Classical Music Guide - Monday, July 22, 2019 - Written by Donald Isler

Interview of Alan Walker by Jerome Rose

Though he's a distinguished scholar and author, Alan Walker has no airs about himself, or his achievements. Seeing him as I entered Lang Hall for this event, I congratulated him on his wonderful new biography, "Fryderyk Chopin - A Life and Times" and told him I would have brought it in for an autograph were it not so heavy. "Well, it makes a good doorstop!" he said.

For a fascinating hour we learned quite a lot about the life of a scholar, as he discussed his life and work with Jerome Rose, who asked many cogent questions. Among the things we learned:

1) It's a real problem that very rich people buy up priceless manuscripts, which scholars are then no longer able to access and study, and

2) The rituals of scholarly work at a place like the Morgan Library may include temporarily surrendering your important personal documents for the time you're in the building, as well as washing your hands and wearing gloves, because perspiration is harmful to the manuscripts.

Dr. Walker is originally from England, was an announcer for the BBC for ten years and now lives in Canada. He has written 14 books, but says he never goes back and rereads them later as he thinks he continues to improve as a writer, and wouldn't be happy with them anymore.

When asked why, after spending 25 years researching and writing his highly lauded three volume biography of Liszt, he then spent ten years on the Chopin biography, he said it was because of something like postpartum depression. "I needed a big, new project. Being a WASP, I feel guilty when I'm not being productive. Unless I'm working, I can't enjoy pleasure."

He added "I'm a slow writer. If I can produce 200 usable words a day I'm glad. And I hate computers. I write everything in long hand."

But why write about Chopin?

"I started playing the piano at eight and was rather good by the time I was ten, playing Chopin waltzes and mazurkas. So I've been interested in him all my life."

A trip to Poland with a colleague yielded so much new information that he decided he had wasted the previous two years of work. He also picked up a virus while there which cost him 20% of the hearing in one ear. "Such are the sacrifices I've made for Chopin!" he said.

Dr. Walker wanted this biography to focus on three different facets of Chopin:

1) Telling the story of his life,

2) Explaining the historical situation and context of his world, and

3) The music.

"Where did his genius come from?" asked Mr. Rose.

"That's not answerable" said Dr. Walker, going on to mention that Chopin, this amazing pianist, and composer of piano music, had only one piano teacher, who was really a violinist, and the lessons stopped when he was twelve years old. His teacher did "feed" him a lot of Bach and Mozart, and he always hugely admired those composers. By contrast, he considered most of the Beethoven sonatas with which he was familiar "vulgar."

Chopin's favorite instrument was the human voice, not the piano, said Dr. Walker, and he considered piano playing like a mode of speech.

Every piece he wrote started out as an improvisation. Then he struggled to improve it. Being a perfectionist he suffered greatly as he went through this process. But 95% of his compositions are still in the standard repertory, perhaps a higher percentage than that of any other composer.

Unlike Liszt and Czerny, Chopin was not a "finger equalizer." He believed each finger had its own individual characteristics, and he thought of the third and fourth fingers as "Siamese twins." Dr. Walker added that the A Minor Etude, Op. 10, No. 2, is the only piece for which Chopin wrote a fingering for every note.

Chopin was unable to compose without a piano. When he went with Georges Sand to Mallorca he had already been paid 1000 francs in advance for the 24 preludes he was to write. But he wrote only four of them before the trip, and did not get the piano he was promised till just three weeks before they were to leave again, making him miserable.

Although he often played in the homes of the aristocracy, both when he was young in Poland, and later, when he lived in France, Chopin only gave about twenty public performances. And because he was physically weak, people in a large hall couldn't hear him if they sat far from the piano.

He became a teacher because he needed the income, and was very well paid, getting 20 francs per lesson, as opposed to 3 or 4 francs, like most teachers in Paris. (Then again, wouldn't any of us today be willing to pay an astronomical amount to play for Chopin?!) But much of his income was spent on doctors, as he was constantly ill.

Two things that hurt scholarship after his death were the destruction of many of his manuscripts, and his piano in the Polish Revolution of 1863, and the fact that Georges Sand destroyed the letters he had written her.

Although Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt admired him the reverse was not always true. Chopin all but despised Liszt's music, and when Schumann dedicated his Kreisleriana to Chopin, Chopin said that what he liked was the design on the cover of the score (!).

Dr. Walker said that whereas John Field invented the nocturne, Chopin immortalized it, and that people sometimes did not hold Chopin's music in such high esteem because many of his works are short. He did not write symphonies, for instance. But the musical quality of many of these short works is higher than, for example, the symphonies of a lesser composer.

"Who was Chopin?" asked Jerome Rose, near the end of the session.

Though he couldn't give an exact answer to this, Alan Walker mentioned that Arthur Rubinstein said that when he heard Chopin's music, he felt "at home."

I wonder how many other pianists, and music lovers feel the same way?!

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