A Song to Remember (1945)

 

 

 

Director:     Charles Vidor. 

Starring:     Paul Muni (Prof. Joseph Elsner),  Merle Oberon (George Sand),  Cornel Wilde (Frédéric Chopin),  Nina Foch (Constantia),  George Coulouris (Louis Pleyel),  Howard Freeman (Kalkbrenner),  Stephen Bekassy (Franz Liszt).

life of Frederic Chopin

 

 

Spoiler Warning:   below is a summary of the entire film. 

Professor Joseph Elsner comes to the home of his piano student Frederic Chopin.  In the rain he listens to the lad's playing, which is very good.  He then goes into the house and talks with the parents and sister of Frederic.  Elsner tells the parents that he has received a message from Louis Pleyel, who owns the finest concert hall and greatest publishing house in Paris.  Pleyel writes that if this talented student Chopin is ever in Paris they will certainly grant him a hearing.  His parents say their boy is too young to be going to Paris, but the professor says that just last month a young fellow named Franz Liszt made his debut and he is only 13 years old.  Frederic is only 11 years old. 

Frederic suddenly starts banging hard on the piano.  Elsner rushes up to see what is the matter.  Frederic is disturbed because the Tsar moves another large group of Polish prisoners headed to Siberia.  He says that when he and his friends grow up, they are all going to help Poland gets its freedom from Russia.  Prof. Elsner tells Frederic to be sure and put his name down for those who will help Poland.  Frederic goes on to say that he and the boys hold secret meetings. 

Frederic starts playing a musical composition of his own.  Elsner says the piece is beautiful.  He starts talking to Frederic about Paris, France.  The professor says when they hear him play, they will be so impressed that they will say that great man is Polish and maybe we should support Polish freedom. 

Frederic will play music for a count.  The professor is not that enthused about the assignment.  Mr. Chopin comes over and tells the professor not to fill his son's head with strange ideas.  He goes on to say that he knows that Frederic has been meeting with the local firebrands on political issues.  The professor pretends he knows nothing about Chopin's political leanings. 

Elsner goes into see Frederic.  When the young man finishes playing a tune, he asks the professor if he has seen Titus and Jan?  Yes, he has and the meeting will be tonight.  They will hold the meeting early just for Frederic, so he can still play for the count. 

At the count's place, the family are waiting for the professor and Frederic to show up.  Paganini is next and then it will be Frederic's turn. 

Elsner and Frederic are at the political meeting.  The speaker is from Russia and he says the common people of Russia and Poland want the same things.  He also says the Tsar is sending a new governor to Poland.  The man is no more than a hangman and he will hunt down the attendees of radical political groups such as this one.  Suddenly Elsner and Frederic realize they are late.  They shake the hand of the speaker and then rush out of the room. 

Frederic just makes it in time to rush in and start playing.  The Chopin family and the professor have to stay in the pantry as Frederic plays the piano.  A servant makes sure the pantry door stays closed at all times.  When he finishes playing, the count asks for an encore.  Frederic starts playing again.  The new governor-general of Poland arrives unexpectedly.  Frederic stops playing.  The governor-general is seated and the count tells Frederic to keep playing, but Frederic stands up and says:  "I do not play before Tsarist butchers."   He walks out of the room to the great shock of all at the table. 

Back at home dad is really angry at Frederic for speaking out the way he did.  He says it will limit his employment possibilities.  There's a knock on the door.  It's a group of young radicals who tells Frederic that he must flee for there will be a warrant out for his arrest.  Dad asks where could Frederic possibly go?  The professor suggests Paris once again.  The radicals help the professor and Frederic get underway on their trip to Paris. Before he leaves, he says goodbye to the female radical Constantia.  She gives him a handful of Polish earth to help remind him of his Polish roots.

Paris.  The professor and Frederic arrive at Pleyel's place.  Elsner lays out Chopin's own music to show Pleyel.  But his secretary Du Pont tells the two visitors that Pleyel is too busy to see them.  The professor pays no attention to what was said and runs past the secretary and into Pleyel's office. He then calls for Frederic to come in.  The secretary tries to close the door on the two visitors, but the professor just pushes the door open and whizzes past the secretary.  Pleyel says that their correspondence must have gotten lost.  The professor says that it was not lost, because he has a letter from Pleyel's secretary.  Pleyel looks at the letter and sees that it is 11 years old. 

Frederic understands that Pleyel has no intention of helping him, but the professor still doesn't get it.  Pleyel finally has to tell the professor that 11 years ago, Frederic was a boy wonder, but that was 11 years ago and Frederic is no longer a boy.  All of a sudden they hear someone playing the piano.  Frederic recognizes the music as his own composition.  The secretary comes in to say that Franz Liszt is here and playing the piano now.  Everyone rushes out to see Liszt. 

