Paris - In the Maelstrom

by James Huneker


Here, according to Niecks, is the itinerary of Chopin’s life for the next eighteen years: In Paris, 27 Boulevard Poisonniere, to 5 and 38 Chaussee d’Antin, to Aix-la-Chapelle, Carlsbad, Leipzig, Heidelberg, Marienbad, and London, to Majorca, to 5 Rue Tronchet, 16 Rue Pigalle, and 9 Square d’Orleans, to England and Scotland, to 9 Square d’Orleans once more, Rue Chaillot and 12 Place Vendeme, and then—Pere la Chaise, the last resting-place. It may be seen that Chopin was a restless, though not roving nature. In later years his inability to remain settled in one place bore a pathological impress,--consumptives are often so.

The Paris of 1831, the Paris of arts and letters, was one of the most delightful cities in the world for the culture-loving. The molten tide of passion and decorative extravagance that then swept over intellectual Europe bore on its foaming crest Victor Hugo, prince of romanticists. Near by was Henri Heine,--he left Heinrich across the Rhine,--Heine, who dipped his pen in honey and gall, who sneered and wept in the same couplet. The star of classicism had seemingly set. In the rich conflict of genius were Gautier, Schumann, and the rest. All was romance, fantasy, and passion, and the young men heard the moon sing silvery—you remember De Musset!--and the leaves rustle rhythms to the heart-beats of lovers. “Away with the gray-beards,” cried he of the scarlet waistcoat, and all France applauded “Ernani.” Pity it was that the romantic infant had to die of intellectual anaemia, leaving as a legacy the memories and work of one of the most marvellous groupings of genius since the Athens of Pericles. The revolution of 1848 called from the mud the sewermen. Flaubert, his face to the past, gazed sorrowfully at Carthage and wrote an epic of the French bourgeois. Zola and his crowd delved into a moral morass, and the world grew weary of them. And then the faint, fading flowers of romanticism were put into albums where their purple harmonies and subtle sayings are pressed into sweet twilight forgetfulness. Berlioz, mad Hector of the flaming locks, whose orchestral ozone vivified the scores of Wagnerand Liszt, began to sound garishly empty, brilliantly superficial; “the colossal nightingale” is difficult to classify even to-day. A romantic by temperament he unquestionably was. But then his music, all color, nuance, and brilliancy, was not genuinely romantic in its themes. Compare him with Schumann, and the genuine romanticist tops the virtuoso. Berlioz, I suspect, was a magnified virtuoso. His orchestral technique is supreme, but his music fails to force its way into my soul. It pricks the nerves, it pleases the sense of the gigantic, the strange, the formless, but there is something uncanny about it all, like some huge, prehistoric bird, an awful Pterodactyl with goggle eyes, horrid snout and scream. Berlioz, like Baudelaire, has the power of evoking the shudder. But as John Addington Symonds wrote: “The shams of the classicists, the spasms of the romanticists have alike to be abandoned. Neither on a mock Parnassus nor on a paste-board Blocksberg can the poet of the age now worship. The artist walks the world at large beneath the light of natural day.” All this was before the Polish charmer distilled his sugared wormwood, his sweet, exasperated poison, for thirsty souls inmorbid Paris.

Think of the men and women with whom the new comer associated— for his genius was quickly divined: Hugo, Lamartine, Pere Lamenais,--ah! what balm for those troubled days was in his “Paroles d’un Croyant,”—Chateaubriand, Saint-Simon, Merimee, Gautier, Liszt, Victor Cousin, Baudelaire, Ary Scheffer, Berlioz, Heine,--who asked the Pole news of his muse the “laughing nymph,”--“If she still continued to drape her silvery veil around the flowing locks of her green hair, with a coquetry so enticing; if the old sea god with the long white beard still pursued this mischievous maid with his ridiculous love?”—De Musset, De Vigny, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Auber, Sainte-Beuve, Adolphe Nourrit, Ferdinand Hiller, Balzac, Dumas, Heller, Delacroix,--the Hugo of painters,--Michelet, Guizot, Thiers, Niemcevicz and Mickiewicz the Polish bards, and George Sand: the quintessence of the Paris of art and literature.

