A huge advantage for the documentary series, In Search of … is that the music of the composer featured in each provides a ready-made soundtrack as well as material for discussion. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn have each come under director Phil Grabsky’s spotlight, and now it’s the turn of Chopin.
Aficionados of the piano can only rejoice. Nocturnes, ballades, waltzes and the two great piano concertos succeed each other as the life of the Polish-born composer is played out. His early years and adult life especially in Paris – including that relationship – are shown to have directly influenced his musical style; and Frederick Chopin is revealed as a composer of deep feeling as well as extraordinary musicality.
The technique of having pianists and other commentators illustrate their perception of Chopin’s feelings – perhaps love, anger, anguish, regret – with reference to particular passages in his music, worked well. In most cases, their analysis was accessible, with only the occasional technical term (such as “rubato”) needed to make their point. As one said, Chopin is too readily dismissed as a composer of “pretty” music, thanks to the artless charm of his melodies. But from his first composition, published when he was just eight, Chopin also gave thought to emotion, and to technical considerations.
Much was made in this film of Chopin’s first teacher, Adalbert Zywny, being a violinist, thus encouraging awareness of the melodic line. Another influential teacher, at the Warsaw Conservatory, was Josef Elsner – but Chopin was never to be taught piano by a teacher of any note. His achievements – as a performer, teacher and above all, composer – were of his own making, as was his acceptance in the upper circles of society, particularly in Paris, a milieu in which he felt at home. Excerpts from his diaries reveal a man who was something of a snob, humorous and hard-working, whose daily routine made way for some hair-curling as well as meals and practice!
Grabsky’s film illuminates aspect of Chopin’s life that have too often been glossed over or romanticised. He was small in stature and not especially attractive to women, with at least one failed romance before he finally met Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin or, as we know her, Georges Sand. A very successful novelist, a cross-dresser with a fondness for top hats and cigars, Sand was also the mother of two children. The film makes much of the family’s many happy summers spent outside of Paris, at Sand’s home at Nohant, where their friend Delacroix had a studio and painted a portrait of the pair. There was also a reportedly disastrous trip to Majorca, although the camera’s depiction of the exotically beautifully landscape makes its attractions evident.
A lovingly shot film, In Search of Chopin lingers on images of the country and beautiful buildings that were part of Chopin’s life, and still stand. That these range across cities from Warsaw to Vienna to Paris, suggests that the composer’s life was one of a restless search for home. His father, after all, had emigrated to Poland from France before Chopin was born – and 19th century Europe was marked by revolution and political change.
Tuberculosis was another shadow across Chopin’s life, claiming the life of his 14 year old sister, and contributing to his own untimely death in 1849 aged just 39. Grabsky’s film neither dwells on these negative influences on Chopin’s life, but nor does it ignore their importance. In the end, though, it’s all about the music – and one could not fail to have a better appreciation of Chopin’s compositions after seeing this film.
In this way, I believe that Grabsky succeeded in his search for Chopin – and I, for one, am very grateful that the film-maker found him.
From the distributor:
For four years, Phil Grabsky has travelled the globe in his quest to lay bare the life and music of Chopin. By talking to acclaimed musical historians such as Jeremy Siepmann and bringing to the screen performances by such esteemed musicians as Leif Ove Andsnes, Lars Vogt, Daniel Barenboim, Ronald Brautigam and Kevin Kenner he hopes to answer those questions.
In Search of Chopin is narrated by renowned stage and screen star Juliet Stevenson (Truly Madly Deeply), and David Dawson (Luther) brings life to the letters of Chopin himself.
In Search of Chopin is showing at the following Victorian cinemas in August
Cinema Nova, Carlton
Palace Cinema Como
Classic Cinemas, Elsternwick
Cameo Cinemas, Belgrave
For more details go to Sharmill Films.