The Pianist on Square d'Orléans. The Rediscovered Chopin Pleyel piano, Factory No.13214 (1847) Fryderyk Chopin's penultimate instrument
|Pleyel Factory Number 13214 (1847)|
The great English painter J. M. W. Turner once remarked 'always take advantage of an accident'. In this case I am attempting to take advantage of a coincidence. The consideration is of two Pleyel Petit Patron grand pianos used by Fryderyk Chopin. These instruments followed each other to the same address in Paris as if in the manner of a metaphysical destiny.
I have already covered in detail the restoration in Warsaw of Chopin's last piano in Paris, Pleyel No. 14810 of 1848, and will follow this with an examination of the history and review a performance on the recently rediscovered penultimate Pleyel used by Chopin in Paris, Factory No. 13214 of 1847.
The award-winning pianist and pedagogue Professor Hubert Rutkowski of the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg explained the fascination Pleyel had for the Polish composer:
'Chopin was a Pleyel pianist. He was very connected to this company and particularly appreciated the sound. Because of the nuances, the intimate tones and the sound design, he preferred Pleyel.
There is a famous quote where Chopin said that if he felt poorly, then he played on an Erard. The mechanics were simpler, and you get the finished note, so to speak. With the Pleyel you really have to fight for the note, you have to work to create the beautiful sound. But the sound quality and the possibilities for the design, the colors, were the decisive factors for Chopin.'
There was a great rivalry between the pianos of Sebastian Erard favoured by Franz Liszt and those of Camille Pleyel favoured by Fryderyk Chopin.
Many models of Pleyel grand pianos (Grand Patron and Petit Patron) and pianinos (upright Pleyels) were made available to Chopin during his lifetime by Camille for his use teaching in Paris, composing at Nohant and even a pianino was sent to Valldemossa. It has been estimated as many as a dozen instruments were selected in this way by Chopin himself. After a winter or summer season they were then leased or sold on at the composer's recommendation. Chopin also received a 10 % commission on any sales he arranged of Pleyel pianos for his students.
After six months in residence during an exceptionally hot summer at Nohant (where he feared he may have been actually sweating), Chopin returned to Paris in November 1846, the seventh summer he had spent in this enchanted place since 1839. By this time the so creative love affair between Chopin and George Sand had begun to unravel. He would not travel to that magical domain ever again, that Arcadia where he had composed many major works:
Barcarolle in F sharp major Op. 60
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major Op. 61
2 Nocturnes in B major and E major Op. 62
3 Mazurkas in B major, F minor, and C sharp minor Op. 63
His Sonata for Cello and Piano Op.65 begun at Nohant was also nearing completion there.
Unbeknownst to Chopin when he set off for Paris in November 1846, the atmosphere at Nohant, previously so idyllic, was about to collapse during 1847 into toxicity and violence. A domestic typhoon would erupt around Maurice, George Sand's son and the marriage of her daughter Solange to the rough-hewn, violent, mendacious sculptor Jean-Baptiste Clésinger. Chopin's relationship of nine years with George Sand would be permanently sundered by this tremblement de terre. In unconstrained fury she even altered his room at Nohant to the smaller arrangement we see today and dispatched this Pleyel back to Paris.
|George Sand (1804-1876) cir. 1835 by Charles Louis Gratia (1815-1911)|
|Le maison de George Sand at Nohant|
Chopin used Pleyel 13214 for many private concerts in his apartment at 9 Square d'Orléans (now 80 Rue Taitbout) from March 1847. The Sonata for cello and Piano was performed there on Pleyel 13214 with his favourite cellist and friend August Franchomme. The concert, including this sonata, took place on 23 March 1847 and was held in honour of Delfina Potocka and the arrival of this new Pleyel. Among the glitterati were Prince Adam Czartoryski and his wife Anna, as well as George Sand, who had just travelled from Nohant to Paris. On this instrument Chopin also composed three of his most beloved waltzes, those in D flat major (the Minute Waltz), C sharp minor, and A flat major that make up his Op. 64.
Financial pressures galvanized Chopin into teaching despite his depression. Advanced musical instruction was his main source of income and his fees were high enough to reflect his formidable reputation as a pianist and composer. He would demonstrate finer points and illuminate musical transformations on a small Pleyel pianino (a model of which he was immensely fond) whilst the student would perform on 'our' grand Pleyel 13214.
|The Dining Room|
|The place setting for Fryderyk Chopin|
|Pleyel pianino No. 15025 at Nohant, similar to the one owned by Chopin, but purchased by George Sand through the intermediary Pauline Viardot 25 May 1849|
(I must acknowledge the invaluable factual assistance of an article entitled Pleyel No. 13214 in the Context of Chopin's Life written by Adam Wibrowski, Président de l'Association 'Chopin à Nohant').
Chopin acquired new aristocratic students in 1847 such as the immensely talented Maria Aleksandrovna von Harder (1833-1880), a precocious 14-year-old Russian-German pianist from Saint Petersburg. She took lessons from Chopin almost every day during 1847 and up to his departure for England in April 1848.