The most eloquent page in Liszt’s “Chopin” is the narrative of an evening in the Chaussee d’Antin, for it demonstrates the Hungarian’s literary gifts and feeling for the right phrase. This description of Chopin’s apartment “invaded by surprise” has a hypnotizing effect on me. The very furnishings of the chamber seem vocal under Liszt’s fanciful pen. In more doubtful taste is his statement that “the glace which covers the grace of the elite, as it does the fruit of their desserts,...could not have been satisfactory to Chopin”! Liszt, despite his tendency to idealize Chopin after his death, is our most trustworthy witness at this period. Chopin was an ideal to Liszt though he has not left us a record of his defects. The Pole was ombrageux and easily offended; he disliked democracies, in fact mankind in the bulk stunned him. This is one reason, combined with a frail physique, of his inability to conquer the larger public. Thalberg could do it; his aristocratic tournure, imperturbability, beautiful touch and polished mechanism won the suffrage of his audiences. Liszt never stooped to cajole. He came, he played, he overwhelmed.  Chopin knew all this, knew his weaknesses, and fought to overcome them but failed. Another crumpled roseleaf for this man of excessive sensibility.

Since told of Liszt and first related by him, is the anecdote of Chopin refusing to play, on being incautiously pressed, after dinner, giving as a reason “Ah, sir, I have eaten so little!” Even though his host was gauche it cannot be denied that the retort was rude.

Chopin met Osborne, Mendelssohn—who rather patronized him with his “Chopinetto,”—Baillot the violinist and Franchomme the ‘cellist. With the latter he contracted a lasting friendship, often playing duos with him and dedicating to him his G minor ‘cello Sonata. He called on Kalkbrenner, then the first pianist of his day, who was puzzled by the prodigious novelty of the young Pole’s playing. Having heard Herz and Hiller, Chopin did not fear to perform his E minor concerto for him. He tells all about the interview in a letter to Titus: “Are you a pupil of Field’s?” was asked by Kalkbrenner, who remarked that Chopin had the style of Cramer and the touch of Field. Not having a standard by which to gauge the new phenomenon, Kalkbrenner was forced to fall back on the playing of men he knew. He then begged Chopin to study three years with him—only three!--but Elsner in an earnest letter dissuaded his pupil from making any experiments that might hurt his originality of style. Chopin actually attended the class of Kalkbrenner but soon quit, for he had nothing to learn of the pompous, penurious pianist. The Hiller story of how Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt and Heller teased this grouty old gentleman on the Boulevard des Italiens is capital reading, if not absolutely true. Yet Chopin admired Kalkbrenner’s finished technique despite his platitudinous manner. Heine said—or rather quoted Koreff— that Kalkbrenner looked like a bonbon that had been in the mud.  Niecks thinks Chopin might have learned of Kalkbrenner on the mechanical side. Chopin, in public, was modest about his attainments, looking upon himself as self-taught. “I cannot create a new school, because I do not even know the old,” he said. It is this very absence of scholasticism that is both the power and weakness of his music. In reality his true technical ancestor was Hummel.

He played the E minor concerto first in Paris, February 26, 1832, and some smaller pieces. Although Kalkbrenner, Baillot and others participated, Chopin was the hero of the evening. The affair was a financial failure, the audience consisting mostly of distinguished and aristocratic Poles. Mendelssohn, who disliked Kalkbrenner and was angered at his arrogance in asking Chopin to study with him, “applauded furiously.” “After this,” Hiller writes, “nothing more was heard of Chopin’s lack of technique.” The criticisms were favorable. On May 20, 1832, Chopin appeared at a charity concert organized by Prince de la Moskowa. He was lionized in society and he wrote to Titus that his heart beat in syncopation, so exciting was all this adulation, social excitement and rapid gait of living. But he still sentimentalizes to Titus and wishes him in Paris.

A flirtation of no moment, with Francilla Pixis, the adopted daughter of Pixis the hunchback pianist—cruelly mimicked by Chopin—aroused the jealousy of the elder artist. Chopin was delighted, for he was malicious in a dainty way. “What do you think of this?” he writes. “_I_, a dangerous seducteur!” The Paris letters to his parents were unluckily destroyed, as Karasowski relates, by Russian soldiers in Warsaw, September 19, 1863, and with them were burned his portrait by Ary Scheffer and his first piano. The loss of the letters is irremediable.  Karasowski who saw some of them says they were tinged with melancholy. Despite his artistic success Chopin needed money and began to consider again his projected trip to America. Luckily he met Prince Valentine Radziwill on the street, so it is said, and was persuaded to play at a Rothschild soiree. From that moment his prospects brightened, for he secured paying pupils. Niecks, the iconoclast, has run this story to earth and finds it built on airy, romantic foundations. Liszt, Hiller, Franchomme and Sowinski never heard of it although it was a stock anecdote of Chopin.

