“Chopin is completely astonished by [the fact] of sweat….He claims that he keeps washing himself, [but still] stinks….He smells of eau de cologne, but we tell him he smells like Pierre the carpenter, and he flees to his room as if he were pursued by his own smell.”
That’s George Sand’s account of one “Chopinerism” – excessive bathing. Add in his fanatical dandyism to the mix: white gloves worn daily, a fresh-flower fetish, tailored clothing, and even train tickets for his feet. Then there are his phobias, extreme moodiness and general disdain for his fellow humans. It leaves even Chopin’s most ardent champions with mixed feelings about the man. As pianist Andras Schiff says, "a very strange person, very hard to like."
While his mannerisms are, frankly, a bit of a turn-off - whether Chopin smells like Pierre the carpenter or not - the peculiarities in his music draw us in: Infectious charm, authentic freshness, and blazing contrasts…Chopin created an entirely new sound-world that continues to startle and seduce.
Consider the reactions to this Polonaise in E-flat minor. Chopin biographer Frederick Niecks declared it “full of conspiracy and sedition,” Viennese pianist Paul Hamburger deemed it “a work in turn mysterious and aggressive.” The piece, once called the “Siberian” or “Revolt” Polonaise, begins defiantly and “all ends,” writer James Huneker says, “in gloom and impotent clanking of chains. It is an awe-provoking work, this terrible Polonaise.”
Chopin seemingly had a hard time confronting life’s inherent messiness. Yet the eccentric dandy’s music brings us closer to him - and to understanding how to paddle our own sweaty, imperfect way through the brine. - Jennifer Foster