by James Huneker
Gustave Flaubert, pessimist and master of cadenced lyric prose, urged young writers to lead ascetic lives that in their art they might be violent. Chopin’s violence was psychic, a travailing and groaning of the spirit; the bright roughness of adventure was missing from his quotidian existence. The tragedy was within. One recalls Maurice Maeterlinck: “Whereas most of our life is passed far from blood, cries and swords, and the tears of men have become silent, invisible and almost spiritual.” Chopin went from Poland to France—from Warsaw to Paris—where, finally, he was borne to his grave in Pere la Chaise. He lived, loved and died; and not for him were the perils, prizes and fascinations of a hero’s career. He fought his battles within the walls of his soul--we may note and enjoy them in his music. His outward state was not niggardly of incident though his inner life was richer, nourished as it was in the silence and the profound unrest of a being that irritably resented every intrusion. There were events that left ineradicable impressions upon his nature, upon his work: his early love, his sorrow at parting from parents and home, the shock of the Warsaw revolt, his passion for George Sand, the death of his father and of his friend Matuszynski, and the rupture with Madame Sand—these were crises of his history. All else was but an indeterminate factor in the scheme of his earthly sojourn. Chopin though not an anchorite resembled Flaubert, being both proud and timid; he led a detached life, hence his art was bold and violent. Unlike Liszt he seldom sought the glamor of the theatre, and was never in such public view as his maternal admirer, Sand. He was Frederic Francois Chopin, composer, teacher of piano and a lyric genius of the highest range.
Recently the date of his birth has been again discussed by Natalie Janotha, the Polish pianist. Chopin was born in Zelazowa-Wola, six miles from Warsaw, March 1, 1809. This place is sometimes spelled Jeliasovaya-Volia. The medallion made for the tomb by Clesinger—the son-in-law of George Sand—and the watch given by the singer Catalan! in 1820 with the inscription “Donne par Madame Catalan! a Frederic Chopin, age de dix ans,” have incited a conflict of authorities. Karasowski was informed by Chopin’s sister that the correct year of his birth was 1809, and Szulc, Sowinski and Niecks agree with him. Szulc asserts that the memorial in the Holy Cross Church, Warsaw—where Chopin’s heart is preserved—bears the date March 2, 1809. Chopin, so Henry T. Finck declares, was twenty-two years of age when he wrote to his teacher Elsner in 1831. Liszt told Niecks in 1878 that Karasowski had published the correct date in his biography. Now let us consider Janotha’s arguments. According to her evidence the composer’s natal day was February 22, 1810 and his christening occurred April 28 of the same year. The following baptismal certificate, originally in Latin and translated by Finck, is adduced. It is said to be from the church in which Chopin was christened: “I, the above, have performed the ceremony of baptizing in water a boy with the double name Frederic Francois, on the 22d day of February, son of the musicians Nicolai Choppen, a Frenchman, and Justina de Krzyzanowska his legal spouse. God-parents: the musicians Franciscus Grembeki and Donna Anna Skarbekowa, Countess of Zelazowa-Wola.” The wrong date was chiselled upon the monument unveiled October 14, 1894, at Chopin’s birthplace—erected practically through the efforts of Milia Balakireff the Russian composer. Janotha, whose father founded the Warsaw Conservatory, informed Finck that the later date has also been put on other monuments in Poland.
Chopin’s father was not a musician, neither was his mother. I cannot trace Grembeki, but we know that the Countess Skarbek, mother of Chopin’s namesake, was not a musician; however, the title “musician” in the baptismal certificate may have signified something eulogistic at that time. Besides, the Polish clergy was not a particularly accurate class. But Janotha has more testimony: in her controversy with me in 1896 she quoted Father Bielawski, the present cure of Brochow parish church of Zelazowa-Wola; this reverend person consulted records and gave as his opinion that 1810 is authentic. Nevertheless, the biography of Wojcicki and the statement of the Chopin family contradict him. And so the case stands. Janotha continues firm in her belief although authorities do not justify her position.
