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CHOPIN: THE MAN AND HIS MUSIC

by

James Huneker




TABLE OF CONTENTS


PART I. - THE MAN.

I. POLAND: - YOUTHFUL IDEALS
II. PARIS: - IN THE MAELSTROM
III. ENGLAND, SCOTLAND AND FERE LA CHAISE
IV. THE ARTIST
V. POET AND PSYCHOLOGIST

PART II. - HIS MUSIC.

VI. THE STUDIES: - TITANIC EXPERIMENTS
VII. MOODS IN MINIATURE: THE PRELUDES
VIII. IMPROMPTUS AND VALSES
IX. NIGHT AND ITS MELANCHOLY MYSTERIES: THE NOCTURNES
X. THE BALLADES: FAERY DRAMAS
XI. CLASSICAL CURRENTS
XII. THE POLONAISES: HEROIC HYMNS OF BATTLE
XIII. MAZURKAS: DANCES OF THE SOUL
XIV. CHOPIN THE CONQUEROR

BIBLIOGRAPHY
BOOKS BY JAMES HUNEKER




PART I. - THE MAN




I. POLAND: - YOUTHFUL IDEALS


Gustave Flaubert, pessimist and master of cadenced lyric prose, urged
young writers to lead ascetic lives that in their art they might be
violent. Chopin's violence was psychic, a travailing and groaning of
the spirit; the bright roughness of adventure was missing from his
quotidian existence. The tragedy was within. One recalls Maurice
Maeterlinck: "Whereas most of our life is passed far from blood, cries
and swords, and the tears of men have become silent, invisible and
almost spiritual." Chopin went from Poland to France - from Warsaw to
Paris - where, finally, he was borne to his grave in Pere la Chaise. He
lived, loved and died; and not for him were the perils, prizes and
fascinations of a hero's career. He fought his battles within the walls
of his soul - we may note and enjoy them in his music. His outward state
was not niggardly of incident though his inner life was richer,
nourished as it was in the silence and the profound unrest of a being
that irritably resented every intrusion. There were events that left
ineradicable impressions upon his nature, upon his work: his early
love, his sorrow at parting from parents and home, the shock of the
Warsaw revolt, his passion for George Sand, the death of his father and
of his friend Matuszynski, and the rupture with Madame Sand - these were
crises of his history. All else was but an indeterminate factor in the
scheme of his earthly sojourn. Chopin though not an anchorite resembled
Flaubert, being both proud and timid; he led a detached life, hence his
art was bold and violent. Unlike Liszt he seldom sought the glamor of
the theatre, and was never in such public view as his maternal admirer,
Sand. He was Frederic Francois Chopin, composer, teacher of piano and a
lyric genius of the highest range.

Recently the date of his birth has been again discussed by Natalie
Janotha, the Polish pianist. Chopin was born in Zelazowa-Wola, six
miles from Warsaw, March 1, 1809. This place is sometimes spelled
Jeliasovaya-Volia. The medallion made for the tomb by Clesinger - the
son-in-law of George Sand - and the watch given by the singer Catalan!
in 1820 with the inscription "Donne par Madame Catalan! a Frederic
Chopin, age de dix ans," have incited a conflict of authorities.
Karasowski was informed by Chopin's sister that the correct year of his
birth was 1809, and Szulc, Sowinski and Niecks agree with him. Szulc
asserts that the memorial in the Holy Cross Church, Warsaw - where
Chopin's heart is preserved - bears the date March 2, 1809. Chopin, so
Henry T. Finck declares, was twenty-two years of age when he wrote to
his teacher Elsner in 1831. Liszt told Niecks in 1878 that Karasowski
had published the correct date in his biography. Now let us consider
Janotha's arguments. According to her evidence the composer's natal day
was February 22, 1810 and his christening occurred April 28 of the same
year. The following baptismal certificate, originally in Latin and
translated by Finck, is adduced. It is said to be from the church in
which Chopin was christened: "I, the above, have performed the ceremony
of baptizing in water a boy with the double name Frederic Francois, on
the 22d day of February, son of the musicians Nicolai Choppen, a
Frenchman, and Justina de Krzyzanowska his legal spouse. God-parents:
the musicians Franciscus Grembeki and Donna Anna Skarbekowa, Countess
of Zelazowa-Wola." The wrong date was chiselled upon the monument
unveiled October 14, 1894, at Chopin's birthplace - erected practically
through the efforts of Milia Balakireff the Russian composer. Janotha,
whose father founded the Warsaw Conservatory, informed Finck that the
later date has also been put on other monuments in Poland.

