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Life / Chopin's Era


Chopin's Era and its Impact on the Composer's Life and Creative Attitude


The inter-relationship between Chopin's personal life and artistic pursuits and the era in which he lived become clear if we consider them from two points of view.  The first covers the historical context of events, in the midst of which Chopin lived and whose consequences had an effect, frequently irreversible, on his life.   The second takes into account the existing artistic phenomena and styles and the aesthetic concepts associated with them, which influenced Chopin's artistic decisions from his student days to mature years.  The latter angle includes not only works of art and ideologies, but also several outstanding personalities whom Chopin met in his lifetime and who were to leave their mark on his personal life as well as on his work and aesthetic judgments.

Historical realities viewed from the above two perspectives manifested themselves strongly as early as Chopin's teenage period which he spent in Warsaw.  The 1820's were a significant decade for the capital of the Congress Kingdom of Poland, which under the rule of Grand Duke Constantine, viceroy of the Russian Tsar  Nicolas I, retained only some semblance of a constitutional system and civil liberties.  Chopin, a witness to those historical events, could not fail to notice, or sense, the growing opposition in Warsaw to the Russian occupiers, revealing itself through the activities of clandestine associations, such as the Patriotic Society led by Seweryn Krzyżanowski and Father Antoni Jabłonowski.  Chopin may have found the ideals and aspirations of  the young cadets from the Infantry School, under the leadership of Second-Lieutenant Piotr Wysocki, closer to his heart.  After all, students at non-military schools were known to be involved in the conspiracy started by Wysocki.  Although there is no evidence of Chopin's direct involvement in the actions of Warsaw's patriotic youth, it would be hard to assume that he was unaware of any clandestine activity.  That Chopin found the patriotic movement's ideals close to his heart is best proved by his reaction to the November Uprising, namely his helpless realisation that he could not take an active part in the rebellion. He put these feelings into words in his letters to Jan Matuszyński from Vienna in late 1830 and early 1831, and especially in his so called Stuttgart diary ([1]).

Apart from Chopin's developing feelings for Polish independence, the years spent in Warsaw were extremely important for Chopin as they saw his first artistic experiences and attempts to develop his own attitude to them and to define his aesthetic and stylistic preferences.  Warsaw's musical life, rich and open to European trends, allowed Chopin to grasp the special intertwining of the old and new elements that constituted pre-Romantic music, rooted in the work of the Viennese classics and in Beethoven's late compositions on the one hand, while on the other manifesting itself through the brillant style of the compositions by Louis Spohr and Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and also through Rossini's operas and the instrumental lyricism shaped by John Field and his pupil Maria Szymanowska.

Towards the end of his Warsaw period Chopin had his first encounter with Carl Maria Weber's romantic opera, which was then becoming famous, and a short while later, when he was already abroad, with the masterpieces of Vincenzo Bellini, the standard bearer for Italian bel canto.  Chopin remained an admirer of Bellini for the rest of his life. Warsaw's musical community made sure that the young Chopin familiarised himself with the major trends existing in the music of the 1820's, so that he left the country a fully formed artist who was well aware of the existing stylistic phenomena and capable of making his own choices regarding artistic creation.

One of the historical events which had the strongest impact on Chopin was the collapse in 1831 of the November Uprising.  This experience, which had painful implications for the Poles and  put an end to their dreams of a sovereign homeland, not only came as a great shock to the composer (the notes he wrote in his Stuttgart diary in September 1831 are proof of this), but also had a decisive influence on his decision to stay away from his native country, which turned out to be forever.  In his letter from Paris to Tytus Wojciechowski, dated 12 December 1831, he wrote, "It was in Stuttgart, where news of the capture of Warsaw reached me, that I made the final decision to travel to this different world." ([2])  By doing so Chopin joined the exodus of Poles who, having lost all hope of regaining independence and fearing imprisonment and repression by the Tsarist authorities, went to France to be brought together in the ranks of the Great Emigration led by Prince Adam Czartoryski and the Hôtel Lambert ([3]).

