Composer Abuse - Truth Decay in the Life of Fryderyk Chopin

Composer Abuse  

Truth Decay in the Life of Fryderyk Chopin

The Young Chopin (1810-1849)

The recent, tendentious article entitled 'Chopin's interest in men airbrushed from history, programme claims' that appeared in The Guardian newspaper (Philip Oltermann and Shaun Walker, Wednesday 25 Nov 2020) clearly has an agenda that possesses only a passing relationship to serious music and more pointedly, sexual orientation in its depiction of the life of the Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin. Subtitle: Journalist says he has found overt homoeroticism in Polish composer’s letters. 

What is interesting is the fact that the Swiss public broadcaster SRF’s arts channel decided that this old 'sensationalist' chestnut was an important enough 'revelation' to have made a long programme entitled Chopin's Men concerning the issue. That his true sexual proclivities have been 'airbrushed from history' could only be seriously considered as 'Stop Press News' by those formerly completely ignorant of the life of Chopin. 

This symbolic case is simply a small but telling example of the excellent term  'truth decay'. There is another virus waging war on us that now blights so-called 'civilized' life. It is the increasing irrelevance of integrity and honesty in attempts to discover demonstrable truth, what are accepted as 'facts' in the moral search for legitimacy. Does truth matter? Does it even exist? The recent storming of the Capitol in Washington is an even more alarming example of delusional beliefs driving the nature of 'truth'.

In this case the depth of the investigative journey is what possesses the value, not the impenetrable conclusion.

Having lived with and played his music, read the composer's entertaining correspondence and journals, musicological essays on his works, learned biographies, journals and attended conferences dealing with Chopin ephemera for many years, none of this prurient, 'old hat' speculation is news to me. 

However, the issue poses an important question. What level of truth and usefulness do these present conjectures contribute to our understanding of his life and music? How misleading are these indications for young readers who know little as yet of the composer except perhaps a polonaise, a mazurka or a waltz and his much filmed fraught period in Majorca and idyllic summers at Nohant in rural France in company with with the great French author George Sand?

There is no single turnkey explanation to the richness and complexities of the life and work of any artistic genius. However, in the name of justice and balanced judgment, I feel compelled in this note to clarify if only a little, the anachronistic nature and relevance of these hypotheses concerning Chopin's 'unconventional sexuality'. So much is based on tenuous linguistic 'mistranslations' and a willful partiality of the sources selected and consulted by the music journalist Moritz Weber in support of a gratuitous argument.

Chopin remained  extraordinarily faithful  to  the formative impressions  of his adolescence  and  youth.  The  lasting  principles  of his artistic vision were formed on his native soil among his childhood friends, teachers, romantic infatuations and family life on holidays in the Polish countryside among the peasantry. He was an ebullient young man and excellent company with a sharp sense of humour, fond of practical jokes and with an immense talent for caricature  and mimicry. He could easily have become a professional  actor. He even began his own highly entertaining and ironical country newspaper. He loved the rough violin and open-throated folk music of Mazovia and was an excellent dancer, often playing the piano into the small hours at parties for the whirling couples, flowers resplendent on their folk costumes, performing the Mazur. He even required a period in 'rehab' at the Silesian spa town of Bad Reinerz (now Duszniki Zdrój in Poland) after intensive partying in Warsaw. A great young guy and a 'party animal'.

This gregariousness was all quite apart from his genius as the composer of immortal piano concertos, sets of variations and mazurkas all written in the youthful exuberant style brillant, clearly reflected in the glittering keyboard virtuosity of these works. As a child prodigy he was considered to be ‘the second Mozart’ by the cream of the Warsaw aristocracy. This evolved long before his profoundly mature and late style existential works were allied to the clichéd view of him as a melancholic consumptive shipwrecking between the ample thighs of the robust writer of genius, Georges Sand. Fryderyk Chopin - the most accessible yet profoundly inaccessible of composers.

Warsaw from the Praga District cir.1770 - Bernado Belotto (1722-1780)

Before leaving Poland, Chopin confessed to Tytus Woyciechowski (1808-1879), a landowner and close friend of his youth studying law at the Warsaw Lyceum, in a long missive dated 29th October 1829: 'Perhaps you will wonder where I acquired such a mania for writing letters.' The veritable forest of their compulsive correspondence predominantly contains detailed current information about opera singers and their performances, ironical and satirical character studies, the state of music, news of family and friends, acidic critical and positive comments on keyboard performers such as Kalkbrenner, Hummel and Hiller and praise for Viennese pianos such as those of Conrad Graf. 