Now Chopin's father was not a musician, neither was his mother. I
cannot trace Grembeki, but we know that the Countess Skarbek, mother of
Chopin's namesake, was not a musician; however, the title "musician" in
the baptismal certificate may have signified something eulogistic at
that time. Besides, the Polish clergy was not a particularly accurate
class. But Janotha has more testimony: in her controversy with me in
1896 she quoted Father Bielawski, the present cure of Brochow parish
church of Zelazowa-Wola; this reverend person consulted records and
gave as his opinion that 1810 is authentic. Nevertheless, the biography
of Wojcicki and the statement of the Chopin family contradict him. And
so the case stands. Janotha continues firm in her belief although
authorities do not justify her position.

All this petty pother arose since Niecks' comprehensive biography
appeared. So sure was he of his facts that he disposed of the
pseudo-date in one footnote. Perhaps the composer was to blame;
artists, male as well as female, have been known to make themselves
younger in years by conveniently forgetting their birthdate, or by
attributing the error to carelessness in the registry of dates. Surely
the Chopin family could not have been mistaken in such an important
matter! Regarding Chopin's ancestry there is still a moiety of doubt.
His father was born August 17, 1770 - the same year as Beethoven - at
Nancy, Lorraine. Some claim that he had Polish blood in his veins.
Szulc claims that he was the natural son of a Polish nobleman, who
followed King Stanislas Leszcinski to Lorraine, dropping the Szopen, or
Szop, for the more Gallic Chopin. When Frederic went to Paris, he in
turn changed the name from Szopen to Chopin, which is common in France.

Chopin's father emigrated to Warsaw in 1787 - enticed by the offer of a
compatriot there in the tobacco business - and was the traditional
Frenchman of his time, well-bred, agreeable and more than usually
cultivated.

He joined the national guard during the Kosciuszko revolution in 1794.
When business stagnated he was forced to teach in the family of the
Leszynskis; Mary of that name, one of his pupils, being beloved by
Napoleon I. became the mother of Count Walewski, a minister of the
second French empire. Drifting to Zelazowa-Wola, Nicholas Chopin lived
in the house of the Countess Skarbek, acting as tutor to her son,
Frederic. There he made the acquaintance of Justina Krzyzanowska, born
of "poor but noble parents." He married her in 1806 and she bore him
four children: three girls, and the boy Frederic Francois.

With a refined, scholarly French father, Polish in political
sentiments, and an admirable Polish mother, patriotic to the extreme,
Frederic grew to be an intelligent, vivacious, home-loving lad. Never a
hearty boy but never very delicate, he seemed to escape most of the
disagreeable ills of childhood. The moonstruck, pale, sentimental calf
of many biographers, he never was. Strong evidence exists that he was
merry, pleasure-loving and fond of practical jokes. While his father
was never rich, the family after the removal to Warsaw lived at ease.
The country was prosperous and Chopin the elder became a professor in
the Warsaw Lyceum. His children were brought up in an atmosphere of
charming simplicity, love and refinement. The mother was an ideal
mother, and, as George Sand declared, Chopin's "only love." But, as we
shall discover later, Lelia was ever jealous - jealous even of Chopin's
past. His sisters were gifted, gentle and disposed to pet him. Niecks
has killed all the pretty fairy tales of his poverty and suffering.

Strong common sense ruled the actions of Chopin's parents, and when his
love for music revealed itself at an early age they engaged a teacher
named Adalbert Zwyny, a Bohemian who played the violin and taught
piano. Julius Fontana, one of the first friends of the boy - he
committed suicide in Paris, December 31, 1869, - says that at the age of
twelve Chopin knew so much that he was left to himself with the usual
good and ill results. He first played on February 24, 1818, a concerto
by Gyrowetz and was so pleased with his new collar that he naively told
his mother, "Everybody was looking at my collar." His musical
precocity, not as marked as Mozart's, but phenomenal withal, brought
him into intimacy with the Polish aristocracy and there his taste for
fashionable society developed. The Czartoryskis, Radziwills, Skarbeks,
Potockis, Lubeckis and the Grand Duke Constantine with his Princess
Lowicka made life pleasant for the talented boy. Then came his lessons
with Joseph Elsner in composition, lessons of great value. Elsner saw
the material he had to mould, and so deftly did he teach that his
pupil's individuality was never checked, never warped. For Elsner
Chopin entertained love and reverence; to him he wrote from Paris
asking his advice in the matter of studying with Kalkbrenner, and this
advice he took seriously. "From Zwyny and Elsner even the greatest ass
must learn something," he is quoted as having said.

