopin and Wanda Landowska were very different musicians with only one thing in common

Paul Kildea’s book Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism (Allen Lane, £20) tells the story of a small piano made in Palma, Majorca by Juan Bauza during the 1830s. It was hired there by Chopin, though it gave him “more vexation than consolation”, and much later owned by the celebrated harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. The book is about them too. The pieces composed on the pianino included several of Chopin’s Preludes and these, with their companions which together make up the set of 24 Preludes Op 28, are a third theme. The fourth is no less than Romanticism itself, specifically Romantic piano music, of which Chopin was the fount.

The most notoriously unsuccessful holiday in the history of classical music was that taken by Chopin and his androgynous literary lover George Sand (and her family) in Majorca in 1838-1839. The trousered, cigar-smoking Sand was derided by Baudelaire as possessing the morals of a janitress; her future lover Alfred de Musset mordantly observed of the silver dagger which pinned her hair that “a woman of such slight virtue hardly required so immoderate a weapon”. Chopin’s characteristically acidulous comment on his first encounter was, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” That was in 1836; by 1838 the two were lovers. They numbered Delacroix (who painted them both) and Heine among their Paris friends.

In Majorca, where they arrived in November 1838, they soon retreated to a former charterhouse in the valley of Moses or Valdemossa, high in the mountains outside Palma. Here they occupied cell 4. (In the late 20th century, the owner of this cell successfully sued the owner of cell 2, who was passing it off as the composer’s former residence.) Relations with the islanders did not prosper: in her 1841 memoir Un hiver à Majorque, Sand referred to them as “cowards, hypocrites, pickpockets, Indian monkeys, Polynesian savages”. The local newspaper retaliated, describing her as “the most immoral of writers . . . the most obscene of women”. Chopin’s fragile health deteriorated through the winter. A neighbour observed: “That consumptive will go to hell, first for being a consumptive, and next for not going to confession.” Sand claimed that her children were stoned in the streets. They abandoned Majorca in February 1839, leaving the Bauza behind them. As is the way with unsuccessful holidays, this one improved in recollection; Chopin later told Liszt that the short visit was one of the happiest times of his life: “It was as if, like Linnaeus’s clock, the time of day was told by the blossoming of flowers, each with a different perfume and each disclosing other beauties as they opened outwards.”

The musicologist Jean-Jacques Eigel-dinger has suggested that ten of the Preludes were written in Majorca. (The famous “Raindrop” Prelude emerged from a solitary day when George Sand and her son had gone to Palma to obtain the release of a newly-arrived Pleyel instrument.) Kildea’s curious choice in the book is throughout to focus on the Preludes — where Chopin sought out “the porous stretches of the border between improvisation and composition” — to the almost total exclusion of the rest of Chopin’s works, in particular dozens of pieces far superior even to the Preludes. (The book has 24 chapters, in order to drive the point home.) This almost obsessive preoccupation is a pity; it marginalises to no purpose the remainder of Chopin’s output (allowing for the fact that Kildea wants to keep our attention on the Bauza piano, there were other, greater masterpieces composed on it during the months spent in Majorca); and it creates a distorting narrowness which contrasts strongly with the ambitious breadth of the rest of the book.
Bach was always an inspiration to Chopin, who could play most of The Well-Tempered Clavier from memory, and he paid an explicit homage in the number and the key scheme of the Preludes. However, Kildea exaggerates when he says that the younger composer “distill[ed] the intricacy and beauty of Bach’s contrapuntal writing into his own music”. He didn’t come close; nor was he trying to. Moreover, while one must not be churlish about others’ attempts at musical description, it has to be wondered whether Kildea is right that in the famous fourth Prelude “it is usually difficult to avoid hearing in the repetitive accompaniment the monotonous rhythmic chugs of a paddle steamer”. Does it help for the 11 strokes of the clock in Prelude 17 to be compared with the 13 chimes which open Orwell’s 1984? But Kildea is just getting into his stride: perhaps, he writes, the 11 strokes are a precursor of Baudelaire’s L’invitation au voyage “where clocks strike happiness with a deeper, a more significant solemnity”. Or perhaps, he goes on, “the castle clock is meant to mark midday and midnight, but the gears clog on the last few chimes, or the snail-shaped cam, worn down from endless markings of the meridiem, can never quite trigger a twelfth”. And so on, into a discussion of music boxes and singing bird boxes; the connections are ingenious and omni-directional, but sometimes exhausting. Better perhaps to stay with Schumann’s description of the Pre-ludes as “sketches, beginnings of Etudes . . . ruins, eagle wings, a wild motley of pieces . . . The collection also contains the morbid, the feverish, the repellent. May each search what suits him; may only the philistine stay away!”

