A New York Times Book Review “Editors’ Choice”
Longlisted for the PEN America Award for Biography
A modern take on a classical icon: this original, entertaining, well-researched book uses the story of when, where, and how Chopin composed his most famous work, uncovering many surprises along the way and showing how his innovative music still animates popular and art culture centuries later.
The Frédéric Chopin Annik LaFarge presents here is not the melancholy, sickly, Romantic figure so often portrayed in both popular culture and scholarship. The artist she discovered is, instead, an inspiring, independent spirit: an innovator who created a new musical language; an autodidact who became a trailblazing teacher; a celebrity who shunned the limelight; a mimic with a roguish, playful sense of humor; a stalwart patriot during a time of revolution, exile and pandemic.
In Chasing Chopin she follows in his footsteps during the three years, 1837-1840, when he composed the now-famous funeral march from his Opus 35 sonata, using its composition story to illuminate the key themes of Chopin’s life: a deep attachment to his Polish homeland; his complex relationship with writer George Sand; their harrowing but consequential sojourn on Majorca; the rapidly developing technology of the piano, which enabled his unique tone and voice; social and political revolution in 1830s Paris; friendship with other artists, from the famous Eugène Delacroix to the lesser known, yet notorious in his time, Marquis de Custine. Each of these threads – musical, political, social, personal – is woven through the Funeral March, a melody so famous it’s known around the world even to people who know nothing about classical music. But it is not, as LaFarge discovered, the piece of music we think we know. Inside this work, which has been fundamentally misunderstood since the day Chopin sent it off to his publisher in 1840, she discovered a series of surprises that led to a new and broader understanding of this much-loved, perpetually relevant composer. As part of her research into Chopin’s world, LaFarge, herself a dedicated amateur pianist, visited piano makers, monuments, churches and archives; she talked to scholars, jazz musicians, video game makers, software developers, music teachers, theater directors, and of course dozens of pianists.
The result is an engrossing, page-turning work of musical discovery and an artful portrayal of a man whose work and life continue to inspire artists and cultural innovators in astonishing ways.
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Praise for Chasing Chopin
“It is almost impossible for me to imagine a world in which [Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’] is both fresh and tragic, where its death is real. Annik LaFarge’s charming and loving new book attempts to recover this world…This book took me into many unexpected corners…For a book about death, it’s bursting with life and lively research.” — Jeremy Denk, New York Times
“A luminous book, rich with reporting and reflection and marvelously animated by LaFarge’s passion for the subject. Whether you love Chopin doesn’t matter: This is an irresistible journey into history and the nature of genius.” — Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book
“[a] wonderful book…LaFarge’s intellectual curiosity, free of any musical or ideological agenda, is infectious, and she brings the broad analysis of a polymath to her subject…[a companion] website is replete with pertinent videos and recordings that raises the bar on how music-themed books will be expected to incorporate multimedia henceforth.” — Seth Rogovoy, Chronogram Magazine
“A singular work combining historical research and personal and musical passion…A seamless blend of the musical and literary verve, with just enough research to ground and elucidate….In addition to her engaging history, LaFarge energetically pursues Chopin’s continued influence on musicians today—especially jazz musicians, who have relished his liberating style, best described by [George] Sand as a unique combination of ‘severity and grace, melancholy and magnificence.’ Indeed, it’s apparent that Chopin endures today, ‘as fresh, inspiring, and inventive as ever.’” — Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“The lurid fantasies foisted on the composer since his death have made him almost unrecognisable — though Annik LaFarge does much to dispel them…an intensely personal journey through time, place and politics….LaFarge is weighty (and great) on the importance and singularity of Chopin’s friend and patron Astolphe de Custine…she has a good eye and ear for her subject, choosing her anecdotes with care.”
— Paul Kildea, The Spectator
“Engaging…probing…Well recommended…This slender but wide-ranging volume is impeccably researched with copious notes and a bibliography, but never seems overly scholarly and will appeal to a variety of general readers.” — Library Journal
“This wonderful book is a modern take on a classical icon.” — Journal Courier
“Annik LaFarge’s wonderful Chasing Chopin, like the music that inspired it, is a tour-de-force and journey of the soul. Attempting to unpack the awe she experienced hearing Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata at a concert years ago, LaFarge does much more than recount the story of the music and its composer. She tells us why they matter, now, deeply and in all sorts of ways, to her and us. Traveling with a backpack from New York to Paris to Majorca, interrogating musicians, scholars, software developers, piano makers — going where the music and inspiration take her — she produces a diary of discovery that’s a joy to read.”
— Michael Kimmelman, author of The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa and architecture critic for the New York Times
“Annik LaFarge brilliantly traces the footsteps of Chopin’s life in a way that is thoroughly engrossing for the layman and professional musician alike. My only regret is that there is not an Annik LaFarge book on the life of every important composer in the classical canon. Her virtuosic linguistic talent is put to good use in this fascinating book.” — Scott Yoo, host of Now Hear This on PBS
“Come for the finely drawn portrait of a musical genius, stay for the evocative recreation of the world he knew. By immersing herself in the creative context that nurtured Chopin’s famous sonata, Annik LaFarge makes him live again. Chasing Chopin is infused with a roving curiosity and passion worthy of its subject.”
— Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine
“Like everyone else, you have heard Chopin’s funeral march, whether in a symphony hall or in a cartoon. Annik LaFarge heard it in both places and got to thinking. The result of those thoughts was her drive to make sense of the cultural journey of a single melody. The result of that drive is not just the fascinating story of a single musical composition, and not even just a thoughtful and satisfying meditation on the way a culture creates itself. LaFarge has documented a story that is itself, as she notes, ‘an antidote to the culture of virtuosity, celebrity, and noise that today envelops us.’”
— Scott Huler, author of Defining the Wind: How a 19th Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry
“[Chasing Chopin is] more than an exploration of a famous piece of music. It’s a wonderfully smart, fascinating look at Chopin’s life and times…[it] stands out because it’s a hybrid work — biography and journalism — with utterly lovely, vivid descriptions of Chopin’s music. It’s all the more compelling because LaFarge looks carefully at the circumstances that made the composition of Opus 35 possible…Chopin emerges in these pages a fiercely independent artist, a virtuoso with a “playful, roguish sense of humor”, an ingenious musical trailblazer who “coaxed large meanings from the smallest forms” as he created a new musical language. If only all the great composers could be reintroduced to us in this fashion.” — Adrienne Davich, PopMatters
“[An] entertaining dual music history and memoir…The Chopin that emerges from LaFarge’s portrait is an independent spirit who shunned the limelight, was a generous teacher and friend, and encouraged his students to develop their own voices. LaFarge’s affectionate fan’s notes flow as melodiously as a Chopin opus.” — Publishers Weekly