The Chopin Hour

A visit with writer Benita Eisler on her new book, “Chopin’s Funeral,” a biography of the composer.

NEW YORK — Writer Benita Eisler spent 4 1/2 years with Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, nine with Lord Byron, and, most recently, 3 1/2 years with George Sand and Frederic Chopin for her new book, “Chopin’s Funeral” (Alfred A. Knopf). Well, not literally, of course. Just literarily. As the aphorism goes, to write a biography, you must be willing to live with your subject for as long as it takes.

This story first appeared in the April 3, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

By that reckoning, of course, the author has shared space with some excellent company. Eisler says she decided to write her new book about Chopin — which opens with a description of his funeral in 1849 — after reading a newspaper account of it by Theophile Gautier. “Chopin had such a mystery and a magic about him that he began to intrigue me,” she says. The ceremony was a remarkably elaborate, invitation-only affair, which suggested the funeral of Victor Hugo and was said to have been attended by 4,000 people. Actually, it resembled a state send-off in everything but name. What Eisler found extraordinary, she says, is that the composer, 39, who had been one of the most famous and sought-after artists of the mid-19th century, was destitute at the time and had been for awhile, since he made most of his income by giving private lessons and had been too ill to work.

Then, too, Eisler says, “I really wanted to write a short, narrative life on Majorcan time, on the expulsion from Paradise, from the height of fame and power of genius, the sort of downward trajectory. It could be depressing, but even at the very end, he was still struggling to move his music forward. His last works were so modern in a way.”

“Chopin’s Funeral” details the composer’s life, revealing some little-known facts, such as that the father of this celebrated Polish patriot was actually a French peasant who went to Poland in search of greater opportunities. He found them. Nicolas Chopin became first a French tutor to wealthy children, and then a French master at a private school in Warsaw. The composer also hated to perform in public and did it as little as possible. Most of his few concerts were organized for him by Sand, who made certain that friends and sympathetic fans would fill the audience to spread the word of Chopin’s genius. “At the time,” Eisler says, “sheet music could supposedly make you a very wealthy composer.” She mentions the surprising statistic that, according to a survey, of Paris’ population of one million in 1848, 10 percent, or about 100,000 people, could play the piano.

Another notable fact about Chopin is that he wrote music very rapidly, and he was notorious for the sloppiness and illegibility of his original notations, which he called “my chicken scratches,” and were often done in his own highly idiosyncratic musical shorthand. Despite the folkloric origins of his music, its wild sweetness, his highly dramatic story and quintessentially romantic illness, Chopin, rather than being a Romantic hero devoted to the underdog and the working classes, was actually quite conservative politically and socially. He disliked anything that seemed low-class, from manners to grooming and clothing. Part of this was because he was from a peasant family who had risen, as the saying used to be, above their station.

Chopin treated his wealthy and aristocratic pupils, who were amateurs, quite kindly, although he charged then-exorbitant rates, but he could be extremely exacting with those students who hoped to become professional musicians. One reason for this was that he believed that the performing sphere was a very difficult one, and such treatment would serve to toughen them up. The other part, Eisler says, is because “he saw his own life ebbing away, and he was furious at the thought that they weren’t working hard enough and were blowing their chances.” Chopin spent the last months of his life in an apartment on the Place Vendôme (now occupied by Chaumet jewelry), which was underwritten by one of his wealthy patrons.

The conventional wisdom about the Sand/Chopin affair is that Sand, behaving like the fickle woman that she was, eventually rejected and threw out Chopin and caused the saintly composer’s death. In reality, Eisler notes, half of the great musician’s total oeuvre was actually written at Sand’s country house at Nohant. He also suffered from what’s called “consumptive rage” and railed at his intimates as he grew sicker and sicker, becoming impossible to be around. An oedipal drama developed, too, between him and Sand’s son Maurice, when Maurice attained his majority and became the head of Nohant. Then, too, “sexual fidelity was not important to Sand,” Eisler admits. “She had many lovers. But Chopin didn’t see it that way.”

However, the novelist, it appears, would have been willing for Chopin to remain as part of her entourage after their romance was over, but he was too proud for this. And neither knew how ill he really was; Chopin had been in frail health for years. Eisler’s account of the performance tour of England and Scotland he made after the affair ended in 1846 makes harrowing reading. Chopin constantly picks himself up off his sickbed to perform. “The huge, unheated houses in those days, and the soft coal that was burned created trapped air and suffocating pea-soup fogs,” the biographer says. “Choking in coal dust hastened his illness and decline.”

Eisler herself, at 65, is beautiful, slender and fine-featured, looking more like a model in a Cunard Lines ad or a fashion spread on how to look great all your life than the author of celebrated biographies. She is married to Colin Eisler, who teaches at the Institute of Fine Art, and they have a daughter and two grandchildren. Her Upper East Side apartment is full of intriguing antique pieces, including some striking German religious folk art collected by her parents-in-law and is presided over by a small, friendly tabby named Celeste. Eisler is an ebullient, articulate woman who clearly enjoys talking about the stories of the extraordinary lives she has chronicled.

As Eisler paints her, Sand was the original superwoman. In the Romantic era, when artists and writers were widely idealized, Sand had no illusions about her own talents. She wrote potboilers for money — and supported two households by doing so. She ran the wonderful Nohant, received many visitors, and played the lady of the manor to the villagers. She was a good cook, and even planned and held weddings for locals at her house. Sand was also extremely active in reform politics, which made her quite unpopular with the other local gentry. “What she did besides writing her novels is so jaw-dropping that 10 people couldn’t have done it all,” Eisler says.

Sand’s Achilles’ heel was her relationship with her children. She was often unkind to her daughter, Solange, and at times extremely cruel. On the other hand, she doted on her son, Maurice, who never amounted to much in worldly terms and seemed to have channeled whatever creative abilities he possessed into the puppet theater at Nohant, which featured life-size figures. Sand’s relationship with her daughter was repeating a family pattern in a way. Sand was raised by her grandmother, who is said to have paid Sand’s mentally-ill mother to stay away. Her mother deeply resented the comfort in which her daughter was raised, since she was rarely allowed to be part of the household. Similarly, Sand berated her children for being spoiled by the luxuries she provided them.

When Chopin left Nohant at the end of their affair, Eisler says: “it was like an expulsion from Paradise. In the country, all he had to do was compose. When their relationship ended, he was homeless and without resources.” Then, too: “She really was his muse, his inspiration.” The writer notes that Sand was “such a powerful personality” that Eisler had to be careful that she didn’t upstage Chopin in the book. “But she also enabled him to be the greater artist,” Eisler continues. “Usually muses don’t have an artistic life of their own.”

Eisler studied music as a child, and says she greatly enjoyed listening to Chopin. Playing Chopin, in fact, used to be her reward to herself when she was taking piano lessons as a child, after she finished her Czerny exercises. The technical descriptions of the composer’s music are well done and easy for the lay person to follow. She also clearly traces the relationships between such traditional Polish folk forms as the mazurka and the polonaise and Chopin’s versions of them and his other compositions. But Eisler found it impossible to write while actually listening to music. “I tried, but I would just drift off.”