Saturday, 20 August 2011

Frederic Chopin - a man and his country

Photograph of Chopin taken a
few months before his death
"On the 30th October 1849 a large crowd gathered at the Church of La Madeleine in Paris, and hundreds of carriages clogged the surrounding streets, causing a jam that stretched as far as the place de la concorde. The front of the enormous temple-like Church was draped with panels of black velvet bearing the initials 'F.C.' embroidered in silver. Entry was by ticket only, and those who had not manged to obtain one thronged the monumental steps".

This is how Adam Zamoyski begins his brilliant biography of Frederic Chopin. He continues by quoting from the French La Presse newspaper of the 5th November 1849, "At noon, the grim servants of death appeared at the entrance to the temple bearing the coffin of the great artist. At the same time a funeral march familiar to all admirers of Chopin burst from the recesses of the choir. 'A shiver of death ran through the congregation', recalled the French poet Theophile Gautier. 'As for me, I fancied I could see the sun grow pale and the gilding of the domes take on an evil greenish tint'".

Zamoyski relates that Mozart's Requiem was sung (requested by Chopin), with the legendary mezzo-soprano Pauline Garcia-Viardot and the famous bass Luigi Lablache supported by the orchestra and choir of the Paris Conservatoire, the finest in Europe. During the offertory, the organist of the Madeleine played two of Chopin's preludes. The coffin was borne from the Church to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, and the mourners were led by Prince Adam Czartoryski, widely regarded as Poland's uncrowned king, and the pall-bearers included the most famous operatic composer of the day, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and the painter Eugene Delacroix (a great friend of Chopin). Thousands of friends and mourners followed the long cortege, and at the cemetery, the coffin was lowered into the grave without a homily, and the mourners dispersed in silence.

I've given this rather lengthy account of Chopin's funeral, so that a picture can begin to be formed of the greatness of the man and how others felt about him. I recently finished reading Adam Zamoyski's biography of Chopin, where his aim was to cut through the mass of anecdote and myth, in search of the real Chopin. Zamoyski draws the reader into the private world of this most complicated and reticent of men, and shows the real passions, suffering and ultimate tragedy of his life. On finishing the book, I realised that I would have benefited even more if I'd have had a better understanding of the history of Poland, and the political climate in Europe, particularly in the early 19th Century. Fortunately, Adam Zamoyski has also written a book on the history of Poland which answered all my questions, and gave my subject context. They are two wonderfully written pieces of work, which I highly recommend.

House where Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland
Frederic Francois Chopin was born either on the 22nd February 1810 (the date on some official records) or on the 1st March 1810 (the date given by Chopin), and died on the 17th October 1849.

He was born in the small village of Zelazowa Wola, Poland, 29 miles west of Warsaw and with a population of 65. There's now a museum and statue dedicated to Chopin. However, he did not live there long, as in October 1810, when Chopin was seven months old, the family moved to Warsaw.

His Mother, Justyna was Polish, and his Father, Nicolas was French, and the move to Warsaw came about as the result of Nicolas accepting an offer to teach French at the Warsaw Lyceum. Chopin's school days were a credit to his parents who ensured that their son's prodigious talent would not go to his head, and that school work was not neglected. It seems that Chopin neglected no opportunity for fun, and I like the description from Zamoyski, "Chopin had an irreverent wit and keen eye for the ridiculous. he drew incisive caricatures and satirised Poles speaking French or foreigners speaking Polish. He fooled about on the piano, making musical jokes or providing an accompaniment to stories. But it was his gift for mimicry that really astonished people. He could transform not only his expression, but his very appearance, and was barely recognisable when imitating one of the Lycee masters or some public figure. Many years later, the celebrated French actor Pierre Bocage was to say that Chopin had wasted his talents by becoming a musician".

Chopin's first published work was the Polonaise G Minor which was written in 1817, when he was seven years of age, and his first major concert took place on the 24th February 1818. Chopin's fame spread throughout Warsaw, and demands to hear him play grew exponentially, but he remained grounded, I think thanks to his Father. As Zamoyski says, "Chopin's was an unusual upbringing; from his sheltered home with its middle-class atmosphere, he was propelled into some of the most elegant drawing rooms in Europe, where he performed before the greatest personages in the country, was spoilt by their wives, and played on an equal footing with their children. He quickly acquired polished manners as well as an ability to feel at ease in the most exalted company and mix with any kind of person, and while he was sociable and a little precocious, he was not, by all accounts, conceited".

Let's take a little break from the narrative and listen to some Chopin. This is his Heroic Polonaise op. 53 which was composed when he was aged 32. The polonaise is a slow dance of Polish origin, and is still often used at carnival parties. I've chosen this recording by Maurizio Pollini because of the beautiful images of the Polish countryside.

