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Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician, Volume 1 (of 2)
Third Edition (1902)
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION (1888) PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION (1890)
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION (1902) PROEM: POLAND AND THE POLES
PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION
While the novelist has absolute freedom to follow his artistic instinct and intelligence, the biographer is fettered by the subject-matter with which he proposes to deal. The former may hopefully pursue an ideal, the latter must rest satisfied with a compromise between the desirable and the necessary. No doubt, it is possible to thoroughly digest all the requisite material, and then present it in a perfect, beautiful form. But this can only be done at a terrible loss, at a sacrifice of truth and trustworthiness. My guiding principle has been to place before the reader the facts collected by me as well as the conclusions at which I arrived. This will enable him to see the subject in all its bearings, with all its pros and cons, and to draw his own conclusions, should mine not obtain his approval. Unless an author proceeds in this way, the reader never knows how far he may trust him, how far the evidence justifies his judgment. For– not to speak of cheats and fools–the best informed are apt to make assertions unsupported or insufficiently supported by facts, and the wisest cannot help seeing things through the coloured spectacles of their individuality. The foregoing remarks are intended to explain my method, not to excuse carelessness of literary workmanship. Whatever the defects of the present volumes may be–and, no doubt, they are both great and many–I have laboured to the full extent of my humble abilities to group and present my material perspicuously, and to avoid diffuseness and rhapsody, those besetting sins of writers on music.
The first work of some length having Chopin for its subject was Liszt’s “Frederic Chopin,” which, after appearing in 1851 in the Paris journal “La France musicale,” came out in book-form, still in French, in 1852 (Leipzig: Breitkopf and Hartel.–Translated into English by M. W. Cook, and published by William Reeves, London, 1877). George Sand describes it as “un peu exuberant de style, mais rempli de bonnes choses et de tres-belles pages.” These words, however, do in no way justice to the book: for, on the one hand, the style is excessively, and not merely a little, exuberant; and, on the other hand, the “good things” and “beautiful pages” amount to a psychological study of Chopin, and an aesthetical study of his works, which it is impossible to over- estimate. Still, the book is no biography. It records few dates and events, and these few are for the most part incorrect. When, in 1878, the second edition of F. Chopin was passing through the press, Liszt remarked to me:–
“I have been told that there are wrong dates and other mistakes in my book, and that the dates and facts are correctly given in Karasowski’s biography of Chopin [which had in the meantime been published]. But, though I often thought of reading it, I have not yet done so. I got my information from Paris friends on whom I believed I might depend. The Princess Wittgenstein [who then lived in Rome, but in 1850 at Weimar, and is said to have had a share in the production of the book] wished me to make some alterations in the new edition. I tried to please her, but, when she was still dissatisfied, I told her to add and alter whatever she liked.”
From this statement it is clear that Liszt had not the stuff of a biographer in him. And, whatever value we may put on the Princess Wittgenstein’s additions and alterations, they did not touch the vital faults of the work, which, as a French critic remarked, was a symphonie funebre rather than a biography. The next book we have to notice, M. A. Szulc’s Polish Fryderyk Chopin i Utwory jego Muzyczne (Posen, 1873), is little more than a chaotic, unsifted collection of notices, criticisms, anecdotes, &c., from Polish, German, and French books and magazines. In 1877 Moritz Karasowski, a native of Warsaw, and since 1864 a member of the Dresden orchestra, published his Friedrich Chopin: sein Leben, seine Werke und seine Briefe (Dresden: F. Ries.–Translated into English by E. Hill, under the title Frederick Chopin: His Life, Letters, and Work,” and published by William Reeves, London, in 1879). This was the first serious attempt at a biography of Chopin. The author reproduced in the book what had been brought to light in Polish magazines and other publications regarding Chopin’s life by various countrymen of the composer, among whom he himself was not the least notable. But the most valuable ingredients are, no doubt, the Chopin letters which the author obtained from the composer’s relatives, with whom he was acquainted. While gratefully acknowledging his achievements, I must not omit to indicate his shortcomings–his unchecked partiality for, and boundless admiration of his hero; his uncritical acceptance and fanciful embellishments of anecdotes and hearsays; and the extreme paucity of his information concerning the period of Chopin’s life which begins with his settlement in Paris. In 1878 appeared a second edition of the work, distinguished from the first by a few additions and many judicious omissions, the original two volumes being reduced to one. But of more importance than the second German edition is the first Polish edition, “Fryderyk Chopin: Zycie, Listy, Dziela, two volumes (Warsaw: Gebethner and Wolff, 1882), which contains a series of, till then, unpublished letters from Chopin to Fontana. Of Madame A. Audley’s short and readable “Frederic Chopin, sa vie et ses oeuvres” (Paris: E. Plon et Cie., 1880), I need only say that for the most part it follows Karasowski, and where it does not is not always correct. Count Wodzinski’s “Les trois Romans de Frederic Chopin” (Paris: Calmann Levy, 1886)–according to the title treating only of the composer’s love for Constantia Gladkowska, Maria Wodzinska, and George Sand, but in reality having a wider scope–cannot be altogether ignored, though it is more of the nature of a novel than of a biography. Mr, Joseph Bennett, who based his “Frederic Chopin” (one of Novello’s Primers of Musical Biography) on Liszt’s and Karasowski’s works, had in the parts dealing with Great Britain the advantage of notes by Mr. A.J. Hipkins, who inspired also, to some extent at least, Mr. Hueffer in his essay Chopin (“Fortnightly Review,” September, 1877; and reprinted in “Musical Studies”–Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1880). This ends the list of biographies with any claims to originality. There are, however, many interesting contributions to a biography of Chopin to be found in works of various kinds. These shall be mentioned in the course of my narrative; here I will point out only the two most important ones–namely, George Sand’s “Histoire de ma Vie,” first published in the Paris newspaper “La Presse” (1854) and subsequently in book-form; and her six volumes of “Correspondance,” 1812-1876 (Paris: Calmann Levy, 1882-1884).
My researches had for their object the whole life of Chopin, and his historical, political, artistical, social, and personal surroundings, but they were chiefly directed to the least known and most interesting period of his career–his life in France, and his visits to Germany and Great Britain. My chief sources of information are divisible into two classes–newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, correspondences, and books; and conversations I held with, and letters I received from, Chopin’s pupils, friends, and acquaintances. Of his pupils, my warmest thanks are due to Madame Dubois (nee Camille O’Meara), Madame Rubio (nee Vera de Kologrivof), Mdlle. Gavard, Madame Streicher (nee Friederike Muller), Adolph Gutmann, M. Georges Mathias, Brinley Richards, and Lindsay Sloper; of friends and acquaintances, to Liszt, Ferdinand Hiller, Franchomme, Charles Valentin Alkan, Stephen Heller, Edouard Wolff, Mr. Charles Halle, Mr. G. A. Osborne, T. Kwiatkowski, Prof. A. Chodzko, M. Leonard Niedzwiecki (gallice, Nedvetsky), Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt, Mr. A. J. Hipkins, and Dr. and Mrs. Lyschinski. I am likewise greatly indebted to Messrs. Breitkopf and Hartel, Karl Gurckhaus (the late proprietor of the firm of Friedrich Kistner), Julius Schuberth, Friedrich Hofmeister, Edwin Ashdown, Richault & Cie, and others, for information in connection with the publication of Chopin’s works. It is impossible to enumerate all my obligations–many of my informants and many furtherers of my labours will be mentioned in the body of the book; many, however, and by no means the least helpful, will remain unnamed. To all of them I offer the assurance of my deep-felt gratitude. Not a few of my kind helpers, alas! are no longer among the living; more than ten years have gone by since I began my researches, and during that time Death has been reaping a rich harvest.
The Chopin letters will, no doubt, be regarded as a special feature of the present biography. They may, I think, be called numerous, if we consider the master’s dislike to letter-writing. Ferdinand Hiller–whose almost unique collection of letters addressed to him by his famous friends in art and literature is now, and will be for years to come, under lock and key among the municipal archives at Cologne–allowed me to copy two letters by Chopin, one of them written conjointly with Liszt. Franchomme, too, granted me the privilege of copying his friend’s epistolary communications. Besides a number of letters that have here and there been published, I include, further, a translation of Chopin’s letters to Fontana, which in Karasowski’s book (i.e., the Polish edition) lose much of their value, owing to his inability to assign approximately correct dates to them.
The space which I give to George Sand is, I think, justified by the part she plays in the life of Chopin. To meet the objections of those who may regard my opinion of her as too harsh, I will confess that I entered upon the study of her character with the impression that she had suffered much undeserved abuse, and that it would be incumbent upon a Chopin biographer to defend her against his predecessors and the friends of the composer. How entirely I changed my mind, the sequel will show.
In conclusion, a few hints as to the pronunciation of Polish words, which otherwise might puzzle the reader uninitiated in the mysteries of that rarely-learned language. Aiming more at simplicity than at accuracy, one may say that the vowels are pronounced somewhat like this: a as in “arm,” aL like the nasal French “on,” e as in “tell,” e/ with an approach to the French “e/” (or to the German “u [umlaut]” and “o [umlaut]”), eL like the nasal French “in,” i as in “pick,” o as in “not,” o/ with an approach to the French “ou,” u like the French ou, and y with an approach to the German “i” and “u.” The following consonants are pronounced as in English: b, d, f, g (always hard), h, k, I, m, n, p, s, t, and z. The following single and double consonants differ from the English pronunciation: c like “ts,” c/ softer than c, j like “y,” l/ like “ll” with the tongue pressed against the upper row of teeth, n/ like “ny” (i.e., n softened by i), r sharper than in English, w like “v,” z/ softer than z, z. and rz like the French “j,” ch like the German guttural “ch” in “lachen” (similar to “ch” in the Scotch “loch”), cz like “ch” in “cherry,” and sz like “sh” in “sharp.” Mr. W. R. Morfill (“A Simplified Grammar of the Polish Language”) elucidates the combination szcz, frequently to be met with, by the English expression “smasht china,” where the italicised letters give the pronunciation. Lastly, family names terminating in take a instead of i when applied to women.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION.
The second edition differs from the first by little more than the correction of some misprints and a few additions. These latter are to be found among the Appendices. The principal addition consists of interesting communications from Madame Peruzzi, a friend of Chopin’s still living at Florence. Next in importance come Madame Schumann’s diary notes bearing on Chopin’s first visit to Leipzig. The remaining additions concern early Polish music, the first performances of Chopin’s works at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, his visit to Marienbad (remarks by Rebecca Dirichlet), the tempo rubato, and his portraits. To the names of Chopin’s friends and acquaintances to whom I am indebted for valuable assistance, those of Madame Peruzzi and Madame Schumann have, therefore, to be added. My apologies as well as my thanks are due to Mr. Felix Moscheles, who kindly permitted a fac-simile to be made from a manuscript, in his possession, a kindness that ought to have been acknowledged in the first edition. I am glad that a second edition affords me an opportunity to repair this much regretted omission. The manuscript in question is an “Etude” which Chopin wrote for the “Methode des Methodes de Piano,” by F. J. Fetis and I. Moscheles, the father of Mr. Felix Moscheles. This concludes what I have to say about the second edition, but I cannot lay down the pen without expressing my gratitude to critics and public for the exceedingly favourable reception they have given to my book.