Tytus Woyciechowski (1808-1879) in later life

Chopin greatly respected Tytus Woyciechowski's musical opinions and the friends remained in correspondence after Chopin left Poland. He accompanied Chopin on his 1830 journey to Vienna but on learning of the Uprising returned to Warsaw to take part in the fighting where his bravery as a second lieutenant earned him the highest Polish military decoration, the Virtuti MilitariIn 1861–62 he was an active member of the White Party, which took part in the failed January Uprising of 1863. In his fine and highly detailed book on Chopin (Fryderyk Chopin His Life and Times, London 2018), Dr. Alan Walker informs us that Woychiechowski married Countess Aloysia Poletylo, by whom he had four children – their second son being named Fryderyk, after Chopin.

In later life Woyciechowski dedicated himself to advanced agriculture at the family estate of Poturzyn, some 123 kms south-east of Lublin. As a forward thinking 'gentleman farmer' might have done in England, he introduced crop rotation and in 1847 founded one of the first sugar factories in Poland. In 1914 fire tragically destroyed the Woyciechowski collection of Chopin memorabilia and finally the Second World War did for the manor house.  

The letters between the friends are couched within warm endearments, common among intimate male friends of all nationalities two hundred years ago. This was a time when the expression of intimate emotions was not considered self-conscious, let alone reported to the police or tabloid press, the hopeful schmoozer possibly facing prosecution for sexual soliciting. Such expressions of close affection clearly make modern men sufficiently uncomfortable to consign the writers to an impoverished view of sensibility and a profitless preoccupation with sexual orientation in a quest for understanding the creativity of genius or demolishing an icon.

'My Dearest Life!' opens a letter to Tytus on 22 September 1830,  and concludes poetically and movingly 'I understand you, I penetrate your spirit, and ...let us embrace one another, since nothing more can be said.'  With similar ebullience, 'My Dearest Being! opens another to Jan (Jaś) Matuszyński (1808-1842) written in January 1831 from Vienna. He was another of Fryderyk's closest friends, a gifted musician and later medical doctor. This letter concludes 'I love you, and so you love me.' Often kisses are exchanged...'All the friends. Kisses. Kisses.' 'Please kiss Elsner for me' Chopin writes of his music teacher in yet another. 

Prurient, crude and actually rather boring speculations, outmoded contemporary excavations of 'unconventional sexuality', are so limited in scope. The article's gratuitous interpretation of Chopin 'cottaging' in London, his questionable praise of 'Great urinals' for that purpose (mentioned in a letter of light-hearted London impressions written to Julian Fontana in Paris in July 1837), borders on the hilariously surreal and is moreover absurd, distasteful and anachronistic. George Jennings (1810–1882), an English sanitary engineer and plumber, installed the first public flush toilets called 'monkey closets' at The Great Exhibition at Hyde Park in 1851. 

The idiom 'to spend a penny' evolved from the cost of their use, informally referred to as having a 'tinkle'.  Before the advent of the public lavatory, access to suitable locations fpor a 'tinkle'  would  indeed have posed a problem, as he mentions. The later concept of 'cottaging' and gay activity in public conveniences (derived from the word for small house or 'cottage') did not become 'popular' in London until the late 1800s or early 1900s when the Victorians and Edwardians erected large, aesthetically attractive and decorative cast iron street urinals for men known as 'cottages' with private stalls.

One must ask what constructive light can these hints of homoeroticism possibly shine on appreciation and 'enlightened' interpretation of Chopin's life, music or the miraculous creative process that brought his immortal works into being?  Love, jealousy, hope, nostalgia, even the emotional despair felt at the loss of love, 'the moving toyshop of the heart', retain exactly the same transcendental, universal power between lovers of the same sex as between those of different sex. The greatest achievements in art and the expression of universal human spiritual and moral values in the face of ultimate realities of life are surely created irrespective of race, colour, religion or sexual proclivity. 