After arriving in Paris in 1831 Chopin contacted the Polish patriotic and artistic circles.  Soon afterwards, in 1833, he became a member of the Literary Society in Paris, whose membership was comprised of the most prominent Polish émigrés.  The composer's homesickness, the painful feeling of being far away from his homeland, family and friends, and with no hope for an immediate change of  his situation, became the constant motive inspiring his very unique, sublime vision of Polishness, which, at the same time, was given a universal dimension. Mieczysław Tomaszewski correctly observed:

"From his stay in Vienna onwards Chopin's patriotism grew increasingly intense and, despite his discreet nature, the emotion was  clear, almost conspicuous.  His commitment to the national cause could clearly be heard in his music; it could also be seen through his actions - witness his acceptance of voluntary émigré status.  [...]  Yet everything that was said about Chopin's patriotism and the national "tone" of his music [...], although correct,  did not preclude a complementary feature: Chopin felt he was, and he became, a universal composer.  There was nothing in his personality or in his work that would ever put these two categories in opposition." ([4]).

For the second time historical events had a direct effect on Chopin's life in early 1848 when he witnessed the outbreak of the February revolution in Paris.  Also news of the events in Poland, inspired by the Spring of the Nations[5], reached him -  the rebellion in the Wielkopolska region under the leadership of Ludwik Mierosławski and the peasant revolt in Galicia, Volyhnia and Podole in the Austrian controlled part of Poland.  Chopin's letter of 4 April 1848 to Fontana shows what great hopes he pinned on  those political developments:

 "[...]  Our people are gathering in Poznań.  Czartoryski was the first to go there, but God only knows what direction events will take for Poland to exist again...The dailies here are printing lies. There is no Polish Republic in Cracow, nor has the Austrian emperor proclaimed himself the Polish king [...].  Nor is the Prussian king considering seriously surrendering the region of Poznań [...].  You see all this smacks of war, but we do not know where it will break out.  But once it does, the whole of Germany will be set aflame, Italy already is.  Milan has expelled the Austrians, but they are still in the provinces, ready to fight.  France is bound to help because she has to expel some undesirable elements to put things right.... Moscow will have problems in its backyard if Prussia comes under attack.  Peasants in Galicia have set an example to the peasants in Volyhnia and Podole - horrible things are likely to happen, but at the end of the day there will be Poland, great and magnificent, in short: Poland.  Thus, despite our impatience, let us wait until the cards are shuffled well, let us not waste strength unnecessarily for we will need every ounce of it when the right time comes.  The moment is drawing near, but not today, not yet.  In a month, in a year maybe." ([6])

The tumultuous events in Paris worsened Chopin's financial situation, primarily because the number of his pupils in France's partially deserted capital dwindled.  This must have prompted his decision to travel to England and indirectly had an adverse effect on his health, which quickly deteriorated amidst the unfavourable climate and the multitude of exhausting social events and concerts during the seven months from 20 April to 23 November 1848.

Chopin was as much exposed to current historical events as he was to the aesthetic concepts of his time.  It should be noted, however, that the composer's artistic ideas hardly mirrored the trends which were taking shape before his eyes, most certainly not the Romantic ideology.  In historical terms Chopin belonged to his own time and was open to many of the ideals that this era produced. Nonetheless he stuck to the fundamental classical principles, such as proportion and harmony between the elements of a musical composition, and invariably believed in music's aesthetic self-sufficiency, an autonomous attitude so to speak.  It would seem that the set of aesthetic qualities, which may be associated with Classicism, was planted in Chopin's creative mind during the years of his musical education in Warsaw, thanks primarily to Józef Elsner, a professor of composition and an avid admirer of Viennese Classicism.  No wonder then that the first compositions the young Warsaw Conservatory graduate wrote were classical pieces par excellence. They provided the basis for developing his technical prowess and the springboard for his future, utterly individual ideas.  The first innovations introduced by Chopin the Romantic originated in the experiences of Chopin the Classicist and the link between the two was never severed.  Furthermore, this dichotomy, in a more or less distinct form, would be present in his whole later output.  The force and tension of this dialectic especially showed themselves in Sonatas op. 35 and op. 58.  In these pieces the classical form, a legacy of tradition, provided both the impulse for a creative transformation and the ground for a dramatic clash between conventions and original innovations, with the latter becoming at times highly radical, as best exemplified by the finale of Sonata op. 35.