Then there are the usual anecdotes - one is tempted to call them the
stock stories of the boyhood of any great composer. In infancy Chopin
could not hear music without crying. Mozart was morbidly sensitive to
the tones of a trumpet. Later the Polish lad sported familiarly with
his talents, for he is related to have sent to sleep and awakened a
party of unruly boys at his father's school. Another story is his
fooling of a Jew merchant. He had high spirits, perhaps too high, for
his slender physique. He was a facile mimic, and Liszt, Balzac, Bocage,
Sand and others believed that he would have made an actor of ability.
With his sister Emilia he wrote a little comedy. Altogether he was a
clever, if not a brilliant lad. His letters show that he was not the
latter, for while they are lively they do not reveal much literary
ability. But their writer saw with open eyes, eyes that were disposed
to caricature the peculiarities of others. This trait, much clarified
and spiritualized in later life, became a distinct, ironic note in his
character. Possibly it attracted Heine, although his irony was on a
more intellectual plane.

His piano playing at this time was neat and finished, and he had
already begun those experimentings in technique and tone that afterward
revolutionized the world of music and the keyboard. He being sickly and
his sister's health poor, the pair was sent in 1826 to Reinerz, a
watering place in Prussian Silesia. This with a visit to his godmother,
a titled lady named Wiesiolowska and a sister of Count Frederic
Skarbek, - the name does not tally with the one given heretofore, as
noted by Janotha, - consumed this year. In 1827 he left his regular
studies at the Lyceum and devoted his time to music. He was much in the
country, listening to the fiddling and singing of the peasants, thus
laying the corner stone of his art as a national composer. In the fall
of 1828 he went to Berlin, and this trip gave him a foretaste of the
outer world.

Stephen Heller, who saw Chopin in 1830, described him as pale, of
delicate health, and not destined, so they said in Warsaw, for a long
life. This must have been during one of his depressed periods, for his
stay in Berlin gives a record of unclouded spirits. However, his sister
Emilia died young of pulmonary trouble and doubtless Frederic was
predisposed to lung complaint. He was constantly admonished by his
relatives to keep his coat closed. Perhaps, as in Wagner's case, the
uncontrollable gayety and hectic humors were but so many signs of a
fatal disintegrating process. Wagner outlived them until the Scriptural
age, but Chopin succumbed when grief, disappointment and intense
feeling had undermined him. For the dissipations of the "average
sensual man" he had an abiding contempt. He never smoked, in fact
disliked it. His friend Sand differed greatly in this respect, and one
of the saddest anecdotes related by De Lenz accuses her of calling for
a match to light her cigar: "Frederic, un fidibus," she commanded, and
Frederic obeyed. Mr. Philip Hale mentions a letter from Balzac to his
Countess Hanska, dated March 15, 1841, which concludes: "George Sand
did not leave Paris last year. She lives at Rue Pigalle, No.
16...Chopin is always there. Elle ne fume que des cigarettes, et pas
autre chose" Mr. Hale states that the italics are in the letter. So
much for De Lenz and his fidibus!

I am impelled here to quote from Mr. Earnest Newman's "Study of Wagner"
because Chopin's exaltation of spirits, alternating with irritability
and intense depression, were duplicated in Wagner. Mr. Newman writes of
Wagner: "There have been few men in whom the torch of life has burned
so fiercely. In his early days he seems to have had that gayety of
temperament and that apparently boundless energy which men in his case,
as in that of Heine, Nietzsche, Amiel and others, have wrongly assumed
to be the outcome of harmonious physical and mental health. There is a
pathetic exception in the outward lives of so many men of genius, the
bloom being, to the instructed eye, only the indication of some subtle
nervous derangement, only the forerunner of decay." The overmastering
cerebral agitation that obsessed Wagner's life, was as with Chopin a
symptom, not a sickness; but in the latter it had not yet assumed a
sinister turn.