PREFACE TO THE THIRD EDITION.
BESIDES minor corrections, the present edition contains the correction of the day and year of Frederick Francis Chopin’s birth, which have been discovered since the publication of the second edition of this work. According to the baptismal entry in the register of the Brochow parish church, he who became the great pianist and immortal composer was born on February 22, 1810. This date has been generally accepted in Poland, and is to be found on the medal struck on the occasion of the semi- centenary celebration of the master’s death. Owing to a misreading of musicus for magnificus in the published copy of the document, its trustworthiness has been doubted elsewhere, but, I believe, without sufficient cause. The strongest argument that could be urged against the acceptance of the date would be the long interval between birth and baptism, which did not take place till late in April, and the consequent possibility of an error in the registration. This, however, could only affect the day, and perhaps the month, not the year. It is certainly a very curious circumstance that Fontana, a friend of Chopin’s in his youth and manhood, Karasowski, at least an acquaintance, if not an intimate friend, of the family (from whom he derived much information), Fetis, a contemporary lexicographer, and apparently Chopin’s family, and even Chopin himself, did not know the date of the latter’s birth.
Where the character of persons and works of art are concerned, nothing is more natural than differences of opinion. Bias and inequality of knowledge sufficiently account for them. For my reading of the character of George Sand, I have been held up as a monster of moral depravity; for my daring to question the exactitude of Liszt’s biographical facts, I have been severely sermonised; for my inability to regard Chopin as one of the great composers of songs, and continue uninterruptedly in a state of ecstatic admiration, I have been told that the publication of my biography of the master is a much to be deplored calamity. Of course, the moral monster and author of the calamity cannot pretend to be an unbiassed judge in the case; but it seems to him that there may be some exaggeration and perhaps even some misconception in these accusations.
As to George Sand, I have not merely made assertions, but have earnestly laboured to prove the conclusions at which I reluctantly arrived. Are George Sand’s pretentions to self- sacrificing saintliness, and to purely maternal feelings for Musset, Chopin, and others to be accepted in spite of the fairy- tale nature of her “Histoire,” and the misrepresentations of her “Lettres d’un Voyageur” and her novels “Elle et lui” and “Lucrezia Floriani”; in spite of the adverse indirect testimony of some of her other novels, and the adverse direct testimony of her “Correspondance”; and in spite of the experiences and firm beliefs of her friends, Liszt included? Let us not overlook that charitableness towards George Sand implies uncharitableness towards Chopin, place. Need I say anything on the extraordinary charge made against me–namely, that in some cases I have preferred the testimony of less famous men to that of Liszt? Are genius, greatness, and fame the measures of trustworthiness?
As to Chopin, the composer of songs, the case is very simple. His pianoforte pieces are original tone-poems of exquisite beauty; his songs, though always acceptable, and sometimes charming, are not. We should know nothing of them and the composer, if of his works they alone had been published. In not publishing them himself, Chopin gave us his own opinion, an opinion confirmed by the singers in rarely performing them and by the public in little caring for them. In short, Chopin’s songs add nothing to his fame. To mention them in one breath with those of Schubert and Schumann, or even with those of Robert Franz and Adolf Jensen, is the act of an hero-worshipping enthusiast, not of a discriminating critic.
On two points, often commented upon by critics, I feel regret, although not repentance–namely, on any “anecdotic iconoclasm” where fact refuted fancy, and on my abstention from pronouncing judgments where the evidence was inconclusive. But how can a conscientious biographer help this ungraciousness and inaccommodativeness? Is it not his duty to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, in order that his subject may stand out unobstructed and shine forth unclouded?
In conclusion, two instances of careless reading. One critic, after attributing a remark of Chopin’s to me, exclaims: “The author is fond of such violent jumps to conclusions.” And an author, most benevolently inclined towards me, enjoyed the humour of my first “literally ratting” George Sand, and then saying that I “abstained from pronouncing judgment because the complete evidence did not warrant my doing so.” The former (in vol. i.) had to do with George Sand’s character; the latter (in vol. ii.) with the moral aspect of her connection with Chopin.
An enumeration of the more notable books dealing with Chopin, published after the issue of the earlier editions of the present book will form an appropriate coda to this preface–“Frederic Francois Chopin,” by Charles Willeby; “Chopin, and Other Musical Essays,” by Henry T. Finck; “Studies in Modern Music” (containing an essay on Chopin), by W. H. Hadow; “Chopin’s Greater Works,” by Jean Kleczynski, translated by Natalie Janotha; and “Chopin: the Man and his Music,” by James Huneker.
Edinburgh, February, 1902.
POLAND AND THE POLES.
THE works of no composer of equal importance bear so striking a national impress as those of Chopin. It would, however, be an error to attribute this simply and solely to the superior force of the Polish musician’s patriotism. The same force of patriotism in an Italian, Frenchman, German, or Englishman would not have produced a similar result. Characteristics such as distinguish Chopin’s music presuppose a nation as peculiarly endowed, constituted, situated, and conditioned, as the Polish–a nation with a history as brilliant and dark, as fair and hideous, as romantic and tragic. The peculiarities of the peoples of western Europe have been considerably modified, if not entirely levelled, by centuries of international intercourse; the peoples of the eastern part of the Continent, on the other hand, have, until recent times, kept theirs almost intact, foreign influences penetrating to no depth, affecting indeed no more than the aristocratic few, and them only superficially. At any rate, the Slavonic races have not been moulded by the Germanic and Romanic races as these latter have moulded each other: east and west remain still apart–strangers, if not enemies. Seeing how deeply rooted Chopin’s music is in the national soil, and considering how little is generally known about Poland and the Poles, the necessity of paying in this case more attention to the land of the artist’s birth and the people to which he belongs than is usually done in biographies of artists, will be admitted by all who wish to understand fully and appreciate rightly the poet- musician and his works. But while taking note of what is of national origin in Chopin’s music, we must be careful not to ascribe to this origin too much. Indeed, the fact that the personal individuality of Chopin is as markedly differentiated, as exclusively self-contained, as the national individuality of Poland, is oftener overlooked than the master’s national descent and its significance with regard to his artistic production. And now, having made the reader acquainted with the raison d’etre of this proem, I shall plunge without further preliminaries in medias res.
The palmy days of Poland came to an end soon after the extinction of the dynasty of the Jagellons in 1572. So early as 1661 King John Casimir warned the nobles, whose insubordination and want of solidity, whose love of outside glitter and tumult, he deplored, that, unless they remedied the existing evils, reformed their pretended free elections, and renounced their personal privileges, the noble kingdom would become the prey of other nations. Nor was this the first warning. The Jesuit Peter Skarga (1536–1612), an indefatigable denunciator of the vices of the ruling classes, told them in 1605 that their dissensions would bring them under the yoke of those who hated them, deprive them of king and country, drive them into exile, and make them despised by those who formerly feared and respected them. But these warnings remained unheeded, and the prophecies were fulfilled to the letter. Elective kingship, pacta conventa, [Footnote: Terms which a candidate for the throne had to subscribe on his election. They were of course dictated by the electors–i.e., by the selfish interest of one class, the szlachta (nobility), or rather the most powerful of them.] liberum veto, [Footnote: The right of any member to stop the proceedings of the Diet by pronouncing the words “Nie pozwalam” (I do not permit), or others of the same import.] degradation of the burgher class, enslavement of the peasantry, and other devices of an ever-encroaching nobility, transformed the once powerful and flourishing commonwealth into one “lying as if broken-backed on the public highway; a nation anarchic every fibre of it, and under the feet and hoofs of travelling neighbours.” [Footnote: Thomas Carlyle, Frederick the Great, vol. viii., p. 105.] In the rottenness of the social organism, venality, unprincipled ambition, and religious intolerance found a congenial soil; and favoured by and favouring foreign intrigues and interferences, they bore deadly fruit–confederations, civil wars, Russian occupation of the country and dominion over king, council, and diet, and the beginning of the end, the first partition (1772) by which Poland lost a third of her territory with five millions of inhabitants. Even worse, however, was to come. For the partitioning powers–Russia, Prussia, and Austria– knew how by bribes and threats to induce the Diet not only to sanction the spoliation, but also so to alter the constitution as to enable them to have a permanent influence over the internal affairs of the Republic.
The Pole Francis Grzymala remarks truly that if instead of some thousand individuals swaying the destinies of Poland, the whole nation had enjoyed equal rights, and, instead of being plunged in darkness and ignorance, the people had been free and consequently capable of feeling and thinking, the national cause, imperilled by the indolence and perversity of one part of the citizens, would have been saved by those who now looked on without giving a sign of life. The “some thousands” here spoken of are of course the nobles, who had grasped all the political power and almost all the wealth of the nation, and, imitating the proud language of Louis XIV, could, without exaggeration, have said: “L’etat c’est nous.” As for the king and the commonalty, the one had been deprived of almost all his prerogatives, and the other had become a rightless rabble of wretched peasants, impoverished burghers, and chaffering Jews. Rousseau, in his Considerations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, says pithily that the three orders of which the Republic of Poland was composed were not, as had been so often and illogically stated, the equestrian order, the senate, and the king, but the nobles who were everything, the burghers who were nothing, and the peasants who were less than nothing. The nobility of Poland differed from that of Other countries not only in its supreme political and social position, but also in its numerousness, character, and internal constitution.
[Footnote: The statistics concerning old Poland are provokingly contradictory. One authority calculates that the nobility comprised 120,000 families, or one fourteenth of the population (which, before the first partition, is variously estimated at from fifteen to twenty millions); another counts only 100,000 families; and a third states that between 1788 and 1792 (i.e., after the first partition) there were 38,314 families of nobles.]
All nobles were equal in rank, and as every French soldier was said to carry a marshal’s staff in his knapsack, so every Polish noble was born a candidate for the throne. This equality, however, was rather de jure than de facto; legal decrees could not fill the chasm which separated families distinguished by wealth and fame–such as the Sapiehas, Radziwills, Czartoryskis, Zamoyskis, Potockis, and Branickis–from obscure noblemen whose possessions amount to no more than “a few acres of land, a sword, and a pair of moustaches that extend from one ear to the other,” or perhaps amounted only to the last two items. With some insignificant exceptions, the land not belonging to the state or the church was in the hands of the nobles, a few of whom had estates of the extent of principalities. Many of the poorer amongst the nobility attached themselves to their better-situated brethren, becoming their dependents and willing tools. The relation of the nobility to the peasantry is well characterised in a passage of Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz, where a peasant, on humbly suggesting that the nobility suffered less from the measures of their foreign rulers than his own class, is told by one of his betters that this is a silly remark, seeing that peasants, like eels, are accustomed to being skinned, whereas the well-born are accustomed to live in liberty.
Nothing illustrates so well the condition of a people as the way in which justice is administered. In Poland a nobleman was on his estate prosecutor as well as judge, and could be arrested only after conviction, or, in the case of high-treason, murder, and robbery, if taken in the act. And whilst the nobleman enjoyed these high privileges, the peasant had, as the law terms it, no facultatem standi in judicio, and his testimony went for nothing in the courts of justice. More than a hundred laws in the statutes of Poland are said to have been unfavourable to these poor wretches. In short, the peasant was quite at the mercy of the privileged class, and his master could do with him pretty much as he liked, whipping and selling not excepted, nor did killing cost more than a fine of a few shillings. The peasants on the state domains and of the clergy were, however, somewhat better off; and the burghers, too, enjoyed some shreds of their old privileges with more or less security. If we look for a true and striking description of the comparative position of the principal classes of the population of Poland, we find it in these words of a writer of the eighteenth century: “Polonia coelum nobilium, paradisus clericorum, infernus rusticorum.”
