England, Scotland, and Pere la Chaise

by James Huneker


The remaining years of Chopin’s life were lonely. His father died in 1844 of chest and heart complaint, his sister Emilia died of consumption—ill-omens these!--and shortly after, John Matuszynski died. Titus Woyciechowski was in far-off Poland on his estates and Chopin had but Grzymala and Fontana to confide in; they being Polish he preferred them, although he was diplomatic enough not to let others see this. Both Franchomme and Gutmann whispered to Niecks at different times that each was the particular soul, the alter ego, of Chopin. He appeared to give himself to his friends but it was usually surface affection. He had coaxing, coquettish ways, playful ways that cost him nothing when in good spirits. So he was “more loved than loving.” This is another trait of the man, which, allied with his fastidiousness and spiritual brusqueness, made him difficult to decipher. The loss of Sand completed his misery and we find him in poor health when he arrived in London, for the second and last time, April 21, 1848.

Mr. A. J. Hipkins is the chief authority on the details of Chopin’s visit to England. To this amiable gentleman and learned writer on pianos, Franz Hueffer, Joseph Bennett and Niecks are indebted for the most of their facts. From them the curious may learn all there is to learn. The story is not especially noteworthy, being in the main a record of ill-health, complainings, lamentations and not one signal artistic success.

War was declared upon Chopin by a part of the musical world. The criticism was compounded of pure malice and stupidity. Chopin was angered but little for he was too sick to care now. He went to an evening party but missed the Macready dinner where he was to have met Thackeray, Berlioz, Mrs. Procter and Sir Julius Benedict.  With Benedict he played a Mozart duet at the Duchess of Sutherland’s. Whether he played at court the Queen can tell;

Niecks cannot. He met Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt and liked her exceedingly—as did all who had the honor of knowing her. She sided with him, woman-like, in the Sand affair—echoes of which had floated across the channel—and visited him in Paris in 1849.  Chopin gave two matinees at the houses of Adelaide Kemble and Lord Falmouth—June 23 and July 7. They were very recherche, so it appears. Viardot-Garcia sang. The composer’s face and frame were wasted by illness and Mr. Solomon spoke of his “long attenuated fingers.” He made money and that was useful to him, for doctors’ bills and living had taken up his savings. There was talk of his settling in London, but the climate, not to speak of the unmusical atmosphere, would have been fatal to him. Wagner succumbed to both, sturdy fighter that he was.

Chopin left for Scotland in August and stopped at the house of his pupil, Miss Stirling. Her name is familiar to Chopin students, for the two nocturnes, opus 55, are dedicated to her.  He was nearly killed with kindness but continually bemoaned his existence. At the house of Dr. Lyschinski, a Pole, he lodged in Edinburgh and was so weak that he had to be carried up and down stairs. To the doctor’s good wife he replied in answer to the question “George Sand is your particular friend?” “Not even George Sand.” And is he to be blamed for evading tiresome reminders of the past? He confessed that his excessive thinness had caused Sand to address him as “My Dear Corpse.” Charming, is it not? Miss Stirling was doubtless in love with him and Princess Czartoryska followed him to Scotland to see if his health was better. So he was not altogether deserted by the women—indeed he could not live without their little flatteries and agreeable attentions. It is safe to say that a woman was always within call of Chopin.

He played at Manchester on the 28th of August, but his friend Mr.  Osborne, who was present, says “his playing was too delicate to create enthusiasm and I felt truly sorry for him.” On his return to Scotland he stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Salis Schwabe.

Mr. J. Cuthbert Hadden wrote several years ago in the Glasgow “Herald” of Chopin’s visit to Scotland in 1848. The tone-poet was in the poorest health, but with characteristic tenacity played at concerts and paid visits to his admirers. Mr. Hadden found the following notice in the back files of the Glasgow “Courier”:

Monsieur Chopin has the honour to announce that his matinee musicale will take place on Wednesday, the 27th September, in the Merchant Hall, Glasgow. To commence at half-past two o’clock. Tickets, limited in number, half-a-guinea each, and full particulars to be had from Mr. Muir Wood, 42, Buchanan street.

He continues:

The net profits of this concert are said to have been exactly L60--a ridiculously low sum when we compare it with the earnings of later day virtuosi; nay, still more ridiculously low when we recall the circumstance that for two concerts in Glasgow sixteen years before this Paganini had L 1,400. Muir Wood, who has since died, said: “I was then a comparative stranger in Glasgow, but I was told that so many private carriages had never been seen at any concert in the town. In fact, it was the county people who turned out, with a few of the elite of Glasgow society. Being a morning concert, the citizens were busy otherwise, and half a guinea was considered too high a sum for their wives and daughters.”

