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Reviewed by:
  • Chopin, chasseur d’âmes par Jacqueline Willemetz
  • Jennifer Rushworth
Chopin, chasseur d’âmes. Par Jacqueline Willemetz, d’après les travaux et recherches de Marie-Madeleine Gérard. (Univers musical.) Paris: L’Harmattan, 2018. 240 pp.

Born in Poland, but resident in France from 1831 onwards, Frédéric (or Fryderyk) Chopin is a natural subject for a biography in French. Indeed, such a project has illustrious precedents, including Franz Liszt’s own biography of Chopin, published shortly after Chopin’s death: see F. Chopin (Paris: M. Escudier, 1852). The present biography has the merit of being based on archival research, undertaken by Marie-Madeleine Gérard (who is, appropriately enough, credited on the front cover). Jacqueline Willemetz took on this biography, we learn in the ‘Avant-lire’, after Gérard’s blindness and subsequent death in 1983 prevented her from giving form and coherence to her research. This biography is in fact a re-issue of an earlier edition (Troyes: Cahiers bleus/Librairie bleue, 1999). For anglophone readers, it is now in competition with Alan Walker’s biography (Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times (London: Faber & Faber, 2018)), and the latter ultimately represents not only a more recent but also a more scholarly and convincing endeavour. Willemetz structures her biography in three parts, following a conventional chronological structure from birth to death. Notwithstanding, the sections cover unequal periods, with the third part most notably being devoted to Chopin’s final two years. Very welcome is the inclusion of a further section of accounts of Chopin by his contemporaries, among whom only ‘des personnalités reconnues’ are selected (p. 195). This additional section adds a polyphonic, historical dimension to the narrative, and aids our appreciation of the fame and friendship experienced by Chopin in his lifetime. The striking lack of bibliography is, in contrast, frustrating, especially given the proclaimed reliance on archival materials that thereby remain largely inaccessible. This regrettable omission is further aggravated by the scarcity of footnotes in the text, meaning that the sources of quotations are only very infrequently specified satisfactorily. Add to this a style that favours short paragraphs — many of only one or two sentences in length, separated by stark single line breaks —, a predilection for the present tense, an abundance of exclamation marks, and a series of errors in the one English quotation in the whole volume (see p. 186), and there is further fuel for the reader’s frustration. Formatting and referencing aside, this volume is also distinctive for its depiction of a chaste, Catholic Chopin. Willemetz rejects several claims of relationships as apocryphal and offers a defensive analysis, in particular, of Chopin’s life with George Sand. Sand comes across as a second mother to the composer, although Willemetz explicitly challenges ‘la fable d’un Chopin asservi et dominé par George Sand’ (p. 125). In the account of their eventual break-up, Willemetz clearly takes Chopin’s side, in a move that seems unnecessarily partisan, not to mention accusatory towards Sand. Still, this biography exudes a sense of affection for its subject, and Chopin’s voice is heard in the many generous quotations from his correspondence. [End Page 466]

Jennifer Rushworth
University College London


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