All this petty pother arose since Niecks’ comprehensive biography appeared. So sure was he of his facts that he disposed of the pseudo-date in one footnote. Perhaps the composer was to blame; artists, male as well as female, have been known to make themselves younger in years by conveniently forgetting their birthdate, or by attributing the error to carelessness in the registry of dates. Surely the Chopin family could not have been mistaken in such an important matter! Regarding Chopin’s ancestry there is still a moiety of doubt. His father was born August 17, 1770--the same year as Beethoven—at Nancy, Lorraine. Some claim that he had Polish blood in his veins. Szulc claims that he was the natural son of a Polish nobleman, who followed King Stanislas Leszcinski to Lorraine, dropping the Szopen, or Szop, for the more Gallic Chopin. When Frederic went to Paris, he in turn changed the name from Szopen to Chopin, which is common in France.
Chopin’s father emigrated to Warsaw in 1787--enticed by the offer of a compatriot there in the tobacco business—and was the traditional Frenchman of his time, well-bred, agreeable and more than usually cultivated.
He joined the national guard during the Kosciuszko revolution in 1794. When business stagnated he was forced to teach in the family of the Leszynskis; Mary of that name, one of his pupils, being beloved by Napoleon I. became the mother of Count Walewski, a minister of the second French empire. Drifting to Zelazowa-Wola, Nicholas Chopin lived in the house of the Countess Skarbek, acting as tutor to her son, Frederic. There he made the acquaintance of Justina Krzyzanowska, born of “poor but noble parents.” He married her in 1806 and she bore him four children: three girls, and the boy Frederic Francois.
With a refined, scholarly French father, Polish in political sentiments, and an admirable Polish mother, patriotic to the extreme, Frederic grew to be an intelligent, vivacious, home-loving lad. Never a hearty boy but never very delicate, he seemed to escape most of the disagreeable ills of childhood. The moonstruck, pale, sentimental calf of many biographers, he never was. Strong evidence exists that he was merry, pleasure-loving and fond of practical jokes. While his father was never rich, the family after the removal to Warsaw lived at ease. The country was prosperous and Chopin the elder became a professor in the Warsaw Lyceum. His children were brought up in an atmosphere of charming simplicity, love and refinement. The mother was an ideal mother, and, as George Sand declared, Chopin’s “only love.” But, as we shall discover later, Lelia was ever jealous—jealous even of Chopin’s past. His sisters were gifted, gentle and disposed to pet him. Niecks has killed all the pretty fairy tales of his poverty and suffering.
Strong common sense ruled the actions of Chopin’s parents, and when his love for music revealed itself at an early age they engaged a teacher named Adalbert Zwyny, a Bohemian who played the violin and taught piano. Julius Fontana, one of the first friends of the boy—he committed suicide in Paris, December 31, 1869,-- says that at the age of twelve Chopin knew so much that he was left to himself with the usual good and ill results. He first played on February 24, 1818, a concerto by Gyrowetz and was so pleased with his new collar that he naively told his mother, “Everybody was looking at my collar.” His musical precocity, not as marked as Mozart’s, but phenomenal withal, brought him into intimacy with the Polish aristocracy and there his taste for fashionable society developed. The Czartoryskis, Radziwills, Skarbeks, Potockis, Lubeckis and the Grand Duke Constantine with his Princess Lowicka made life pleasant for the talented boy. Then came his lessons with Joseph Elsner in composition, lessons of great value. Elsner saw the material he had to mould, and so deftly did he teach that his pupil’s individuality was never checked, never warped. For Elsner Chopin entertained love and reverence; to him he wrote from Paris asking his advice in the matter of studying with Kalkbrenner, and this advice he took seriously. “From Zwyny and Elsner even the greatest ass must learn something,” he is quoted as having said.
Then there are the usual anecdotes—one is tempted to call them the stock stories of the boyhood of any great composer. In infancy Chopin could not hear music without crying. Mozart was morbidly sensitive to the tones of a trumpet. Later the Polish lad sported familiarly with his talents, for he is related to have sent to sleep and awakened a party of unruly boys at his father’s school. Another story is his fooling of a Jew merchant. He had high spirits, perhaps too high, for his slender physique. He was a facile mimic, and Liszt, Balzac, Bocage, Sand and others believed that he would have made an actor of ability. With his sister Emilia he wrote a little comedy. Altogether he was a clever, if not a brilliant lad. His letters show that he was not the latter, for while they are lively they do not reveal much literary ability. But their writer saw with open eyes, eyes that were disposed to caricature the peculiarities of others. This trait, much clarified and spiritualized in later life, became a distinct, ironic note in his character. Possibly it attracted Heine, although his irony was on a more intellectual plane.