The late Dr. James Hedderwick, of Glasgow, tells in his reminiscences that on entering the hall he found it about one-third full. It was obvious that a number of the audience were personal friends of Chopin. Dr. Hedderwick recognized the composer at once as “a little, fragile-looking man, in pale gray suit, including frock coat of identical tint and texture, moving about among the company, conversing with different groups, and occasionally consulting his watch,” which seemed to be” no bigger than an agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman.” Whiskerless, beardless, fair of hair, and pale and thin of face, his appearance was “interesting and conspicuous,” and when, “after a final glance at his miniature horologe, he ascended the platform and placed himself at the instrument, he at once commanded attention.” Dr. Hedderwick says it was a drawing-room entertainment, more piano than forte, though not without occasional episodes of both strength and grandeur. It was perfectly clear to him that Chopin was marked for an early grave.

So far as can be ascertained, there are now living only two members of that Glasgow audience of 1848. One of the two is Julius Seligmann, the veteran president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, who, in response to some inquiries on the subject, writes as follows:

“Several weeks before the concert Chopin lived with different friends or pupils on their invitations, in the surrounding counties. I think his pupil Miss Jane Stirling had something to do with all the general arrangements. Muir Wood managed the special arrangements of the concert, and I distinctly remember him telling me that he never had so much difficulty in arranging a concert as on this occasion. Chopin constantly changed his mind. Wood had to visit him several times at the house of Admiral Napier, at Milliken Park, near Johnstone. but scarcely had he returned to Glasgow when he was summoned back to alter something. The concert was given in the Merchant Hall, Hutcheson street, now the County Buildings. The hall was about three-quarters filled. Between Chopin’s playing Madame Adelasio de Margueritte, daughter of a well-known London physician, sang, and Mr. Muir accompanied her. Chopin was evidently very ill. His touch was very feeble, and while the finish, grace, elegance and delicacy of his performances were greatly admired by the audience, the want of power made his playing somewhat monotonous. I do not remember the whole programme, but he was encored for his well-known mazurka in B flat (op. 7, No. 1), which he repeated with quite different nuances from those of the first time. The audience was very aristocratic, consisting mostly of ladies, among whom were the then Duchess of Argyll and her sister, Lady Blantyre.”

The other survivor is George Russell Alexander, son of the proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Dunlop street, who in a letter to the writer remarks especially upon Chopin’s pale, cadaverous appearance. “My emotion,” he says, “was so great that two or three times I was compelled to retire from the room to recover myself. I have heard all the best and most celebrated stars of the musical firmament, but never one has left such an impress on my mind.”

Chopin played October 4 in Edinburgh, and returned to London in November after various visits. We read of a Polish ball and concert at which he played, but the affair was not a success. He left England in January 1849 and heartily glad he was to go. “Do you see the cattle in this meadow?” he asked, en route for Paris:

“Ca a plus d’intelligence que des Anglais,” which was not nice of him. Perhaps M. Niedzwiecki, to whom he made the remark took as earnest a pure bit of nonsense, and perhaps--! He certainly disliked England and the English.

Now the curtain prepares to fall on the last dreary finale of Chopin’s life, a life not for a moment heroic, yet lived according to his lights and free from the sordid and the soil of vulgarity. Jules Janin said: “He lived ten miraculous years with a breath ready to fly away,” and we know that his servant Daniel had always to carry him to bed. For ten years he had suffered from so much illness that a relapse was not noticed by the world.  His very death was at first received with incredulity, for, as Stephen Heller said, he had been reported dead so often that the real news was doubted. In 1847 his legs began to bother him by swelling, and M. Mathias described him as “a painful spectacle, the picture of exhaustion, the back bent, head bowed—but always amiable and full of distinction.” His purse was empty, and his lodgings in the Rue Chaillot were represented to the proud man as being just half their cost,--the balance being paid by the Countess Obreskoff, a Russian lady. Like a romance is the sending, by Miss Stirling, of twenty-five thousand francs, but it is nevertheless true. The noble-hearted Scotchwoman heard of Chopin’s needs through Madame Rubio, a pupil, and the money was raised. That packet containing it was mislaid or lost by the portress of Chopin’s house, but found after the woman had been taxed with keeping it.

Chopin, his future assured, moved to Place Vendome, No. 12. There he died. His sister Louise was sent for, and came from Poland to Paris. In the early days of October he could no longer sit upright without support. Gutmann and the Countess Delphine Potocka, his sister, and M. Gavard, were constantly with him. It was Turgenev who spoke of the half hundred countesses in Europe who claimed to have held the dying Chopin in their arms. In reality he died in Gutmann’s, raising that pupil’s hand to his mouth and murmuring “cher ami” as he expired. Solange Sand was there, but not her mother, who called and was not admitted—so they say. Gutmann denies having refused her admittance. On the other hand, if she had called, Chopin’s friends would have kept her away from him, from the man who told Franchomme two days before his death, “She said to me that I would die in no arms but hers.” Surely—unless she was monstrous in her egotism, and she was not—George Sand did not hear this sad speech without tears and boundless regrets. Alas! all things come too late for those who wait.

