Chopin's Pianos

The story of three pianos that the Polish composer Frederyk Chopin played in Paris and London in 1848, giving the very last performances of his life.

The Cobbe Collection Trust

A truly exceptional group of instruments associated with Chopin in Paris, London and Scotland survives in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands. The history of the three Chopin pianos in the collection offers us a glimpses of the world in which Chopin found himself when he visited London and later Scotland, the people he met, the places he visited, the concerts he gave.

Chopin's 'Own' Grand Piano (1848) by Pleyel & CompagnieOriginal Source:

Grand Piano by Pleyel & Compagnie No. 13819, Paris, 1848

The piano that Chopin referred to as ‘my own’ Pleyel, which he had in both Paris and London

Chopin's English Grand Piano (1847) by John Broadwood & SonsThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Grand Piano by John Broadwood & Sons, London, 1847

The piano that Chopin selected for his London recitals

Jane Stirling's Grand Piano (1843) by ErardOriginal Source:

Jane Stirling's Grand Piano by Erard, London, 1843

The piano of Chopin's friend and pupil Jane Stirling

The 1848 Revolution broke out in Paris on 24 February and overthrew the government of King Louis-Philippe. The government and royal family fled the city, along with many of the wealthier inhabitants. Musicians also left to seek work elsewhere, many going to London, one of the few places they could find employment.

Chopin’s travels in BritainThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Among them was Chopin, who visited the British Isles at this time, the year before his death. 

From April 1848, he spent three and a half months in London, three months in Scotland – with a flying visit to Manchester – and then a final three weeks in London before returning to Paris, which had been his home for 17 years.

Chopin's travels in Britain

Engraved map by Sidney Hall, c.1848

I have three pianos. Apart from that by Pleyel, I have a Broadwood and an Erard, but I have so far only been able to play on my own.

So wrote Fryderyk Chopin from London in May 1848.

Chopin's 'Own' Grand Piano (1848) by Pleyel & CompagnieOriginal Source:

The ‘my own’ instrument of the letter is the Pleyel piano, ‘Petit Patron’ model, with the serial number No.13819, marked up to Chopin for 2,200 francs in the Pleyel ledgers.

Pleyel ledgersThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Pleyel ledgers

Recording Chopin's remittance of payment for No.13819.  
(Collections of Musée de la Musique, Paris, E.2009.5.30)

Camille Pleyel (1788–1855) by Carl Gerold after Faustin HerrThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Camille Pleyel (1788–1855)

Lithograph by Carl Gerold after Faustin Herr. Chopin and Pleyel were close friends and travelled together on a pleasure trip to London in 1837. 

Pleyel nameboardThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Pleyel & Compagnie, detail of the name label

From the moment of his arrival in Paris in 1831, Pleyel’s pianos had been, for Chopin, ‘the last word in perfection’, and Camille Pleyel had rewarded his loyalty by making available to him on loan any piano he wanted without charge.  

The Pleyel archive shows that No.13819 was completed and finally varnished by ‘Donsset, vernisseur’ on 8 January 1848, a month later, on 11 February 1848, Chopin wrote from his apartment at 9 Square d’Orléans, ‘I already have here the piano on which I shall play.'

Chopin’s salon in the Square d’Orléans, ParisThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Chopin’s salon in the Square d’Orléans

Watercolour executed between autumn 1842 and April 1848 (lost during the World War II). The piano shown is Pleyel's 'Petit Patron' model favoured by Chopin - the same model as No.13819 which Chopin had in the months before he came to England.

Salle Pleyel, Rue Rochechouart, Paris, c.1855The Cobbe Collection Trust

Salle Pleyel, Rue Rochechouart, Paris, c.1855

Chopin gave a number of concerts here, from his first in 1832 to his last in Paris on 16 February 1848. 

