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Chopin the Man

By W. J. HENDERSON
 
CHOPIN was a mystery to his contemporaries, a phantom to his successors. It is perhaps true that no one ever quite understood him except Aurora Dudevant, the towering George Sand of French literature, who was a woman and had the intuition of her sex molded by the inspiration of love. Whoever does understand a man of complex nature but a woman? Much has been written of Chopin’s character; little of it explains him. His music tells us more of his soul than all the books, which are at the best contradictory.

He was a compound of melancholy and enthusiasm, and because of this men misunderstood him. He had in the highest measure that exquisite femininity of intellect which is essential to the artist of ultra-refined style, and because of that men said he was a weakling. They called him a sick man, meaning that there was no health in him intellectually, as well as physically. No doubt there is some truth in this. He was not the normal man, but he was not an emasculate. The blood of a progenitor flowed in his veins, and he could rage splendidly for Poland in music, and in life seek the repose of a woman’s breast.

An Aristocrat.
He was too much of an aristocrat to battle face to face with the sordid world, and for this, too, he was called weak. But after all how could he have been Chopin, whom Schumann called the proudest poetic spirit of the time, if he had been a doctrinaire like Beethoven or a poseur like Liszt? He was what he was, and even his personal appearance and commonest traits seem to have made contrary impressions upon his friends. Liszt says his eyes were blue and Karasowsky is at a loss to understand this, because he plainly saw that they were brown. Scribes have said that he was moody and melancholy, but Karasowsky records that women said he had a cheerful disposition, with a heart full of longing.

This same Karasowsky, who knew him long and well, writes thus about his personal appearance: “His dark brown eyes were merry rather than dreamy; his smile amiable and free from all bitterness. Very beautiful was his delicate, almost transparent complexion, his luxurious hair was auburn and soft as silk; his nose slightly bent, of Roman cut; his movements were elegant, and in his intercourse with others he had the manners of the noblest aristocrat. Everyone who could comprehend true excellence, true genius, was forced, so soon as he saw Chopin, to say: ‘That is an extraordinary man.’ The sound of his voice was melodious and somewhat subdued. He was not above medium height; was by nature delicate, and in general resembled his mother.”

His Life Experiences Psychologic.
Mr. Huneker, in his admirable book, “Chopin, The Man and His Music,” says with that brilliant pertinence which characterizes all this author’s writings: “Chopin went from Poland to France—from Warsaw to Paris—where finally he was borne to his grave in Pere la Chaise. He lived, loved, and died; not for him were the perils, prizes, and fascinations of a hero’s career. He fought his battles within the walls of his soul—we may note and enjoy them iii his music.”

Mr. Huneker further reiterates what we all know, that the experiences of Chopin’s life were psychologic. He was not a figure in the strenuous whirl of events. He sat apart. He lived within himself, and when he gave anything of himself to others he suffered. He suffered because his was one of those exquisitely sensitive natures which cannot share its emotions without something of the shame that comes of exposing the nakedness of a warm heart. It is not easy for such a man to give friendship, for he must expose his secret life. It is almost impossible for him to give love, and, when he does give it, he gives in agony and with certain remorse.

Who fails to recall the miseries of Beethoven’s loves? There dwelt side by side with the love of the great symphonist something of the rage of the lion. He loved with the fury of a savage. Chopin, on the other hand, loved with the keen torture of a wholly introspective and retiring nature. It tore his soul to give up its confession. Herein we may hope to find some solution of the mystery of his intimacy with George Sand.

How did it begin? One night he played the piano at a house where men and women were assembled. He disliked to play the piano before an audience. A public concert was misery to him. He could not bear the formal publication of his emotions. It was only occasionally that he would play at receptions. On this night when he finished he found a dark-eyed, intense-looking woman leaning over the piano and gazing down into his eyes as if she would draw out his very soul. He shrank from her, but she fascinated him. He was as a bird before a serpent. He went home only to be haunted day after day by that look. George Sand’s power mastered him. The delicate femininity of his own nature gradually surrendered itself to the splendid domination of her masculinity. Hers was the stronger force. This Chopin, this gorgeous sunflower of music, turned to the command of the blazing sun of literature.

What followed? An intimacy in which the woman was the cherishing, protecting element, and the man the shrinking, clinging one. For this we are told that Chopin was a degenerate, a weakling, an emasculate. Let us confess without hesitation that his part in the union was not that of a master and head. Chopin was surely not cast in the heroic mold. He was brought to birth by omniscient Nature to make a certain kind of tone-poetry, to originate a method of art hitherto undreamed, a style so gentle, so intimate, so delicate, so flowerlike that the rude winds of worldly conflict would have blown it beyond the horizon of human thought.

What other provision could fate make for such a man, with his essential career to be carved, than that which she did make? She gave him the help that was meet for him. She gave him the protection of a generous, passionate, puissant woman, who poured around him the wealth of a love maternal rather than sensuous. His physical disabilities appealed powerfully to this woman. They were such that as time wore on they touched his thought. He became intellectually morbid, yet his art continued clear and firm of purpose. Read the account given by George Sand of the winter at Majorca, and study the preludes which Chopin composed there.

One day Madame Sand and her son went away on business. It was midnight when they returned. A heavy rain was falling; streams were swollen; roads were almost impassable. Chopin waited for them in a state which rapidly neared distraction. They were painfully anxious about him. When he saw them approaching, he arose with a shriek and cried: “I thought you were no longer alive!” As he regained his composure and noted their drenched condition, his illness increased. While they were absent, he had had a dream. He was playing the piano and while playing disappeared from the earth and was no longer among the living. He was lying at the bottom of the sea and cold drops of water were falling in rhythmic beats upon his breast.

