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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Paris, Sans Chopin

National Post, 25 March 2000

Book Review
The Parisian Worlds of Frédéric Chopin , by William G. Atwood
Yale University Press, 416 pages

The Parisian Worlds of Frederic ChopinLike most amateur pianists, William Atwood is under the spell of Frédéric Chopin: no composer exploited the sheer sensuous beauty of the piano better. But unlike most of us, who are content to fumble through some of Chopin’s easier waltzes and preludes before appreciative friends and family members, Atwood has managed to publish three books on the composer in the last twenty years. In The Lioness and the Little One (1980) and Fryderyk Chopin: Pianist from Warsaw (1987), Atwood wrote about Chopin’s life as a lover and as a concert performer respectively. In The Parisian Worlds of Frédéric Chopin, Atwood expands his perspective. He offers his services as a historical tour guide, giving readers an encyclopaedic introduction to mid-nineteenth-century Paris, the city where Chopin spent the final (and most productive) eighteen years of his life.

When Chopin entered Paris in 1831, Czarist Russian troops were brutally crushing a nationalist insurrection in the composer’s native Poland. Chopin would never see his homeland again. Yet he transformed his personal tragedy into a creative triumph, and Paris almost certainly provided the catalyst. The French capital had just surpassed Vienna as the musical and cultural nerve-centre of Europe. This was the city of Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz in music, of Victor Hugo and Stendhal in literature, of Eugène Delacroix and Honoré Daumier in art. Atwood paints a vivid panorama of Paris, packing in detailed geographical information, political history, and best of all, a wealth of anecdotes. We learn, for instance, of Paris’s piano-mania during the 1830s – one manufacturer, Johann Pape, tried to cash in on the craze by inventing a piano-oven that could “cook a meal while the owner relaxed at the keyboard.”

But what’s so puzzling about this portrait of Chopin’s “Parisian worlds” is how rarely the composer actually makes an appearance. Even in the city’s Italian opera house, the reader has a hard time making out Chopin in the crowd, despite the fact that the composer attended the opera nightly during his early years in Paris. We know that Chopin learned a great deal from these visits: the long lines of his melodies are often modeled frankly after the Italian bel canto arias he adored, complete with ornamentation to suggest operatic sobs and sighs. Atwood treats this in half a sentence, preferring to dwell on Chopin’s admiration for the theatrical (rather than musical) accomplishment of a Meyerbeer opera.

Elsewhere in the book, Chopin’s low profile is more understandable. The composer was indifferent or even actively hostile to many of the worlds Atwood describes: the bohemian demimonde, for instance, and the world of visual art. Even Atwood has to admit that Chopin “was a musician and only a musician, with little feeling for the other arts. Painting and sculpture were beyond his comprehension.” Yet he drags us into these worlds where Chopin refused to go, arguing that “our personalities are often defined as much by what we dislike as what we like.”

Chopin’s not the only elusive thing about this book. I struggled in vain to tease out an overarching theme, a larger purpose, a discernable argument. But there’s no introduction, no conclusion, no bibliography, and few notes. (Even the illustrations come without attribution.) It’s probably fair to say that Atwood believes that we can learn much about the character and music Chopin by understanding his social, economic, political, and artistic “worlds.” This is almost certainly true, but Atwood rarely tries to demonstrate it.

When he does, he sometimes gets things wrong. He draws a contrast, for instance, between Chopin’s music – subtle, nuanced, and appropriate for small concert spaces – and his Parisian audiences – noisy, untutored, and enamoured of grand theatrical effects. In fact, as a recent book by James Johnson demonstrates, Paris audiences during the 1830s and 1840s were far better behaved and educated than Atwood suggests – the emerging Romantic cult of the artist had the effect of silencing and enrapturing concert audiences throughout Paris. And far from being “perplexed” by Beethoven, as Atwood claims, Parisians were deliriously obsessed with the German composer’s music. A watercolour by Eugène Lami vividly portrays a hushed and reverent audience at the Paris premiere of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Atwood is correct to suggest that Chopin’s music was more appropriate for the salon than the concert hall, but he doesn’t need to insult Chopin’s contemporaries to make his point.

There is much to be savoured and enjoyed in this book, despite such weaknesses. And much to be admired too – while researching and writing these books, Atwood has pursued a professional career as a medical doctor. But in the end, the result is neither intellectually nor aesthetically satisfying. It resembles nothing so much as a 400-page footnote to a biography of Chopin.