Liszt asks Pleyel who wrote this wonderful music?  Nobody knows, except for the pair from Poland.  Frederic sits down at another piano and plays along with Liszt.  The famous composer asks the man who he supposes is the composer what is the piece called?  It is called Polonaise (the spirit of Poland).  Pleyel now asks Elsner if Chopin can be ready in two weeks to perform a concert?  Elsner is so shocked at this change in attitude and the realization of what this means for Frederic that he has a hard time answering since he is getting so choked up about it.  In fact, the poor professor faints. 

The professor takes Frederic to the distinguished restaurant the Cafe de la Boheme.  Eating in the restaurant is the French writer Balzac.  After they order, Elsner and Chopin see French novelist George Sand dressed in pants come into the restaurant accompanied by Liszt and her husband the poet Alfred de Musset.  Liszt introduces Chopin and Elsner to Sand and Musset.  The professor is shocked when he learns that George Sand is really a woman and not a man. 

Chopin and Elsner get ready for the concert.  Frederic receives a letter from Warsaw.  It's from his sister and brings bad news.  Two of the young radicals who helped Frederic escape were caught and imprisoned.  There they were beaten to death.  Because Chopin is so upset, he does not play well at the concert.  He fades out on one of his compositions.  Then he walks out on the next composition. Pleyel is furious with Chopin and Elsner.  The critics are vicious in reaction to Chopin's bad performance.    All, except for one critic.  The critic says Chopin is a genius.  The critic turns out to be none other than George Sand.  The guys receive a note from Sand saying that they should come to the home of the Duchess of Orleans. 

Liszt brings Chopin to George Sand in one of her rooms.  Chopin thanks her for all that she has done for him.  Liszt will play for the assembled group.  He asks for the lights to be put out.  In the dark, what he plays are compositions of Chopin.  Later George Sand brings in a candelabra to shed some light on Liszt, except that it is not Liszt playing but Chopin.    When he finishes, Chopin gets a standing ovation.  And now Pleyel chases after Elsner.  The professor enjoys giving Pleyel a hard time for awhile. 

Sand, Liszt and Chopin talk in private.  Chopin says he wants to help his Polish people.  George Sand wants to take Chopin to her place in the country.  Chopin says he would at least like to mention it to his manager, the professor.  Sand makes fun of him for not making the decision for himself. 

Chopin does tell the professor about his plans, but just before he leaves.  Elsner says that he will be missing an appointment with Pleyel, but Chopin is determined to go with George Sand and Liszt.  Now Elsner warns Chopin about the George Sand, who wears pants, has a mind of her own and a reputation for writing scandalous books.  While Elsner continues talking, Chopin tells him goodbye and walks out the door with his suitcase in hand. 

On their holiday Sand and Chopin start a relationship.  She takes him with her to her estate on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca.  The professor writes to his mother saying that for the health of her son, he has sent him to the island of Mallorca.  On Mallorca Sand encourages Chopin to keep composing because she knows that the composer is a genius.  So Chopin stays on Mallorca and composes music. 

Elsner plays Chopin's music for Pleyel who is delighted with Chopin's compositions.  The professor, however, is disappointed that Chopin did not work on a larger work the completion of his Polonaise.  It's obvious that Elsner misses his protégée.  Elsner is running out of funds and his landlord tells him she wants him out. 

The weather is rainy on Mallorca.  Sand is angry with Chopin now, because he is too much in his own private world and he doesn't seem to miss her.  He has been working on his Polonaise, but Sand says this mood he is in shuts her out completely.   Chopin says that since this rainy weather has started, he has not been feeling well.  Sand thinks Chopin is aching to get back to Paris, Elsner and his causes.  The musician responds that he is just tired of being in the same house all day long.  He wants to live with her at her French estate. Sand asks:   "Living in the same way I've taught you to live? . . . No intruders, with the same contempt for what the world says or does . . .?"  Chopin says yes. 

Elsner has moved to a simpler apartment and teaches piano to make some money.  Pleyel comes to visit him to tell him that Chopin is back and he is still with George Sand.  Elsner immediately starts getting dressed to go to Sand's estate.  Pleyel recommends that he write first, but Elsner says he hasn't the time for that.  In fact, he rushes out of his apartment leaving Pleyel behind still in the apartment. 

Elsner goes to talk with George Sand.  She tells him that they were certain that he had gone back to Poland.  He hears Frederic playing the piano.  Elsner asks Sand to tell Chopin that he is here, but Sand says she does not interrupt Chopin while he is working.  So Elsner sits down on a couch to wait.  Sand now tells Elsner that Chopin would have preferred that Elsner had gone back to Poland.  He is working here at her place and does not wish to be disturbed.  Elsner says he would like Chopin to tell this to him himself, but Sand says the man is quite cowardly when it comes to "scenes".  The professor talks about concerts, but Sand tells him that is out of the question.  He must continue to compose.  Also, Chopin's health is not good and he could not stand the strain of concert performances. 

Elsner tells Sand that she is a woman of strong will, that she is used to getting her way.  And she has seduced Chopin into what is basically her lifestyle, including her seclusion from the world.  Elsner tells her that he is going to have his way on this matter.  The professor calls out to Frederic.  Chopin stops playing for a brief moment, but then just goes back to playing.  Elsner quietly leaves. 