In her book on Polish Romantic literature Alina Witkowska offers the following definition of the Romantic attitude's most important features: "The Romantic creed included inspiration, creative freedom, originality, spontaneity, sincerity, the freedom of disharmony and of "a play of the opposites" and the genius category was applied both to works of art and their creators.  Literary tradition referred to the dominant influence of English and German literature in the first place, philosophy referred to spiritualism," ([7]).  Some of these elements appeared in Chopin's compositions, especially in those from his middle and late periods.  However, as regards the deep structure (especially the general architectonic and musical flow concept), his music seems to have been invariably guided by classical order principles.

Where are then the origins of the situation which does not allow us to take a one-sided view of Chopin as an artist wholly committed to the spontaneous concept and postulates of Romanticism?  It would seem that the source of Chopin's specific, selective but critical and largely conscious, attitude towards the mainstream of Romantic art may have lain in his youthful experiences, arising not only from his musical education, but also from his arts studies at the then Royal University of Warsaw.  It was then that he witnessed the emergence of a Polish literary Romanticism and the animated debate on aestheticism that accompanied it.  The discourse was held mainly in Warsaw between the supporters of spontaneous Romanticism, represented by Adam Mickiewicz's Ballads and Romances (1822) and Maurycy Mochnacki's concepts, and of "bucolic" Romanticism advocated by Kazimierz Brodziński on one side, and the defenders of the classical rules, e.g. Franciszek Salezy Dmochowski and Kajetan Koźmian, on the other ([8]).

While, obviously, it cannot be assumed that the conservative group of Warsaw writers could, in some way or other, make young Chopin treat the emerging Polish Romantic literature with reserve, it cannot be ruled out that their disparaging, at times ironic, attitude towards the excesses of Romantic imagination indirectly discouraged him from writing programme music, such as Robert Schumann's "literary" compositions.

What is surprising about Chopin's links with mature Romantic aesthetics is an almost absolute absence of  any traces of opinions he might have had on the subject, including both his own judgements and his comments or opinions on the existing views.  The Polish composer's immanent aesthetics, embodied and forever embedded in sound combinations, was the only reflection of Romantic ideas.  The influence of Romantic art had many different sources.  They included contemporary trends in music and painting, but also in literature.  Chopin was exposed to them as a consumer of individual works of art and through direct contact with their creators.  Surrounded by musical phenomena, he made clear and definite choices, dictated by his own aesthetic "pragmatism".  While his pragmatism put opera, orchestral genres, and programme instrumental pieces outside his area of interest, it never stopped him from adapting some elements of Italian romantic opera, including its expressive quintessence - bel canto in its unequalled forms offered by Bellini and Donizetti, to his own pianistic concept.

Chopin's attitude to Romantic novelties and trends in music was characterised by constant choices, which his creative imagination and the clear aim he had set himself demanded of him.  In this sense he created a pianistic equivalent of bel canto not only in the sphere of melody, but of the playing technique, too.  This was his very unique concept of legato and the ever-present, almost improvised embellishments.  On the other hand, though, despite living in the age of virtuosi, such as Herz, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg, Liszt, Chopin never believed that technical prowess, which was intended to dazzle the listener with brilliant, external effects or with the power of sound alone, was an art per se

Chopin's era put a new perspective on music perception and, consequently, provided new models of the aesthetic experience of music.  Chopin's artistic biography, especially his career as a concert pianist, proves that he was familiar with all forms of playing piano music practised at that time, both solo or in chamber ensembles.  From his juvenile Warsaw period, Chopin showed himself in public concerts to be not only a "classical" soloist and improviser, but also an "experimentally" minded  performer presenting the newly invented instruments - the eolipantalion, the eolimelodicon and the choralion.  But he was equally at ease as a member of small chamber ensembles, which he demonstrated on several occasions, e.g. by playing music at Antonin in October 1829 with Prince Antoni Radziwiłł, who was the first to perform Chopin's Polonaise in C major for piano and cello op. 3.

