#Stay Home with Chopin

An invitation to reflect on the similarities and differences between the concert practices of Chopin’s time and a recent covid-19-induced developments of modern concert life

By The Fryderyk Chopin Institute

A letter-card from Fryderyk Chopin to Stanisław Egbert Koźmian (1837) by Fryderyk ChopinThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Let’s begin with an invitation. For informal meetings, Chopin used to send a small card with a few words scribbled on it and a simple, unpretentious massage. Look at the visiting card of his publisher Camille Pleyel who accompanied him during his 1837 trip to London.

Chopin wrote: ‘We await you at 5pm’ and signed the message with his characteristic signature. The card was taken by a messenger to Stanisław Egbert Koźmian who acted as a guide during Chopin’s first visit to England.

A letter from Fryderyk Chopin to Charles-Valentine Alkan (between 1834 and 03/1837) by Fryderyk ChopinThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

And this is a letter of invitation sent to a befriended musician Charles-Valentine Alkan. Chopin writes:

Dear Friend,
Today we are dining with Liszt in a larger company and we count on you. – The randez-vous is at my place at 6pm. You will meet Berlioz and Schoelcher.

I expect you and kiss you with all my heart.
FFChopin
Liszt was to write as well.

View of the Boulevards of Paris (1843) by William Henry Fox TalbotThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salon concert

In Chopin’s Paris, the Paris of the July Monarchy (1830-1848), one could listen to music in various circumstances. Much of the concert life would take place in salons held by wealthy aristocrats and nouveaux-riches. 

Illustrated France (1845)LIFE Photo Collection

Salons had a semi-private character. The audience attending salon concerts could be best described as belonging to an elitist club of people who might not know each other personally but at least knew about each other and could easily tell who was who. Of course, social circles would differ from one salon to the other.

Maria Szymanowska, Mazurka in C major No. 17 from Vingt-quatre Mazurkas (c. 1825) - Tobias Koch (period piano: Erard, 1838)
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What was it like to listen to music in such circumstances?

Fryderyk Chopin in the salon of prince Antoni Radziwiłł (1888) by Rudolf SchusterThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

In the lithograph after a painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, you can see young Fryderyk Chopin among such a gathering in the salon held by Prince Antoni Radziwiłł. Let's look at it carefully, while listening to Chopin's Polonaise in B flat major composed at that very period.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 1-12) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel, 1848)
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Chopin sits at the piano, in a spotless elegant outfit, his hands on the keyboard.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 1-12, repetition) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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Princess Eliza Radziwiłłówna stands at the other side of the piano looking at the pianist, their eyes meet. It was her who made a pencil drawing of him at the piano.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 13-20, with repetition) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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Princess Wanda, her younger sister to whom Chopin gave some piano lessons, sits at the front watching her teacher intently.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 21-32) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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Prince Antoni Radziwiłł sits close to the instrument, deep in his thoughts.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 21-32, repetition) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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There are women, younger and older, who have gathered around the piano, as close as they can, leaning towards the virtuoso not to miss the smallest note.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 33-42) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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There are young men, standing at the distance, looking on the scene with visible jealousy.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 33-42, repetition) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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And there are others, whose attentive faces show that they listen to music carefully.

Fryderyk Chopin, Polonaise in B flat major WN1 (mm. 1-20, da capo al fine) - Marek Drewnowski (period piano: Pleyel 1848)
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This is how you would listen to music in the salon. There were many good ways to do that, and not all of them involved a full concentration on the flow of music.

Portret Fryderyka Chopina przy fortepianie (c. 1826) by Eliza RadziwiłłównaThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

It is telling that the only pictures showing Chopin at the piano were made in the salon. The first of them was drawn by princess Eliza Radziwiłłówna in the very salon that was imagined in Siemiradzki’s painting.

Sunday Chopin Recitals in Żelazowa Wola. Szymon Nehring (2020) by Szymon NehringThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Listen to the beginning of the recital of Szymon Nehring, finalist of the 17th Chopin Competition.

Sunday Chopin Recitals in Żelazowa Wola. Interview with Szymon Nehring (2020) by Szymon NehringThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

And listen to the interview made after the recital.

Illustrated France (1845)LIFE Photo Collection

Social music

The salon was a space for social gatherings, but it was also a concert venue. In the culture of Chopin’s Paris, however, the two things were inseparable. Concert venues were also spaces for social gatherings as it is epitomized by grand mask balls in the opera. Dancing, talking, listening, all of those activities could be practiced in the same space and often even at the same time. Some people were dancing, the others were listening, yet others used the time for conversation.

Grand piano Buchholtz, c. 1825-1826, copyThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Some of the artists of today choose to play on the very instruments that were used at that time practicing what is called a historically informed performance. By doing so, they revive the spirit of the music composed at the time.

Ensemble Dialoghi | 16th International Music Festival „Chopin and his Europe” (2020) by Lorenzo Coppola, Cristina Esclapez, Kristin von der GoltzThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

Sometimes they also try to revive the social aspect of that music as it is done by Ensamble Dialoghi. In their performance, music visibly converses. Watching the performance we can truly imagine that the music as a part of salon conversation.

Eine Matinée bei Liszt (1846) by Joseph KriehuberThe Fryderyk Chopin Institute

The main difference between Chopin’s world and ours is that, nowadays, the access to the greatest music and performances is much more democratic. Everyone can listen to it on their phone or laptop. Why not try and make a social affair of it, once more, in the way that the artists of the past could not have imagined?

We can now consider two options of meeting with the artists in our living rooms: the more traditional would be to watch the concert during an informal meeting of friends and relatives; the more modern would be to connect with each other via Internet coummunicator.

To make this music part of our social lives would mean to engage in a historically informed practice of listening. The rendez-vous, this time, is at your place.

Credits: Story

Paweł Siechowicz (Chopin Institute)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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