The vast plain of Poland, although in many places boggy and sandy, is on the whole fertile, especially in the flat river valleys, and in the east at the sources of the Dnieper; indeed, it is so much so that it has been called the granary of Europe. But as the pleasure-loving gentlemen had nobler pursuits to attend to, and the miserable peasants, with whom it was a saying that only what they spent in drink was their own, were not very anxious to work more and better than they could help, agriculture was in a very neglected condition. With manufacture and commerce it stood not a whit better. What little there was, was in the hands of the Jews and foreigners, the nobles not being allowed to meddle with such base matters, and the degraded descendants of the industrious and enterprising ancient burghers having neither the means nor the spirit to undertake anything of the sort. Hence the strong contrast of wealth and poverty, luxury and distress, that in every part of Poland, in town and country, struck so forcibly and painfully all foreign travellers. Of the Polish provinces that in 1773 came under Prussian rule we read that–
the country people hardly knew such a thing as bread, many had never in their life tasted such a delicacy; few villages had an oven. A weaving-loom was rare; the spinning-wheel unknown. The main article of furniture, in this bare scene of squalor, was the crucifix and vessel of holy-water under it….It was a desolate land without discipline, without law, without a master. On 9,000 English square miles lived 500,000 souls: not 55 to the square mile. [Footnote: Carlyle. Frederick the Great, vol. x., p. 40.]
And this poverty and squalor were not to be found only in one part of Poland, they seem to have been general. Abbe de Mably when seeing, in 1771, the misery of the country (campagne) and the bad condition of the roads, imagined himself in Tartary. William Coxe, the English historian and writer of travels, who visited Poland after the first partition, relates, in speaking of the district called Podlachia, that he visited between Bjelsk and Woyszki villages in which there was nothing but the bare walls, and he was told at the table of the —— that knives, forks, and spoons were conveniences unknown to the peasants. He says he never saw–
a road so barren of interesting scenes as that from Cracow to Warsaw–for the most part level, with little variation of surface; chiefly overspread with tracts of thick forest; where open, the distant horizon was always skirted with wood (chiefly pines and firs, intermixed with beech, birch, and small oaks). The occasional breaks presented some pasture- ground, with here and there a few meagre crops of corn. The natives were poorer, humbler, and more miserable than any people we had yet observed in the course of our travels: whenever we stopped they flocked around us in crowds; and, asking for charity, used the most abject gestures….The Polish peasants are cringing and servile in their expressions of respect; they bowed down to the ground; took off their hats or caps and held them in their hands till we were out of sight; stopped their carts on the first glimpse of our carriage; in short, their whole behaviour gave evident symptoms of the abject servitude under which they groaned. [FOOTNOTE: William Coxe, Travels in Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark (1784–90).]
The Jews, to whom I have already more than once alluded, are too important an element in the population of Poland not to be particularly noticed. They are a people within a people, differing in dress as well as in language, which is a jargon of German-Hebrew. Their number before the first partition has been variously estimated at from less than two millions to fully two millions and a half in a population of from fifteen to twenty millions, and in 1860 there were in Russian Poland 612,098 Jews in a population of 4,867,124.
[FOOTNOTE: According to Charles Forster (in Pologne, a volume of the historical series entitled L’univers pittoresque, published by Firmin Didot freres of Paris), who follows Stanislas Plater, the population of Poland within the boundaries of 1772 amounted to 20,220,000 inhabitants, and was composed of 6,770,000 Poles, 7,520,000 Russians (i.e., White and Red Russians), 2,110,000 Jews, 1,900,000 Lithuanians, 1,640,000 Germans, 180,000 Muscovites (i.e., Great Russians), and 100,000 Wallachians.]
They monopolise [says Mr. Coxe] the commerce and trade of the country, keep inns and taverns, are stewards to the nobility, and seem to have so much influence that nothing can be bought or sold without the intervention of a Jew.
Our never-failing informant was particularly struck with the number and usefulness of the Jews in Lithuania when he visited that part of the Polish Republic in 1781–
If you ask for an interpreter, they bring you a Jew; if you want post-horses, a Jew procures them and a Jew drives them; if you wish to purchase, a Jew is your agent; and this perhaps is the only country in Europe where Jews cultivate the ground; in passing through Lithuania, we frequently saw them engaged in sowing, reaping, mowing, and other works of husbandry.
Having considered the condition of the lower classes, we will now turn our attention to that of the nobility. The very unequal distribution of wealth among them has already been mentioned. Some idea of their mode of life may be formed from the account of the Starost Krasinski’s court in the diary (year 1759) of his daughter, Frances Krasinska. [FOOTNOTE: A starost (starosta) is the possessor of a starosty (starostwo)–i.e., a castle and domains conferred on a nobleman for life by the crown.] Her description of the household seems to justify her belief that there were not many houses in Poland that surpassed theirs in magnificence. In introducing to the reader the various ornaments and appendages of the magnate’s court, I shall mention first, giving precedence to the fair sex, that there lived under the supervision of a French governess six young ladies of noble families. The noblemen attached to the lord of the castle were divided into three classes. In the first class were to be found sons of wealthy, or, at least, well-to-do families who served for honour, and came to the court to acquire good manners and as an introduction to a civil or military career. The starost provided the keep of their horses, and also paid weekly wages of two florins to their grooms. Each of these noble-men had besides a groom another servant who waited on his master at table, standing behind his chair and dining on what he left on his plate. Those of the second class were paid for their services and had fixed duties to perform. Their pay amounted to from 300 to 1,000 florins (a florin being about the value of sixpence), in addition to which gratuities and presents were often given. Excepting the chaplain, doctor, and secretary, they did not, like the preceding class, have the honour of sitting with their master at table. With regard to this privilege it is, however, worth noticing that those courtiers who enjoyed it derived materially hardly any advantage from it, for on week-days wine was served only to the family and their guests, and the dishes of roast meat were arranged pyramidally, so that fowl and venison went to those at the head of the table, and those sitting farther down had to content themselves with the coarser kinds of meat–with beef, pork, &c. The duties of the third class of followers, a dozen young men from fifteen to twenty years of age, consisted in accompanying the family on foot or on horseback, and doing their messages, such as carrying presents and letters of invitation. The second and third classes were under the jurisdiction of the house-steward, who, in the case of the young gentlemen, was not sparing in the application of the cat. A strict injunction was laid on all to appear in good clothes. As to the other servants of the castle, the authoress thought she would find it difficult to specify them; indeed, did not know even the number of their musicians, cooks, Heyducs, Cossacks, and serving maids and men. She knew, however, that every day five tables were served, and that from morning to night two persons were occupied in distributing the things necessary for the kitchen. More impressive even than a circumstantial account like this are briefly-stated facts such as the following: that the Palatine Stanislas Jablonowski kept a retinue of 2,300 soldiers and 4,000 courtiers, valets, armed attendants, huntsmen, falconers, fishers, musicians, and actors; and that Janusz, Prince of Ostrog, left at his death a majorat of eighty towns and boroughs, and 2,760 villages, without counting the towns and villages of his starosties. The magnates who distinguished themselves during the reign of Stanislas Augustus (1764–1795) by the brilliance and magnificence of their courts were the Princes Czartoryski and Radziwill, Count Potocki, and Bishop Soltyk of Cracovia. Our often-quoted English traveller informs us that the revenue of Prince Czartoryski amounted to nearly 100,000 pounds per annum, and that his style of living corresponded with this income. The Prince kept an open table at which there rarely sat down less than from twenty to thirty persons. [FOOTNOTE: Another authority informs us that on great occasions the Czartoryskis received at their table more than twenty thousand persons.] The same informant has much to say about the elegance and luxury of the Polish nobility in their houses and villas, in the decoration and furniture of which he found the French and English styles happily blended. He gives a glowing account of the fetes at which he was present, and says that they were exquisitely refined and got up regardless of expense.
Whatever changes the national character of the Poles has undergone in the course of time, certain traits of it have remained unaltered, and among these stands forth predominantly their chivalry. Polish bravery is so universally recognised and admired that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon it. For who has not heard at least of the victorious battle of Czotzim, of the delivery of Vienna, of the no less glorious defeats of Maciejowice and Ostrolenka, and of the brilliant deeds of Napoleon’s Polish Legion? And are not the names of Poland’s most popular heroes, Sobieski and Kosciuszko, household words all the world over? Moreover, the Poles have proved their chivalry not only by their valour on the battle-field, but also by their devotion to the fair sex. At banquets in the good olden time it was no uncommon occurrence to see a Pole kneel down before his lady, take off one of her shoes, and drink out of it. But the women of Poland seem to be endowed with a peculiar power. Their beauty, grace, and bewitching manner inflame the heart and imagination of all that set their eyes on them. How often have they not conquered the conquerors of their country? [FOOTNOTE: The Emperor Nicholas is credited with the saying: “Je pourrais en finir des Polonais si je venais a bout des Polonaises.”] They remind Heine of the tenderest and loveliest flowers that grow on the banks of the Ganges, and he calls for the brush of Raphael, the melodies of Mozart, the language of Calderon, so that he may conjure up before his readers an Aphrodite of the Vistula. Liszt, bolder than Heine, makes the attempt to portray them, and writes like an inspired poet. No Pole can speak on this subject without being transported into a transcendental rapture that illumines his countenance with a blissful radiance, and inspires him with a glowing eloquence which, he thinks, is nevertheless beggared by the matchless reality.
The French of the North–for thus the Poles have been called–are of a very excitable nature; easily moved to anger, and easily appeased; soon warmed into boundless enthusiasm, and soon also manifesting lack of perseverance. They feel happiest in the turmoil of life and in the bustle of society. Retirement and the study of books are little to their taste. Yet, knowing how to make the most of their limited stock of knowledge, they acquit themselves well in conversation. Indeed, they have a natural aptitude for the social arts which insures their success in society, where they move with ease and elegance. Their oriental mellifluousness, hyperbolism, and obsequious politeness of speech have, as well as the Asiatic appearance of their features and dress, been noticed by all travellers in Poland. Love of show is another very striking trait in the character of the Poles. It struggles to manifest itself among the poor, causes the curious mixture of splendour and shabbiness among the better-situated people, and gives rise to the greatest extravagances among the wealthy. If we may believe the chroniclers and poets, the entertainments of the Polish magnates must have often vied with the marvellous feasts of imperial Rome. Of the vastness of the households with which these grands seigneurs surrounded themselves, enough has already been said. Perhaps the chief channel through which this love of show vented itself was the decoration of man and horse. The entrance of Polish ambassadors with their numerous suites has more than once astonished the Parisians, who were certainly accustomed to exhibitions of this kind. The mere description of some of them is enough to dazzle one–the superb horses with their bridles and stirrups of massive silver, and their caparisons and saddles embroidered with golden flowers; and the not less superb men with their rich garments of satin or gold cloth, adorned with rare furs, their bonnets surmounted by bright plumes, and their weapons of artistic workmanship, the silver scabbards inlaid with rubies. We hear also of ambassadors riding through towns on horses loosely shod with gold or silver, so that the horse-shoes lost on their passage might testify to their wealth and grandeur. I shall quote some lines from a Polish poem in which the author describes in detail the costume of an eminent nobleman in the early part of this century:–
He was clad in the uniform of the palatinate: a doublet embroidered with gold, an overcoat of Tours silk ornamented with fringes, a belt of brocade from which hung a sword with a hilt of morocco. At his neck glittered a clasp with diamonds. His square white cap was surmounted by a magnificent plume, composed of tufts of herons’ feathers. It is only on festive occasions that such a rich bouquet, of which each feather costs a ducat, is put on.