Tarnowski relates that Chopin gave his last orders in perfect consciousness. He begged his sister to burn all his inferior compositions. “I owe it to the public,” he said, “and to myself to publish only good things. I kept to this resolution all my life; I wish to keep to it now.” This wish has not been respected. The posthumous publications are for the most part feeble stuff.

Chopin died, October 17, 1849, between three and four in the morning, after having been shrived by the Abbe Jelowicki. His last word, according to Gavard, was “Plus,” on being asked if he suffered. Regarding the touching and slightly melodramatic death bed scene on the day previous, when Delphine Potocka sang Stradella and Mozart—or was it Marcello?--Liszt, Karasowski, and Gutmann disagree.

The following authentic account of the last hours of Chopin appears here for the first time in English, translated by Mr.  Hugh Craig. In Liszt’s well-known work on Chopin, second edition, 1879, mention is made of a conversation that he had held with the Abbe Jelowicki respecting Chopin’s death; and in Niecks’ biography of Chopin some sentences from letters by the Abbe are quoted. These letters, written in French, have been translated and published in the “Allgemeine Musik Zeitung,” to which they were given by the Princess Marie Hohenlohe, the daughter of Princess Caroline Sayn Wittgenstein, Liszt’s universal legatee and executor, who died in 1887.

For many years [so runs the document] the life of Chopin was but a breath. His frail, weak body was visibly unfitted for the strength and force of his genius. It was a wonder how in such a weak state, he could live at all, and occasionally act with the greatest energy. His body was almost diaphanous; his eyes were almost shadowed by a cloud from which, from time to time, the lightnings of his glance flashed. Gentle, kind, bubbling with humor, and every way charming, he seemed no longer to belong to earth, while, unfortunately, he had not yet thought of heaven. He had good friends, but many bad friends. These bad friends were his flatterers, that is, his enemies, men and women without principles, or rather with bad principles. Even his unrivalled success, so much more subtle and thus so much more stimulating than that of all other artists, carried the war into his soul and checked the expression of faith and of prayer. The teachings of the fondest, most pious mother became to him a recollection of his childhood’s love. In the place of faith, doubt had stepped in, and only that decency innate in every generous heart hindered him from indulging in sarcasm and mockery over holy things and the consolations of religion.

While he was in this spiritual condition he was attacked by the pulmonary disease that was soon to carry him away from us.  The knowledge of this cruel sickness reached me on my return from Rome. With beating heart I hurried to him, to see once more the friend of my youth, whose soul was infinitely dearer to me than all his talent. I found him, not thinner, for that was impossible, but weaker. His strength sank, his life faded visibly. He embraced me with affection and with tears in his eyes, thinking not of his own pain but of mine; he spoke of my poor friend Eduard Worte, whom I had just lost, you know how.  (He was shot, a martyr of liberty, at Vienna, November 10, 1848.)

I availed myself of his softened mood to speak to him about his soul. I recalled his thoughts to the piety of his childhood and of his beloved mother. “Yes,” he said, “in order not to offend my mother I would not die without the sacraments, but for my part I do not regard them in the sense that you desire. I understand the blessing of confession in so far as it is the unburdening of a heavy heart into a friendly hand, but not as a sacrament. I am ready to confess to you if you wish it, because I love you, not because I hold it necessary.” Enough: a crowd of anti-religious speeches filled me with terror and care for this elect soul, and I feared nothing more than to be called to be his confessor.

Several months passed with similar conversations, so painful to me, the priest and the sincere friend. Yet I clung to the conviction that the grace of God would obtain the victory over this rebellious soul, even if I knew not how. After all my exertions, prayer remained my only refuge.

On the evening of October 12 I had with my brethren retired to pray for a change in Chopin’s mind, when I was summoned by orders of the physician, in fear that he would not live through the night. I hastened to him. He pressed my hand, but bade me at once to depart, while he assured me he loved me much, but did not wish to speak to me.

Imagine, if you can, what a night I passed! Next day was the 13th, the day of St. Edward, the patron of my poor brother. I said mass for the repose of his soul and prayed for Chopin’s soul. “My God,” I cried, “if the soul of my brother Edward is pleasing to thee, give me, this day, the soul of Frederic.”

In double distress I then went to the melancholy abode of our poor sick man.

I found him at breakfast, which was served as carefully as ever, and after he had asked me to partake I said: “My friend, today is the name day of my poor brother.” “Oh, do not let us speak of it!” he cried. “Dearest friend,” I continued, “you must give me something for my brother’s name day.” “What shall I give you?” “Your soul.” “Ah! I understand. Here it is; take it!”

