Books about Chopin
are not exactly rare on the ground Ė
as the selected bibliography in the
end of the book tells us Ė but it also
seems that latterly not many have been
published. Given the short turn-over
time for books few may be available
in the stores.
This well-written overview
certainly fills a need and Ė as far
as I know Ė it is unique in that it
is not just a book; it is part of a
multimedia concept. It includes two
well-filled CDs and access to a website.
The content of the CDs is culled from
Naxosís complete Chopin cycle, played
by Idil Biret. Even though there may
be individual recordings by other great
Chopin interpreters that are even better
Biretís remain consistent and illuminating
readings. I collected several of the
discs when they were new and have found
much to admire, the snag being a somewhat
clangy sound, robbing the music of some
of its poetry. As so often happens,
though, one gets used to it and adjusts.
The choice of music
is excellent. It is presented chronologically
with references in the text and also
annotations for each of the musical
numbers at the end of the book. By acquiring
this book the Chopin newcomer will gain
a fine cross-section of his best compositions.
These are to be savoured a few at a
time or will provide continuous listening
for years to come.
The book is divided
into fourteen chapters. We follow Chopinís
life and career from the cradle to the
grave. In an Epilogue Jeremy Nicholas
brings together all the loose ends:
what happened to those who were close
to him and survived him? It turns out
that some of their lives occupy the
rest of the century, his early love
died in 1896 and George Sandís daughter
Solange in 1899.
Under Jeremy Nicholasís
skilled guidance we get to know everything
that was important in Chopinís life
and about the steady stream of people
that walked in and out of his salons.
So many of the greats of the first half
of the 19th century were
there, not only musicians but also painters,
authors, all kinds of cultural personalities.
It was a good idea to have a section
entitled Personalities with thumbnail
I can sometimes become
fed up with too much information of
"whom he met", "where
he travelled then" etc when reading
biographies, but I must say that this
presentation really held me. The reason
is at least two-fold: firstly Nicholasís
style of writing has the right light
touch, addressing the reader personally,
He also finds some humorous twists.
Secondly he lets us look straight into
the heart and soul of the main characters,
especially Chopin himself, by frequently
quoting from letters and diaries. Not
that this format is novel but is done
skilfully and the effect is heightened
through italicizing the quotations.
The target-group for
this book is more the general music-lover
than the specialist, but I believe even
the latter category will find several
grains of gold.
The actual life story
of Chopin occupies only the first 194
pages. The rest is a very useful appendix,
comprising a Music Chronology with all
his published compositions and with
comments on all but a few minor works.
This is very valuable as a reference.
There are also lists, with comments,
of "Chopin on Film", "Chopin
in the Theatre" and "Chopin
Plagiarised" to mention some. Sooner
or later, theyíre going to steal those
melodies", Chopinís teacher
Elsner is quoted as saying in the film
A Song to Remember, and the list
of stolen tunes includes among other
things Minute Waltz "every
note of [it] sung by Barbara Streisand".
Since a couple of Gigli recordings are
also mentioned I would like to add,
since I reviewed it recently, his version
of the Etude, Op. 10 No 3, while to
the list of arrangements of Chopinís
music Julius Jacobsenís hilarious version
of the Minute Waltz for trombone (!)
and piano, played on a BIS disc by Christian
Lindberg and Roland Pöntinen, should
also be added.
A glossary with simple
explanations of central terminology
adds to the value of the book, especially
for the newly converted. Finally there
is a very detailed index.
At an asking price
of £16.99 this book+CDs would be a valuable
addition to any music loverís music
With each Life & Music biography
comes access to a dedicated website
for that composer, containing hours
of extra music to listen to. The works
featured on the CDs may be enjoyed in
full on the website (so in the case
of Mahler, there are seven symphonies
and four major vocal works!) plus many
pieces by contemporaries of the composer.
There is also a substantial timeline
showing the composers life beside
concurrent events in arts, literature
These websites, together with the
book and CDs, make for an unrivalled
multimedia approach the biographical
format and a uniquely rounded portrait
of each composer.