The belt above mentioned was one of the most essential parts and the chief ornament of the old Polish national dress, and those manufactured at Sluck had especially a high reputation. A description of a belt of Sluck, “with thick fringes like tufts,” glows on another page of the poem from which I took my last quotation:–
On one side it is of gold with purple flowers; on the other it is of black silk with silver checks. Such a belt can be worn on either side: the part woven with gold for festive days; the reverse for days of mourning.
A vivid picture of the Polish character is to be found in Mickiewicz’s epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, from which the above quotations are taken.
[FOOTNOTE: I may mention here another interesting book illustrative of Polish character and life, especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, which has been of much use to me–namely, Count Henry Rzewuski’s Memoirs of Pan Severin Soplica, translated into German, and furnished with an instructive preface by Philipp Lubenstein.]
He handles his pencil lovingly; proclaiming with just pride the virtues of his countrymen, and revealing with a kindly smile their weaknesses. In this truest, perhaps, of all the portraits that have ever been drawn of the Poles, we see the gallantry and devotion, the generosity and hospitality, the grace and liveliness in social intercourse, but also the excitability and changefulness, the quickly inflamed enthusiasm and sudden depression, the restlessness and turbulence, the love of outward show and of the pleasures of society, the pompous pride, boastfulness, and other little vanities, in short, all the qualities, good and bad, that distinguish his countrymen. Heinrich Heine, not always a trustworthy witness, but in this case so unusually serious that we will take advantage of his acuteness and conciseness, characterises the Polish nobleman by the following precious mosaic of adjectives: “hospitable, proud, courageous, supple, false (this little yellow stone must not be lacking), irritable, enthusiastic, given to gambling, pleasure- loving, generous, and overbearing.” Whether Heine was not mistaken as to the presence of the little yellow stone is a question that may have to be discussed in another part of this work. The observer who, in enumerating the most striking qualities of the Polish character, added “MISTRUSTFULNESS and SUSPICIOUSNESS engendered by many misfortunes and often- disappointed hopes,” came probably nearer the truth. And this reminds me of a point which ought never to be left out of sight when contemplating any one of these portraits–namely, the time at which it was taken. This, of course, is always an important consideration; but it is so in a higher degree in the case of a nation whose character, like the Polish, has at different epochs of its existence assumed such varied aspects. The first great change came over the national character on the introduction of elective kingship: it was, at least so far as the nobility was concerned, a change for the worse–from simplicity, frugality, and patriotism, to pride, luxury, and selfishness; the second great change was owing to the disasters that befell the nation in the latter half of the last century: it was on the whole a change for the better, purifying and ennobling, calling forth qualities that till then had lain dormant. At the time the events I have to relate take us to Poland, the nation is just at this last turning- point, but it has not yet rounded it. To what an extent the bad qualities had overgrown the good ones, corrupting and deadening them, may be gathered from contemporary witnesses. George Forster, who was appointed professor of natural history at Wilna in 1784, and remained in that position for several years, says that he found in Poland “a medley of fanatical and almost New Zealand barbarity and French super-refinement; a people wholly ignorant and without taste, and nevertheless given to luxury, gambling, fashion, and outward glitter.”
Frederick II describes the Poles in language still more harsh; in his opinion they are vain in fortune, cringing in misfortune, capable of anything for the sake of money, spendthrifts, frivolous, without judgment, always ready to join or abandon a party without cause. No doubt there is much exaggeration in these statements; but that there is also much truth in them, is proved by the accounts of many writers, native and foreign, who cannot be accused of being prejudiced against Poland. Rulhiere, and other more or less voluminous authorities, might be quoted; but, not to try the patience of the reader too much, I shall confine myself to transcribing a clenching remark of a Polish nobleman, who told our old friend, the English traveller, that although the name of Poland still remained, the nation no longer existed. “An universal corruption and venality pervades all ranks of the people. Many of the first nobility do not blush to receive pensions from foreign courts: one professes himself publicly an Austrian, a second a Prussian, a third a Frenchman, and a fourth a Russian.”
FREDERICK CHOPIN’S ANCESTORS.–HIS FATHER NICHOLAS CHOPIN’S BIRTH, YOUTH, ARRIVAL AND EARLY VICISSITUDES IN POLAND, AND MARRIAGE.–BIRTH AND EARLY INFANCY OF FREDERICK CHOPIN.–HIS PARENTS AND SISTERS.
GOETHE playfully describes himself as indebted to his father for his frame and steady guidance of life, to his mother for his happy disposition and love of story-telling, to his grandfather for his devotion to the fair sex, to his grandmother for his love of finery. Schopenhauer reduces the law of heredity to the simple formula that man has his moral nature, his character, his inclinations, and his heart from his father, and the quality and tendency of his intellect from his mother. Buckle, on the other hand, questions hereditary transmission of mental qualities altogether. Though little disposed to doubt with the English historian, yet we may hesitate to assent to the proposition of the German philosopher; the adoption of a more scientific doctrine, one that recognises a process of compensation, neutralisation, and accentuation, would probably bring us nearer the truth. But whatever the complicated working of the law of heredity may be, there can be no doubt that the tracing of a remarkable man’s pedigree is always an interesting and rarely an entirely idle occupation. Pursuing such an inquiry with regard to Frederick Chopin, we find ourselves, however, soon at the end of our tether. This is the more annoying, as there are circumstances that particularly incite our curiosity. The “Journal de Rouen” of December 1, 1849, contains an article, probably by Amedee de Mereaux, in which it is stated that Frederick Chopin was descended from the French family Chopin d’Arnouville, of which one member, a victim of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had taken refuge in Poland. [Footnote: In scanning the Moniteur of 1835, I came across several prefects and sous-prefects of the name of Choppin d’Arnouville. (There are two communes of the name of Arnouville, both are in the departement of the Seine et Oise– the one in the arrondissement Mantes, the other in the arrondissement Pontoise. This latter is called Arnouville-les- Gonesse.) I noticed also a number of intimations concerning plain Chopins and Choppins who served their country as maires and army officers. Indeed, the name of Chopin is by no means uncommon in France, and more than one individual of that name has illustrated it by his achievements–to wit: The jurist Rene Chopin or Choppin (1537–1606), the litterateur Chopin (born about 1800), and the poet Charles-Auguste Chopin (1811–1844).] Although this confidently-advanced statement is supported by the inscription on the composer’s tombstone in Pere Lachaise, which describes his father as a French refugee, both the Catholicism of the latter and contradictory accounts of his extraction caution us not to put too much faith in its authenticity. M. A. Szulc, the author of a Polish book on Chopin and his works, has been told that Nicholas Chopin, the father of Frederick, was the natural son of a Polish nobleman, who, having come with King Stanislas Leszczynski to Lorraine, adopted there the name of Chopin. From Karasowski we learn nothing of Nicholas Chopin’s parentage. But as he was a friend of the Chopin family, and from them got much of his information, this silence might with equal force be adduced for and against the correctness of Szulc’s story, which in itself is nowise improbable. The only point that could strike one as strange is the change of name. But would not the death of the Polish ruler and the consequent lapse of Lorraine to France afford some inducement for the discarding of an unpronounceable foreign name? It must, however, not be overlooked that this story is but a hearsay, relegated to a modest foot-note, and put forward without mention of the source whence it is derived. [FOOTNOTE: Count Wodzinski, who leaves Nicholas Chopin’s descent an open question, mentions a variant of Szulc’s story, saying that some biographers pretended that Nicholas Chopin was descended from one of the name of Szop, a soldier, valet, or heyduc (reitre, valet, ou heiduque) in the service of Stanislas Leszczinski, whom he followed to Lorraine.] Indeed, until we get possession of indisputable proofs, it will be advisable to disregard these more or less fabulous reports altogether, and begin with the first well-ascertained fact–namely, Nicholas Chopin’s birth, which took place at Nancy, in Lorraine, on the 17th of August, 1770. Of his youth nothing is known except that, like other young men of his country, he conceived a desire to visit Poland. Polish descent would furnish a satisfactory explanation of Nicholas’ sentiments in regard to Poland at this time and subsequently, but an equally satisfactory explanation can be found without having recourse to such a hazardous assumption.
In 1735 Stanislas Leszczynski, who had been King of Poland from 1704 to 1709, became Duke of Lorraine and Bar, and reigned over the Duchies till 1766, when an accident–some part of his dress taking fire–put an end to his existence. As Stanislas was a wise, kind-hearted, and benevolent prince, his subjects not only loved him as long as he lived, but also cherished his memory after his death, when their country had been united to France. The young, we may be sure, would often hear their elders speak of the good times of Duke Stanislas, of the Duke (the philosophe bienfaisant) himself, and of the strange land and people he came from. But Stanislas, besides being an excellent prince, was also an amiable, generous gentleman, who, whilst paying due attention to the well-being of his new subjects, remained to the end of his days a true Pole. From this circumstance it may be easily inferred that the Court of Stanislas proved a great attraction to his countrymen, and that Nancy became a chief halting-place of Polish travellers on their way to and from Paris. Of course, not all the Poles that had settled in the Duchies during the Duke’s reign left the country after his demise, nor did their friends from the fatherland altogether cease to visit them in their new home. Thus a connection between the two countries was kept up, and the interest taken by the people of the west in the fortunes of the people in the east was not allowed to die. Moreover, were not the Academie de Stanislas founded by the Duke, the monument erected to his memory, and the square named after him, perpetual reminders to the inhabitants of Nancy and the visitors to that town?
Nicholas Chopin came to Warsaw in or about the year 1787. Karasowski relates in the first and the second German edition of his biography of Frederick Chopin that the Staroscina [FOOTNOTE: The wife of a starosta (vide p. 7.)] Laczynska made the acquaintance of the latter’s father, and engaged him as tutor to her children; but in the later Polish edition he abandons this account in favour of one given by Count Frederick Skarbek in his Pamietniki (Memoirs). According to this most trustworthy of procurable witnesses (why he is the most trustworthy will be seen presently), Nicholas Chopin’s migration to Poland came about in this way. A Frenchman had established in Warsaw a manufactory of tobacco, which, as the taking of snuff was then becoming more and more the fashion, began to flourish in so high a degree that he felt the need of assistance. He proposed, therefore, to his countryman, Nicholas Chopin, to come to him and take in hand the book-keeping, a proposal which was readily accepted.