His piano playing at this time was neat and finished, and he had already begun those experimentings in technique and tone that afterward revolutionized the world of music and the keyboard. He being sickly and his sister’s health poor, the pair was sent in 1826 to Reinerz, a watering place in Prussian Silesia. This with a visit to his godmother, a titled lady named Wiesiolowska and a sister of Count Frederic Skarbek,--the name does not tally with the one given heretofore, as noted by Janotha,--consumed this year. In 1827 he left his regular studies at the Lyceum and devoted his time to music. He was much in the country, listening to the fiddling and singing of the peasants, thus laying the corner stone of his art as a national composer. In the fall of 1828 he went to Berlin, and this trip gave him a foretaste of the outer world.
Stephen Heller, who saw Chopin in 1830, described him as pale, of delicate health, and not destined, so they said in Warsaw, for a long life. This must have been during one of his depressed periods, for his stay in Berlin gives a record of unclouded spirits. However, his sister Emilia died young of pulmonary trouble and doubtless Frederic was predisposed to lung complaint. He was constantly admonished by his relatives to keep his coat closed. Perhaps, as in Wagner’s case, the uncontrollable gayety and hectic humors were but so many signs of a fatal disintegrating process. Wagner outlived them until the Scriptural age, but Chopin succumbed when grief, disappointment and intense feeling had undermined him. For the dissipations of the “average sensual man” he had an abiding contempt. He never smoked, in fact disliked it. His friend Sand differed greatly in this respect, and one of the saddest anecdotes related by De Lenz accuses her of calling for a match to light her cigar: “Frederic, un fidibus,” she commanded, and Frederic obeyed. Mr. Philip Hale mentions a letter from Balzac to his Countess Hanska, dated March 15, 1841, which concludes: “George Sand did not leave Paris last year. She lives at Rue Pigalle, No. 16...Chopin is always there. Elle ne fume que des cigarettes, et pas autre chose” Mr. Hale states that the italics are in the letter. So much for De Lenz and his fidibus!
I am impelled here to quote from Mr. Earnest Newman’s “Study of Wagner” because Chopin’s exaltation of spirits, alternating with irritability and intense depression, were duplicated in Wagner. Mr. Newman writes of Wagner: “There have been few men in whom the torch of life has burned so fiercely. In his early days he seems to have had that gayety of temperament and that apparently boundless energy which men in his case, as in that of Heine, Nietzsche, Amiel and others, have wrongly assumed to be the outcome of harmonious physical and mental health. There is a pathetic exception in the outward lives of so many men of genius, the bloom being, to the instructed eye, only the indication of some subtle nervous derangement, only the forerunner of decay.” The overmastering cerebral agitation that obsessed Wagner’s life, was as with Chopin a symptom, not a sickness; but in the latter it had not yet assumed a sinister turn.
Chopin’s fourteen days in Berlin,--he went there under the protection of his father’s friend, Professor Jarocki, to attend the great scientific congress—were full of joy unrestrained. The pair left Warsaw September 9, 1828, and after five days travel in a diligence arrived at Berlin. This was a period of leisure travelling and living. Frederic saw Spontini, Mendelssohn and Zelter at a distance and heard “Freischutz.” He attended the congress and made sport of the scientists, Alexander von Humboldt included. On the way home they stopped at a place called Zullichau, and Chopin improvised on Polish airs so charmingly that the stage was delayed, “all hands turning in” to listen. This is another of the anecdotes of honorable antiquity. Count Tarnowski relates that “Chopin left Warsaw with a light heart, with a mind full of ideas, perhaps full of dreams of fame and happiness. ‘I have only twenty kreuzers in my pockets,’ he writes in his note-book, ‘and it seems to me that I am richer than Arthur Potocki, whom I met only a moment ago;’ besides this, witty conceptions, fun, showing a quiet and cheerful spirit; for example, ‘May it be permitted to me to sign myself as belonging to the circle of your friends,--F. Chopin.’ Or, ‘A welcome moment in which I can express to you my friendship.—F. Chopin, office clerk.’ Or again, ‘Ah, my most lordly sir, I do not myself yet understand the joy which I feel on entering the circle of your real friends.—F. Chopin, penniless’!”
These letters have a Micawber ring, but they indicate Chopin’s love of jest. Sikorski tells a story of the lad’s improvising in church so that the priest, choir and congregation were forgotten by him.
