I am a Chopin fan. I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out in Paris in the 1830s. I even wrote about the heroine of the Polish Revolution of 1830 in Women Warriors.* Those subjects (and so many more) come together in one delightful package in Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions by Annik LaFarge
Chasing Chopin opens in a jazz club in Chicago where LaFarge heard a quartet riffing on the funeral march from Chopin’s Opus 35 Sonata.** She had a decades-long relationship with the sonata and was fascinated by its transformation into a jazz vernacular. A quick Google search revealed not only that musicians have been appropriating the funeral march for more than a hundred years, but that Chopin is the subject of video games, a popular manga series, and a Netflix animated series based on the same.*** Intrigued, LaFarge set out to understand the work, the world from which it came, and the power it continues to have.
The result is a charming and deeply personal account of both her subject and her search. LaFarge literally follows Chopin’s footsteps for the three years in which Chopin wrote his sonata, between 1837 and 1840, visiting the sites in Majorca and Paris where he lived and worked. In the process, she looks at the larger world in which he functioned, including a close look at his relationship with the gender-bending author George Sand. She places him firmly in the context of literal revolutions in Poland and France and the artistic revolution of European Romanticism. She explores the difference between the modern piano and the pianos of Chopin’s time. She looks at Chopin’s role as a revered Polish hero and as a broader cultural icon.
Chasing Chopin is part biography, part memoir, part musical appreciation, and one hundred percent fascinating.
So fascinating that it inspired me to pull out all my Chopin recordings looking for the Opus 35 Sonata, which I apparently don’t own. So I listened to all the others instead. For the record, Chopin is good music to write to.
*Emilia Plater. Just in case you’re curious.
**Whether you realize it or not, you know the opening phrase of Chopin’s funeral march. Its dum dum da dum is the sound of something bad about to happen on screen, whether in a Loony Tunes episode or a movie thriller.
***Forest of Piano. Just in case you’re curious. I found it delightful.
The guts of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.