The first impression of the young Lorrainer on entering the land of his dreams cannot have been altogether of a pleasant nature. For in the summer of 1812, when, we are told, the condition of the people had been infinitely ameliorated by the Prussian and Russian governments, M. de Pradt, Napoleon’s ambassador, found the nation in a state of semi-barbarity, agriculture in its infancy, the soil parched like a desert, the animals stunted, the people, although of good stature, in a state of extreme poverty, the towns built of wood, the houses filled with vermin, and the food revolting. This picture will not escape the suspicion of being overdrawn. But J.G. Seume, who was by no means over- squeamish, and whom experience had taught the meaning of “to rough it,” asserts, in speaking of Poland in 1805, that, Warsaw and a few other places excepted, the dunghill was in most houses literally and without exaggeration the cleanest spot, and the only one where one could stand without loathing. But if the general aspect of things left much to be desired from a utilitarian point of view, its strangeness and picturesqueness would not fail to compensate an imaginative youth for the want of order and comfort. The strong contrast of wealth and poverty, of luxury and distress, that gave to the whole country so melancholy an appearance, was, as it were, focussed in its capital. Mr. Coxe, who visited Warsaw not long before Nicholas Chopin’s arrival there, says:–
The streets are spacious, but ill-paved; the churches and public buildings large and magnificent, the palaces of the nobility are numerous and splendid; but the greatest part of the houses, especially the suburbs, are mean and ill- constructed wooden hovels.
What, however, struck a stranger most, was the throngs of humanity that enlivened the streets and squares of Warsaw, the capital of a nation composed of a medley of Poles, Lithuanians, Red and White Russians, Germans, Muscovites, Jews, and Wallachians, and the residence of a numerous temporary and permanent foreign population. How our friend from quiet Nancy– which long ago had been deserted by royalty and its train, and where literary luminaries, such as Voltaire, Madame du Chatelet, Saint Lambert, &c., had ceased to make their fitful appearances– must have opened his eyes when this varied spectacle unfolded itself before him.
The streets of stately breadth, formed of palaces in the finest Italian taste and wooden huts which at every moment threatened to tumble down on the heads of the inmates; in these buildings Asiatic pomp and Greenland dirtin strange union, an ever-bustling population, forming, like a masked procession, the most striking contrasts. Long-bearded Jews, and monks in all kinds of habits; nuns of the strictest discipline, entirely veiled and wrapped in meditation; and in the large squares troops of young Polesses in light-coloured silk mantles engaged in conversation; venerable old Polish gentlemen with moustaches, caftan, girdle, sword, and yellow and red boots; and the new generation in the most incroyable Parisian fashion. Turks, Greeks, Russians, Italians, and French in an ever-changing throng; moreover, an exceedingly tolerant police that interfered nowise with the popular amusements, so that in squares and streets there moved about incessantly Pulchinella theatres, dancing bears, camels, and monkeys, before which the most elegant carriages as well as porters stopped and stood gaping.
Thus pictures J. E. Hitzig, the biographer of E. Th. A. Hoffmann, and himself a sojourner in Warsaw, the life of the Polish capital in 1807. When Nicholas Chopin saw it first the spectacle in the streets was even more stirring, varied, and brilliant; for then Warsaw was still the capital of an independent state, and the pending and impending political affairs brought to it magnates from all the principal courts of Europe, who vied with each other in the splendour of their carriages and horses, and in the number and equipment of their attendants.
In the introductory part of this work I have spoken of the misfortunes that befel Poland and culminated in the first partition. But the buoyancy of the Polish character helped the nation to recover sooner from this severe blow than could have been expected. Before long patriots began to hope that the national disaster might be turned into a blessing. Many circumstances favoured the realisation of these hopes. Prussia, on discovering that her interests no longer coincided with those of her partners of 1772, changed sides, and by-and-by even went the length of concluding a defensive and offensive alliance with the Polish Republic. She, with England and other governments, backed Poland against Russia and Austria. Russia, moreover, had to turn her attention elsewhere. At the time of Nicholas Chopin’s arrival, Poland was dreaming of a renascence of her former greatness, and everyone was looking forward with impatience to the assembly of the Diet which was to meet the following year. Predisposed by sympathy, he was soon drawn into the current of excitement and enthusiasm that was surging around him. Indeed, what young soul possessed of any nobleness could look with indifference on a nation struggling for liberty and independence. As he took a great interest in the debates and transactions of the Diet, he became more and more acquainted with the history, character, condition, and needs of the country, and this stimulated him to apply himself assiduously to the study of the national language, in order to increase, by means of this faithful mirror and interpreter of a people’s heart and mind, his knowledge of these things. And now I must ask the reader to bear patiently the infliction of a brief historical summary, which I would most willingly spare him, were I not prevented by two strong reasons. In the first place, the vicissitudes of Nicholas Chopin’s early life in Poland are so closely bound up with, or rather so much influenced by, the political events, that an intelligible account of the former cannot be given without referring to the latter; and in the second place, those same political events are such important factors in the moulding of the national character, that, if we wish to understand it, they ought not to be overlooked.
The Diet which assembled at the end of 1788, in order to prevent the use or rather abuse of the liberum veto, soon formed itself into a confederation, abolished in 1789 the obnoxious Permanent Council, and decreed in 1791, after much patriotic oratory and unpatriotic obstruction, the famous constitution of the 3rd of May, regarded by the Poles up to this day with loving pride, and admired and praised at the time by sovereigns and statesmen, Fox and Burke among them. Although confirming most of the privileges of the nobles, the constitution nevertheless bore in it seeds of good promise. Thus, for instance, the crown was to pass after the death of the reigning king to the Elector of Saxony, and become thenceforth hereditary; greater power was given to the king and ministers, confederations and the liberum veto were declared illegal, the administration of justice was ameliorated, and some attention was paid to the rights and wrongs of the third estate and peasantry. But the patriots who already rejoiced in the prospect of a renewal of Polish greatness and prosperity had counted without the proud selfish aristocrats, without Russia, always ready to sow and nurture discord. Hence new troubles–the confederation of Targowica, Russian demands for the repeal of the constitution and unconditional submission to the Empress Catharine II, betrayal by Prussia, invasion, war, desertion of the national cause by their own king and his joining the conspirators of Targowica, and then the second partition of Poland (October 14, 1793), implying a further loss of territory and population. Now, indeed, the events were hastening towards the end of the sad drama, the finis poloniae. After much hypocritical verbiage and cruel coercion and oppression by Russia and Prussia, more especially by the former, outraged Poland rose to free itself from the galling yoke, and fought under the noble Kosciuszko and other gallant generals with a bravery that will for ever live in the memory of men. But however glorious the attempt, it was vain. Having three such powers as Russia, Prussia, and Austria against her, Poland, unsupported by allies and otherwise hampered, was too weak to hold her own. Without inquiring into the causes and the faults committed by her commanders, without dwelling on or even enumerating the vicissitudes of the struggle, I shall pass on to the terrible closing scene of the drama–the siege and fall of Praga, the suburb of Warsaw, and the subsequent massacre. The third partition (October 24, 1795), in which each of the three powers took her share, followed as a natural consequence, and Poland ceased to exist as an independent state. Not, however, for ever; for when in 1807 Napoleon, after crushing Prussia and defeating Russia, recast at Tilsit to a great extent the political conformation of Europe, bullying King Frederick William III and flattering the Emperor Alexander, he created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, over which he placed as ruler the then King of Saxony.
Now let us see how Nicholas Chopin fared while these whirlwinds passed over Poland. The threatening political situation and the consequent general insecurity made themselves at once felt in trade, indeed soon paralysed it. What more particularly told on the business in which the young Lorrainer was engaged was the King’s desertion of the national cause, which induced the great and wealthy to leave Warsaw and betake themselves for shelter to more retired and safer places. Indeed, so disastrous was the effect of these occurrences on the Frenchman’s tobacco manufactory that it had to be closed. In these circumstances Nicholas Chopin naturally thought of returning home, but sickness detained him. When he had recovered his health, Poland was rising under Kosciuszko. He then joined the national guard, in which he was before long promoted to the rank of captain. On the 5th of November, 1794, he was on duty at Praga, and had not his company been relieved a few hours before the fall of the suburb, he would certainly have met there his death. Seeing that all was lost he again turned his thoughts homewards, when once more sickness prevented him from executing his intention. For a time he tried to make a living by teaching French, but ere long accepted an engagement as tutor in the family–then living in the country–of the Staroscina Laczynska, who meeting him by chance had been favourably impressed by his manners and accomplishments. In passing we may note that among his four pupils (two girls and two boys) was one, Mary, who afterwards became notorious by her connection with Napoleon I., and by the son that sprang from this connection, Count Walewski, the minister of Napoleon III. At the beginning of this century we find Nicholas Chopin at Zelazowa Wola, near Sochaczew, in the house of the Countess Skarbek, as tutor to her son Frederick. It was there that he made the acquaintance of Justina Krzyzanowska, a young lady of noble but poor family, whom he married in the year 1806, and who became the mother of four children, three daughters and one son, the latter being no other than Frederick Chopin, the subject of this biography. The position of Nicholas Chopin in the house of the Countess must have been a pleasant one, for ever after there seems to have existed a friendly relation between the two families. His pupil, Count Frederick Skarbek, who prosecuted his studies at Warsaw and Paris, distinguished himself subsequently as a poet, man of science, professor at the University of Warsaw, state official, philanthropist, and many-sided author–more especially as a politico–economical writer. When in his Memoirs the Count looks back on his youth, he remembers gratefully and with respect his tutor, speaking of him in highly appreciative terms. In teaching, Nicholas Chopin’s chief aim was to form his pupils into useful, patriotic citizens; nothing was farther from his mind than the desire or unconscious tendency to turn them into Frenchmen. And now approaches the time when the principal personage makes his appearance on the stage.
Frederick Chopin, the only son and the third of the four children of Nicholas and Justina Chopin, was born on February 22, 1810,
[FOOTNOTE: See Preface, p. xii. In the earlier editions the date given was March 1,1809, as in the biography by Karasowski, with whom agree the earlier J. Fontana (Preface to Chopin’s posthumous works.–1855), C. Sowinski (Les musiciens polonais et slaves.– 1857), and the writer of the Chopin article in Mendel’s Musikalisches Conversations-Lexikon (1872). According to M. A. Szulc (Fryderyk Chopin.–1873) and the inscription on the memorial (erected in 1880) in the Holy Cross Church at Warsaw, the composer was born on March 2, 1809. The monument in Pere Lachaise, at Paris, bears the date of Chopin’s death, but not that of his birth. Felis, in his Biographie universelle des musiciens, differs widely from these authorities. The first edition (1835–1844) has only the year–1810; the second edition (1861–1865) adds month and day–February 8.]
in a mean little house at Zelazowa Wola, a village about twenty- eight English miles from Warsaw belonging to the Countess Skarbek.