The travellers arrived at Warsaw October 6 after staying a few days in Posen where the Prince Radziwill lived; here Chopin played in private. This prince-composer, despite what Liszt wrote, did not contribute a penny to the youth’s musical education, though he always treated him in a sympathetic manner.
Hummel and Paganini visited Warsaw in 1829. The former he met and admired, the latter he worshipped. This year may have seen the composition, if not the publication of the “Souvenir de Paganini,” said to be in the key of A major and first published in the supplement of the “Warsaw Echo Muzyczne.” Niecks writes that he never saw a copy of this rare composition. Paderewski tells me he has the piece and that it is weak, having historic interest only. I cannot find much about the Polish poet, Julius Slowacki, who died the same year, 1849, as Edgar Allan Poe. Tarnowski declares him to have been Chopin’s warmest friend and in his poetry a starting point of inspiration for the composer.
In July 1829, accompanied by two friends, Chopin started for Vienna. Travelling in a delightful, old-fashioned manner, the party saw much of the country—Galicia, Upper Silesia and Moravia--the Polish Switzerland. On July 31 they arrived in the Austrian capital. Then Chopin first began to enjoy an artistic atmosphere, to live less parochially. His home life, sweet and tranquil as it was, could not fail to hurt him as artist; he was flattered and coddled and doubtless the touch of effeminacy in his person was fostered. In Vienna the life was gayer, freer and infinitely more artistic than in Warsaw. He met every one worth knowing in the artistic world and his letters at that period are positively brimming over with gossip and pen pictures of the people he knew. The little drop of malice he injects into his descriptions of the personages he encounters is harmless enough and proves that the young man had considerable wit. Count Gallenberg, the lessee of the famous Karnthnerthor Theatre, was kind to him, and the publisher Haslinger treated him politely. He had brought with him his variations on “La ci darem la mano”; altogether the times seemed propitious and much more so when he was urged to give a concert. Persuaded to overcome a natural timidity, he made his Vienna debut at this theatre August 11, 1829, playing on a Stein piano his Variations, opus 2. His Krakowiak Rondo had been announced, but the parts were not legible, so instead he improvised. He had success, being recalled, and his improvisation on the Polish tune called “Chmiel” and a theme from “La Dame Blanche” stirred up much enthusiasm in which a grumbling orchestra joined. The press was favorable, though Chopin’s playing was considered rather light in weight. His style was admired and voted original—here the critics could see through the millstone—while a lady remarked “It’s a pity his appearance is so insignificant.” This reached the composer’s ear and caused him an evil quarter of an hour for he was morbidly sensitive; but being, like most Poles, secretive, managed to hide it.
August 18, encouraged by his triumph, Chopin gave a second concert on the same stage. This time he played the Krakowiak and his talent for composition was discussed by the newspapers. “He plays very quietly, without the daring elan which distinguishes the artist from the amateur,” said one; “his defect is the non-observance of the indication of accent at the beginning of musical phrases.” What was then admired in Vienna was explosive accentuations and piano drumming. The article continues: “As in his playing he was like a beautiful young tree that stands free and full of fragrant blossoms and ripening fruits, so he manifested as much estimable individuality in his compositions where new figures and passages, new forms unfolded themselves.” This rather acute critique, translated by Dr. Niecks, is from the Wiener “Theaterzeitung” of August 20, 1829. The writer of it cannot be accused of misoneism, that hardening of the faculties of curiousness and prophecy—that semi-paralysis of the organs of hearing which afflicts critics of music so early in life and evokes rancor and dislike to novelties. Chopin derived no money from either of his concerts.
By this time he was accustomed to being reminded of the lightness and exquisite delicacy of his touch and the originality of his style. It elated him to be no longer mistaken for a pupil and he writes home that “my manner of playing pleases the ladies so very much.” Thismanner never lost its hold over female hearts, and the airs, caprices and little struttings of Frederic are to blame for the widely circulated legend of his effeminate ways. The legend soon absorbed his music, and so it has come to pass that this fiction, begotten of half fact and half mental indolence, has taken root, like the noxious weed it is. When Rubinstein, Tausig and Liszt played Chopin in passional phrases, the public and critics were aghast. This was a transformed Chopin indeed, a Chopin transposed to the key of manliness. Yet it is the true Chopin. The young man’s manners were a trifle feminine but his brain was masculine, electric, and his soul courageous. His Polonaises, Ballades, Scherzi and Etudes need a mighty grip, a grip mental and physical.