Chopin must have broadened mentally as well as musically in this congenial, artistic environment. He went about, hobnobbed with princesses, and of the effect of this upon his compositions there can be no doubt. If he became more cosmopolitan he also became more artificial and for a time the salon with its perfumed, elegant atmosphere threatened to drug his talent into forgetfulness of loftier aims. Luckily the master-sculptor Life intervened and real troubles chiselled his character on tragic, broader and more passionate lines. He played frequently in public during 1832-1833 with Hiller, Liszt, Herz and Osborne, and much in private. There was some rivalry in this parterre of pianists.  Liszt, Chopin and Hiller indulged in friendly contests and Chopin always came off winner when Polish music was essayed. He delighted in imitating his colleagues, Thalberg especially.  Adolphe Brisson tells of a meeting of Sand, Chopin and Thalberg, where, as Mathias says, the lady “chattered like a magpie” and Thalberg, after being congratulated by Chopin on his magnificent virtuosity, reeled off polite phrases in return; doubtless he valued the Pole’s compliments for what they were worth. The moment his back was presented, Chopin at the keyboard was mocking him. It was then Chopin told Sand of his pupil, Georges Mathias, “c’est une bonne caboche.” Thalberg took his revenge whenever he could. After a concert by Chopin he astonished Hiller by shouting on the way home. In reply to questions he slily answered that he needed a forte as he had heard nothing but pianissimo the entire evening!

Chopin was never a hearty partisan of the Romantic movement. Its extravagance, misplaced enthusiasm, turbulence, attacks on church, state and tradition disturbed the finical Pole while noise, reclame and boisterousness chilled and repulsed him. He wished to be the Uhland of Poland, but he objected to smashing idols and refused to wade in gutters to reach his ideal. He was not a fighter, yet as one reviews the past half century it is his still small voice that has emerged from the din, the golden voice of a poet and not the roar of the artistic demagogues of his day.  Liszt’s influence was stimulating, but what did not Chopin do for Liszt? Read Schumann. He managed in 1834 to go to Aix-la-Chapelle to attend the Lower Rhenish Music Festival. There he met Hiller and Mendelssohn at the painter Schadow’s and improvised marvellously, so Hiller writes. He visited Coblenz with Hiller before returning home.

Professor Niecks has a deep spring of personal humor which he taps at rare intervals. He remarks that “the coming to Paris and settlement there of his friend Matuszynski must have been very gratifying to Chopin, who felt so much the want of one with whom to sigh.” This slanting allusion is matched by his treatment of George Sand. After literally ratting her in a separate chapter, he winds up his work with the solemn assurance that he abstains “from pronouncing judgment because the complete evidence did not seem to me to warrant my doing so.” This is positively delicious.  When I met this biographer at Bayreuth in 1896, I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, adding that I found it indispensable in the re-construction of Chopin. Professor Niecks gazed at me blandly—he is most amiable and scholarly-looking—and remarked, “You are not the only one.” He was probably thinking of the many who have had recourse to his human documents of Chopin. But Niecks, in 1888, built on Karasowski, Liszt, Schumann, Sand and others, so the process is bound to continue. Since 1888 much has been written of Chopin, much surmised.

With Matuszysnki the composer was happier. He devoutly loved his country and despite his sarcasm was fond of his countrymen. Never an extravagant man, he invariably assisted the Poles. After 1834-5, Chopin’s activity as a public pianist began to wane. He was not always understood and was not so warmly welcomed as he deserved to be; on one occasion when he played the Larghetto of his F minor concerto in a Conservatoire concert, its frigid reception annoyed him very much. Nevertheless he appeared at a benefit concert at Habeneck’s, April 26, 1835. The papers praised, but his irritability increased with every public performance. About this time he became acquainted with Bellini, for whose sensuous melodies he had a peculiar predilection.

In July, 1835, Chopin met his father at Carlsbad. Then he went to Dresden and later to Leipzig, playing privately for Schumann, Clara Wieck, Wenzel and Mendelssohn. Schumann gushes over Chopin, but this friendliness was never reciprocated. On his return to Paris Chopin visited Heidelberg, where he saw the father of his pupil, Adolphe Gutmann, and reached the capital of the civilized world the middle of October.