Programme for Chopin's concert at Salle Pleyel (1848-02-16)The Cobbe Collection Trust

Programme for Chopin's concert at Salle Pleyel

On 16 February 1848. This included the first public performances of the Barcarolle, Op.60, and the Cello Sonata, Op.65. The piano used was probably Pleyel No. 13819

Barcarolle manuscriptThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Autograph manuscript of the Barcarolle, Op.60

British Library, London, Zweig MS 27 © The British Library Board. All rights reserved

Concerts at Hatchlands Park: Chopin's music on his own pianoThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Krzysztof Moskalewicz

Barcarolle op.60

Chopin’s ‘Own’ Grand Piano, No. 13819, by Pleyel & Compagnie, 1848

It would appear that the instrument had already been in his possession for some months before Chopin brought the piano to England. Once there, its documentation becomes even more precise. We know from the Pleyel ledger, where the entry for the piano is annotated ‘Londres’, that No.13819 was indeed the instrument that came to London with him. That it arrived in his very first lodging in Bentinck Street in its travelling case is documented in the Broadwood ledgers.

Broadwood porters' book 27 April 1848The Cobbe Collection Trust

Broadwood porters' book, 27 April 1848

Showing the entry which records that Pleyel No.13819 had arrived from Paris in its case at Chopin's briefly held lodging in Bentinck Street, London, and its removal from there and unpacking at 48 Dover Street, where Chopin would live for the next three and a half months. 

We see from the ledger entry that the piano was only unpacked once it had arrived at Dover Street. Thus the ‘snapshot’ provided by the ledger allows us to conclude that Chopin slept his first couple of nights in London with his Pleyel piano still in its packing case.

Within the next five days, Chopin visited the Broadwood warehouse/showroom at 33 Great Pulteney Street and chose Broadwood pianos that he would use. These premises included the original house where Burkat Schudi had established the business in the early 18th century. The rooms were variously set out for practice and display, and the firm maintained a chef and a dining-room there, so that distinguished visitors could peruse and play instruments and be appropriately entertained.

The piano chosen by Chopin for his Dover Street drawing-room, Broadwood No.17093, arrived there on 2 May (as we have seen); by 6 May, Pierre Erard had ‘hastened to offer his services … and placed one of his pianos at my disposal’. Thus three pianos by the three finest makers of the day stood together in Chopin’s grand Dover Street drawing-room. That this circumstance was a source of especial pleasure to him is evident from his allusion to it in several letters.

Gore House Kensington, From the collection of: The Cobbe Collection Trust
P. Blesington, Margaret. Countess Of. 1789-1849. Lord Blessington., From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection
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       Chopin gave a considerable number of private and public concerts during his English and Scottish visits. The first of these was at Gore House, Kensington, the not-quite-respectable residence of the Countess of Blessington and her lover, the artist and dandy Count Alfred d’Orsay, where they kept a fashionable, though bohemian, salon (d’Orsay nominally lived next door, but their co-habitation was common knowledge).    

Pleyel to Count d'OrsayThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Chopin chose to perform this, his London début (albeit a private occasion) on his Pleyel, and it was duly moved (by Broadwood) to Kensington for the evening. 

Broadwood porters' book, 10 May 1848

Neither his lessons nor the concerts that followed in May and June produced the income that he had hoped for. A letter to his friend Wojciech Grzymała, written mid-July 1848 is gloomy about money and complains of the expense of London:

‘The season here is over. I don’t know what my plans are or how they will turn out.’

Chopin's 'Own' Grand Piano (1848) by Pleyel & CompagnieOriginal Source:

In July, when the fashionable and well-to-do would leave for their country seats, Chopin had no prospect of further remuneration in the capital during the immediately following months. In order to settle his debt to Pleyel, he now found it necessary to sell the Pleyel piano.