Having returned us to the mainland, Kildea gives a breathless account of the later years of Chopin’s relationship with Sand, and of his life. It is spiced with flashbacks and brief references to the Russo-Polish war and the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, as well as topics such as the development of French railways, photography and town-planning. Occasionally, the book is over-allusive: this is no more a history than a biography, so that readers are left to fend for themselves when encountering Carlists, Saint-Simonians and Montagnards. The result is an impressive feat of wide learning intriguingly deployed, but the reader is sometimes confused, if also exhilarated, by such a variety of themes. There are also occasional excesses, as when we are told the sort of person Chopin is not, in order to enable Kildea to show off his knowledge of Balzac. Of the composer’s grasp of French, Kildea is similarly apophatic, writing: “He was not marked by the usual problems of living in a second language — speaking in a voice too loud or too whiny, too precise or too cadenced, too slow or, in those happy days, too fluent.”

Chopin and Sand separated in 1847 and, though very ill, he escaped the following year’s revolution by travelling to England. Again, it was not a success: “Whatever is NOT boring here is NOT English”; London was an “abyss”. Here as elsewhere, Kildea’s focus on the Pre-ludes skews the picture: Chopin’s performing career is treated as so many occasions when he did or didn’t play the Preludes, whereas we know from surviving programmes that he played many of his other, yet more interesting compositions at these concerts. Of his last ever public performance, in London, Kildea writes for want of evidence: “No doubt he included some Preludes.” Whether or not he did, Chopin eventually returned to Paris, sat for a miserable and celebrated daguerreotype, and died of the consumption from which he had suffered throughout his adult life. Liszt’s mistress Marie d’Agoult once described him as an oyster sprinkled with sugar, and Kildea is no more persuasive than others at conveying a likeable portrait of a composer who was often bitter, proud and hyper-sensitive.

“Wanda  Landowska” by Emil Orlik, 1917

He does, however, accurately identify the especial economy, style and avoidance of vulgarity which set Chopin apart. In connection with the middle section of Prelude 13, which exemplifies these qualities, Kildea quotes Walter Benjamin: “The interior was the place of refuge of Art.” Liszt (whose music showed little interest in inwardness or understatement) came to admire the pianist who valued scarcity over ubiquity, and praised the Preludes as invoking “the highest realms of the ideal”. Yet as Kildea’s progression shows — through the history of piano-making, the growth in concert halls and concerts, and the rival traditions of Chopin performance in the later 19th century — it is the world of exteriors which prevailed. Liszt outlived his friend by 37 years, and it is therefore not surprising that the first part of the book ends with the triumph of gargantuan Steinways played by virtuoso pianists such as Anton Rubinstein.

