Hats Off Gentlemen, a Genius!

Chopin Wows Paris

By The Morgan Library & Museum

Robinson McClellan, Assistant Curator of Music, Morgan Library & Museum

Salle Pleyel, Paris piano maker, 1832

If you had walked into No. 2 Rue Cadet in Paris at 8pm on February 26, 1832, you would have heard a concert hosted by the famed piano maker Pleyel, then located here. Pianos were a big deal, and piano makers spared no expense in promoting their wares.

Variations on Mozart's Là ci darem la mano - Fuld programThe Morgan Library & Museum

Next, you would have been handed this concert program. The original you see here is now in the James Fuld Collection at the Morgan Library in New York City. The concert, planned for February 25, was delayed until the next night.

Let's take a closer look.

As the program announces at the top, this will be a “Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert, given by M. Frédéric Chopin, of Warsaw.” 

“Who is this kid?” you might think. “Never heard of him.”

Remember, you just time-traveled to 1832, before Chopin was famous.

Chopin Frederik Francois 1810-1849.LIFE Photo Collection

Just twenty-one years old, Chopin had recently arrived in Paris after leaving his native Poland to seek his fortune first in Vienna, then Paris.

His talents had been recognized back home, from his first polonaise published when he was just seven years old, in 1817, to the gift of a diamond ring from Tsar Alexander I, who heard him perform at age fifteen.

Chopin - Morgan Library Cary CollectionThe Morgan Library & Museum

But like many young people, Chopin wanted to see how far his talents could take him. So he set off for the musical capitals of Europe.

This portrait is at the Morgan Library, in the Mary Flagler Cary Collection.

Parocialstraße (1831) by Eduard GaertnerAlte Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, and soon began to impress people with his fine piano playing and promising compositions. Thus the invitation to present a concert featuring his own music, at the Salle Pleyel, the venue of one of the premiere piano makers in Paris.

Variations on Mozart's Là ci darem la mano - Fuld programThe Morgan Library & Museum

Back to the concert program. A little later we'll look at Chopin's music manuscript of one of the pieces first heard that evening.

The "Première Partie" includes: a Beethoven quintet (1), a sung duet (2), and an Allegro de concerto "composed and executed by Chopin" (3)—that's his E minor Piano Concerto. Then another sung duet (4), and another movement from his concerto (5), again performed by the composer

The second part of the concert begins with a sung quartet (item 1), then a “Grand Polonaise, preceded by an Introduction and a March, composed for six pianos, by M. Kalkbrenner" (item 2). 

Wait, does that say SIX pianos!?

And is that the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy himself, playing second piano?

Yes, and yes. There are six pianists listed. Remember, this concert was in a piano factory so it wasn’t that hard to get six pianos together.

And yes, Felix Mendelssohn, who was only twenty-three, was in Paris like many other young musicians trying to get ahead. Though, as it turns out, he wasn’t able to make it that evening and his spot was filled by someone else.

On to the next items on the program. That was quite a loud racket with the six pianos, so good idea to follow it with a quiet oboe solo (item 3), and then a tune sung by Mademoiselle Toméoni (item 4).

01_Fryderyk Chopin, Variations in B-Flat Major, Op. 2 - I. Introduction, Nelson Goerner, Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century
00:00

And finally, we come to the piece that made it all worthwhile for the young Chopin. Saving best for last, item 5: his Grand Variations on a theme from W.A. Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. 

Let’s hear the introduction, rendered beautifully by Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner.

Chopin Op 2 cover - Variations on Mozart Là ci darem la manoThe Morgan Library & Museum

"Wait a second," you might be thinking, "they had a whole orchestra in there!?"

Nope, just solo piano. The answer to the mystery is in this musical manuscript, held here at the Morgan Library in the Robert Owen Lehman Collection, on deposit.

Let's open it up and take a look.