She wrote '....when he was in pain, Chopin often gave lessons by listening in the office adjacent to the drawing-room .... his hearing, sensitive to the subtlest shadings, immediately recognized which finger was on a given key.' In 1853 Hans von Bülow described her playing to Liszt, an approach that she surely must have partly imbibed from Chopin '...one of a kind . . . full of all the whispers . . . phenomenal, transient and sudden changes in tempo, unlike what you usually hear in concert halls. Luminous, interwoven, wonderful melodies emerged like miraculous swan songs.'
Another was Marie Roubaud de Cournand (1822-1917). In the winter of late 1847 and early 1848 she took possibly 18 lessons with Chopin. Untypically, he allowed her to copy an autograph manuscript of the Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor for her own pleasure. This famous work may well have been first performed on the Pleyel 13214 possibly by the most celebrated of Chopin's Polish students, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, who had also taken lessons with Chopin at that time.
The Alsatian-French student, Joseph Schiffmacher (1825-1888) studied with Chopin in 1847. He was described by the painter and friend of Chopin Eugene Delacroix: 'Only he reminds me of Chopin. This former student of Schulhoff, Gottschalk, and Thalberg was also a piano pedagogue to the young André Gide who wrote the illuminating Notes sur Chopin, published in 1938.
Many past students also visited Chopin for lessons at this time and undoubtedly played on this Pleyel. Thomas Tellefsen (1823-1874), a highly distinguished, outstanding Norwegian pianist and composer from Trondheim, studied with Chopin for four years. Chopin immediately recognized his Norwegian pupil's talent and unusually met with him three times a week for the price of a single lesson. He became as close a friend as was possible with this emotionally complex composer and was considered to have absorbed his rubato to perfection. After the death of Chopin, Tellefsen adopted most of his students and prepared the first comprehensive edition of the Polish composer's works.
|A sketch in 1847 by the great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid of Chopin listening to Thomas Tellefsen at the Hôtel Lambert Paris during an evening soirée with the Duchess Marcelina Czartoryska, a favourite Polish pupil of Chopin and an outstanding pianist|
Adolphe Gutmann (1819-1882)
Whoever was granted the opportunity to spend time with him in this inner sanctum, to admire his playing, to receive his instruction in his home on his Pleyel—when often a single word or vivid allusion would dispel a thousand doubts and in a single flash of insight illuminate the essence of an interpretation—would retain this light in his soul forever.
|A photograph of the pianist Maria Kalergis against the background of her magazine and the artist's portrait by Cyprian Kamil Norwid|
|Portrait of Marcelina Czartoryska by Jan Matejko (1874)|
Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (1817-1894), was an outstanding pianist who carried the flaming torch of Chopin inspiration and became a close personal friend of the composer. She spoke in an arresting phrase of the necessity of creating and inhabiting le climat de Chopin if one was to be absolutely true to his intentions. According to accounts of her playing by Chopin himself and many contemporary witnesses, she was the most faithful to his ideals of expression and tone. In his teaching Chopin emphasized the cultivation of a beautiful, expressive and poetic sound above all else, an alluring tone and touch as the initial, predominant step in mastering the piano.
|One of three photographs of a clearly ill Fryderyk Chopin taken in 1849 by Louis-Auguste Bisson (1814–1876) a 19th-century French photographer. The picture was taken as a daguerreotype or by the Collodion process|
Mozart Piano Trio K 542 in E major for piano, violin and violoncello
played by MM.Chopin, Alard and Franchomme
Aria sung by Mlle Antonia Molina de Mendi
Nocturne and Barcarolle composed and performed by M. Chopin
Aria sung by Mlle Antonia Molina de Mendi
Etudes and Berceuse composed and performed by M. Chopin
Scherzo, Adagio and Finale from the Sonata in G minor for piano and violoncello, composed by M. Chopin and played by the composer and M. Franchomme
A new Aria from Robert le Diable composed by M. Meyerbeer and sung by M.Roger
Preludes, Mazurkas and Waltzes composed and performed by M. Chopin
Accompanists : MM. Alary and de Garaudé
These concerts of mixed instrumentalist and vocal numbers were extraordinarily popular at the time and should be reinstated. The reviews of this concert were full of poetry and hyperbole. The Gazette wrote ' ...the mysteries of a performance that has no parallel in our terrestrial sphere....[...] the infinite number of nuances of an exceptional genius.' Le Ménestrel described his playing as 'the sigh of a flower, the whisper of clouds, or the murmur of stars'. Clearly, even with the modern distrust of hyperbolic language, something exceptional and sensual was occurring during this concert at the Salle Pleyel.