Stamped serial number on wrest-plank of Chopin's Pleyel

Chopin's English Grand Piano (1847) by John Broadwood & SonsThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Pianoforte by John Broadwood and Sons, London 1847, No.17047

The piano chosen by Chopin and on which he gave no less than six public and private concerts in England, including the last performance of his life at the Guildhall. 
(Royal Academy of Music, on permanent loan to the Cobbe Collection Trust)

Henry Fowler Broadwood (1811-1893)The Cobbe Collection Trust

Henry Fowler Broadwood (1811–1893)

The head of the Broadwood company who looked after Chopin so considerately during his stay in England and provided the pianos on which he gave his concerts. 
(reproduced by permission of Surrey History Centre)

Of Broadwood, Chopin wrote in 1848:

'Broadwood, who is a real London Pleyel, has been my best and truest friend. He is, as you know, a very rich and well-educated man whose father transferred to him his property and factory and then retired to the country. He has splendid connections – it was he who received M. Guizot [the French Prime minister who had fled from revolutionary France in March] and his whole family in his house. (He [Broadwood] is universally beloved.) It was through him I met Lord Falmouth.

Chopin's English Grand Piano (1847) by John Broadwood & SonsThe Cobbe Collection Trust

John Broadwood and Sons, detail of the name label

We have no words from Chopin himself on his view of Broadwood pianos, but the notebooks of Alfred J. Hipkins, the 22-year-old Broadwood technician who tuned for Chopin, reveal much.

His eloquent report of Chopin, written down later (1899), gives a valuable picture of Chopin’s piano technique, his visits to the Broadwood premises and of the pianos he played, even if slightly coloured by his loyalty to the firm.

We have no words from Chopin himself on his view of Broadwood pianos, but the notebooks of Alfred J. Hipkins, the 22-year-old Broadwood technician who tuned for Chopin, reveal much. His eloquent report of Chopin, written down later (1899), gives a valuable picture of Chopin’s piano technique, his visits to the Broadwood premises and of the pianos he played, even if slightly coloured by his loyalty to the firm.

‘In the April of 1848 one of the first visits he paid was to Broadwood’s warehouse in Great Pulteney Street. To save Chopin fatigue he was carried upstairs … That was the first time I saw him. He paid many subsequent visits, and it was on those occasions I heard him play.’

Programme of Chopin’s first public concert in London, at 99 Eaton Place, 1848-06-23, From the collection of: The Cobbe Collection Trust
Programme of concert at the Earl of Falmouth’s house in St James’s Square, 1848-07-07, From the collection of: The Cobbe Collection Trust
Programme of the concert in the Gentlemen’s Concert Hall, Manchester, 1848-08-28, From the collection of: The Cobbe Collection Trust
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Hipkins specified by their serial numbers the pianos Chopin chose for his various purposes. From Hipkins, we learn that grand piano No.17047 was used for his London recitals – on 23 June at Mrs Sartoris’s, 99 Eaton Place, and on 7 July at the Earl of Falmouth’s, 2 St James’s Square. In August, it was sent to Manchester, where Chopin gave a concert on the 28th, and having returned from Scotland, he used it again at the Guildhall on 16 November, the last public appearance of his life.

The firm stated that the instrument - having been specially chosen by Chopin - was reserved, in case he should return to England. Three weeks before Chopin’s death, when it must have been clear to Broadwood that there was no question of the composer’s ever returning to England, No.17047 was sold on 21 September 1849 for 160 guineas to a George Wigg of 61 Westbourne Terrace.

Stamped serial number on the lyre of Chopin’s Broadwood No.17047The Cobbe Collection Trust

Stamped serial number on the lyre of Chopin’s Broadwood No.17047 (Royal Academy of Music, on permanent loan to the Cobbe Collection)   

Jane Stirling's Grand Piano (1843) by ErardOriginal Source:

Pianoforte by Erard, London, 1843, No.713

The instrument was supplied to Jane Stirling in 1843, when she was living in Paris. Chopin almost certainly played it on a number of occasions and had the use of it when he was staying at Keir House, the Stirling seat in Scotland. 

The present fine instrument, Erard No.713, made by the London branch of the firm, can be associated with almost the entire span of Jane Stirling’s acquaintance and friendship with Chopin. Dating from 1843, it was supplied to her in the year that she became Chopin’s pupil; it survived at the Stirling seat at Keir House, Perthshire, where in October 1848, as Jane’s niece recounted, ‘Chopin had his own sitting-room and his own piano given him by my aunt.’