The notion does however point up a perennial problem for Chopin interpreters who should attempt to reduce, as far as is possible, the enormous social, poetic and emotional distance from the source of this music. Create a context in the mind's eye. Chopin had to face, even if indirectly, the consequences of the July Revolution of 1830 and February revolution of 1848 in France. This was also a world of cholera pandemics, closeness to death and physical suffering, poverty and hunger, streets covered in impacted horse manure, and also a world without electricity, the telephone, aircraft, motor cars, antibiotics, dental care or morphia - imagine if you can such artistic and social implications. Creative genres were rather different in significance and form to our own. Only the piano as a musical instrument remained essentially the same, but even then... 

In much musical interpretation there has been a modern flight from subtle early nineteenth-century poetic sensibility to the fast, physical and dynamically powerful, unreflective criteria that rule modern life. Ours is a world away from the intense, uninhibited and uncensored, tender, intimate and cultivated sensibility between friends indicated by the writer of these extraordinary letters. 

Communication between separated friends could only be written. Language was forced to carry the full weight of expressed affection and feeling. Consider the celebrated, long epistolary novel Clarissa or The History of a Young Lady (1748) by the English writer of genius Samuel Richardson. Or the profoundly influential Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Julie or The New Heloise) originally entitled Lettres de Deux Amans, Habitans d'une petite Ville au pied des Alpes ('Letters from two lovers, living in a small town at the foot of the Alps'), another epistolatory novel (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Letters were a unique and important vehicle of emotion. One could not immediately hear a voice and gauge the mood on an iPhone. The banality and brevity of modern text messages and Twitter at every social level says much of the reductionist literalism of modern communication and expressed emotion.

I have always felt that much of the attraction of Chopin’s music lay in the alluring and magical balance he maintains between the masculine and feminine sensibility (if you consider such a difference exists of course), that difference between Mars and Venus (again only if you accept such a dichotomy). Sensuality may well have emerged from such emotional closeness as is hinted at in his letters, but from the evidence we have (or I have - rumours of suppressed letters and bowdlerisation aside) it remains an unjustified and essentially fruitless leap in musical appreciation.  'So what?' I find myself asking myself.

However, it does offer any potential script writer the rewards of a 'new', sensational historical 'revelation', so beloved of print journalism and a current television series at present. Another example of the chronic opportunistic voyeurism, politicization and cruel invasions of privacy that besets our times. The condemnation of a posteriori judgments of past social behaviour and mores by the standards of 2020 can be deeply unfair and lacking in contemporary empathy and relevance. 

Breathless, we await the 'yet to be revealed' deep significance of the delicious boys of Caravaggio, the robust, the undisclosed messages within the romantic poems of Michelangelo, the ambiguous identity and secret love story hidden in the Shakespeare Sonnets, the homicidal violence of the ferocious sword of Benvenuto Cellini, the motivations of the insanely jealous murderer and sublime madrigal composer of genius Gesualdo, Prince da Venosa, the anti-Semitism of Wagner and the unbridled scandalous love life of Franz Liszt.

Even more unsettling is the mystery of divine music contrasted with the scatological correspondence of Mozart (He kept a diary of every incident when he heard someone fart. In a letter dated 5 November 1777 he writes to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart : 'Well I wish you good night, But first shit in your bed and make it burst'). We have Lord Byron's infatuation and poetry in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage concerning the Cambridge choirboy John Edleston, the unsolicited letter of 17th August 1820 written by a certain John Aitken to the perfect stranger but immortal English poet John Keats 'In short I love you … for yourself alone'  and inviting him to come and live with him in Italy. There is no record of a reply. The destiny of Oscar Wilde is already infamous. However, the Bloomsbury group surely take the homoerotic, anti-Semitic, bisexual biscuit. In the famous words of Dorothy Parker, they 'lived in squares, and loved in triangles'.

All these examples provide highly diverting, cinematic biographical details but do they contribute anything more than a titillation to jaded palates bereft of creative or real life, offer any significantly deeper understanding of these consummate artists who overcame unimaginable obstacles to create their masterpieces? Chopin, 'Ariel  of the piano', is a rather mild case as far as the eccentricity of genius and sexual ambiguity and fluidity goes! 

Surely it is time to treat genius as real people with all the usual domestic and financial  survival problems and worries, health issues, character strengths, drives and weaknesses of ordinary human beings except of course for their inexplicable, miraculous creative powers. This rather than conceiving of them as bronze, unassailable icons, tempting targets of opportunistic despoliation. The truth or otherwise fades in the ostentatious theatricalism of 'wicked discoveries' that 'must be true' simply because uttered. 

