'Beguiling ... Limpidly written, effortlessly learned' William Boyd, TLS, Books of the Year
In November 1838 Frédéric Chopin, George Sand and her two children sailed to Majorca to escape the Parisian winter. They settled in an abandoned monastery at Valldemossa in the mountains above Palma, where Chopin finished what would eventually be recognised as one of the great and revolutionary works of musical Romanticism - his 24 Preludes. There was scarcely a decent piano on the island (these were still early days in the evolution of the modern instrument), so Chopin worked on a small pianino made by a local craftsman, which remained in their monastic cell for seventy years after he and Sand had left.
This brilliant and unclassifiable book traces the history of Chopin's 24 Preludes through the instruments on which they were played, the pianists who interpreted them and the traditions they came to represent. Yet it begins and ends with the Majorcan pianino, which during the Second World War assumed an astonishing cultural potency as it became, for the Nazis, a symbol of the man and music they were determined to appropriate as their own.
The unexpected hero of the second part of the book is the great keyboard player and musical thinker Wanda Landowska, who rescued the pianino from Valldemossa in 1913, and who would later become one of the most influential musical figures of the twentieth century. Kildea shows how her story - a compelling account based for the first time on her private papers - resonates with Chopin's, while simultaneously distilling part of the cultural and political history of Europe and the United States in the central decades of the century. Kildea's beautifully interwoven narratives, part cultural history and part detective story, take us on an unexpected journey through musical Romanticism and allow us to reflect freshly on the changing meaning of music over time.
A humble piano that birthed some of composer Fr d ric Chopin's greatest pieces is the peg for a meditation on romanticism in this beguiling study. Composer and pianist Kildea (Benjamin Britten) recounts Chopin's 1838 1839 sojourn on the Spanish island of Majorca where, confined in a gloomy monastery with his mistress, the novelist George Sand, and her children, he composed several of his most well-known preludes on a mediocre piano made by a local artisan, Juan Bauza. After that atmospheric introduction, the Bauza instrument recedes as Kildea's biographical sketch of Chopin visits other pianos, including his beloved Pleyels and the innovative Steinways that now define his sound. The book's second half centers on harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who bought Bauza's piano for her collection and lost it when Nazis pillaged her Paris home; Kildea's account of her championship of historically accurate instruments and performance alongside late-romantic melodramatics anchors his insightful exploration of shifting styles of piano-playing and interpretations of Chopin. Kildea's loose-limbed narrative includes wonderful evocations of the music (Prelude 18 "is like someone arguing with himself interrupting, stuttering, slowly gaining in confidence and fluency, prone to wild coloratura declamations") and luxuriant digressions on everything from piano-tuning tastes to the 19th-century rebuilding of Paris. This is a wonderful, melodic take on Chopin's genius.