Chopin's fourteen days in Berlin, - he went there under the protection
of his father's friend, Professor Jarocki, to attend the great
scientific congress - were full of joy unrestrained. The pair left
Warsaw September 9, 1828, and after five days travel in a diligence
arrived at Berlin. This was a period of leisure travelling and living.
Frederic saw Spontini, Mendelssohn and Zelter at a distance and heard
"Freischutz." He attended the congress and made sport of the
scientists, Alexander von Humboldt included. On the way home they
stopped at a place called Zullichau, and Chopin improvised on Polish
airs so charmingly that the stage was delayed, "all hands turning in"
to listen. This is another of the anecdotes of honorable antiquity.
Count Tarnowski relates that "Chopin left Warsaw with a light heart,
with a mind full of ideas, perhaps full of dreams of fame and
happiness. 'I have only twenty kreuzers in my pockets,' he writes in
his note-book, 'and it seems to me that I am richer than Arthur
Potocki, whom I met only a moment ago;' besides this, witty
conceptions, fun, showing a quiet and cheerful spirit; for example,
'May it be permitted to me to sign myself as belonging to the circle of
your friends, - F. Chopin.' Or, 'A welcome moment in which I can express
to you my friendship. - F. Chopin, office clerk.' Or again, 'Ah, my most
lordly sir, I do not myself yet understand the joy which I feel on
entering the circle of your real friends. - F. Chopin, penniless'!"

These letters have a Micawber ring, but they indicate Chopin's love of
jest. Sikorski tells a story of the lad's improvising in church so that
the priest, choir and congregation were forgotten by him.

The travellers arrived at Warsaw October 6 after staying a few days in
Posen where the Prince Radziwill lived; here Chopin played in private.
This prince-composer, despite what Liszt wrote, did not contribute a
penny to the youth's musical education, though he always treated him in
a sympathetic manner.

Hummel and Paganini visited Warsaw in 1829. The former he met and
admired, the latter he worshipped. This year may have seen the
composition, if not the publication of the "Souvenir de Paganini," said
to be in the key of A major and first published in the supplement of
the "Warsaw Echo Muzyczne." Niecks writes that he never saw a copy of
this rare composition. Paderewski tells me he has the piece and that it
is weak, having historic interest only. I cannot find much about the
Polish poet, Julius Slowacki, who died the same year, 1849, as Edgar
Allan Poe. Tarnowski declares him to have been Chopin's warmest friend
and in his poetry a starting point of inspiration for the composer.

In July 1829, accompanied by two friends, Chopin started for Vienna.
Travelling in a delightful, old-fashioned manner, the party saw much of
the country - Galicia, Upper Silesia and Moravia - the Polish
Switzerland. On July 31 they arrived in the Austrian capital. Then
Chopin first began to enjoy an artistic atmosphere, to live less
parochially. His home life, sweet and tranquil as it was, could not
fail to hurt him as artist; he was flattered and coddled and doubtless
the touch of effeminacy in his person was fostered. In Vienna the life
was gayer, freer and infinitely more artistic than in Warsaw. He met
every one worth knowing in the artistic world and his letters at that
period are positively brimming over with gossip and pen pictures of the
people he knew. The little drop of malice he injects into his
descriptions of the personages he encounters is harmless enough and
proves that the young man had considerable wit. Count Gallenberg, the
lessee of the famous Karnthnerthor Theatre, was kind to him, and the
publisher Haslinger treated him politely. He had brought with him his
variations on "La ci darem la mano"; altogether the times seemed
propitious and much more so when he was urged to give a concert.
Persuaded to overcome a natural timidity, he made his Vienna debut at
this theatre August 11, 1829, playing on a Stein piano his Variations,
opus 2. His Krakowiak Rondo had been announced, but the parts were not
legible, so instead he improvised. He had success, being recalled, and
his improvisation on the Polish tune called "Chmiel" and a theme from
"La Dame Blanche" stirred up much enthusiasm in which a grumbling
orchestra joined. The press was favorable, though Chopin's playing was
considered rather light in weight. His style was admired and voted
original - here the critics could see through the millstone - while a
lady remarked "It's a pity his appearance is so insignificant." This
reached the composer's ear and caused him an evil quarter of an hour
for he was morbidly sensitive; but being, like most Poles, secretive,
managed to hide it.

August 18, encouraged by his triumph, Chopin gave a second concert on
the same stage. This time he played the Krakowiak and his talent for
composition was discussed by the newspapers. "He plays very quietly,
without the daring elan which distinguishes the artist from the
amateur," said one; "his defect is the non-observance of the indication
of accent at the beginning of musical phrases." What was then admired
in Vienna was explosive accentuations and piano drumming. The article
continues: "As in his playing he was like a beautiful young tree that
stands free and full of fragrant blossoms and ripening fruits, so he
manifested as much estimable individuality in his compositions where
new figures and passages, new forms unfolded themselves." This rather
acute critique, translated by Dr. Niecks, is from the Wiener
"Theaterzeitung" of August 20, 1829. The writer of it cannot be accused
of misoneism, that hardening of the faculties of curiousness and
prophecy - that semi-paralysis of the organs of hearing which afflicts
critics of music so early in life and evokes rancor and dislike to
novelties. Chopin derived no money from either of his concerts.

