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The Warsaw Voice » Society » February 23, 2010
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Stripping Away Myths Around Chopin
February 23, 2010   
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A newly released biography of Frederic Chopin aims to strip away the legend of the composer and examine the man beneath. Historian Adam Zamoyski says his book Chopin: Prince of the Romantics, released this month to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth, is the only honest book on the great man.

"Almost every other book that's around is peddling a myth or an idea of what the writer thinks Chopin was like," says Zamoyski, a historical sleuth with little time for nonsense or half-baked legends.

"This is the only honest book on Chopin," he adds boldly.

Describing Chopin as "one of the greatest composers that ever lived," Zamoyski argues the importance of the composer's role in shaping the modern Polish nation. "Throughout the 19th century there was a huge cultural effort to 'redesign' the Polish nation," Zamoyski says. "It was a kind of project which involved not only politics but also a huge input by poets and composers, who were painting a new nation, giving it new literature, new music and in essence, creating a new kind of Pole. Chopin's input was so major that his music became like the software to the hardware of the Polish nation, actually part of the way it functioned-that's why Poles think that Chopin's music is quintessentially Polish. It's not that Chopin's music is quintessentially Polish, it's that all Poles are quintessentially infused with Chopin from very early on and probably genetically by now. He's in the blood, you might say."

One of the biggest debates surrounding Chopin is whether he belongs to Poland or France. While academics from both countries play tug of war over the composer, Zamoyski insists that the issue is meaningless. "I think this whole idea of whether he's Polish or French is actually irrelevant. The fact is, he was formed by Poland and European civilization and he continued to form himself in Paris, but in a Paris that wasn't that French because it was actually full of foreigners. He was continually surrounded by a very cosmopolitan crowd."

Zamoyski's book offers a new insight into the life of the great composer, including his character. "I think an awful lot of nonsense has been said and written about this," he says. "Chopin was a very clever man, quite wise as well. He was absolutely fixated on his music and he knew from a very early age exactly what he wanted to do and where he was going. He was quite stubborn and did have a tendency to neurosis and fussiness which may well have been linked to his illness. It is a well known attribute of tuberculosis, if that is indeed what he was suffering from, which is probably the case. It induces feverish states, moodswings, tantrums and rages... but he also had a wonderful sense of humor, he was wonderfully self-deprecating and never pompous about his music or about his position in the musical world.

"He very much liked the company of straightforward, easy people and had a whole lot of friends who were not great musicians or great poets. They were just very nice people who he found were fun. He would love to go off to a vaudeville, what you might call the equivalent of a trashy film these days, with a friend or two. He never took himself seriously and this was the really likable aspect of him. When he wasn't in a mood or suffering he was a delightful companion, much loved by his friends."

Chopin: Prince of the Romantics is available from HarperCollins in English.

The Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy publishing house is planning to release a Polish-language version in March. German, Dutch, Spanish, Russian and Chinese editions are also scheduled for release this year.

Alex de Moller
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