Meanwhile a love affair had occupied his attention in Dresden. In September, 1835, Chopin met his old school friends, the Wodzinskis, former pupils at his father’s school. He fell in love with their sister Marie and they became engaged. He spoke to his father about the matter, and for the time Paris and his ambitions were forgotten. He enjoyed a brief dream of marrying and of settling near Warsaw, teaching and composing—the occasional dream that tempts most active artists, soothing them with the notion that there is really a haven of rest from the world’s buffets. Again the gods intervened in the interest of music. The father of the girl objected on the score of Chopin’s means and his social position—artists were not Paderewskis in those days— although the mother favored the romance. The Wodzinskis were noble and wealthy. In the summer of 1836, at Marienbad, Chopin met Marie again. In 1837, the engagement was broken and the following year the inconstant beauty married the son of Chopin’s godfather, Count Frederic Skarbek. As the marriage did not prove a success—perhaps the lady played too much Chopin—a divorce ensued and later she married a gentleman by the name of Orpiszewski. Count Wodzinski wrote “Les Trois Romans de Frederic Chopin,” in which he asserts that his sister rejected Chopin at Marienbad in 1836. But Chopin survived the shock. He went back to Paris, and in July 1837, accompanied by Camille Pleyel and Stanislas Kozmian, visited England for the first time. His stay was short, only eleven days, and his chest trouble dates from this time. He played at the house of James Broadwood, the piano manufacturer, being introduced by Pleyel as M. Fritz; but his performance betrayed his identity. His music was already admired by amateurs but the critics with a few exceptions were unfavorable to him.

Now sounds for the first time the sinister motif of the George Sand affair. In deference to Mr. Hadow I shall not call it a liaison. It was not, in the vulgar sense. Chopin might have been petty—a common failing of artistic men—but he was never vulgar in word or deed. He disliked “the woman with the sombre eye” before he had met her. Her reputation was not good, no matter if George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others believed her an injured saint. Mr. Hadow indignantly repudiates anything that savors of irregularity in the relations of Chopin and Aurore Dudevant. If he honestly believes that their contemporaries flagrantly lied and that the woman’s words are to be credited, why by all means let us leave the critic in his Utopia. Mary, Queen of Scots, has her Meline; why should not Sand boast of at least one apologist for her life—besides herself? I do not say this with cynical intent. Nor do I propose to discuss the details of the affair which has been dwelt upon ad nauseam by every twanger of the romantic string. The idealists will always see a union of souls, the realists—and there were plenty of them in Paris taking notes from 1837 to 1847--view the alliance as a matter for gossip. The truth lies midway.

Chopin, a neurotic being, met the polyandrous Sand, a trampler on all the social and ethical conventions, albeit a woman of great gifts; repelled at first he gave way before the ardent passion she manifested toward him. She was his elder, so could veil the situation with the maternal mask, and she was the stronger intellect, more celebrated—Chopin was but a pianist in the eyes of the many—and so won by her magnetism the man she desired.  Paris, artistic Paris, was full of such situations. Liszt protected the Countess d’Agoult, who bore him children, Cosima Von Bulow-Wagner among the rest. Balzac—Balzac, that magnificent combination of Bonaparte and Byron, pirate and poet—was apparently leading the life of a saint, but his most careful student, Viscount Spelboerch de Lovenjoul—whose name is veritably Balzac-ian—tells us some different stories; even Gustave Flaubert, the ascetic giant of Rouen, had a romance with Madame Louise Colet, a mediocre writer and imitator of Sand,--as was Countess d’Agoult, the Frankfort Jewess better known as “Daniel Stern,”—that lasted from 1846 to 1854, according to Emile Faguet. Here then was a medium which was the other side of good and evil, a new transvaluation of morals, as Nietzsche would say. Frederic deplored the union for he was theoretically a Catholic. Did he not once resent the visit of Liszt and a companion to his apartments when he was absent? Indeed he may be fairly called a moralist. Carefully reared in the Roman Catholic religion he died confessing that faith. With the exception of the Sand episode, his life was not an irregular one, He abhorred the vulgar and tried to conceal this infatuation from his parents.

This intimacy, however, did the pair no harm artistically, notwithstanding the inevitable sorrow and heart burnings at the close. Chopin had some one to look after him—he needed it—and in the society of this brilliant Frenchwoman he throve amazingly: his best work may be traced to Nohant and Majorca. She on her side profited also. After the bitterness of her separation from Alfred de Musset about 1833 she had been lonely, for the Pagello intermezzo was of short duration. The De Musset-Sand story was not known in its entirety until 1896. Again M. Spelboerch de Lovenjoul must be consulted, as he possessed a bundle of letters that were written by George Sand and M. Buloz, the editor of “La Revue des Deux Mondes,” in 1858.

De Musset went to Venice with Sand in the fall of 1833. They had the maternal sanction and means supplied by Madame de Musset. The story gives forth the true Gallic resonance on being critically tapped. De Musset returned alone, sick in body and soul, and thenceforth absinthe was his constant solace. There had been references, vague and disquieting, of a Dr. Pagello for whom Sand had suddenly manifested one of her extraordinary fancies. This she denied, but De Musset’s brother plainly intimated that the aggravating cause of his brother’s illness had been the unexpected vision of Sand coquetting with the young medical man called in to prescribe for Alfred. Dr. Pagello in 1896 was interviewed by Dr. Cabanes of the Paris “Figaro” and here is his story of what had happened in 1833. This story will explain the later behavior of “la merle blanche” toward Chopin.

