Chapter Excerpt


Late in the afternoon of the last Tuesday of September, 1831, Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, just six months past his twenty-first birthday, entered the great city of Paris, determined to conquer it -- and quietly prepared to die there long before reaching old age. Both prophecies would be fulfilled.

Along with fifteen fellow passengers, Chopin arrived in an impossibly overcrowded public stagecoach from Strasbourg on the final leg of his exhausting two-week journey from Stuttgart in Germany where he had first experienced -- and described -- the choking sensation of being a "living corpse."

Slim and pale, five feet seven inches tall, almost feminine in his blue-eyed, blond delicacy, Fryderyk Chopin was born in a village near Warsaw in 1810, the Polish son of a Frenchman who had settled in Poland. Now, in turn, Chopin, the genius musician, was bringing Poland to France, yet remaining unassailably Polish until the moment his breathing ceased.

Two months before he left his native Warsaw on November 2, 1830, for Vienna, Germany, and Paris, "Frycek" (the diminutive of Fryderyk used among family and friends) wrote his closest friend: I think that I am leaving to forget forever about home; I think that I'm leaving to die -- and how unpleasant it must be to die elsewhere, not where one had lived."

He was a Polish patriot to his bones and the divinely inspired romantic poet of Polish music. He had composed his first polonaise when he was seven years old and his first two mazurkas at fifteen. Strangely, however, Chopin never returned -- by deliberate and unexplained choice -- to his homeland.

Fittingly, one of Chopin's first impressions of Paris was a touch of Poland, a bizarre but nevertheless welcoming sign: The diligence, pulled by two huge Hanoverian horses, reached the hilltop village of St. Maur as the setting sun's red rays illuminated Paris, presenting the composer's avid eyes with a stunning spectacle. He was seeing, after all, the "capital of the world," bisected by the Seine and, beyond it, the Left Bank hill of Montparnasse. Ten minutes later, the stagecoach entered the Porte de St. Martin, one of the gateways to Paris, still a walled city. Peering out of the small side window on his right, Chopin could discern a square structure covered with colorful posters. It was the Theater of the Porte de St. Martin, and the performance announced for that evening was La vieillesse de Stanislas ("The Old Age of Stanislas"), a preposterously lachrymose epic on Polish themes.

Chopin might not have realized it as he reached Paris, but France in the autumn of 1831 was seized with an enormous outpouring of pro-Polish sentiment. Early in September, Warsaw had been captured by the besieging Russian armies, and it marked the end of the heroic though dreadfully ill-directed nine-month national uprising against the czar who had ruled Poland as king since the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the close of the Napoleonic era in Europe. Poland had not existed as a sovereign nation since the final decade of the previous century, when it had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and its rebel cause fervently supported by most Frenchmen.

The failure of the supposedly liberal French constitutional monarchy, in power since the revolution of July 1830, to come to the aid of the uprising had led to massive pro-Polish riots in Paris. A week or so before Chopin's arrival, a demonstration in sympathy with Poland had been held at the Porte de St. Martin Theater. It was triggered by the news of the fall of Warsaw on September 8, and the cynical announcement by the French foreign minister at the Chamber of Deputies that "Order Now Reigns in Warsaw."

France was not alone in turning its back on the Poles. In Rome, Pope Gregory XVI condemned them in an encyclical letter, describing these freedom fighters as "certain intriguers and spreaders of lies, who under the pretense of religion in this unhappy age, are raising their heads against the power of princes." With papal power challenged by simultaneous rebellions across Italy, Gregory XVI regarded all European uprisings, starting with Poland, as an imminent peril to the established order. Austria, naturally, took the side of its Russian allies. Chopin, in Vienna when the Warsaw revolt broke out, found himself virtually ostracized overnight along with fellow Poles there.

Although Chopin had left Warsaw a year earlier, convinced that his musical career could prosper only in Western Europe and most notably in Paris, the national uprising and its ultimate collapse were unquestionably among the reasons -- if not excuses -- for his decision never to set foot in Poland again. He had departed Vienna for Paris via Germany on July 20, 1831, when a triumph of the rebellion still seemed possible, and it does not follow that even in the absence of revolutionary turmoil (even with a patriotic victory) Chopin would ever have gone home. He had already made his decision.

While maintaining extremely warm, loving ties with his parents and two sisters in Warsaw, Frycek preferred under all circumstances to create his private "Little Poland" in Paris.

As it happened, word of Warsaw's conquest by the czarist armies had caught him in Stuttgart, where he had stopped for a few days en route from Vienna to Paris, and he did react with a paroxysm of fury and despair that he recorded in his diary. This outburst is believed to have inspired his extraordinary - tude in C minor, which subsequently became famous as the "Revolutionary" - tude. It was actually completed in Paris late in 1831 or 1832, contrary to myth, and published in 1833. And it was Ferenc Liszt who first called it "Revolutionary," having himself composed the first movement of his "Revolutionary" Symphony in 1830 in honor of that year's Paris revolution.

Because Chopin wrote and compulsively rewrote, fine-tuned, and chiseled (his word) all his works, sometimes over months or even years from the conception, and because most of the original manuscripts carry no dates, it is impossible to determine precisely when and where he had first conceived and begun to compose the "Revolutionary" - tude -- for that matter, the exact time any of his creations were born. Moreover, he very seldom wrote or spoke of compositions in progress.