[FOOTNOTE: Count Wodzinski, after indicating the general features of Polish villages–the dwor (manor-house) surrounded by a “bouquet of trees”; the barns and stables forming a square with a well in the centre; the roads planted with poplars and bordered with thatched huts; the rye, wheat, rape, and clover fields, &c.– describes the birthplace of Frederick Chopin as follows: “I have seen there the same dwor embosomed in trees, the same outhouses, the same huts, the same plains where here and there a wild pear- tree throws its shadow. Some steps from the mansion I stopped before a little cot with a slated roof, flanked by a little wooden perron. Nothing has been changed for nearly a hundred years. A dark passage traverses it. On the left, in a room illuminated by the reddish flame of slowly-consumed logs, or by the uncertain light of two candles placed at each extremity of the long table, the maid-servants spin as in olden times, and relate to each other a thousand marvellous legends. On the right, in a lodging of three rooms, so low that one can touch the ceiling, a man of some thirty years, brown, with vivacious eyes, the face closely shaven.” This man was of course Nicholas Chopin. I need hardly say that Count Wodzinski’s description is novelistically tricked out. His accuracy may be judged by the fact that a few pages after the above passage he speaks of the discoloured tiles of the roof which he told his readers before was of slate.]
The son of the latter, Count Frederick Skarbek, Nicholas Chopin’s pupil, a young man of seventeen, stood godfather and gave his name to the new-born offspring of his tutor. Little Frederick’s residence at the village cannot have been of long duration.
The establishment of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 had ushered in a time big with chances for a capable man, and we may be sure that a young husband and father, no doubt already on the look-out for some more lucrative and independent employment, was determined not to miss them. Few peaceful revolutions, if any, can compare in thoroughness with the one that then took place in Poland; a new sovereign ascended the throne, two differently- constituted representative bodies superseded the old Senate and Diet, the French code of laws was introduced, the army and civil service underwent a complete re-organisation, public instruction obtained a long-needed attention, and so forth. To give an idea of the extent of the improvement effected in matters of education, it is enough to mention that the number of schools rose from 140 to 634, and that a commission was formed for the publication of suitable books of instruction in the Polish language. Nicholas Chopin’s hopes were not frustrated; for on October 1, 1810, he was appointed professor of the French language at the newly-founded Lyceum in Warsaw, and a little more than a year after, on January 1, 1812, to a similar post at the School of Artillery and Engineering.
The exact date when Nicholas Chopin and his family settled in Warsaw is not known, nor is it of any consequence. We may, however, safely assume that about this time little Frederick was an inhabitant of the Polish metropolis. During the first years of his life the parents may have lived in somewhat straitened circumstances. The salary of the professorship, even if regularly paid, would hardly suffice for a family to live comfortably, and the time was unfavourable for gaining much by private tuition. M. de Pradt, describing Poland in 1812, says:–
Nothing could exceed the misery of all classes. The army was not paid, the officers were in rags, the best houses were in ruins, the greatest lords were compelled to leave Warsaw from want of money to provide for their tables. No pleasures, no society, no invitations as in Paris and in London. I even saw princesses quit Warsaw from the most extreme distress. The Princess Radziwill had brought two women from England and France, she wished to send them back, but had to keep them because she was unable to pay their salaries and travelling expenses. I saw in Warsaw two French physicians who informed me that they could not procure their fees even from the greatest lords.
But whatever straits the parents may have been put to, the weak, helpless infant would lack none of the necessaries of life, and enjoy all the reasonable comforts of his age.
When in 1815 peace was restored and a period of quiet followed, the family must have lived in easy circumstances; for besides holding appointments as professor at some public schools (under the Russian government he became also one of the staff of teachers at the Military Preparatory School), Nicholas Chopin kept for a number of years a boarding-school, which was patronised by the best families of the country. The supposed poverty of Chopin’s parents has given rise to all sorts of misconceptions and misstatements. A writer in Larousse’s “Grand dictionnaire universel du XIXe siecle” even builds on it a theory explanatory of the character of Chopin and his music: “Sa famille d’origine francaise,” he writes, “jouissait d’une mediocre fortune; de la, peut-etre, certains froissements dans l’organisation nerveuse et la vive sensibilite de l’enfant, sentiments qui devaient plus tard se refleter dans ses oeuvres, empreintes generalement d’une profonde melancolie.” If the writer of the article in question had gone a little farther back, he might have found a sounder basis for his theory in the extremely delicate physical organisation of the man, whose sensitiveness was so acute that in early infancy he could not hear music without crying, and resisted almost all attempts at appeasing him.
The last-mentioned fact, curious and really noteworthy in itself, acquires a certain preciousness by its being the only one transmitted to us of that period of Chopin’s existence. But this scantiness of information need not cause us much regret. During the first years of a man’s life biography is chiefly concerned with his surroundings, with the agencies that train his faculties and mould his character. A man’s acts and opinions are interesting in proportion to the degree of consolidation attained by his individuality. Fortunately our material is abundant enough to enable us to reconstruct in some measure the milieu into which Chopin was born and in which he grew up. We will begin with that first circle which surrounds the child–his family. The negative advantages which our Frederick found there–the absence of the privations and hardships of poverty, with their depressing and often demoralising influence–have already been adverted to; now I must say a few words about the positive advantages with which he was favoured. And it may be at once stated that they cannot be estimated too highly. Frederick enjoyed the greatest of blessings that can be bestowed upon mortal man–viz., that of being born into a virtuous and well-educated family united by the ties of love. I call it the greatest of blessings, because neither catechism and sermons nor schools and colleges can take the place,, or compensate for the want, of this education that does not stop at the outside, but by its subtle, continuous action penetrates to the very heart’s core and pervades the whole being. The atmosphere in which Frederick lived was not only moral and social, but also distinctly intellectual.
The father, Nicholas Chopin, seems to have been a man of worth and culture, honest of purpose, charitable in judgment, attentive to duty, and endowed with a good share of prudence and commonsense. In support of this characterisation may be advanced that among his friends he counted many men of distinction in literature, science, and art; that between him and the parents of his pupils as well as the pupils themselves there existed a friendly relation; that he was on intimate terms with several of his colleagues; and that his children not only loved, but also respected him. No one who reads his son’s letters, which indeed give us some striking glimpses of the man, can fail to notice this last point. On one occasion, when confessing that he had gone to a certain dinner two hours later than he had been asked, Frederick foresees his father’s anger at the disregard for what is owing to others, and especially to one’s elders; and on another occasion he makes excuses for his indifference to non- musical matters, which, he thinks, his father will blame. And mark, these letters were written after Chopin had attained manhood. What testifies to Nicholas Chopin’s, abilities as a teacher and steadiness as a man, is the unshaken confidence of the government: he continued in his position at the Lyceumtill after the revolution in 1831, when this institution, like many others, was closed; he was then appointed a member of the board for the examination of candidates for situations as schoolmasters, and somewhat later he became professor of the French language at the Academy of the Roman Catholic Clergy.
It is more difficult, or rather it is impossible, to form anything like a clear picture of his wife, Justina Chopin. None of those of her son’s letters that are preserved is addressed to her, and in those addressed to the members of the family conjointly, or to friends, nothing occurs that brings her nearer to us, or gives a clue to her character. George Sand said that she was Chopin’s only passion. Karasowski describes her as “particularly tender-hearted and rich in all the truly womanly virtues…..For her quietness and homeliness were the greatest happiness.” K. W. Wojcicki, in “Cmentarz Powazkowski” (Powazki Cemetery), expresses, himself in the same strain. A Scotch lady, who had seen Justina Chopin in her old age, and conversed with her in French, told me that she was then “a neat, quiet, intelligent old lady, whose activeness contrasted strongly with the languor of her son, who had not a shadow of energy in him.” With regard to the latter part of this account, we must not overlook the fact that my informant knew Chopin only in the last year of his life–i.e., when he was in a very suffering state of mind and body. This is all the information I have been able to collect regarding the character of Chopin’s mother. Moreover, Karasowski is not an altogether trustworthy informant; as a friend of the Chopin family he sees in its members so many paragons of intellectual and moral perfection. He proceeds on the de mortuis nil nisi bonum principle, which I venture to suggest is a very bad principle. Let us apply this loving tenderness to our living neighbours, and judge the dead according to their merits. Thus the living will be doubly benefited, and no harm be done to the dead. Still, the evidence before us–including that exclamation about his “best of mothers “in one of Chopin’s letters, written from Vienna, soon after the outbreak of the Polish insurrection in 1830: “How glad my mamma will be that I did not come back!”–justifies us, I think, in inferring that Justina Chopin was a woman of the most lovable type, one in whom the central principle of existence was the maternal instinct, that bright ray of light which, dispersed in its action, displays itself in the most varied and lovely colours. That this principle, although often all-absorbing, is not incompatible with the wider and higher social and intellectual interests is a proposition that does not stand in need of proof. But who could describe that wondrous blending of loving strength and lovable weakness of a true woman’s character? You feel its beauty and sublimity, and if you attempt to give words to your feeling you produce a caricature.
The three sisters of Frederick all manifested more or less a taste for literature. The two elder sisters, Louisa (who married Professor Jedrzejewicz, and died in 1855) and Isabella (who married Anton Barcinski–first inspector of schools, and subsequently director of steam navigation on the Vistula–and died in 1881), wrote together for the improvement of the working classes. The former contributed now and then, also after her marriage, articles to periodicals on the education of the young. Emilia, the youngest sister, who died at the early age of fourteen (in 1827), translated, conjointly with her sister Isabella, the educational tales of the German author Salzmann, and her poetical efforts held out much promise for the future.
FREDERICK’S FIRST MUSICAL INSTRUCTION AND MUSIC-MASTER, ADALBERT ZYWNY.–HIS DEBUT AND SUCCESS AS A PIANIST.–HIS EARLY INTRODUCTION INTO ARISTOCRATIC SOCIETY AND CONSTANT INTERCOURSE WITH THE ARISTOCRACY.–HIS FIRST COMPOSITIONS.–HIS STUDIES AND MASTER IN HARMONY, COUNTERPOINT, AND COMPOSITION, JOSEPH ELSNER.