Of particular relevance to lovers of Chopin in 2021, mired as we are in the midst of a ghastly world pandemic, the remarks of the Marquis de Custine seem singularly appropriate: '...it is not a piano that speaks but a soul. And what a soul! Preserve your life for your friends. It is a consolation to be able to listen to you sometimes, in the dark days that threaten us....' He meant the violent political revolution of 1848 and the cholera pandemic afflicting Paris. With recordings we can listen to finely played Chopin as often as we wish - a technological treasure of modern times.
|Jane Stirling (1804-1859)|
|Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Moonlit landscape, c. 1808, Watercolour on paper|
The Morgan Library and Museum
A superb pictorial representation of many Chopin Nocturnes as they sound to me pictorially on a Pleyel
Penetrating the expressive core of the Chopin Ballades requires an understanding of the influence of a generalized view of the literary, musical and operatic balladic genres of the time. In the structure there are parallels with sonata form but Chopin basically invented an entirely new musical material. I have always felt it helpful to consider the Chopin Ballades as miniature operas being played out in absolute music, forever exercising one's musical imagination.
The brilliant Polish musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski describes the musical landscape of this work far more graphically than I ever could.
The narration is marked, to an incomparably higher degree than in the previous ballades, with lyrical expression and reflectiveness [...] Its plot grows entangled, turns back and stops. As in the tale of Odysseus, mysterious, weird and fascinating episodes appear [...] at the climactic point in the balladic narration, it is impossible to find the right words. This explosion of passion and emotion, expressed through swaying passages and chords steeped in harmonic content, is unparalleled. Here, Chopin seems to surpass even himself. This is expression of ultimate power, without a hint of emphasis or pathos [...] For anyone who listens intently to this music, it becomes clear that there is no question of any anecdote, be it original or borrowed from literature. The music of this Ballade imitates nothing, illustrates nothing. It expresses a world that is experienced and represents a world that is possible, ideal and imagined.
|Il Cantastorie (The Ballad Singer) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770)|
I felt Ritter achieved all of these Tomaszewski and 'operatic' perceptions and qualities of the work exceptionally well. He built the drama successfully with tension and relaxations much assisted by the kaleidoscopic range of colour, texture and timbre possible on the balanced registers of the Pleyel. The only interpretative reservation I had was that there could have been more 'innocence' and sense of as yet untrammeled infancy in the opening of this life drama. The disillusionments of life then begin to accumulate rendering the contrast with the simple opening as heartbreaking as they are unavoidable. As the 'life' progressed the polyphony became deeply expressive and the increasing emotional agitation most effective. I liked his phrasing a great deal, sense of rubato and pregnant use of silence - an affecting quality young pianists often fail to feel.
I have received from Chopin a Ballade’, Schumann informed his friend Heinrich Dorn in the autumn of 1836. ‘It seems to me to be the work closest to his genius (though not the most brilliant). I told him that of everything he has created thus far it appeals to my heart the most. After a lengthy silence, Chopin replied with emphasis: “I am glad, because I too like it the best, it is my dearest work”.’
The great Polish musicologist and authority on Chopin Mieczysław Tomaszewski paints the background to this work best:
'It was during those two years that what was original, individual and distinctive in Chopin spoke through his music with great urgency and violence, expressing the composer’s inner world spontaneously and without constraint – a world of real experiences and traumas, sentimental memories and dreams, romantic notions and fancies. Life did not spare him such experiences and traumas in those years, be it in the sphere of patriotic or of intimate feelings. [...] For everyone, the ballad was an epic work, in which what had been rejected in Classical high poetry now came to the fore: a world of extraordinary, inexplicable, mysterious, fantastical and irrational events inspired by the popular imagination.
In Romantic poetry, the ballad became a ‘programmatic’ genre. It was here that the real met the surreal. Mickiewicz gave his own definition: ‘The ballad is a tale spun from the incidents of everyday (that is, real) life or from chivalrous stories, animated by the strangeness of the Romantic world, sung in a melancholy tone, in a serious style, simple and natural in its expressions’. And there is no doubt that in creating the first of his piano ballades, Chopin allowed himself to be inspired by just such a vision of this highly Romantic genre. What he produced was an epic work telling of something that once occurred, ‘animated by strangeness’, suffused with a ‘melancholy tone’, couched in a serious style, expressed in a natural way, and so closer to an instrumental song than to an elaborate aria.'
The spiritual, even physical meaning and reference of the sound and musical narration embedded within the music of the Ballade would have been obvious to the contemporaries of Chopin who had suffered profoundly from occupation, those deeply familiar with the fraught history of Poland.
Rutkowski gave us a dramatic view of the work which utilized the colour contrasts of the different Pleyel registers to heighten the Romantic landscape sound painting to a high degree. The articulated sound on this instrument and the emotional urgency of his view of the work was rather exciting. However, the excitement and drama came not from dynamic inflation, as is too often the case on modern instruments, but from a variation in tone, touch, texture and timbre. The overall effect was satisfyingly operatic and theatrical.
|George Sand built a fully equipped private theater in the mansion at Nohant for the performance of the plays she wrote|
|In 1854 the castelet des marionettes or full puppet theater was added with hundreds of glove puppets and a battery of enormously varied sound effects|
|Louis-Eugène Lambert: Bichon Frise, 1854, possibly George Sand's dog Marquis|
"Did yesterday's pantomime induce Dib to dance?" [Chopin: letter to George Sand, Paris, 15 December 1846]
"I can well imagine the excitement of Marquis and Dib. Lucky spectators, simple-minded and untaught!" [Chopin: letter to George Sand, Paris, 17 January 1847]