As a result of his success as a composer and performer, professional doors were opening to him in western Europe, and on the 2nd November 1830, he headed off to Italy via Austria, and he was never to see Poland again. He was 20 years of age. His departure from Warsaw was timely, for later that same month, the Warsaw November uprising broke out.

Polish Commonwealth in Mid 17th Century
What was the political situation that led to this uprising? For centuries, Poland had been a dominant force in Europe. The map opposite shows the extent of Polish territory in the mid 17th Century, which was known as the Polish Commonwealth.

Within 150 years, Poland would be virtually wiped off the map of Europe. She had three main enemies that eyed her territory. Prussia, Austria and Russia in 1772 completed the first partition of the land. The second partition accurred in 1792, and the final, and most brutal partition occurred in 1797. I could not summarise this better than Zamoyski, "No nation's history has been so distorted as that of Poland. In 1797 Russia, Prussia and Austria divided the country up among themselves, rewriting history to give the impression that Poland had never been a fully sovereign state, only a backwater that needed civilising. In fact, the country they had wiped off the map had been one of the largest and most richly varied in Europe, embracing a wide variety of cultural and religious traditions, accommodated within one of the boldest constitutional experiments ever attempted. Its destruction initiated a series of struggles that culminated in the two world wars and the Cold War".

Poland may have lost its boundaries, but its people never lost their Polishness. Its Government may have been crushed, but its people were not. It's this that inspired the Warsaw November uprising of 1830. Chopin's great friend and travelling companion, Tytus Woyciechowski left him in Vienna to enlist in the fight for their homeland. Chopin was now alone in the capital of one of the countries that was so oppressing his beloved homeland. The writer Jachimecki observed, "afflicted by nostalgia, he was disappointed in his hopes of giving concerts and publishing his music, nevertheless he grew into an inspired national bard, the present and future of his country. Only now, at this distance, did he see all of Poland from the proper perspective, and understand what was great and truly beautiful in her, the tragedy and heroism of her vicissitudes".

It was while travelling from Vienna to Paris in September 1831 that Chopin heard that the uprising had been crushed. He kept a little journal which remained a secret until the end of his life. In this he poured profanities and blasphemies in his native Polish language, and expressed fear for the safety of his family and other civilians, especially the women at risk of outrages by the Russian troops. He damned the French for not coming to the aid of the Poles, and expressed dismay that God had permitted the Russians to crush the Polish insurgents - "or are you (God) yourself a Russian?" As one historian has noted, these outcries of a tormented heart found musical expression in his Scherzo in B minor, Op 20, and his Revolutionary Etude, in C minor, Op 10, No 12.

George Sand
Chopin arrived in Paris in late September 1831, still uncertain about his future, but it would be France in general, and Paris in particular, apart from travels abroad, where he would spend most of the remaining 18 years of his life. He became a French citizen in 1835, travelling on a French passport, but rather than this being a denial of his Polish heritage, it was to avoid relying on Imperial Russian documents. Though it was said that he never did fully master the French language.

He did not come from a wealthy background, so he had to earn money. This he did in a number of ways, namely, income from the sale of his compositions, concerts that he gave, playing at the homes of wealthy families and from teaching piano to affluent students from all over Europe, including England and Scotland.  It is estimated that before long he was earning a handsome income from teaching piano. This enabled him to rent fancy apartments, eat at expensive restaurants and to attend the theatre and opera on a regular basis.

George Sand's house at Nohant
Around 1837 Chopin formed a relationship, or it was the other way around with Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, a feminist French writer who used the pseudonym, George Sand. She dressed as a man, and was well known for the number of lovers she'd had before meeting Chopin.

During the following ten years, she and Chopin spent a lot of time at her house in Nohant. Early on Chopin began to exhibit serious illness, which a number of doctor's disagreed over as to the diagnosis. It does seem though that it was the beginning of tuburculosis, as this was the cause of death on his death certificate. A new review by Steven Largerberg has just been published in 2011, called, "Chopin's Heart - The Quest to Identify the Mysterious Illness of the World's Most Beloved Composer", and it seems that the most likely cause is pulminary tuburculosis.

Chopin was in considerable pain and discomfort for many years, and George Sand took on the role of nurse and mother, as in some of her letters to friends, she describes Chopin as her 'child'. Historians have questioned the benefit of the relationship with George Sand, and whether Chopin would have been better without it. In fact, Count Wojciech Grzymala went as far as to say, "If Chopin had not had the misfortune of meeting George Sand, who poisoned his whole being, he would have lived to be Cherubini's age". This was a friend of Chopin who died in Paris at the age of eighty-one, while Chopin died at the age of thirty nine. Just for interest, the two composers are buried four meters apart at Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

One of the reasons given why Chopin did not give many concerts in large venues was that his light-handed keyboard technique did not lend itself to those large spaces. He preferred the more intimate spaces in people's homes, which has to be said could still hold a few hundred people. This was also one of the reasons why he insisted on having a Pleyel piano, which went with him wherever he went. He was greatly in demand, but as his illness worsened, it became harder and harder to give lessons, and even harder to perform. It is recorded that at times Chopin had to be almost carried to the piano, so weak was he, but after a few nervous moments he would come alive and play like noone else, perhaps for an hour or two at a time, only to collapse exhausted after it. How wonderful is the strength of the human spirit when faced with pain.