Chopin Mozart Variations Op 2 - first leaf frontThe Morgan Library & Museum

Here is the first page of the manuscript. But what's going on? It seems to start right in the middle of a musical phrase. There's no title, not even a treble or bass clef.

Except this one.

This page does contain a bit of interesting information, though: the year 1829, in the lower right corner. That means Chopin was working on this when he was eighteen or nineteen, two years before his arrival in Paris.

Chopin Op 2 1st leaf back - Variations on Mozart Là ci darem la manoThe Morgan Library & Museum

Turning the page, the back of the first leaf doesn't reveal much more in the way of clues about the orchestral aspect of this piece. This is beginning to look like a sketchbook. Let's turn to the next page.

Chopin Op 2 piece starts - Variations on Mozart Là ci darem la manoThe Morgan Library & Museum

Ah! Here we go. This looks more like the first page of a piece of music. Title at the top, clefs and instrument names at the left, dynamic markings ("pp" for pianissimo, nice and quiet), everything we need.

And, it is written for orchestra, with the strings at the top, then flutes, oboes, and so on down to the solo fortepiano—the instrument we now call the piano.

Our mystery is solved! This manuscript shows us that in 1829, Chopin had first written the music for piano with orchestra. But by the time of this 1832 concert, he had dropped the orchestral component.

So at the Salle Pleyel on that February evening in 1832, Chopin played the solo fortepiano (piano) version. In general, he lost interest in orchestral accompaniments early in his career, and the vast majority of his music is for solo piano.

Let's look at the opening phrase. It begins in the wind instruments, doubling the fortepiano (piano), written below. Doubling means they are playing the same notes in sync.

01_Fryderyk Chopin, Variations in B-Flat Major, Op. 2 - I. Introduction, Nelson Goerner, Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century
00:00

Let's listen again. The orchestral version we hear here is different than the one we see, beginning instead with the string section. Before long, the piano enters, stealing the show. Perhaps it's not surprising that Chopin decided to drop the orchestral element.

01_Fryderyk Chopin, Variations in B-Flat Major, Op. 2 - I. Introduction, Nelson Goerner, Frans Brüggen, Orchestra of the 18th Century
00:00

And on goes the piece. After this introduction there's a movement presenting the theme, then five variation movements, and a coda. 

We won't go through the whole thing, but I do want to show you one more page...

Chopin Op 2 last page doodle - Variations on Mozart Là ci darem la manoThe Morgan Library & Museum

Near the end of the manuscript, we find a page with more sketches, and a funny little doodle.

Just guessing, but the doodle may have started with an attempt to cross out some unwanted music.

So that wraps up our visit to the year 1832, when the city of Paris first discovered Chopin. Very soon after that February evening at the Salle Pleyel, fame found the young composer.

Variations on Mozart's Là ci darem la mano - Fuld programThe Morgan Library & Museum

So you can see the power in original documents like the manuscript and concert program we've looked at. They can serve as time machines, bringing us back into the atmosphere of an evening of music in 1832 that changed the course of European music.

Schumann Robert Alexander & Clara 1810-1856LIFE Photo Collection

Oh! I forgot to explain the title of this story. In 1831, the previous year, composer and music critic Robert Schumann—also twenty-one at the time—had praised the same piece after he heard it in Vienna, where Chopin had been before coming to Paris.

Chopin - Morgan Library Cary CollectionThe Morgan Library & Museum

In an 1831 review in the respected Viennese journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, Schumann had announced the arrival of Chopin, the young unknown composer, with the prophetic words, “Hats off gentlemen, a genius!”

Credits: Story

With thanks to Robert Owen Lehman for granting permission to show his manuscript of Frédéric Chopin's Variations on Mozart's Là ci darem la mano, held on deposit at the Morgan Library & Museum. Also featuring rare materials from the Morgan's James Fuld Collection and Mary Flagler Cary Collection. Story by Robinson McClellan, Assistant Curator of Music, Morgan Library & Museum.

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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