“One night George Sand, after writing three pages of prose full of poetry and inspiration, took an unaddressed envelope, placed therein the poetic declaration, and handed it to Dr. Pagello. He, seeing no address, did not, or feigned not, to understand for whom the letter was intended, and asked George Sand what he should do with it. Snatching the letter from his hands, she wrote upon the envelope: ‘To the Stupid Pagello.’ Some days afterward George Sand frankly told De Musset that henceforth she could be to him only a friend.”

De Musset died in 1857 and after his death Sand startled Paris with “Elle et Lui,” an obvious answer to “Confessions of a Child of the Age, “De Musset’s version—an uncomplimentary one to himself—of their separation. The poet’s brother Paul rallied to his memory with “Lui et Elle,” and even Louisa Colet ventured into the fracas with a trashy novel called “Lui.” During all this mud-throwing the cause of the trouble calmly lived in the little Italian town of Belluno. It was Dr. Giuseppe Pagello who will go down in literary history as the one man that played Joseph to George Sand.

Now do you ask why I believe that Sand left Chopin when she was bored with him? The words “some days afterwards” are significant.  I print the Pagello story not only because it is new, but as a reminder that George Sand in her love affairs was always the man.  She treated Chopin as a child, a toy, used him for literary copy--pace Mr. Hadow!--and threw him over after she had wrung out all the emotional possibilities of the problem. She was true to herself even when she attempted to palliate her want of heart.  Beware of the woman who punctuates the pages of her life with “heart” and “maternal feelings.” “If I do not believe any more in tears it is because I saw thee crying!” exclaimed Chopin. Sand was the product of abnormal forces, she herself was abnormal, and her mental activity, while it created no permanent types in literary fiction, was also abnormal. She dominated Chopin, as she had dominated Jules Sandeau, Calmatta the mezzotinter, De Musset, Franz Liszt, Delacroix, Michel de Bourges—I have not the exact chronological order—and later Flaubert. The most lovable event in the life of this much loved woman was her old age affair— purely platonic—with Gustave Flaubert. The correspondence shows her to have been “maternal” to the last.

In the recently published “Lettres a l’etrangere” of Honore de Balzac, this about Sand is very apropos. A visit paid to George Sand at Nohant, in March 1838, brought the following to Madame Hanska:

It was rather well that I saw her, for we exchanged confidences regarding Sandeau. I, who blamed her to the last for deserting him, now feel only a deep compassion for her, as you will have for me, when you learn with whom we have had relations, she of love, I of friendship.

But she has been even more unhappy with Musset. So here she is, in retreat, denouncing both marriage and love, because in both she has found nothing but delusion.

I will tell you of her immense and secret devotion to these two men, and you will agree that there is nothing in common between angels and devils. All the follies she has committed are claims to glory in the eyes of great and beautiful souls.  She has been the dupe of la Dorval, Bocage, Lamenais, etc.; through the same sentiment she is the dupe of Liszt and Madame d’Agoult.

So let us accept without too much questioning as did Balzac, a reader of souls, the Sand-Chopin partnership and follow its sinuous course until 1847.

Chopin met Sand at a musical matinee in 1837. Niecks throttles every romantic yarn about the pair that has been spoken or printed. He got his facts viva voce from Franchomme. Sand was antipathetic to Chopin but her technique for overcoming masculine coyness was as remarkable in its particular fashion as Chopin’s proficiency at the keyboard. They were soon seen together, and everywhere. She was not musical, not a trained musician, but her appreciation for all art forms was highly sympathetic. Not a beautiful woman, being swarthy and rather heavy-set in figure, this is what she was, as seen by Edouard Grenier:--

She was short and stout, but her face attracted all my attention, the eyes especially. They were wonderful eyes, a little too close together, it may be, large, with full eyelids, and black, very black, but by no means lustrous; they reminded me of unpolished marble, or rather of velvet, and this gave a strange, dull, even cold expression to her countenance. Her fine eyebrows and these great placid eyes gave her an air of strength and dignity which was not borne out by the lower part of her face. Her nose was rather thick and not over shapely. Her mouth was also rather coarse and her chin small. She spoke with great simplicity, and her manners were very quiet.

But she attracted with imperious power all that she met. Liszt felt this attraction at one time—and it is whispered that Chopin was jealous of him. Pouf! the woman who could conquer Franz Liszt in his youth must have been a sorceress. He, too, was versatile.