When I was reading the life of Chopin, and looking at particularly Paris life in the 1830's and 1840's, I was thinking about how many people were coccooned from the turmoil that was going on all around them. I was also thinking how magical it all must have been. Concerts and soirees galore, with some of the world's greatest musicians present. Chopin became friends with Berloiz, Hiller, Mendelssohn, Bellini, Paganini, Hummel, and although they didn't hit it off at first because of their contrasting styles of playing the piano, and their contrasting personalities, with Franz Liszt. Can you imagine how wonderful it must have been to hear Liszt and Chopin play together.

Chopin was always ill at ease about letting anyone get close to him, except a tiny number, and as his illness progressed, this reticense increased. I think that Zamoyski sums it up well, with the help of Liszt. "The discrepancy between Chopin's apparent ease with people and his fear of letting anyone approach too close, noticable during his last years in Warsaw, had become more pronounced. When he left Poland and found himself surrounded by foreigners, he withdrew more and more into himself and became increasingly suspicious of any intimacy. Everyone was struck by this reserve, some were put off by it: after his death Liszt would echo the general feeling when he wrote that Chopin 'was prepared to give anything, but never gave himself'. Liszt also noted that Chopin could hide his feelings under a cloak of composure and serenity. 'Good natured, affable, easy in all his relationships, even and pleasant-tempered, he hardly allowed one to suspect the secret convulsions which agitated him'".

Painting of Chopin on his death bed painted by
Kwiatkowski and commissioned by Jane Stirling
A month before he died, Chopin took a very beautiful apartment at Place Vendome 12.

It was a second floor, seven-room apartment that had previously housed the Russian embassy. Chopin could not afford such luxury, but his one time Scottish pupil, the wealthy Jane Stirling rented it for him. He had been to Scotland at the invitation of Jane Stirling, and wowed everyone there as he had every where else.

On Wednesday, the 17th October 1849, just after midnight, the physician leaned over him and asked whether he was suffering greatly. "Not any more", Chopin replied, and he died a few minutes before two o'clock in the morning. So we're back to where we started this post.

Poland has played a pivotal role in European history for centuries; none should forget that in more modern times the heroic contribution made by Polish forces in World War 2. Neither should we forget the brutality of Russia against Poland after the war, while the West largely stood by and watched. Like every nation they were, and are not perfect, and the story of the Gdansk workers strike in August 1980 led by Lech Walesa; the forming of the union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in September 1980, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 are stories worth telling. I feel that I now have a little understanding of the history of my Daughter-in-Law's homeland; the modern picture may be different, but the Poland I've come to see over the centuries is a land that promoted democracy (albeit a form of it), equality, tolerance and suffrage (albeit not total) well in advance of most other countries.

The music of Chopin has been well known for the last two hundred years, but the man behind the music was a bit of a mystery; not any more. I respect and admire him even more for producing some of the finest compositions for solo piano, when his emotional and physical life presented so many problems. Zamoyski finishes his biography with two quotes. One is from Chopin's great friend, the artist Delacroix, who considered "the incomparable genius for whom heaven was jealous of earth, and of whom I think so often, no longer being able to see him in this world, nor to hear his divine harmonies". The other was from Solange, the daughter of George Sand who remembered Chopin as, "The soul of an angel, cast down upon earth in a tortured body in order to accomplish some mysterious redemption. Is it because his life was a thirty-nine-year agony that his music is so lofty, so sweet, so sublime?"

For those interested in the books I've mentioned, here are the details.
  • Chopin, Prince of the Romantics by Adam Zamoyski. Published by Harper Press 2010
  • Poland, A History by Adam Zamoyski. Published by Harper Press 2009
Let's finish with another piece of Chopin. This time the Funeral March movement from Chopin's Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op 35-3, played by Maurizio Pollini. This movement has been described as "One of the most beautiful pearls in the history of music".

1 comment:

  1. Dad -- wow your blogs are getting longer! I really loved this one. I have been to Chopin's grave in Paris so the way you told the story was very real for me. Some regard Chopin as the greatest composer of the 19th Century, which is saying something considering who else was there but when all is removed except for the music you can see what they mean. Thanks for this one, a great read.