Chopin met Czerny. “He is a good man, but nothing more,” he said of him. Czerny admired the young pianist with the elastic hand and on his second visit to Vienna, characteristically inquired, “Are you still industrious?” Czerny’s brain was a tireless incubator of piano exercises, while Chopin so fused the technical problem with the poetic idea, that such a nature as the old pedagogue’s must have been unattractive to him. He knew Franz, Lachner and other celebrities and seems to have enjoyed a mild flirtation with Leopoldine Blahetka, a popular young pianist, for he wrote of his sorrow at parting from her. On August 19 he left with friends for Bohemia, arriving at Prague two days later. There he saw everything and met Klengel, of canon fame, a still greater canon-eer than the redoubtable Jadassohn of Leipzig. Chopin and Klengel liked each other. Three days later the party proceeded to Teplitz and Chopin played in aristocratic company. He reached Dresden August 26, heard Spohr’s “Faust” and met capellmeister Morlacchi—that same Morlacchi whom Wagner succeeded as a conductor January 10, 1843--vide Finck’s “Wagner.” By September 12, after a brief sojourn in Breslau, Chopin was again safe at home in Warsaw.
About this time he fell in love with Constantia Gladowska, a singer and pupil of the Warsaw Conservatory. Niecks dwells gingerly upon his fervor in love and friendship—“a passion with him” and thinks that it gives the key to his life. Of his romantic friendship for Titus Woyciechowski and John Matuszynski--his “Johnnie”—there are abundant evidences in the letters. They are like the letters of a love-sick maiden. But Chopin’s purity of character was marked; he shrank from coarseness of all sorts, and the Fates only know what he must have suffered at times from George Sand and her gallant band of retainers. To this impressionable man, Parisian badinage—not to call it anything stronger—was positively antipathetical. Of him we might indeed say in Lafcadio Hearn’s words, “Every mortal man has been many million times a woman.” And was it the Goncourts who dared to assert that, “there are no women of genius: women of genius are men”? Chopin needed an outlet for his sentimentalism. His piano was but a sieve for some, and we are rather amused than otherwise on reading the romantic nonsense of his boyish letters.
After the Vienna trip his spirits and his health flagged. He was overwrought and Warsaw became hateful to him, for he loved but had not the courage to tell it to the beloved one. He put it on paper, he played it, but speak it he could not. Here is a point that reveals Chopin’s native indecision, his inability to make up his mind. He recalls to me the Frederic Moreau of Flaubert’s “L’Education Sentimentale.” There is an atrophy of the will, for Chopin can neither propose nor fly from Warsaw. He writes letters that are full of self-reproaches, letters that must have both bored and irritated his friends. Like many other men of genius he suffered all his life from folie de doute, indeed his was what specialists call “a beautiful case.” This halting and irresolution was a stumbling block in his career and is faithfully mirrored in his art.
Chopin went to Posen in October, 1829, and at the Radziwills was attracted by the beauty and talent of the Princess Elisa, who died young. George Sand has noted Chopin’s emotional versatility in the matter of falling in and out of love. He could accomplish both of an evening and a crumpled roseleaf was sufficient cause to induce frowns and capricious flights—decidedly a young man tres difficile. He played at the “Ressource” in November, 1829, the Variations, opus 2. On March 17, 1830, he gave his first concert in Warsaw, and selected the adagio and rondo of his first concerto, the one in F minor, and the Potpourri on Polish airs. His playing was criticised for being too delicate—an old complaint—but the musicians, Elsner, Kurpinski and the rest were pleased. Edouard Wolff said they had no idea in Warsaw of “the real greatness of Chopin.” He was Polish, this the public appreciated, but of Chopin the individual they missed entirely the flavor. A week later, spurred by adverse and favorable criticism, he gave a second concert, playing the same excerpts from this concerto—the slow movement is Constance Gladowska musically idealized—the Krakowiak and an improvisation. The affair was a success. From these concerts he cleared six hundred dollars, not a small sum in those days for an unknown virtuoso. A sonnet was printed in his honor, champagne was offered him by an enthusiastic Paris bred, but not born, pianist named Dunst, who for this act will live in all chronicles of piano playing. Worse still, Orlowski served up the themes of his concerto into mazurkas and had the impudence to publish them.