At which point there enters the contrasting figure of Wanda Landowska, the subject of the book’s second half. These days she is known principally as a harpsichordist and a scholar of 18th-century music, of whom a substantial discography survives. Her reputation for didacticism stems in part from an over-repeated remark to Casals; when he questioned her manner of executing trills, she replied: “You continue to play Bach your way, and I, his way.” She deprecated the notion of playing Bach on the piano, a point of view that now seems merely quaint. She also tended to foster her own myth, saying to one pupil: “How can you expect to comprehend the mystery and complication of that phenomenon which is Wanda Landowska?” Nonetheless, she has sufficient (and in some cases unexpected) links with Chopin to make Kildea’s juxtaposition an enlightening one. This other Polish pianist (as she started out, her repertoire stretching from Haydn to Liszt), had played to Tolstoy and Rodin; she had learned with Michalkowski, who was a friend of Chopin’s pupil Mikuli, and who represented the non-Lisztian school of Chopin-playing. Most arrestingly, Landowska visited Majorca in 1911, to give two concerts; Valdemossa had already become a place of pilgrimage, and in Chopin’s cell she came upon the Bauza pianino, seemingly untouched for more than 70 years. In 1913, she bought it. In the same year, she wrote about the muscularity of contemporary Chopin performances, their spasms of hysteria, jerky rubato, sudden relapses into sweetness and the “heavy flight heavenward of leaden butterflies”. (Of all qualities, naturalness and good taste in rubato are essential in Chopin performance, and Kildea elsewhere offers a good description: “The best rubato is like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in.”)

The reader now sets off on a giddily well-informed tour of the 20th century to match the first half’s treatment of the 19th. Kildea spots the references to the Preludes in Eliot and Auden; he knows that Proust held the same low opinion of Chopin as his creation Mme de Cambremer’s daughter-in-law, thinking him an ailing, self-centred dandy. We learn of Gide’s opinion that the Preludes revealed Chopin at his most intimate; in a reaction to the contemporary fashion of playing Chopin too fast and too loud, he wanted to print on every score Valéry’s words: “Is there art more gentle/Than this slowness?” Sometimes, Kildea’s literary references strain too far, inviting parallels between a Colette short story and Landowska (and Chopin) that just aren’t there. Literature has to give way, however, to the lengthening shadows of 20th-century history: Landowska lived in a flat in Berlin during the First World War, which was difficult enough; worse was to come. From 1933 onwards, the outer framework of the story is grimly familiar; but Kildea finds illumination in the detail, examining for example the extent to which the Germans historically appropriated Chopin as one of their own.

Thus, in 1837 Heine had written that Chopin was neither Polish nor French nor German: “His true fatherland is the dream realm of poetry.” Gide considered that there was no music less German than Chopin’s. By contrast, the pan-German nationalist (though Austrian) music theorist Schenker thought that “for the profundity with which nature has endowed him, Chopin belongs more to Germany than to Poland”. (Kildea mis-dates this utterance to 1937 — when Schenker is unlikely to have expressed the sentiment: not only was he Jewish, but he had by then been dead for two years.)

The outbreak of the Second World War found Landowska living near Paris, in her villa in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt where she had built a concert hall, assembled a vast library and established a summer school. In the dozen years before 1939, this had become a place where many leading figures in contemporary and modernist music came paradoxically to study the works of the 17th and 18th centuries. One can make quite a list — and this book is full of lists — of notable attendees: Poulenc, Honegger, Ibert, Horowitz, Curzon (her pupil), the Kirkpatrick of Scarlatti fame — as well as writers like Edith Wharton. For all her increasing immersion in early music, Landowska continued to meditate on the true meaning of Romanticism, of which she thought the most authentic expression was Chopin, and to contrast it with “this foam produced by fatuous agitators who contributed in transforming a movement, very beautiful in itself, into an unintelligible and turbid jargon”.

