CHOPIN'S FUNERAL, by Benita Eisler, (softbound) Vintage, 230 pages, $13.95.

Benita Eisler, using an intriguing back-door approach, begins this curious biography of Frederic Chopin with his funeral, Oct. 30, 1849. It was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, and admission was by invitation only. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people attended the services, mostly representative of the aristocracy. Women were forbidden to sing in the city's parish churches, but a decree by the archbishop of Paris allowed females to sing as long as they were hidden behind a black velvet curtain.

With Mozart's Requiem as the starting point, Chopin was given a send-off worthy of a head of state. He was called a romantic, a "Shelleyan poet of the keyboard," a composer of renown.

He was penniless when he died of consumption at the age of 39.

Chopin, apparently, was "far from handsome. He had pale, colorless hair, a thin, hooked nose, a pursey mouth and rabbity, lashless eyes." Allegedly, he bore little resemblance to his famous portrait by Delacroix, showing him with tousled chestnut hair and "a burning, inward gaze."

Ironically, the person closest to him, George Sand, the female European novelist, was absent from the funeral. They had had a whirlwind love affair, beginning in 1836. She was evidently attracted by his genius, his intellectual subtlety, his refinement and his fastidious dress. She was disturbed, however, when she discovered he felt only "disgust, shame and guilt" about sex.

Sand wrote a 40-page letter to Albert Grzymala saying she was "horrified" that Chopin thought sexuality was a "defilement of love. What unspeakable woman has done this to him?" In his famous portrait of Chopin, Delacroix did what had been called "a duet in paint," portraying Chopin seated at an unseen piano and standing next to him the lovely Sand staring down at him. Since the proportions are out of balance, the portraits were later separated, Sand's went to Denmark while Chopin's went to the Louvre.

According to Eisler, Chopin was not a romantic at all — he was indeed conservative in all ways. He distrusted the masses, feared any kind of upheaval, especially for reasons of social change. Whereas Sand thought art should serve the cause of social justice, Chopin believed art served no cause except itself. Their differences would turn into an impossible gulf.

Chopin's career started while he was still in his teens, and it progressed fast because of his genius. At 19 he was praised by critics for his ability on the piano — for his "unconventional forms and pronounced individuality." His youthful compositions, they said, "burned with the stamp of great genius."

In many ways, Chopin's life is inexplicable, but Eisler, using her considerable knowledge of art and music, writes a biography that sings. Her elegant, episodic style captures the spirit of the time and the tragedy of the young composer, always plagued by bad health and disappointment. She describes in beautiful prose the ways Chopin dealt with his musical gifts, the works that stand out the most and the absolute role of muse played by Sand.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com