Jane Stirling (1804-1859) by Philipp Hermann Eichens (1813–1886)The Cobbe Collection Trust

Jane Stirling (1804-1859)

Lithograph by Philipp Hermann Eichens (1813–1886). The painter Ary Scheffer considered her the ideal of female beauty.

During the course of 1843, Chopin began teaching Jane Stirling. He had a high opinion of her musicianship. Not one to bestow praise lightly, he told her: ‘You will play, one day, very very well.’ In 1844, the composer dedicated to her the Nocturnes in F minor and E♭, Op.55, works that are far from easy to play, and it is perhaps not unreasonable to suppose that they may have received early performances by Chopin on this instrument.

Erard nameboardThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Detail of Erard nameboard

Chopin was famously ambivalent about Erard pianos, despite the more sophisticated action they possessed

If I am not feeling on top form, if my fingers are less than completely supple or agile, if I am not feeling strong enough to mould the keyboard to my will, to control the action of keys and hammers as I wish it, then I prefer an Erard with its limpidly bright ready-made tone..

'But if I feel alert, ready to make my fingers work without fatigue, then I prefer a Pleyel… My fingers feel in more immediate contact with the hammers, which then translate precisely and faithfully the feeling I want to produce, the effect I want to obtain.’

Jane Stirling's Grand Piano (1843) by ErardOriginal Source:

But even whilst studying with Chopin, Jane Stirling maintained a loyalty to Erards. In December 1847, we get a glimpse through the diary of Fanny Erskine of Chopin dining with Jane Stirling and Katherine Erskine, and after dinner he sat down to play Jane’s new Erard:

‘And how can I describe his playing – Anything so pure & heavenly, & delicate I never heard – & so mournful: his music is so like himself – & so original in its sadness … His preludes & his nocturnes composed at the moment were so delicious I could have jumped for joy!'

Keir HouseThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Keir House

Chopin spent a week or so staying at Keir where he had his own sitting-room with a piano provided by Jane Stirling, probably Erard No. 713. His host was Jane Stirling’s cousin, William Stirling, a distinguished collector, connoisseur and scholar of Spanish painting

Letter by Chopin written from Keir to Marie de RozièresThe Cobbe Collection Trust

Letter by Chopin written from Keir to Marie de Rozières

In which he writes ‘country-house life in high society is really very interesting. They have nothing like it on the continent.’(Collection of the Museum of the Chopin Society in Warsaw, inv. no. M/211).

By now his health was dogged by the general bad weather, and despondency was setting in. His first letter from Keir is famously addressed:

'Keir. Perthshire … Sunday. No post, no trains, no carriages (even to take the air), not a boat, not even a dog to whistle to.’ He can’t see ‘a most lovely view of Stirling Castle’ from his window because of fog—unless it is ‘so obliging as to give way to the sun for a few minutes –a sun which shows very little fight here’.

Fryderyk Chopin at the piano by Franz J. Julius Götzenberger (1800–1866)The Cobbe Collection Trust

An evocative account of the dynamic between Jane Stirling and Chopin is provided by Anne Isabella Ritchie’s childhood memory of him playing to them both in 1849:

'The lady sat absorbed and listening, and as I looked at her I saw tears in her eyes – great clear tears rolling down her cheeks, while the music poured on and on.

I can’t, alas, recall that music! I would give anything to remember it now; but the truth is, I was so interested in the people that I scarcely listened …

She looked hard at me as we drove away. “Never forget that you have heard Chopin play,” she said with emotion, “for soon no one will ever hear him play any more.”’

Fryderyk Chopin at the piano, 1838

By Franz J. Julius Götzenberger (1800–1866), heliogravure reproduction of the original pencil drawing in a private collection (Jagiellonian University Museum, Cracow)

What is it to be learnt from the presence of three of Chopin's pianos in the same building? Having the possibility of playing in immediate succession these pianos by the greatest makers of Chopin's lifetime, allows present-day pianists to debate their relative qualities of sound and touch and how these affect musical interpretation - much as Chopin did.

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