At these words unspeakable joy and anguish seized me. What should I say to him? What should I do to restore his faith, how not to lose instead of saving this beloved soul? How should I begin to bring it back to God? I flung myself on my knees, and after a moment of collecting my thoughts I cried in the depths of my heart, “Draw it to Thee, Thyself, my God!”

Without saying a word I held out to our dear invalid the crucifix. Rays of divine light, flames of divine fire, streamed, I might say, visibly from the figure of the crucified Saviour, and at once illumined the soul and kindled the heart of Chopin. Burning tears streamed from his eyes. His faith was once more revived, and with unspeakable fervor he made his confession and received the Holy Supper. After the blessed Viaticum, penetrated by the heavenly consecration which the sacraments pour forth on pious souls, he asked for Extreme Unction. He wished to pay lavishly the sacristan who accompanied me, and when I remarked that the sum presented by him was twenty times too much he replied, “Oh, no, for what I have received is beyond price.”

From this hour he was a saint. The death struggle began and lasted four days. Patience, trust in God, even joyful confidence, never left him, in spite of all his sufferings, till the last breath. He was really happy, and called himself happy. In the midst of the sharpest sufferings he expressed only ecstatic joy, touching love of God, thankfulness that I had led him back to God, contempt of the world and its good, and a wish for a speedy death.

He blessed his friends, and when, after an apparently last crisis, he saw himself surrounded by the crowd that day and night filled his chamber, he asked me, “Why do they not pray?” At these words all fell on their knees, and even the Protestants joined in the litanies and prayers for the dying.

Day and night he held my hand, and would not let me leave him.  “No, you will not leave me at the last moment,” he said, and leaned on my breast as a little child in a moment of danger hides itself in its mother’s breast.

Soon he called upon Jesus and Mary, with a fervor that reached to heaven; soon he kissed the crucifix in an excess of faith, hope and love. He made the most touching utterances. “I love God and man,” he said. “I am happy so to die; do not weep, my sister. My friends, do not weep. I am happy. I feel that I am dying. Farewell, pray for me!”

Exhausted by deathly convulsions he said to the physicians, “Let me die. Do not keep me longer in this world of exile. Let me die; why do you prolong my life when I have renounced all things and God has enlightened my soul? God calls me; why do you keep me back?”

Another time he said, “O lovely science, that only lets one suffer longer! Could it give me back my strength, qualify me to do any good, to make any sacrifice—but a life of fainting, of grief, of pain to all who love me, to prolong such a life—

O lovely science!”

Then he said again: “You let me suffer cruelly. Perhaps you have erred about my sickness. But God errs not. He punishes me, and I bless him therefor. Oh, how good is God to punish me here below! Oh, how good God is!”

His usual language was always elegant, with well chosen words, but at last to express all his thankfulness and, at the same time, all the misery of those who die unreconciled to God, he cried, “Without you I should have croaked (krepiren) like a pig.”

While dying he still called on the names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, kissed the crucifix and pressed it to his heart with the cry “Now I am at the source of Blessedness!”

Thus died Chopin, and in truth, his death was the most beautiful concerto of all his life.

The worthy abbe must have had a phenomenal memory. I hope that it was an exact one. His story is given in its entirety because of its novelty. The only thing that makes me feel in the least sceptical is that La Mara,--the pen name of a writer on musical subjects,--translated these letters into German. But every one agrees that Chopin’s end was serene; indeed it is one of the musical death-beds of history, another was Mozart’s. His face was beautiful and young in the flower-covered coffin, says Liszt. He was buried from the Madeleine, October 30, with the ceremony befitting a man of genius. The B flat minor Funeral march, orchestrated by Henri Reber, was given, and during the ceremony Lefebure-Wely played on the organ the E and B minor Preludes. The pall-bearers were distinguished men, Meyerbeer, Delacroix, Pleyel and Franchomme—at least Theophile Gautier so reported it for his journal. Even at his grave in Pere la Chaise no two persons could agree about Chopin. This controversy is quite characteristic of Chopin who was always the calm centre of argument.

He was buried in evening clothes, his concert dress, but not at his own request. Kwiatowski the portrait painter told this to Niecks. It is a Polish custom for the dying to select their grave clothes, yet Lombroso writes that Chopin “in his will directed that he should be buried in a white tie, small shoes and short breeches,” adducing this as an evidence of his insanity. He further adds “he abandoned the woman whom he tenderly loved because she offered a chair to some one else before giving the same invitation to himself.” Here we have a Sand story raised to the dignity of a diagnosed symptom. It is like the other nonsense.

 



 

Original text by James Huneker, edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.


 

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