This modern concept is now frighteningly termed 'truth decay'. How then are we to approach such ambiguous statements? With embarrassment? Disbelief? Are they of any importance at all outside the addictive nature of sensationalism and the general decrease in sensitivity to nervous stimulation? And what conclusions are we to draw from the 'secret reality' uncovered, the conspiracy theories concealed or at best unimagined in such analogous cases?

Konstancja Gładkowska (1810-1889)

There are numerous letters and accounts testifying to Chopin's love and concern for the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska, (whom he met as a fellow music student at the age of 19) as well as exquisite musical testimony to his affection contained in the Larghetto and Romanze. Larghetto second movements of his piano concertos. This surely is some of the most sensitive music of illusioned youthful love ever written. In a letter to his close friend Tytus Woyciechowski on 3 October 1829 he writes: 

You yourself no doubt sense the necessity of my return to Vienna, not for the sake of Miss Blahetka, about whom, as far as I can remember, I have written (she is a young person, pretty, a pianist), because I already, perhaps unfortunately, have my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, not having spoken to her for half a year now, about whom I dream, with thoughts of whom the Adagio from my Concerto came to be...' [Concerto in F-minor Op.21, the first to be written]

Chopin's second teacher, the neglected Silesian composer Józef Elsner (1769–1854), one of the seminal figures in Polish music, taught him advanced composition, harmony and counterpoint in Warsaw. Elsner introduced Chopin to the art of bel canto song. Chopin’s early love for this beautiful singer flowered alongside his love of the voice, which later developed into a passion for Italian opera, in particular Bellini and Rossini. Elsner's succinct final report on his pupil observed, ‘Szopen Frideric – Particularly talented. Musical genius etc.'

Again to Tytus of the E Minor concerto Op.11 [the second concerto to be completed], Chopin writes on 15th May 1830: 

'It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy. It should give the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.' 

One cannot help wondering about the source of these 'happy memories' and imagining the romantic nature and occurrences that may have given rise to them.

and again :  

‘Involuntarily, something has entered my head through my eyes and I like to caress it’. 

The entire musical population of Warsaw was drawn to the National Theatre for the premiere. One young singer participating in the concert, who preoccupied Chopin's heart, was a certain Konstancja Gładkowska. ‘Dressed becomingly in white, with roses in her hair' as he wistfully described her. She sang the cavatina from Rossini’s La donna del lagoas she had never sung anything, except for the aria in (Paer’s) Agnese. You know that 'Oh, quante lagrime per te versai'. She uttered 'tutto desto' to the bottom B in such a way that Zieliński (an acquaintance) held that single B to be worth a thousand ducats’. 

This 'farewell' concert was only three weeks before Chopin left Warsaw and the subsequent November 1830 uprising burst upon the city. ‘The trunk for the journey is bought, scores corrected, handkerchiefs hemmed… Nothing left but to bid farewell, and most sadly’. Konstancja and Frycek exchanged rings. She had packed an album in which she had written the words ‘while others may better appraise and reward you, they certainly can’t love you better than we’. Only two years later, Chopin added: ‘they can’ which speaks volumes.

Vienna from the Belvedere Palace cir.1760 - Bernado Bellotto (1722-1780)

On Sunday morning, Christmas Day 1830 in Vienna, Frycek writes to Jaś Matuszyński: Today I sit all alone in my dressing gown, I chew on my ring [the ring he received in exchange from Gładkowska when he departed Warsaw]. On 26th or 29th December 1830 he writes to Jaś enquiring of Konstancja: 'Has she not been ill? I could easily assume something of the sort from such a sensitive creature. Did it not seem so to you? Perhaps the fright of the 29th [the beginning date of the November Uprising] May God forbid it's because of me!  Reassure her, tell her that so long as I have strength..., that unto death...,But that is all too little. 