The narrative after the fall of Paris takes on the contours of Nemirowsky’s Suite Française. As Landowska recorded a sonata by Scarlatti, the sound effects of a German air-raid could be heard in the background. Jewish by birth, though her parents had converted to Catholicism, she fled to Blois, then to Maillol’s house at Banyuls-sur-Mer, and finally via Lisbon to the United States, where she remained until her death. The wide-scale Nazi looting of art and artefacts included her instrument collection and library at Saint-Leu, as evidenced by a gruesomely detailed inventory of 60 crates taken from there in February 1941; crate 56 contained the Bauza pianino. In their cynical phrase, the Nazis treated it as “abandoned Jewish property” and took it to Germany. Keeping an eye on Landowska finding her feet in New York, Kildea canters breezily over the well-trodden ground of European musicians’ collaboration with the Nazi regime; Cortot emerges from his account in an especially unattractive light. When victory came, the Allies’ partial recovery of plundered objects included the Bauza. It is a warming counterpoint to the 1941 inventory that the standard-form file cards prepared for the purpose of logging restored objects actually had a space headed “Bibliography”, and on the card for Chopin’s piano, which had been found in a monastery east of Munich, this space was filled in “George Sand: Un hiver à Majorque”. In such gestures, civilisation returned to continental Europe. But things could never be the same: Landowska contemplated a return to France; it never happened. As for the Bauza, it seems that the instrument disappeared from Saint-Leu at some point in the 1950s. (Kildea implausibly compares his subsequent searches for it with Captain Ahab’s quest for the white whale.) Landowska died in 1959, a “small empress in exile from her time”. Her time was indeed the era of late Romanticism: she was old enough to have played for Brahms and to have met Rubinstein, and in her final years she was still thinking about it. “Let us not say adieu but au revoir to Romanticism because soon it will come back adorned with new attractions and under a changed name.”

The Bauza piano on which Chopin composed ten of the Preludes, in Wanda Landowska’s Berlin apartment

The sub-title of this book is “A journey through Romanticism”. This is too large a claim. For example, although Schumann features as an occasional critic, there is too little discussion of his own (important) musical contribution to make this more than a partial treatment. It is also a surprise to see Bruckner described as a German composer. But Kildea’s broader analysis is often perceptive. “[The] conflict between sound and form was the dominant battle in 19th-century music. (The corollary in painting — in this century as in others before — was between colore and disegno: colour and drawing.) Beethoven was primarily a composer of sonatas, string quartets and symphonies, and regardless of how much he stretched the formal conventions of each genre, his oeuvre is recognisably a legacy of classical thinking, a legacy of his teacher Haydn. Yet after Beethoven, composers in thrall to the colours and the potential of powerful pianos and the large Romantic orchestra increasingly took their cue from the new sounds and scale at their disposal, rather than from the formal models of their upbringing.” Kildea recounts this story up to its very end, the composition of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in 1948. (In April 1945, when American soldiers sought to requisition a villa in the Bavarian Alps, the elderly owner emerged from inside and protested, “I am the composer of Der Rosenkavalier”). It is Kildea’s perhaps surprising conclusion, echoing Landowska, that Romanticism adapted and survived through the cacophony of much 20th-century music (a century in which he sees no prevailing style, but only a series of trends) and is with us still.

Given the number and scope of its subjects, this is a short book — 290 pages including many photographs — and there is often no time to explore a given area in depth before the author sets off in a new direction. In this vein, Kildea’s survey of 20th-century Chopin performance glances at Paderewski, Cortot (whose recordings he finds unsubtle in their portrayal of delicacy and sickness), Artur Rubinstein (widely thought to have eclipsed Cortot), Richter, and Pollini (whose performances over recent years he quite rightly excoriates.) For those who enjoy entertaining and obscure facts, a kaleidoscope of connections, high-octane literary name-dropping and cultural allusions, yoked into a structure that at times seems subtle and at times verging on the out-of-control, the book can be recommended. Whether you decide that the book soars above different genres or falls between them, it is almost never less than interesting. The criticism that it is necessarily superficial is met by acknowledging the breadth of its sweep, the achievement of yoking together so much disparate information and the number of its discoveries. How else, if not from Chopin’s Piano, would one have learned that Wanda Landowska’s mother translated Mark Twain into Polish?

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"