While later, in Paris, Chopin presented himself before large audiences as a concert virtuoso, within the emerging recital formula, he decidedly preferred the intimate atmosphere of a drawing room, where he played for a select group of friends and persons close to him.  According to all available accounts it was in such an environment that the genius of Chopin the performer and, above all, the improviser, was at its finest.  His soft-toned playing, full of subtle dynamic variations verging on the pianissimo, was fully enjoyed, being in tune with the elusive aura of aesthetic contemplation, which electrified his listeners.  In his monograph on Chopin (Paris 1852) Franz Liszt described the unique atmosphere of the drawing room in Chopin's apartment at Chaussée d'Antin and the Polish composer's circle of friends who were  "initiated" into his art:

"The corners of the room were left in obscurity so that all idea of constriction was lost, and there seemed to be no boundary save the darkness of space around. [...]  Grouped in the luminous zone immediately around the piano were several men of brilliant renown; Heine, the saddest of all humorists, listened with the eagerness of a fellow-countryman to the stories told him by Chopin of that mysterious country which also haunted his ethereal  fancy, and the beautiful shores he too had explored.  Chopin and Heine comprehended each other at a word, a tone or a glance [...].

[...] Meyebeer sat next to Heine - Meyebeer, for whom the whole string of interjections of admiration has long been counted!  Creator as he was of Cyclopean harmonies, he spent his hours in delight when following those detailed arabesques, woven in transparent gauze, which wound in filmy veils around Chopin's delicate conceptions. [...]

Another friend, whose talent was so closely allied to that of Chopin, with whom he was most intimate, was also there - Hiller, [...].

In the midst of those spirits which crowded the air, whose rustling could almost be heard, Eugène Delacroix sat absorbed and silent. [...]

The aged Niemcewicz, who seemed to be nearer to the grave than any of us, listened while Chopin translated into dramatic execution the "Historic Songs" for this survivor of days long since gone by.  Under the Polish artist's fingers were again heard, side by side with the popular descriptions of the Polish bard, the clash of arms, the songs of conquerors, the plaints of illustrious captives, and the wails over departed heroes. [...]

Apart from all the rest, dark and silent, rested the motionless profile of Mickiewicz; [...].

Buried in an armchair, her arms resting on a table, sat George Sand, curiously attentive and gracefully subdued. [...]" ([9])

Thanks to his high social standing in Paris, Chopin met many outstanding figures, among them not only high-calibre composers who shaped the musical art of the first half of the 19th century (Rossini, Berlioz, Liszt, Meyerbeer and others), but no lesser writers and painters, too.  Initially Chopin wanted to stay in the world's capital of art for a period of time only, but after the collapse of the November Uprising he settled there permanently, joining the ranks of the Polish artistic elite in exile, alongside Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Norwid - the greatest Polish Romantic poets.  The consequence of his decision, apart from the painful separation from his family in Warsaw, was for Chopin to become part of the artistic mainstream, initially as a witness to artistic developments unfolding before his eyes, and, with time, as an active participant.  Chopin, an unknown newcomer from Warsaw, gained a reputation in Paris not only as one of many outstanding virtuosos-composers, but also as an esteemed member of  high society, much sought after by the French capital's grandest salons. Chopin was perfectly aware of the importance of the artist's high standing in society and, using his innate charm and diplomatic skills, he constantly strove to maintain his position.  That his efforts to this end were effective is proved by the letters of recommendation he brought with him to Paris in the autumn of 1831 (inter alia from Johann Malfatti and Józef Elsner); by the late 1830's he had attained a firm position among the luminaries of Parisian art and aristocracy, including the court of Louis Philippe.

Instrumental in introducing Chopin to the Parisian artistic elite was George Sand with whom the composer was romantically involved in the years 1838-1847, that is when his creative skills were at their finest.  Thanks to George Sand, Chopin lived and wrote music in France not only as a Polish émigré lamenting over the tragic fate of his oppressed nation, but also as a great Romantic artist.  Chopin's relationship with George Sand, which flourished during the summer and autumn months the couple spent in the French writer's residence at Nohant, gave Chopin the opportunity to meet members of the literary circle Madame Sand was part of and to learn the concept of utopian socialism with a tinge of Christianity to which she and her friends subscribed.    

The personal relations developing among this active group of persons moving in the area, where literature, fine arts and social ideology met, included a relationship which was meaningfully typical of the Romantic era.  It was the special affinity between Chopin and Eugène Delacroix, the doyen of Romantic painting.  In the context of Chopin's life this relationship was of special importance because Chopin seldom formed close emotional and intellectual bonds with other artists that would go beyond the social (drawing-room) convention.  A typical example was the distance at which he kept Robert Schumann, despite the latter's openness to an exchange of ideas and views on music.