One must never forget that in 1830 partitioned Poland did not exist as a sovereign nation state on European maps. The sector around Warsaw was referred to as 'Congress Poland' or 'Russian Poland', nominally and more formally as the 'Kingdom of Poland'. Effectively the country remained a phantom presence in the mind of its inhabitants under Hapsburg, Russian or Prussian domination, effectively 'partitioned', until regaining independence in 1918. The moody Grand  Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, commander-in-chief and de facto viceroy of Tsar Alexander I to the Kingdom of Poland, often asked the Wunderkind to play for him to ‘soothe a savage breast’. He  was collected in a sleigh from his home in the Saxon Palace and drawn through Warsaw streets by four horses harnessed abreast in the spectacular  Russian  manner  and  taken  to the Belvedere  Palace. From his earliest years Chopin was exposed to the refinement  and ease of the  highest  echelons  of  society. This remarkable social milieu formed both his cultivated temperament and musical tastes.

At Stuttgart, in his album written before 16th September 1831, he reflects on the imagined horrors of the Warsaw Uprising, of being a dying man, being a corpse with many lugubrious reflections on having left his country, his family, his love and friends to further his musical career. 'I know how you love me [referring to his family] She [Konstancja Gładkowska] only pretended - or she is pretending - Oh that is a problem to be solved ! - She does, she doesn't, she does, she doesn't, she does, hand to hand...all fall down! Does she love me? Does she love me for sure? - Let her do what she wants. Today I have a higher feeling, higher, I have a feeling far higher than curiosity in my soul. 

After 16th September 1831, again from Stuttgart, we have a desperately fractured journal entry that possibly chronicles the inspiration of the composition of the 'Revolutionary' Étude in C minor, Op. 10 No 12. 'What is happening with her? - Where is she? - Poor thing! - Perhaps she is in the hands of the Muscovite! - The Musovite pushes her - strangles - murders, kills her! - Oh my Life, I am here alone - come to me - I'll dry your tears, I'll heal the wounds of the present - recalling the past to you.[...] I'm not Grabowski [Gładkowska married Józef Grabowski in January 1832]

Stuttgart-Berg: Lithograph cir. 1830 
[Copyright Landesmedienzentrum Baden-Württemberg]

There are also letters which indicate, despite his romantic, idealized Platonic love for Konstancja, that he must have allowed his exploratory youthful high spirits full reign in Parisian bouts of nostalgie de la boue. On 18th November 1831, Chopin wrote in a letter describing life in the French capital to Norbert Alfons Kumelski (1802-1853), a naturalist, zoologist, geologist and travelling companion, at that time living in Berlin. Chopin had recently left Stuttgart and Strasbourg. 'You find here [Paris] the greatest splendour, the greatest swinishness, the greatest virtue, the greatest vice, every two feet there are posters concerning venereal diseases - more shouting, uproar, rattling and mud than you can possibly imagine. [...] How many charity girls! [prostitutes] They chase after people, and yet there's no lack of stout Hasdrubals; [muscular soldier types] I regret the fact that the souvenir of Teresa, in spite of Benedykt's endeavours, who nonetheless considers my misery a very small thing, does not allow me to taste forbidden fruit. But I already know several female singers - and the singers here, even more than the Tyrolean ones, are eager for duets.'

ParisLes Halles et la rue de la Tonnellerie (1828) Giuseppe Canella the Elder (1788-1847)

It appears Chopin had contracted gonorrhea between Vienna and Munich and his doctor Benedict had treated him for it. During the early 1800s, long before germ theory and antibiotics, pharmaceutical treatments for gonorrhea mainly focused on reducing the inflammation and discharge caused by the infection. For treatment, two of the most common drugs were Copaiba balsam and sandalwood oil. Both were either taken internally in capsules or painfully injected as a solution without syringes (not yet invented) into the urethra. Certainly such an unpleasant experience may well have dissuaded the fastidious, hypochondriac Chopin from indulging a great deal in any future promiscuous sexual activity. This and his perhaps surprisingly pious, nineteenth-century religious beliefs which are too often neglected as significant in our largely secular musical assessment of Romantic composers.

There was much speculation later in his life concerning his physical relationship with George Sand. Despite lurid innuendo, we shall never know the full, truthful details of their sexual relationship. She imposed a period of chastity on him with her for some years and wrote in February 1839 'I care for him like my child and he loves me like his mother'

Overall I feel this rather misleading Guardian article says more about our own prurient, narrow interest in the arcane private sexual life of this genius than dedication to the exploration of the musical mysteries, beauties and labyrinths of his vastly more important, immortal and universally consoling musical works - especially now.

[Letters translated from the Polish originals by David Frick in Chopin's Polish Letters, The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Warsaw 2016]

Here is the politicized response to the 'revelation' by CNN:


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