Then came the last blow: he was asked by a music seller for his portrait, which he refused, having no desire, he said with a shiver, to see his face on cheese and butter wrappers. Some of the criticisms were glowing, others absurd as criticisms occasionally are. Chopin wrote to Titus the same rhapsodical protestations and finally declared in meticulous peevishness, “I will no longer read what people write about me.” This has the familiar ring of the true artist who cares nothing for the newspapers but reads them religiously after his own and his rivals’ concerts.
Chopin heard Henrietta Sontag with great joy; he was ever a lover and a connoisseur of singing. He advised young pianists to listen carefully and often to great singers. Mdlle. de Belleville the pianist and Lipinski the violinist were admired, and he could write a sound criticism when he chose. But the Gladowska is worrying him. “Unbearable longing” is driving him to exile. He attends her debut as Agnese in Paer’s opera of that title and writes a complete description of the important function to Titus, who is at his country seat where Chopin visits him betimes. Agitated, he thinks of going to Berlin or Vienna, but after much philandering remains in Warsaw. On October 11, 1830, following many preparations and much emotional shilly-shallying, Chopin gave his third and last Warsaw concert. He played the E minor concerto for the first time in public but not in sequence. The first and last two movements were separated by an aria, such being the custom of those days. Later he gave the Fantasia on Polish airs. Best of all for him, Miss Gladowska sang a Rossini air, “wore a white dress and roses in her hair, and was charmingly beautiful.” Thus Chopin; and the details have all the relevancy of a male besieged by Dan Cupid. Chopin must have played well. He said so himself, and he was always a cautious self-critic despite his pride. His vanity and girlishness peep out in his recital by the response to a quartet of recalls: “I believe I did it yesterday with a certain grace, for Brandt had taught me how to do it properly.” He is not speaking of his poetic performance, but of his bow to the public. As he formerly spoke to his mother of his pretty collar, so as young man he makes much of his deportment. But it is all quite in the role; scratch an artist and you surprise a child.
Of course, Constantia sang wonderfully. “Her low B came out so magnificently that Zielinski declared it alone was worth a thousand ducats.” Ah, these enamored ones! Chopin left Warsaw November 1, 1830, for Vienna and without declaring his love. Or was he a rejected suitor? History is dumb. He never saw his Gladowska again, for he did not return to Warsaw. The lady was married in 1832--preferring a solid certainty to nebulous genius--to Joseph Grabowski, a merchant at Warsaw. Her husband, so saith a romantic biographer, Count Wodzinski, became blind; perhaps even a blind country gentleman was preferable to a lachrymose pianist. Chopin must have heard of the attachment in 1831. Her name almost disappears from his correspondence. Time as well as other nails drove from his memory her image. If she was fickle, he was inconstant, and so let us waste no pity on this episode, over which lakes of tears have been shed and rivers of ink have been spilt.
Chopin was accompanied by Elsner and a party of friends as far as Wola, a short distance from Warsaw. There the pupils of the Conservatory sang a cantata by Elsner, and after a banquet he was given a silver goblet filled with Polish earth, being adjured, so Karasowski relates, never to forget his country or his friends wherever he might wander. Chopin, his heart full of sorrow, left home, parents, friends, and “ideal,” severed with his youth, and went forth in the world with the keyboard and a brain full of beautiful music as his only weapons.
At Kaliz he was joined by the faithful Titus, and the two went to Breslau, where they spent four days, going to the theatre and listening to music. Chopin played quite impromptu two movements of his E minor concerto, supplanting a tremulous amateur. In Dresden where they arrived November 10, they enjoyed themselves with music. Chopin went to a soiree at Dr. Kreyssig’s and was overwhelmed at the sight of a circle of dames armed with knitting needles which they used during the intervals of music-making in the most formidable manner. He heard Auber and Rossini operas and Rolla, the Italian violinist, and listened with delight to Dotzauer and Kummer the violoncellists—the cello being an instrument for which he had a consuming affection. Rubini, the brother of the great tenor, he met, and was promised important letters of introduction if he desired to visit Italy. He saw Klengel again, who told the young Pole, thereby pleasing him very much, that his playing was like John Field’s. Prague was also visited, and he arrived at Vienna in November. There he confidently expected a repetition of his former successes, but was disappointed. Haslinger received him coldly and refused to print his variations or concerto unless he got them for nothing. Chopin’s first brush with the hated tribe of publishers begins here, and he adopts as his motto the pleasing device, “Pay, thou animal,” a motto he strictly adhered to; in money matters Chopin was very particular. The bulk of his extant correspondence is devoted to the exposure of the ways and wiles of music publishers. “Animal” is the mildest term he applies to them, “Jew” the most frequent objurgation. After all Chopin was very Polish.
