Despite the popularity of Chopin’s music, and his enticing image as a tragic, consumptive arch-romantic, outstanding new writing about him in English has been in short supply recently. Alan Walker’s biography of the Polish composer and pianist therefore feels like a real landmark. For the “casual” music-lover it contains peerless writing; for the scholar, scotched myths and startling discoveries; and for the musician, insights galore.
The book has been 10 years in the making, and Walker leaves no stone unturned in his search for the truth about Chopin’s life. Full of vivid detail, it is a perceptive chronicle through which one seems to live the composer’s life alongside him.
...numerous intriguing glimpses into the personality and genius of the man, but they also leave the book sometimes seeming like an overgrown garden in need of pruning... Nevertheless, Walker’s research is a stunning achievement and he supplies many insights... The author is at his most illuminating and entertaining when he presents telling details... Walker is on less firm ground when he speculates about matters without supplying solid evidence in support of his views. Sometimes his conclusions seem quite a stretch.
For a biographer, there’s a lot to untangle. Alan Walker does so brilliantly in “Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times,” a magisterial portrait of a composer who fascinated and puzzled contemporaries and whose music came to define the Romantic piano... Drawing on a wealth of letters and fresh scholarship, Walker creates a polyphonic work that elegantly interweaves multiple strands. He sketches key events in the history of Poland and portrays the burgeoning society of Polish exiles in Paris in a way that lends depth to Chopin’s oft-cited patriotism.
With all this, Chopin himself remains an elusive figure: taciturn, discreet, undemonstrative, only completely comfortable at the piano. The most meticulous craftsman imaginable, and a performer of such refinement that his playing could barely be heard from the back of a large concert hall, he seems almost to float through the turmoil – political and personal – of his short life. “Without the music,” Walker admits, “the hollowed-out character that remains would contain little to interest us.” In fact, this life is compelling.