Although the idea of the "Revolutionary" - tude may well have been nurtured that sleepless night in Stuttgart, it must have taken a good while to mature. But Chopin is not known to have ever discouraged the myth that this great two-and-a-half-minute study was set down at the peak of his emotional trauma at Warsaw's surrender. Even before that catastrophe, in 1829 or 1830, he wrote the Polonaise in G minor, his first dramatic-heroic polonaise, but it was not published until seventy-seven years after his death -- forty years after composition. It is in fact unknown to most contemporary pianists. Chopin was totally capricious about the time of publication of his works, withholding a surprising number of them altogether during his life, perhaps enjoying in some cases the mystery surrounding his creativity.

In any event, at no time did Chopin contemplate rushing back to Warsaw to be with his family in the aftermath of the national disaster. After a few more days in Stuttgart, he went on to Strasbourg and Paris to build a new existence -- and to make a place for himself under the sun of the world's artistic capital and within the constellation of its resident talent in music, literature, painting, and sculpture. Chopin wrote later from Paris that it was "in Stuttgart, where the news about the fall of Warsaw reached me, that I decided fully to go to that other world."

None of Chopin's surviving letters to family and friends during and after the uprising (with few exceptions) mention it or its consequences. All of them are devoted almost entirely to descriptions of Vienna and other cities where he spent time after Warsaw, the name-dropping of celebrities he had met and been entertained by, complaints about not attaining recognition soon enough, accounts of the first successes, and requests for money addressed to his father.

In a monologue-like letter from Vienna to a young physician friend a month after the uprising broke out, Chopin wrote that "if it were not that it could be a burden for my father now, I would return immediately...I damn the moment of my departure." But there is nothing in the preserved family correspondence to indicate that Chopin's father had encouraged him to come back to fight the Russians -- as his closest friend and traveling companion, Tytus Woyciechowski, had done instantly. In a letter to the family four weeks after the start of the rebellion, Fryderyk actually sent regards to Tytus and demanded that he write him, "for God's love."

By the same token, there is no evidence that his father had urged Fryderyk not to return. The only hint to that effect appears in the memoirs of the writer Eugeniusz Skrodzski, who was eight years old at the time and knew Chopin only slightly. In his diary, published over fifty years after the fact, Skrodzski wrote that "the last thing...I remember about Chopin was a letter written to his parents shortly after the November 1830 events in Warsaw, with candent desire to return to the country....Panicked by this noble intention, Mister Nicolas succeeded in persuading his son that he could better serve the motherland in the field of arts than by wielding a rifle with too weak a hand." This is not very credible mainly because there would have been no time for such an exchange of letters to affect Chopin's decision. Mail was slow in the days of stagecoaches, especially during a war. So much, then, for this myth.

It is entirely plausible that, given his fragile health, Chopin would not have made much of a soldier and that he accomplished more for Poland by staying away and composing stirring patriotic songs and music. Three of his songs were chanted by the rebels during the uprising. Yet Chopin could not resist affectation.

In a letter to a physician friend, he announced on a note of self-pity -- after explaining that he did not wish to become a burden to his father -- that "all the dinners, evenings, concerts, dances that I have had up to my ears bore me: I feel so sad, somber...I must dress, do my hair, shoe my feet; in a salon, I pretend to be calm, but returning home, I thunder at the piano." And on New Year's Day, 1831, Chopin exclaimed at the end of a missive about his social life in Vienna, "You are going to war -- do come back as a colonel....Why can't I be with you, why can't I be a drummer boy!" (In the same letter, Chopin described at length the establishment of a sausage shop by a Frenchman who had fled the July revolution in Paris, remarking that some Viennese "are angry that a French rebel was allowed to open a store with hams when they have enough swine in their own country.")

It was already dark when the stagecoach made its way through the narrow, muddy streets of Paris to the terminal of the Strasbourg-Paris line on rue des Messageries in the Poissonnière district of the city. The coachman shouted, "Terminus!" and the bone-tired passengers poured out of the diligence (France had gained its first railroad the year before, but it only went from Paris to nearby St. Germain).

Chopin brushed off the dust from his tight-fitting black frock coat and approached a clerk at the terminal office to inquire in Polish-accented French about a place to spend the night. He knew only a few people in Paris slightly, and the two letters of introduction he carried from Warsaw and Vienna could not be delivered so late at night. The clerk had recommended an inn on rue de la Cit - Bergère, five blocks to the south, and Chopin, weighed down by a large satchel and a case with his musical manuscripts, marched off toward the hostelry, elbowing his way through the evening crowds and among the carriages in the gas-lit streets.

He would stay for nearly two months in his small room at the Cit - Bergère inn. The process of reinventing himself as Fr - d - ric Chopin, the virtuoso darling of Paris salons and genius composer of the exploding Romantic Age, was now underway. So, too, the unfolding of his destiny as a poignantly tragic figure of loneliness and lovelessness, surrounded by friends and admirers, beset by relentlessly devastating physical illness and ever-deepening psychological suffering.

Copyright © 1998 by Tad Szulc

Excerpted from Chopin in Paris: The Life and Times of the Romantic Composer by Tad Szulc
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