He missed his friends the Blahetkas, who had gone to Stuttgart, and altogether did not find things so promising as formerly. No profitable engagements could be secured, and, to cap his misery, Titus, his other self, left him to join the revolutionists in Poland November 30. His letters reflect his mental agitation and terror over his parents’ safety. A thousand times he thought of renouncing his artistic ambitions and rushing to Poland to fight for his country. He never did, and his indecision—it was not cowardice—is our gain. Chopin put his patriotism, his wrath and his heroism into his Polonaises. That is why we have them now, instead of Chopin having been the target of some black-browed Russian. Chopin was psychically brave; let us not cavil at the almost miraculous delicacy of his organization. He wrote letters to his parents and to Matuszyriski, but they are not despairing— at least not to the former. He pretended gayety and had great hopes for the future, for he was living entirely on means supplied him by his father. News of Constantia gladdened him, and he decided to go to Italy, but the revolution early in 1831 decided him for France. Dr. Malfatti was good to him and cheered him, and he managed to accomplish much social visiting. The letters of this period are most interesting. He heard Sarah Heinefetter sing, and listened to Thaiberg’s playing of a movement of his own concerto. Thalberg was three years younger than Chopin and already famous. Chopin did not admire him:
“Thalberg plays famously, but he is not my man...He plays forte and piano with the pedals but not with the hand; takes tenths as easily as I do octaves, and wears studs with diamonds.”
Thalberg was not only too much of a technician for Chopin, but he was also a Jew and a successful one. In consequence, both poet and Pole revolted.
Hummel called on Frederic, but we hear nothing of his opinion of the elder man and his music; this is all the more strange, considering how much Chopin built on Hummel’s style. Perhaps that is the cause of the silence, just as Wagner’s dislike for Meyerbeer was the result of his obligations to the composer of “Les Huguenots.” He heard Aloys Schmitt play, and uttered the very Heinesque witticism that “he is already over forty years old, and composes eighty years old music.” This in a letter to Elsner. Our Chopin could be amazingly sarcastic on occasion. He knew Slavik the violin virtuoso, Merk the ‘cellist, and all the music publishers. At a concert given by Madame Garzia-Vestris, in April, 1831, he appeared, and in June gave a concert of his own, at which he must have played the E minor concerto, because of a passing mention in a musical paper. He studied much, and it was July 20, 1831, before he left Vienna after a second, last, and thoroughly discouraging visit.
Chopin got a passport vised for London, “passant par Paris &. Londres,” and had permission from the Russian Ambassador to go as far as Munich. Then the cholera gave him some bother, as he had to secure a clean bill of health, but he finally got away. The romantic story of “I am only passing through Paris,” which he is reported to have said in after years, has been ruthlessly shorn of its sentiment. At Munich he played his second concerto and pleased greatly. But he did not remain in the Bavarian capital, hastening to Stuttgart, where he heard of the capture of Warsaw by the Russians, September 8, 1831. This news, it is said, was the genesis of the great C minor etude in opus 10, sometimes called the “Revolutionary.” Chopin exclaimed in a letter dated December 16, 1831, “All this caused me much pain—who could have foreseen it!” and in another letter he wrote, “How glad my mamma will be that I did not go back.” Count Tarnowski in his recollections prints some extracts from a diary said to have been kept by Chopin. According to this his agitation must have been terrible. Here are several examples:
“My poor father! My dearest ones! Perhaps they hunger? Maybe he has not anything to buy bread for mother? Perhaps my sisters have fallen victims to the fury of the Muscovite soldiers? Oh, father, is this the consolation of your old age? Mother, poor suffering mother, is it for this you outlived your daughter?”
“And I here unoccupied! And I am here with empty hands! Sometimes I groan, suffer and despair at the piano! O God, move the earth, that it may swallow the humanity of this century! May the most cruel fortune fall upon the French, that they did not come to our aid.” All this sounds a trifle melodramatic and quite unlike Chopin.
He did not go to Warsaw, but started for France at the end of September, arriving early in October, 1831. Poland’s downfall had aroused him from his apathy, even if it sent him further from her. This journey, as Liszt declares, “settled his fate.” Chopin was twenty-two years old when he reached Paris.
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.