By this time he was accustomed to being reminded of the lightness and
exquisite delicacy of his touch and the originality of his style. It
elated him to be no longer mistaken for a pupil and he writes home that
"my manner of playing pleases the ladies so very much." This manner
never lost its hold over female hearts, and the airs, caprices and
little struttings of Frederic are to blame for the widely circulated
legend of his effeminate ways. The legend soon absorbed his music, and
so it has come to pass that this fiction, begotten of half fact and
half mental indolence, has taken root, like the noxious weed it is.
When Rubinstein, Tausig and Liszt played Chopin in passional phrases,
the public and critics were aghast. This was a transformed Chopin
indeed, a Chopin transposed to the key of manliness. Yet it is the true
Chopin. The young man's manners were a trifle feminine but his brain
was masculine, electric, and his soul courageous. His Polonaises,
Ballades, Scherzi and Etudes need a mighty grip, a grip mental and
physical.

Chopin met Czerny. "He is a good man, but nothing more," he said of
him. Czerny admired the young pianist with the elastic hand and on his
second visit to Vienna, characteristically inquired, "Are you still
industrious?" Czerny's brain was a tireless incubator of piano
exercises, while Chopin so fused the technical problem with the poetic
idea, that such a nature as the old pedagogue's must have been
unattractive to him. He knew Franz, Lachner and other celebrities and
seems to have enjoyed a mild flirtation with Leopoldine Blahetka, a
popular young pianist, for he wrote of his sorrow at parting from her.
On August 19 he left with friends for Bohemia, arriving at Prague two
days later. There he saw everything and met Klengel, of canon fame, a
still greater canon-eer than the redoubtable Jadassohn of Leipzig.
Chopin and Klengel liked each other. Three days later the party
proceeded to Teplitz and Chopin played in aristocratic company. He
reached Dresden August 26, heard Spohr's "Faust" and met capellmeister
Morlacchi - that same Morlacchi whom Wagner succeeded as a conductor
January 10, 1843 - vide Finck's "Wagner." By September 12, after a brief
sojourn in Breslau, Chopin was again safe at home in Warsaw.

About this time he fell in love with Constantia Gladowska, a singer and
pupil of the Warsaw Conservatory. Niecks dwells gingerly upon his
fervor in love and friendship - "a passion with him" and thinks that it
gives the key to his life. Of his romantic friendship for Titus
Woyciechowski and John Matuszynski - his "Johnnie" - there are abundant
evidences in the letters. They are like the letters of a love-sick
maiden. But Chopin's purity of character was marked; he shrank from
coarseness of all sorts, and the Fates only know what he must have
suffered at times from George Sand and her gallant band of retainers.
To this impressionable man, Parisian badinage - not to call it anything
stronger - was positively antipathetical. Of him we might indeed say in
Lafcadio Hearn's words, "Every mortal man has been many million times a
woman." And was it the Goncourts who dared to assert that, "there are
no women of genius: women of genius are men"? Chopin needed an outlet
for his sentimentalism. His piano was but a sieve for some, and we are
rather amused than otherwise on reading the romantic nonsense of his
boyish letters.

After the Vienna trip his spirits and his health flagged. He was
overwrought and Warsaw became hateful to him, for he loved but had not
the courage to tell it to the beloved one. He put it on paper, he
played it, but speak it he could not. Here is a point that reveals
Chopin's native indecision, his inability to make up his mind. He
recalls to me the Frederic Moreau of Flaubert's "L'Education
Sentimentale." There is an atrophy of the will, for Chopin can neither
propose nor fly from Warsaw. He writes letters that are full of
self-reproaches, letters that must have both bored and irritated his
friends. Like many other men of genius he suffered all his life from
folie de doute, indeed his was what specialists call "a beautiful
case." This halting and irresolution was a stumbling block in his
career and is faithfully mirrored in his art.

Chopin went to Posen in October, 1829, and at the Radziwills was
attracted by the beauty and talent of the Princess Elisa, who died
young. George Sand has noted Chopin's emotional versatility in the
matter of falling in and out of love. He could accomplish both of an
evening and a crumpled roseleaf was sufficient cause to induce frowns
and capricious flights - decidedly a young man tres difficile. He played
at the "Ressource" in November, 1829, the Variations, opus 2. On March
17, 1830, he gave his first concert in Warsaw, and selected the adagio


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