OUR little friend, who, as we have seen, at first took up a hostile attitude towards music–for his passionate utterances, albeit inarticulate, cannot well be interpreted as expressions of satisfaction or approval–came before long under her mighty sway. The pianoforte threw a spell over him, and, attracting him more and more, inspired him with such a fondness as to induce his parents to provide him, notwithstanding his tender age, with an instructor. To lessen the awfulness of the proceeding, it was arranged that one of the elder sisters should join him in his lessons. The first and only pianoforte teacher of him who in the course of time became one of the greatest and most original masters of this instrument, deserves some attention from us. Adalbert Zywny [FOOTNOTE: This is the usual spelling of the name, which, as the reader will see further on, its possessor wrote Ziwny. Liszt calls him Zywna.], a native of Bohemia, born in 1756, came to Poland, according to Albert Sowinski (Les musiciens polonais et slaves), during the reign of Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski (1764–1795), and after staying for some time as pianist at the court of Prince Casimir Sapieha, settled in Warsaw as a teacher of music, and soon got into good practice, “giving his lessons at three florins (eighteen pence) per hour very regularly, and making a fortune.” And thus teaching and composing (he is said to have composed much for the pianoforte, but he never published anything), he lived a long and useful life, dying in 1842 at the age of 86 (Karasowski says in 1840). The punctual and, no doubt, also somewhat pedantic music-master who acquired the esteem and goodwill of his patrons, the best families of Warsaw, and a fortune at the same time, is a pleasant figure to contemplate. The honest orderliness and dignified calmness of his life, as I read it, are quite refreshing in this time of rush and gush. Having seen a letter of his, I can imagine the heaps of original MSS., clearly and neatly penned with a firm hand, lying carefully packed up in spacious drawers, or piled up on well- dusted shelves. Of the man Zywny and his relation to the Chopin family we get some glimpses in Frederick’s letters. In one of the year 1828, addressed to his friend Titus Woyciechowski, he writes: “With us things are as they used to be; the honest Zywny is the soul of all our amusements.” Sowinski informs us that Zywny taught his pupil according to the classical German method– whatever that may mean–at that time in use in Poland. Liszt, who calls him “an enthusiastic student of Bach,” speaks likewise of “les errements d’une ecole entierement classique.” Now imagine my astonishment when on asking the well-known pianoforte player and composer Edouard Wolff, a native of Warsaw, [Fooynote: He died at Paris on October 16, 1880.] what kind of pianist Zywny was, I received the answer that he was a violinist and not a pianist. That Wolff and Zywny knew each other is proved beyond doubt by the above-mentioned letter of Zywny’s, introducing the former to Chopin, then resident in Paris. The solution of the riddle is probably this. Zywny, whether violinist or not, was not a pianoforte virtuoso–at least, was not heard in public in his old age. The mention of a single name, that of Wenzel W. Wurfel, certainly shows that he was not the best pianist in Warsaw. But against any such depreciatory remarks we have to set Chopin’s high opinion of Zywny’s teaching capability. Zywny’s letter, already twice alluded to, is worth quoting. It still further illustrates the relation in which master and pupil stood to each other, and by bringing us in close contact with the former makes us better acquainted with his character. A particularly curious fact about the letter–considering the nationality of the persons concerned–is its being written in German. Only a fac-simile of the original, with its clear, firm, though (owing to the writer’s old age) cramped penmanship, and its quaint spelling and capricious use of capital and small initials, could fully reveal the expressiveness of this document. However, even in the translation there may be found some of the man’s characteristic old-fashioned formality, grave benevolence, and quiet homeliness. The outside of the sheet on which the letter is written bears the words, “From the old music-master Adalbert Ziwny [at least this I take to be the meaning of the seven letters followed by dots], kindly to be transmitted to my best friend, Mr. Frederick Chopin, in Paris.” The letter itself runs as follows:–
DEAREST MR. F. CHOPIN,–Wishing you perfect health I have the honour to write to you through Mr. Eduard Wolf. [FOOTNOTE: The language of the first sentence is neither logical nor otherwise precise. I shall keep throughout as close as possible to the original, and also retain the peculiar spelling of proper names.] I recommend him to your esteemed friendship. Your whole family and I had also the pleasure of hearing at his concert the Adagio and Rondo from your Concerto, which called up in our minds the most agreeable remembrance of you. May God give you every prosperity! We are all well, and wish so much to see you again. Meanwhile I send you through Mr. Wolf my heartiest kiss, and recommending myself to your esteemed friendship, I remain your faithful friend,
Warsaw, the 12th of June, 1835.
N.B.–Mr. Kirkow, the merchant, and his son George, who was at Mr. Reinschmid’s at your farewell party, recommend themselves to you, and wish you good health. Adieu.
Julius Fontana, the friend and companion of Frederick, after stating (in his preface to Chopin’s posthumous works) that Chopin had never another pianoforte teacher than Zywny, observes that the latter taught his pupil only the first principles. “The progress of the child was so extraordinary that his parents and his professor thought they could do no better than abandon him at the age of 12 to his own instincts, and follow instead of directing him.” The progress of Frederick must indeed have been considerable, for in Clementina Tanska-Hofmanowa’s Pamiatka po dobrej matce (Memorial of a good Mother) [FOOTNOTE: Published in 1819.] the writer relates that she was at a soiree at Gr—-‘s, where she found a numerous party assembled, and heard in the course of the evening young Chopin play the piano–“a child not yet eight years old, who, in the opinion of the connoisseurs of the art, promises to replace Mozart.” Before the boy had completed his ninth year his talents were already so favourably known that he was invited to take part in a concert which was got up by several persons of high rank for the benefit of the poor. The bearer of the invitation was no less a person than Ursin Niemcewicz, the publicist, poet, dramatist, and statesman, one of the most remarkable and influential men of the Poland of that day. At this concert, which took place on February 24, 1818, the young virtuoso played a concerto by Adalbert Gyrowetz, a composer once celebrated, but now ignominiously shelved–sic transit gloria mundi–and one of Riehl’s “divine Philistines.” An anecdote shows that at that time Frederick was neither an intellectual prodigy nor a conceited puppy, but a naive, modest child that played the pianoforte, as birds sing, with unconscious art. When he came home after the concert, for which of course he had been arrayed most splendidly and to his own great satisfaction, his mother said to him: “Well, Fred, what did the public like best?”–“Oh, mamma,” replied the little innocent, “everybody was looking at my collar.”
The debut was a complete success, and our Frederick–Chopinek (diminutive of Chopin) they called him–became more than ever the pet of the aristocracy of Warsaw. He was invited to the houses of the Princes Czartoryski, Sapieha, Czetwertynski, Lubecki, Radziwill, the Counts Skarbek, Wolicki, Pruszak, Hussarzewski, Lempicki, and others. By the Princess Czetwertynska, who, says Liszt, cultivated music with a true feeling of its beauties, and whose salon was one of the most brilliant and select of Warsaw, Frederick was introduced to the Princess Lowicka, the beautiful Polish wife of the Grand Duke Constantine, who, as Countess Johanna Antonia Grudzinska, had so charmed the latter that, in order to obtain the Emperor’s consent to his marriage with her, he abdicated his right of succession to the throne. The way in which she exerted her influence over her brutal, eccentric, if not insane, husband, who at once loved and maltreated the Poles, gained her the title of “guardian angel of Poland.” In her salon Frederick came of course also in contact with the dreaded Grand Duke, the Napoleon of Belvedere (thus he was nicknamed by Niemcewicz, from the palace where he resided in Warsaw), who on one occasion when the boy was improvising with his eyes turned to the ceiling, as was his wont, asked him why he looked in that direction, if he saw notes up there. With the exalted occupants of Belvedere Frederick had a good deal of intercourse, for little Paul, a boy of his own age, a son or adopted son of the Grand Duke, enjoyed his company, and sometimes came with his tutor, Count de Moriolles, to his house to take him for a drive. On these occasions the neighbours of the Chopin family wondered not a little what business brought the Grand Duke’s carriage, drawn by four splendid horses, yoked in the Russian fashion–i.e., all abreast–to their quarter.
Chopin’s early introduction into aristocratic society and constant intercourse with the aristocracy is an item of his education which must not be considered as of subordinate importance. More than almost any other of his early disciplines, it formed his tastes, or at least strongly assisted in developing certain inborn traits of his nature, and in doing this influenced his entire moral and artistic character. In the proem I mentioned an English traveller’s encomiums on the elegance in the houses, and the exquisite refinement in the entertainments, of the wealthy nobles in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. We may be sure that in these respects the present century was not eclipsed by its predecessors, at least not in the third decade, when the salons of Warsaw shone at their brightest. The influence of French thought and manners, for the importation and spreading of which King Stanislas Leszczinski was so solicitous that he sent at his own expense many young gentlemen to Paris for their education, was subsequently strengthened by literary taste, national sympathies, and the political connection during the first Empire. But although foreign notions and customs caused much of the old barbarous extravagance and also much of the old homely simplicity to disappear, they did not annihilate the national distinctiveness of the class that was affected by them. Suffused with the Slavonic spirit and its tincture of Orientalism, the importation assumed a character of its own. Liszt, who did not speak merely from hearsay, emphasises, in giving expression to his admiration of the elegant and refined manners of the Polish aristocracy, the absence of formalism and stiff artificiality:–
In these salons [he writes] the rigorously observed proprieties were not a kind of ingeniously-constructed corsets that served to hide deformed hearts; they only necessitated the spiritualisation of all contacts, the elevation of all rapports, the aristocratisation of all impressions.
But enough of this for the present.
A surer proof of Frederick’s ability than the applause and favour of the aristocracy was the impression he made on the celebrated Catalani, who, in January, 1820, gave four concerts in the town- hall of Warsaw, the charge for admission to each of which was, as we may note in passing, no less than thirty Polish florins (fifteen shillings). Hearing much of the musically-gifted boy, she expressed the wish to have him presented to her. On this being done, she was so pleased with him and his playing that she made him a present of a watch, on which were engraved the words: “Donne par Madame Catalani a Frederic Chopin, age de dix ans.”
As yet I have said nothing of the boy’s first attempts at composition. Little Frederick began to compose soon after the commencement of his pianoforte lessons and before he could handle the pen. His master had to write down what the pupil played, after which the youthful maestro, often dissatisfied with his first conception, would set to work with the critical file, and try to improve it. He composed mazurkas, polonaises, waltzes, &c. At the age of ten he dedicated a march to the Grand Duke Constantine, who had it scored for a military band and played on parade (subsequently it was also published, but without the composer’s name), and these productions gave such evident proof of talent that his father deemed it desirable to get his friend Elsner to instruct him in harmony and counterpoint. At this time, however, it was not as yet in contemplation that Frederick should become a professional musician; on the contrary, he was made to understand that his musical studies must not interfere with his other studies, as he was then preparing for his entrance into the Warsaw Lyceum. As we know that this event took place in 1824, we know also the approximate time of the commencement of Elsner’s lessons. Fontana says that Chopin began these studies when he was already remarkable as a pianist. Seeing how very little is known concerning the nature and extent of Chopin’s studies in composition, it may be as well to exhaust the subject at once. But before I do so I must make the reader acquainted with the musician who, as Zyvny was Chopin’s only pianoforte teacher, was his only teacher of composition.
