Year Journey

Wiedeń, HofburgVienna. Chopin reached Vienna three weeks later. He spent the next week leading a familiar life in theatres and aristocratic drawing-rooms, acclimatising to his new surroundings and acquainting himself with the current repertoire. It was then that he learned of the outbreak of the November Uprising in Poland. He wanted to return and to fight, like nearly all his friends, but his most faithful friend, Tytus Woyciechowski, convinced him to remain in Vienna. Yet he altered beyond recognition. The soul of society just a few weeks previously, he was now wandering about restlessly. Without news of the uprising and of his loved ones, he made contact with Poles in exile. He spent a bleak Christmas alone. He confessed to a close friend: ‘behind me a tomb, beneath me a tomb… only above me was no tomb to be found’. Regretting his departure and missing his family, friends and Konstancja, seeing no rational way out of the situation, he began pouring out his extreme emotions on the piano.

How different this second, eight-month stay in Vienna was from his first. Chopin gave almost no concerts, and we know little about any composing. Given his state of mind at that time and his reactions to the events back home, traditionally linked to this period are the first sketches of some of his most dramatic works: the Scherzo in B minor, the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude in C minor and even the G minor Ballade. However, stylistic considerations and observation of his creative path bid us move work on those first masterpieces back by two or three years. Certainly written in Vienna were the Nocturnes, Op. 9 and Op. 15, the Polonaise, Op. 22 and the first published mazurkas. Yet it cannot be excluded that the fighting in Poland, and especially its tragic finale, contributed to the emergence of the highly dramatic strand to his output that would replace the youthful lyricism and virtuosity. Chopin remained on edge. At the beginning of the uprising, he wrote: ‘if I could, I would move all the tones that my blind, furious, unfettered feelings would incite, that I might at least in part make out those songs whose broken echoes still wander along the banks of the Danube, which John’s army sang’. After Warsaw was captured, he noted (now in Stuttgart): ‘And I sit here idle, and I sit here with bare hands, sometimes just groaning, grieving at the piano, in despair’.

Paryż, salon w mieszkaniu Chopina przy Square d'Orleans 9

Paris. In July 1831, he set off for the capital of France, via Germany. In Stuttgart, he received news of the defeat of the uprising, which – after a nervous breakdown, traces of which we find in his personal diary (the ‘Stuttgart Diary’) – ultimately moved him to set off for ‘that other world’. In Paris, he tried to find his feet, with difficulty and varying fortunes. Treated as a pupil by the leading pianist Friedrich Kalkbrenner, he briefly considered accepting the proposal of three years’ tuition. He struggled to organise a public concert. His money had almost run out, with just ‘a ducat in my pocket’, as he confessed to a friend. Faced with mounting problems, he began to grow discouraged. That mood was surely compounded by the news – ostensibly received with indifference – of Konstancja’s marriage to the landowner Grabowski. There is even mention of him thinking seriously about leaving Paris. Then suddenly his fortunes improved. After nearly six months’ trying, he finally succeeded in organising his own concert. Towards the end of February 1832, at the Salle Pleyel, he displayed his talents to the elite of the musical world, led by Ferenc Liszt and François-Joseph Fétis. As one account has it: ‘He killed all the local pianists dead; the whole of Paris went crazy’. Numerous requests for piano lessons immediately followed from aristocratic circles. Chopin decided to remain in Paris.

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