In 1838, Sand’s boy Maurice being ill, she proposed a visit to Majorca. Chopin went with the party in November and full accounts of the Mediterranean trip, Chopin’s illness, the bad weather, discomforts and all the rest may be found in the “Histoire de Ma Vie” by Sand. It was a time of torment. “Chopin is a detestable invalid,” said Sand, and so they returned to Nohant in June 1839.  They saw Genoa for a few days in May, but that is as far as Chopin ever penetrated into the promised land—Italy, at one time a passion with him. Sand enjoyed the subtle and truly feminine pleasure of again entering the city which six years before she had visited in company with another man, the former lover of Rachel.

Chopin’s health in 1839 was a source of alarm to himself and his friends. He had been dangerously ill at Majorca and Marseilles.  Fever and severe coughing proved to be the dread forerunners of the disease that killed him ten years later. He was forced to be very careful in his habits, resting more, giving fewer lessons, playing but little in private or public, and becoming frugal of his emotions. Now Sand began to cool, though her lively imagination never ceased making graceful, touching pictures of herself in the roles of sister of mercy, mother, and discreet friend, all merged into one sentimental composite. Her invalid was her one thought, and for an active mind and body like hers, it must have been irksome to submit to the caprices of a moody, ailing man. He composed at Nohant, and she has told us all about it; how he groaned, wrote and re-wrote and tore to pieces draft after draft of his work. This brings to memory another martyr to style, Gustave Flaubert, who for forty years in a room at Croisset, near Rouen, wrestled with the devils of syntax and epithet. Chopin was of an impatient, nervous disposition. All the more remarkable then his capacity for taking infinite pains. Like Balzac he was never pleased with the final “revise” of his work, he must needs aim at finishing touches. His letters at this period are interesting for the Chopinist but for the most part they consist of requests made to his pupils, Fontana, Gutmann and others, to jog the publishers, to get him new apartments, to buy him many things. Wagner was not more importunate or minatory than this Pole, who depended on others for the material comforts and necessities of his existence. Nor is his abuse of friends and patrons, the Leos and others, indicative of an altogether frank, sincere nature. He did not hesitate to lump them all as “pigs” and “Jews” if anything happened to jar his nerves. Money, money, is the leading theme of the Paris and Mallorean letters. Sand was a spendthrift and Chopin had often to put his hands in his pocket for her. He charged twenty francs a lesson, but was not a machine and for at least four months of the year he earned nothing. Hence his anxiety to get all he could for his compositions. Heaven-born geniuses are sometimes very keen in financial transactions, and indeed why should they not be?

In 1839 Chopin met Moscheles. They appeared together at St.  Cloud, playing for the royal family. Chopin received a gold cup, Moscheles a travelling case. “The King gave him this,” said the amiable Frederic, “to get the sooner rid of him.” There were two public concerts in 1841 and 1842, the first on April 26 at Pleyel’s rooms, the second on February 20 at the same hall.  Niecks devotes an engrossing chapter to the public accounts and the general style of Chopin’s playing; of this more hereafter.  From 1843 to 1847 Chopin taught, and spent the vacations at Nohant, to which charming retreat Liszt, Matthew Arnold, Delacroix, Charles Rollinat and many others came. His life was apparently happy. He composed and amused himself with Maurice and Solange, the “terrible children” of this Bohemian household.  There, according to reports, Chopin and Liszt were in friendly rivalry—are two pianists ever friendly?--Liszt imitating Chopin’s style, and once in the dark they exchanged places and fooled their listeners. Liszt denied this. Another story is of one or the other working the pedal rods—the pedals being broken.  This too has been laughed to scorn by Liszt. Nor could he recall having played while Viardot-Garcia sang out on the terrace of the chateau. Garcia’s memory is also short about this event.  Rollinat, Delacroix and Sand have written abundant souvenirs of Nohant and its distinguished gatherings, so let us not attempt to impugn the details of the Chopin legend, that legend which coughs deprecatingly as it points to its aureoled alabaster brow. De Lenz should be consulted for an account of this period; he will add the finishing touches of unreality that may be missing.