Among those who emphasised the significance of such strong bonds between Romantic creative artists was Juliusz Starzyński:

"The rhythm of change set by the great revolutions in the 19th century not only defined [...] the internal pulsation of artistic awareness, but also influenced personal relationships (friendships and animosities) between artists that were of vital importance to Romanticism. [...] Without knowing the personal facet, without analysing the slim, but sometimes only, evidence and the relations established between individual artists, the Romantic period's ideology and aesthetics would have been reduced to an empty or nice-sounding slogan only.  In Romanticism the most intimate understanding between artists was established through correspondence des arts.  Once we get the grasp of this correspondence we get to the very heart of the Romantic synthesis of the fine arts [...]," ([10]).

All evidence points to the common ground which Delacroix and Chopin found, the intimate area of understanding allowing them to exchange ideas about each other's art.  The testimony left by the painter in his Journal ([11]) and by George Sand in her autobiography ([12]) shows that both artists, Delacroix and Chopin, engaged in discussions about their respective arts.  The dialogue helped each artist in his creative pursuits.  The aforementioned Juliusz Starzyński gave a very accurate description of this relationship: "[Chopin] did not know [...] that in Paris he was to forge a bond of friendship with an artist as lonely as himself but more experienced. As once Virgil helped Dante, so Delacroix, within the Romantic affinity of colour and sound, helped Chopin to walk with courage through the infernal night," ([13]).  Although tiny traces of that interchange of ideas between the two artists survive, thanks only to the notes made by Delacroix and George Sand (Chopin never made any mention of it), it would be fair to assume that the "spiritual communion" left its mark on Delacroix's innovative vision of colour and on the no less original sound of Chopin's works, sparkling with all shades of the piano's colours and heralding the coming of musical impressionism.

Zbigniew Skowron
English translation: Jerzy Ossowski


 [1] Cf. J.M.  Smoter, ed., Album Chopina 1829-1831, Kraków 1975, especially k. 14v, 21-22 (transcription on pp. 34-37).

[2] B. E. Sydow, ed., Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina, Warszawa 1955, vol. 1, p. 199.

[3] Prince Adam Czartoryski presided over the largest political faction of the Polish emigration, hence his residence in Paris, the Hôtel Lambert, was synonymous with his grouping.

[4] Mieczysław Tomaszewski, Chopin. Człowiek, dzieło, rezonans, Poznań 1989, p. 17.

[5] The "Spring of the Nations" was a series of revolutions which broke out across Europe in 1848. They began in Sicily (the revolt against King Bomba in Palermo), then the Germans of Schleswig-Holstein shook off the rule of Denmark, next it was Paris (Louis-Philippe was forced to abdicate), Budapest (the unrest led to open warfare), Vienna, Milan, Rome, Munich and Berlin.  In general, the aim was to overthrow the arbitrary practices of the hereditary monarchs and to force constitutional, social and national reforms. The Poles hoped the revolutionary developments might bring about some change to their homeland which had ceased to exist as an independent state in 1796 when it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

[6] Sydow, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 239-240.

[7] Alina Witkowska, Literatura romantyzmu, Warszawa 1989, p.65.

[8] "Most of the polemical arguments," writes A. Witkowska, "were deployed at the initial stage of the dispute signalled by Brodziński's treatise, O klasyczności i romantyczności tudzież o duchu poezji polskiej (1818), and heated up by Jan Śniadecki's article, O pismach klasycznych i romantycznych, published in "Dziennik Wileński" (1819), and by the replies to them, of which the best known was Mickiewicz's polemic contained in his poem, Romantyczność, and the numerous statements made by Mochnacki inter alia in his article headed Niektóre uwagi nad poezją romantyczną z powodu rozprawy Jana Śniadeckiego "O pismach klasycznych I romantycznych" (1825). ibid., p. 65.   

[9] Franz Liszt, Life of Chopin, trans. John Broadhouse, London 1913, pp.98-100, 104-107.

[10] Juliusz Starzyński, O romantycznej syntezie sztuk. Delacroix, Chopin, Baudelaire, Warszawa 1965, pp. 10-11.

[11] Cf. Eugène Delacroix, Dzienniki,  trans. J. Guze and J. Hartwig, Wrocław 1968, vols.1-2.

[12] Cf. George Sand, Historie de ma vie, in Oeuvres autobiographiques, ed. G. Lubin.  Paris 1970-1971, vols. 1-2.

[13] Starzyński, op. cit., p.23.




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