Joseph Elsner, the son of a cabinet and musical instrument maker at Grottkau, in Silesia, was born on June 1, 1769. As his father intended him for the medical profession, he was sent in 1781 to the Latin school at Breslau, and some years later to the University at Vienna. Having already been encouraged by the rector in Grottkau to cultivate his beautiful voice, he became in Breslau a chorister in one of the churches, and after some time was often employed as violinist and singer at the theatre. Here, where he got, if not regular instruction, at least some hints regarding harmony and kindred matters (the authorities are hopelessly at variance on this and on many other points), he made his first attempts at composition, writing dances, songs, duets, trios, nay, venturing even on larger works for chorus and orchestra. The musical studies commenced in Breslau were continued in Vienna; preferring musical scores to medical books, the conversations of musicians to the lectures of professors, he first neglected and at last altogether abandoned the study of the healing art. A. Boguslawski, who wrote a biography of Elsner, tells the story differently and more poetically. When, after a long illness during his sojourn in Breslau, thus runs his version, Elsner went, on the day of the Holy Trinity in the year 1789, for the first time to church, he was so deeply moved by the sounds of the organ that he fainted. On recovering he felt his whole being filled with such ineffable comfort and happiness that he thought he saw in this occurrence the hand of destiny. He, therefore, set out for Vienna, in order that he might draw as it were at the fountain-head the great principles of his art. Be this as it may, in 1791 we hear of Elsner as violinist in Brunn, in 1792 as musical conductor at a theatre in Lemberg–where he is busy composing dramatic and other works–and near the end of the last century as occupant of the same post at the National Theatre in Warsaw, which town became his home for the rest of his life. There was the principal field of his labours; there he died, after a sojourn of sixty-two years in Poland, on April 18, 1854, leaving behind him one of the most honoured names in the history of his adopted country. Of the journeys he undertook, the longest and most important was, no doubt, that to Paris in 1805. On the occasion of this visit some of his compositions were performed, and when Chopin arrived there twenty-five years afterwards, Elsner was still remembered by Lesueur, who said: “Et que fait notre bon Elsner? Racontez-moi de ses nouvelles.” Elsner was a very productive composer: besides symphonies, quartets, cantatas, masses, an oratorio, &c., he composed twenty-seven Polish operas. Many of these works were published, some in Warsaw, some in various German towns, some even in Paris. But his activity as a teacher, conductor, and organiser was perhaps even more beneficial to the development of the musical art in Poland than that as a composer. After founding and conducting several musical societies, he became in 1821 director of the then opened Conservatorium, at the head of which he continued to the end of its existence in 1830. To complete the idea of the man, we must not omit to mention his essay In how far is the Polish language suitable for music? As few of his compositions have been heard outside of Poland, and these few long ago, rarely, and in few places, it is difficult to form a satisfactory opinion with regard to his position as a composer. Most accounts, however, agree in stating that he wrote in the style of the modern Italians, that is to say, what were called the modern Italians in the later part of the last and the earlier part of this century. Elsner tried his strength and ability in all genres, from oratorio, opera, and symphony, down to pianoforte variations, rondos, and dances, and in none of them did he fail to be pleasing and intelligible, not even where, as especially in his sacred music, he made use–a sparing use–of contrapuntal devices, imitations, and fugal treatment. The naturalness, fluency, effectiveness, and practicableness which distinguish his writing for voices and instruments show that he possessed a thorough knowledge of their nature and capability. It was, therefore, not an empty rhetorical phrase to speak of him initiating his pupils “a la science du contre-point et aux effets d’une savante instrumentation.”
[FOOTNOTE: “The productions of Elsner,” says Fetis, “are in the style of Paer and Mayer’s music. In his church music there is a little too much of modern and dramatic forms; one finds in them facility and a natural manner of making the parts sing, but little originality and variety in his ideas. Elsner writes with sufficient purity, although he shows in his fugues that his studies have not been severe.”]
For the pupils of the Conservatorium he wrote vocal pieces in from one to ten parts, and he composed also a number of canons in four and five parts, which fact seems to demonstrate that he had no ill-will against the scholastic forms. And now I shall quote a passage from an apparently well-informed writer [FOOTNOTE: The writer of the article Elsner in Schilling’s Universal-Lexikon der Tonkunst] (to whom I am, moreover, otherwise indebted in this sketch), wherein Elsner is blamed for certain shortcomings with which Chopin has been often reproached in a less charitable spirit. The italics, which are mine, will point out the words in question:–
One forgives him readily [in consideration of the general excellence of his style] THE OFFENCES AGAINST THE LAW OF HARMONIC CONNECTION THAT OCCUR HERE AND THERE, AND THE FACILITY WITH WHICH HE SOMETIMES DISREGARDS THE FIXED RULES OF STRICT PART-WRITING, especially in the dramatic works, where he makes effect apparently the ultimate aim of his indefatigable endeavours.
The wealth of melody and technical mastery displayed in “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ” incline Karasowski to think that it is the composer’s best work. When the people at Breslau praised Elsner’s “Echo Variations” for orchestra, Chopin exclaimed: “You must hear his Coronation Mass, then only can you judge of him as a composer.” To characterise Elsner in a few words, he was a man of considerable musical aptitude and capacity, full of nobleness of purpose, learning, industry, perseverance, in short, possessing all qualities implied by talent, but lacking those implied by genius.
A musician travelling in 1841 in Poland sent at the time to the Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik a series of “Reiseblatter” (Notes of Travel), which contain so charming and vivid a description of this interesting personality that I cannot resist the temptation to translate and insert it here almost without any abridgment. Two noteworthy opinions of the writer may be fitly prefixed to this quotation–namely, that Elsner was a Pole with all his heart and soul, indeed, a better one than thousands that are natives of the country, and that, like Haydn, he possessed the quality of writing better the older he grew:–
The first musical person of the town [Warsaw] is still the old, youthful Joseph Elsner, a veteran master of our art, who is as amiable as he is truly estimable. In our day one hardly meets with a notable Polish musician who has not studied composition under Pan [i.e., Mr.] Elsner; and he loves all his pupils, and all speak of him with enthusiasm, and, according to the Polish fashion, kiss the old master’s shoulder, whereupon he never forgets to kiss them heartily on both cheeks. Even Charles Kurpinski, the pensioned Capelhneister of the Polish National Theatre, whose hair is already grey, is, if I am not very much misinformed, also a pupil of Joseph Elsner’s. One is often mistaken with regard to the outward appearance of a celebrated man; I mean, one forms often a false idea of him before one has seen him and knows a portrait of him. I found Elsner almost exactly as I had imagined him. Wisocki, the pianist, also a pupil of his, took me to him. Pan Elsner lives in the Dom Pyarow [House of Piarists]. One has to start early if one wishes to find him at home; for soon after breakfast he goes out, and rarely returns to his cell before evening. He inhabits, like a genuine church composer, two cells of the old Piarist Monastery in Jesuit Street, and in the dark passages which lead to his rooms one sees here and there faded laid-aside pictures of saints lying about, and old church banners hanging down. The old gentleman was still in bed when we arrived, and sent his servant to ask us to wait a little in the anteroom, promising to be with us immediately. All the walls of this room, or rather cell, were hung to the ceiling with portraits of musicians, among them some very rare names and faces. Mr. Elsner has continued this collection down to the present time; also the portraits of Liszt, Thalberg, Chopin, and Clara Wieck shine down from the old monastic walls. I had scarcely looked about me in this large company for a few minutes, when the door of the adjoining room opened, and a man of medium height (not to say little), somewhat stout, with a round, friendly countenance, grey hair, but very lively eyes, enveloped in a warm fur dressing- gown, stepped up to us, comfortably but quickly, and bade us welcome. Wisocki kissed him, according to the Polish fashion, as a token of respect, on the right shoulder, and introduced me to him, whereupon the old friendly gentleman shook hands with me and said some kindly words.
This, then, was Pan Joseph Elsner, the ancestor of modern Polish music, the teacher of Chopin, the fine connoisseur and cautious guide of original talents. For he does not do as is done only too often by other teachers in the arts, who insist on screwing all pupils to the same turning-lathe on which they themselves were formed, who always do their utmost to ingraft their own I on the pupil, so that he may become as excellent a man as they imagine themselves to be. Joseph Elsner did not proceed thus. When all the people of Warsaw thought Frederick Chopin was entering on a wrong path, that his was not music at all, that he must keep to Himmel and Hummel, otherwise he would never do anything decent–the clever Pan Elsner had already very clearly perceived what a poetic kernel there was in the pale young dreamer, had long before felt very clearly that he had before him the founder of a new epoch of pianoforte-playing, and was far from laying upon him a cavesson, knowing well that such a noble thoroughbred may indeed be cautiously led, but must not be trained and fettered in the usual way if he is to conquer.
Of Chopin’s studies under this master we do not know much more than of his studies under Zywny. Both Fontana and Sowinski say that he went through a complete course of counterpoint and composition. Elsner, in a letter written to Chopin in 1834, speaks of himself as “your teacher of harmony and counterpoint, of little merit, but fortunate.” Liszt writes:–
Joseph Elsner taught Chopin those things that are most difficult to learn and most rarely known: to he exacting to one’s self, and to value the advantages that are only obtained by dint of patience and labour.
What other accounts of the matter under discussion I have got from books and conversations are as general and vague as the foregoing. I therefore shall not weary the reader with them. What Elsner’s view of teaching was may be gathered from one of his letters to his pupil. The gist of his remarks lies in this sentence:–
That with which the artist (who learns continually from his surroundings) astonishes his contemporaries, he can only attain by himself and through himself.
Elsner had insight and self-negation (a rare quality with teachers) enough to act up to his theory, and give free play to the natural tendencies of his pupil’s powers. That this was really the case is seen from his reply to one who blamed Frederick’s disregard of rules and custom:–
Leave him in peace [he said], his is an uncommon way because his gifts are uncommon. He does not strictly adhere to the customary method, but he has one of his own, and he will reveal in his works an originality which in such a degree has not been found in anyone.
The letters of master and pupil testify to their unceasing mutual esteem and love. Those of the master are full of fatherly affection and advice, those of the pupil full of filial devotion and reverence. Allusions to and messages for Elsner are very frequent in Chopin’s letters. He seems always anxious that his old master should know how he fared, especially hear of his success. His sentiments regarding Elsner reveal themselves perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in an incidental remark which escapes him when writing to his friend Woyciechowski. Speaking of a new acquaintance he has made, he says, “He is a great friend of Elsner’s, which in my estimation means much.” No doubt Chopin looked up with more respect and thought himself more indebted to Elsner than to Zywny; but that he had a good opinion of both his masters is evident from his pithy reply to the Viennese gentleman who told him that people were astonished at his having learned all he knew at Warsaw: “From Messrs. Zywny and Elsner even the greatest ass must learn something.”
FREDERICK ENTERS THE WARSAW LYCEUM.–VARIOUS EDUCATIONAL INFLUENCES.–HIS FATHER’S FRIENDS.–RISE OF ROMANTICISM IN POLISH LITERATURE.–FREDERICK’S STAY AT SZAFARNIA DURING HIS FIRST SCHOOL HOLIDAYS.–HIS TALENT FOR IMPROVISATION.–HIS DEVELOPMENT AS A COMPOSER AND PIANIST.–HIS PUBLIC PERFORMANCES.–PUBLICATION OF OP. I.–EARLY COMPOSITIONS.–HIS PIANOFORTE STYLE.
FREDERICK, who up to the age of fifteen was taught at home along with his father’s boarders, became in 1824 a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum, a kind of high-school, the curriculum of which comprised Latin, Greek, modern languages, mathematics, history, &c. His education was so far advanced that he could at once enter the fourth class, and the liveliness of his parts, combined with application to work, enabled him to distinguish himself in the following years as a student and to carry off twice a prize. Polish history and literature are said to have been his favourite studies.
Liszt relates that Chopin was placed at an early age in one of the first colleges of Warsaw, “thanks to the generous and intelligent protection which Prince Anton Radziwill always bestowed upon the arts and upon young men of talent.” This statement, however, has met with a direct denial on the part of the Chopin family, and may, therefore, be considered as disposed of. But even without such a denial the statement would appear suspicious to all but those unacquainted with Nicholas Chopin’s position. Surely he must have been able to pay for his son’s schooling! Moreover, one would think that, as a professor at the Lyceum, he might even have got it gratis. As to Frederick’s musical education in Warsaw, it cannot have cost much. And then, how improbable that the Prince should have paid the comparatively trifling school-fees and left the young man when he went abroad dependent upon the support of his parents! The letters from Vienna (1831) show unmistakably that Chopin applied to his father repeatedly for money, and regretted being such a burden to him. Further, Chopin’s correspondence, which throws much light on his relation to Prince Radziwili, contains nothing which would lead one to infer any such indebtedness as Liszt mentions. But in order that the reader may be in possession of the whole evidence and able to judge for himself, I shall place before him Liszt’s curiously circumstantial account in its entirety:–