Chopin knew every one of note in Paris. The best salons were open to him. Some of his confreres have not hesitated to describe him as a bit snobbish, for during the last ten years of his life he was generally inaccessible. But consider his retiring nature, his suspicious Slavic temperament, above all his delicate health!  Where one accuses him of indifference and selfishness there are ten who praise his unfaltering kindness, generosity and forbearance. He was as a rule a kind and patient teacher, and where talent was displayed his interest trebled. Can you fancy this Ariel of the piano giving lessons to hum-drum pupils!  Playing in a charmed and bewitching circle of countesses, surrounded by the luxury and the praise that kills, Chopin is a much more natural figure, yet he gave lessons regularly and appeared to relish them. He had not much taste for literature. He liked Voltaire though he read but little that was not Polish—did he really enjoy Sand’s novels?--and when asked why he did not compose symphonies or operas, answered that his metier was the piano, and to it he would stick. He spoke French though with a Polish accent, and also German, but did not care much for German music except Bach and Mozart. Beethoven—save in the C sharp minor and several other sonatas—was not sympathetic. Schubert he found rough, Weber, in his piano music, too operatic and Schumann he dismissed without a word. He told Heller that the “Carneval” was really not music at all. This remark is one of the curiosities of musical anecdotage.

But he had his gay moments when he would gossip, chatter, imitate every one, cut up all manner of tricks and, like Wagner, stand on his head. Perhaps it was feverish, agitated gayety, yet somehow it seemed more human than that eternal Thaddeus of Warsaw melancholy and regret for the vanished greatness and happiness of Poland—a greatness and happiness that never had existed. Chopin disliked letter writing and would go miles to answer one in person. He did not hate any one in particular, being rather indifferent to every one and to political events—except where Poland was concerned. Theoretically he hated Jews and Russians, yet associated with both. He was, like his music, a bundle of unreconciled affirmations and evasions and never could have been contented anywhere or with any one. Of himself he said that “he was in this world like the E string of a violin on a contrabass.” This “divine dissatisfaction” led him to extremes: to the flouting of friends for fancied affronts, to the snubbing of artists who sometimes visited him. He grew suspicious of Liszt and for ten years was not on terms of intimacy with him although they never openly quarrelled.

The breach which had been very perceptibly widening became hopeless in 1847, when Sand and Chopin parted forever. A literature has grown up on the subject. Chopin never had much to say but Sand did; so did Chopin’s pupils, who were quite virulent in their assertions that she killed their master. The break had to come. It was the inevitable end of such a friendship. The dynamics of free-love have yet to be formulated. This much we know: two such natures could never entirely cohere. When the novelty wore off the stronger of the two—the one least in love— took the initial step. It was George Sand who took it with Chopin. He would never have had the courage nor the will.

The final causes are not very interesting. Niecks has sifted all the evidence before the court and jury of scandal-mongers. The main quarrel was about the marriage of Solange Sand with Clesinger the sculptor. Her mother did not oppose the match, but later she resented Clesinger’s actions. He was coarse and violent, she said, with the true mother-in-law spirit—and when Chopin received the young woman and her husband after a terrible scene at Nohant, she broke with him. It was a good excuse. He had ennuied her for several years, and as he had completed his artistic work on this planet and there was nothing more to be studied,--the psychological portrait was supposedly painted—

Madame George got rid of him. The dark stories of maternal jealousy, of Chopin’s preference for Solange, the visit to Chopin of the concierge’s wife to complain of her mistress’ behavior with her husband, all these rakings I leave to others. It was a triste affair and I do not doubt in the least that it undermined Chopin’s feeble health. Why not! Animals die of broken hearts, and this emotional product of Poland, deprived of affection, home and careful attention, may well, as De Lenz swears, have died of heart-break. Recent gossip declares that Sand was jealous of Chopin’s friendships—this is silly.

Mr. A. B. Walkley, the English dramatic critic, after declaring that he would rather have lived during the Balzac epoch in Paris, continues in this entertaining vein:

And then one might have had a chance of seeing George Sand in the thick of her amorisms. For my part I would certainly rather have met her than Pontius Pilate. The people who saw her in her old age—Flaubert, Gautier, the Goncourts—have left us copious records of her odd appearance, her perpetual cigarette smoking, and her whimsical life at Nohant. But then she was only an “extinct volcano;” she must have been much more interesting in full eruption. Of her earlier career—the period of Musset and Pagello—she herself told us something in “Elle et Lui,” and correspondence published a year or so ago in the “Revue de Paris” told us more. But, to my mind, the most fascinating chapter in this part of her history is the Chopin chapter, covering the next decade, or, roughly speaking, the ‘forties. She has revealed something of this time—naturally from her own point of view—in “Lucrezia Floriana” (1847). For it is, of course, one of the most notorious characteristics of George Sand that she invariably turned her loves into “copy.” The mixture of passion and printer’s ink in this lady’s composition is surely one of the most curious blends ever offered to the palate of the epicure.