It was in vain that Madame Sand told him that he had heard the rain in his sleep. The notion simply vexed him. He had composed that night a prelude in B minor, which sounded the fall of those drops. He called them tears falling from heaven upon his heart. A sickly fancy? No doubt. The peevish imagination of a morbid mind in an unsound body it surely was, but without it we should not have had that B minor prelude.

Superstitious, too, was this wonderful Chopin. But why not? Is there not, after all, something of weird fantasy in all the greatest imaginative art? What greater conception has literature than Hamlet moved to the soul by the spirit of his father, which none but he may see? How mighty was the spell with which Goethe raised Mephistopheles from the depths! What a shudder of dread and awe hangs around the apparition of Astarte in Byron’s “Manfred”!

A Necessary Factor in Music.
The constitution of Chopin was a necessity. The wonderful link which he formed between the pianistic art of Mozart and Bach and that of to-day would not have been forged had his nature been of a cast to mingle more freely with the surrounding world. That peculiar contour of melody which we recognize as Chopin could not have been outlined had its originator lived a practical inner life. The marvelous harmonic schemes of his works would not have been what they are had he himself been anything but a psychologic recluse.

With all the congenital and physically forced melancholy of his nature, Chopin was not in the beginning morose or gloomy. As a boy he was rather inclined to be merry in a light and amiable manner, and as a youth he was fecund in a gentle and whimsical humor, which expressed itself in action and correspondence more than in his music. Yet even in later life he was not devoid of humor. The little D-flat valse, which is supposed to have been written at the inspiration of George Sand’s dog chasing its own tail, is as blithe and airy a bit of composition as might have emanated from the healthiest brain in Europe. It is a trifle, to be sure; but a Chopinesque trifle is a precious jewel, and this one has not a single somber light in it.

Often we are asked to discover in the polonaises only the proclamation of Chopin’s patriotism, only his noble rage against the oppression of Poland. Yet it is difficult to find in his letters anything that justifies such extremism. When Poland fell Chopin wrote: “All this caused me much pain; who could have foreseen it?“ Again he wrote: “How glad my mother will be that I did not go back.” A certain Count Tarnowski published some extracts from a diary said to have been kept by Chopin at this time. They proclaim a dreadful state of feeling, but Mr. Huneker sniffs at them as altogether too melodramatic for Chopin.

On the whole, it is more reasonable to believe that in the atmosphere of Paris, where artistry blossomed on every side and where his own art was understood by some, Chopin was more at home than he had been in Warsaw, where his originality was merely suspected, but not measured. The magnificent outbursts of fury in some of his works, such as the B minor scherzo and the A-flat Polonaise are superb as music, but if studied as expressions of an inner life they indicate a disturbance resembling a psychologic rebellion rather than an impersonal feeling, such as genuine patriotism.

They are the expression of the revolt of Chopin, the man, against his physical restraints, his disabilities, amt against the compulsory unveiling of his own heart. Chopin raged inwardly, but it was less for the prostration of his native land than about his own career, with which he was ever dissatisfied. If the expression of his ideas took a national idiom, that should not be construed as evidence of a deliberate purpose to sing solely the woes of Poland, for Chopin utilized the dance forms of his country in music which certainly was merely melancholy or bizarre and not eloquent of the wrongs of a downtrodden land.

A Compound of Contradictions.
The study of such a character can never give entirely satisfactory results. Contradictions abound in artistic natures, in none more so than in those of musical geniuses. Chopin was unique even among the sons of song. Nothing that he did was like anything which had been done before. Only a close analytic examination of his works reveals the fact that he was a profound musician, that the novelties of his thought and style are exfoliations of the plant whose seed was buried in the earth by Domenico Scarlatti and nurtured in its infancy by Bach. But the technical solidity of Chopin’s compositions is hidden under a characteristic superstructure and this edifice is a revelation of the man. Chopin was passionate and retiring, timid and proud, daring and hesitating, tender and cynical, exquisite and ethereal all at once. He was a compound of strangely antagonistic traits and emotions, and he suffered by the simple attrition of his own inconsistencies. To him might truthfully be applied the admirable words of Theophile Gautier on Heine:—
 
“He was at once joyous and sad, skeptical and credulous, tender and cruel, sentimental and mocking, classic and romantic, German and French, refined and cynical, enthusiastic yet cool headed; everything except dull. To the purest Greek form he added the most exquisite modern sense; he was, in truth, Euphorion, the child of Faust and of the beautiful Helen.”
 
A kind and manly heart lay beneath all. When a rich man invited him to dinner only in order to ask him to play afterward, he said: “But I ate so little.” When Cavaignac was dying and begged that Chopin come and play for him, he went at once and gave the richest treasure of his art to soothe a last hour of pain. He cherished family ties and loved to send little surprises to his sisters, nephews, and nieces. He was brought up a Catholic, but never talked of religion. He kept his faith in his heart, and not on his tongue.

He listened intently to discussions of politics and literature, but took no part in them. His active personal force was thrown into the battle for the then new romantic ideas in music. In this alone was he a propagandist. Liszt tells us that his worship for his art was like that of the masters of the middle ages. “Like them,” says the Abbe, “he brought to its service that pious devotion which at once ennobles the artist and makes him happy.” Chopin the man is written in his music. As Mr. Huneker has so aptly said: “Chopin’s music is the aesthetic symbol of a personality nurtured on patriotism, pride, and love.”
 

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