Chopin is prolific in his musical compositions.  Liszt comes to see the professor.  He encourages him to come to the salons where Frederic plays sometimes.  Elsner is desperate to get away from Liszt and he nearly bolts out the door giving excuses why he can't attend. 

At a newsstand Elsner sees the headline that the Polish Uprising has been suppressed by the Russians with considerable bloodshed.  He buys the paper to read more about it.  Pleyel brings the news to Sand, who says that this won't affect Chopin.  When Frederic comes into the room he complains to Pleyel that he has not been sleeping well and refers to a certain tightness in his chest that he just can't seem to shake.  And, no, he does not want to "pound the piano" in a public concert.  He uses the same phraseology as used by Sand and excuses himself to go back to his work. 

The professor writes to Chopin's parents and says that Frederic and he were both upset to hear of the troubles back in Poland.  As he writes, a visitor comes into his apartment.  It's Constantia, one of the student radicals who was close to Frederic.  She has come to ask for some monetary support to help the victims of the suppression of the uprising in Poland.  Constantia wants Chopin to use his fame to raise awareness of the plight of Poland.  She is very skeptical of the professor and she asks him straight out if he ever really sees Chopin these days?  He says of course and shows her his latest invitation to Chopin's next salon concert.  Constantia sort of forces the professor to attend this salon performance. 

When Chopin sees his professor, he gets a little unnerved and starts playing faster.  Sand looks around to see what is the problem and sees the professor.  He asks to take a short break.  Sand escorts Elsner in to see Chopin.  Chopin looks at Sand and asks the professor why he came?  He adds that this is not the time or the place to have a chat.  Sand now tells Chopin that the professor came to tell him that there have been uprisings in Poland.  Sand tells Elsner that Chopin only has an obligation to his own genius.  And now Elsner gives Chopin and Sand an earful.  He says:  "Peculiar.  How differently we once felt.  That genius is a rare gift.  So many ordinary people seem to be robbed to make one such man.  And the man worthy of the gift should draw closer to those people as he becomes more great.  Fight harder for them with that same genius.  But what a waste of that gift in a man who loses all sense of decency and honor, who flowers into a selfish, isolated pup.  Companion of a debased . . . "  Sand stops the professor from saying anything more.   He does mention that Constantia came to ask for Chopin's help with the victims of the uprising.  Chopin's answer is:  "There is nothing I can do."  The professor adds:  "In my opinion, Madame, he is not living now."  He leaves a black pouch as he walks out of the room.  The professor walks home. 

Chopin opens the pouch and pours the Polish earth into his left hand.  He calls Pleyel to come over to see him.  When Pleyel arrives, he asks him to arrange a concert series for the benefit of Poland.  The money will go to Prof. Elsner for he will know what to do with it.  Pleyel is worried about Chopin's health, but Frederic just tells him to arrange it.  Sand advises him against doing the tour, that it would be suicidal.  But Chopin will not change his mind. 

Elsner tells Constantia that Chopin wants to help Poland.  But he is still in bad health.  Constantia doesn't believe Elsner.  Just then Pleyel comes in and tells them that Frederic will now perform a series of concerts for the benefit of Poland.  The professor acts like he knew this all along. 

Sand really batters Chopin calling him weak.  While she rants, Chopin starts playing a composition.  It's rather obvious that Sand is still very angry with and resentful of the male dominated world of publishing.  She had to persevere through all the rebuffs to make it to where she is now.  Frederic starts playing louder and louder to drown out her voice.  Sand gets very angry and leaves the room. 

Chopin goes on tour through Europe.  He gradually seems to be straining himself more and more with each concert.  He goes to Budapest, Rome, Amsterdam, Stockholm, London, etc.. Blood drips onto his piano keys at times.  He becomes covered in sweat.  The professor visits Chopin back stage.  Chopin reaches out his hand to Elsner, but faints dead away. 

Elsner goes to see George Sand.  She is having her portrait painted by Delacroix.  He says that Frederic is asking for her, that he is dying.  She asks the professor if he is now satisfied?  The professor asks her if she is coming?  Her answer is:  "I think not.  . . .I was always a mistake.  I certainly don't belong there now. Good day, Monsieur."   A sad Elsner returns to see Chopin.  He says that Sand was too ill to come.  Chopin says:  "It's better this way."   A little later, Chopin dies. 

 

Spoiler Warning.  Good movie, but they really changed the ending of Chopin's life.  He was not involved heavily in Polish politics in Paris and elsewhere, but they made him more heroic in sacrificing his health in an attempt to raise monies to help his native country.  And Sand had already separated from Chopin more than two years before his death.  Chopin died of a chronic lung disease.  Be that as it may, the thrust of the movie is true to what in general happened to Chopin.  So they made Chopin more noble than he was.  Audiences like more noble characters. Paul Muni was good as Prof. Elsner, but at times he seemed to go over the top just a little too much.  Merle Oberon was also good as George Sand, but they made her character out to be completely selfish and unfeeling.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

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