But it was a blend which gave the lady an unfair advantage for posterity. We hear too much of her side of the matter. This one feels especially as regards her affair with Chopin. With Musset she had to reckon a writer like herself; and against her “Elle et Lui” we can set his “Confession d’un enfant du siecle.” But poor Chopin, being a musician, was not good at “copy.” The emotions she gave him he had to pour out in music, which, delightful as sound, is unfortunately vague as a literary “document.” How one longs to have his full, true, and particular account of the six months he spent with George Sand in Majorca! M. Pierre Mille, who has just published in the “Revue Bleue” some letters of Chopin (first printed, it seems, in a Warsaw newspaper), would have us believe that the lady was really the masculine partner. We are to understand that it was Chopin who did the weeping, and pouting, and “scene”-making while George Sand did the consoling, the pooh-poohing, and the protecting. Liszt had already given us a characteristic anecdote of this Majorca period. We see George Sand, in sheer exuberance of health and animal spirits, wandering out into the storm, while Chopin stays at home, to have an attack of “nerves,” to give vent to his anxiety (oh, “artistic temperament”!) by composing a prelude, and to fall fainting at the lady’s feet when she returns safe and sound.  There is no doubt that the lady had enough of the masculine temper in her to be the first to get tired. And as poor Chopin was coughing and swooning most of the time, this is scarcely surprising. But she did not leave him forthwith. She kept up the pretence of loving him, in a maternal, protecting sort of way, out of pity, as it were, for a sick child.

So much the published letters clearly show. Many of them are dated from Nohant. But in themselves the letters are dull enough. Chopin composed with the keyboard of a piano; with ink and paper he could do little. Probably his love letters were wooden productions, and George Sand, we know, was a fastidious critic in that matter. She had received and written so many!  But any rate, Chopin did not write whining recriminations like Mussel. His real view of her we shall never know—and, if you like, you may say it is no business of ours. She once uttered a truth about that (though not apropos of Chopin), “There are so many things between two lovers of which they alone can be the judges.”

Chopin gave his last concert in Paris, February 16, 1848, at Pleyel’s. He was ill but played beautifully. Oscar Commettant said he fainted in the artist’s room. Sand and Chopin met but once again. She took his hand, which was “trembling and cold,” but he escaped without saying a word. He permitted himself in a letter to Grzymala from London dated November 17-18, 1848, to speak of Sand. “I have never cursed any one, but now I am so weary of life that I am near cursing Lucrezia. But she suffers too, and suffers more because she grows older in wickedness. What a pity about Soli! Alas! everything goes wrong with the world!” I wonder what Mr. Hadow thinks of this reference to Sand!

“Soli” is Solange Sand, who was forced to leave her husband because of ill-treatment. As her mother once boxed Clesinger’s ears at Nohant, she followed the example. In trying to settle the affair Sand quarrelled hopelessly with her daughter. That energetic descendant of “emancipated woman” formed a partnership, literary of course, with the Marquis Alfieri, the nephew of the Italian poet. Her salon was as much in vogue as her mother’s, but her tastes were inclined to politics, revolutionary politics preferred. She had for associates Gambetta, Jules Ferry, Floquet, Taine, Herve, Weiss, the critic of the “Debats,” Henri Fouquier and many others. She had the “curved Hebraic nose of her mother and hair coal-black.” She died in her chateau at Montgivray and was buried March 20, 1899, at Nohant where, as my informant says, “her mother died of over-much cigarette smoking.” She was a clever woman and wrote a book “Masks and Buffoons.” Maurice Sand died in 1883. He was the son of his mother, who was gathered to her heterogeneous ancestors June 8, 1876.

In literature George Sand is a feminine pendant to Jean Jacques Rousseau, full of ill-digested, troubled, fermenting, social, political, philosophical and religious speculations and theories.  She wrote picturesque French, smooth, flowing and full of color.  The sketches of nature, of country life, have positive value, but where has vanished her gallery of Byronic passion-pursued women?  Where are the Lelias, the Indianas, the Rudolstadts? She had not, as Mr. Henry James points out, a faculty for characterization. As Flaubert wrote her: “In spite of your great Sphinx eyes you have always seen the world as through a golden mist.” She dealt in vague, vast figures, and so her Prince Karol in “Lucrezia Floriana,” unquestionably intended for Chopin, is a burlesque— little wonder he was angered when the precious children asked him “Cher M. Chopin, have you read ‘Lucrezia’? Mamma has put you in it.” Of all persons Sand was pre-elected to give to the world a true, a sympathetic picture of her friend. She understood him, but she had not the power of putting him between the covers of a book. If Flaubert, or better still, Pierre Loti, could have known Chopin so intimately we should possess a memoir in which every vibration of emotion would be recorded, every shade noted, and all pinned with the precise adjective, the phrase exquisite.

 


 

 

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.


 

Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music

  

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Chopin in Paris