Paris, 1831–49

by Luc Sante, visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College

Chopin arrived in Paris in September 1831, at the age of 21. He would receive French citizenship in 1835; he would never return to Poland.

The city he settled in was undergoing its difficult passage into modernity. A three-day insurrection the previous July had ushered out the last Bourbon, Charles X, and brought in Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen Monarch.” The change of kings was a slight improvement, although Louis-Philippe had already begun throwing his weight around; that November the caricaturist Charles Philipon was sent to prison for six months and fined 2,000 francs for depicting the new monarch as a pear with human features.

Louis-Philippe, ‘past, present, and future.”Illustration by Honoré Daumier, from La Caricature, 1834

Beginning in mid-February, 1832, Paris was in the grip of a cholera epidemic that would kill more than 18,500 citizens over the course of nine months. The Romantics, who were generally unaffected, were fascinated; at a soirée at Victor Hugo’s, Franz Liszt played Beethoven’s Funeral March to great effect. Chopin, who had just given his debut concert in Paris, was not yet well enough established to be there himself. That June, a minor uprising began at the funeral of General Lamarque, a veteran of Napoleon’s army; it would be remembered primarily because Hugo employed it as a set-piece in Les misérables.

At the end of 1833, the Luxor obelisk was installed in Place de la Concorde. The following April saw another republican insurrection, that one capped by the massacre of all the inhabitants of a house on Rue Transnonain (today Rue Beaubourg), immortalized in a print by Honoré Daumier. In November 1835, Pierre François Lacenaire, a psychotic killer who became a literary celebrity, went up for trial—his memory is preserved in Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Children of Paradise (1942). The year 1836, when Chopin first met George Sand, was also marked by the debut of the first two cheap daily newspapers, La Presse and Le Siècle, which both began the same day and altered the course of French literature with their frenzied competition over serial novels. That year also saw the inauguration of the Arch of Triumph in the Place de l’Étoile.

The first railroad line out of the city was opened in 1837; Louis-Mandé Daguerre first experimented with daguerreotypes in 1839; the first gas stoves and the first Christmas trees made their appearance in 1840. In 1842, when Chopin began showing signs of serious illness, the first French-made cigarettes arrived on the scene; not long after came the first railway disaster—57 dead on the Versailles line. In the following year, the first attempt was made at electric street lighting. Adolphe Sax won a musical competition on the Champ-de-Mars in 1845 and saw his instrument adopted by French military bands; the same year the first electric telegraph line was installed.

The year the Chopin-Sand liaison came to an end, 1847, was also the year Henry Murger published Scènes de la vie de bohème, which somewhat fancifully documented a social type that had recently come to prominence in the capital. In 1848, when Chopin was so ill he weighed less than 99 pounds, the city erupted in thwarted revolution, with barricades filling the streets from February to June. Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president of the Republic in December (he would stage his coup d’état, culminating in his crowning as emperor, in 1851). In 1849, the year of Chopin’s death, the first bureaucratic steps were taken that would ultimately lead to Baron Haussmann’s razing and rebuilding of large areas of the city. Chopin was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery—that is, all except his heart, which went back to Warsaw in an oil-filled urn.

Luc Sante is a visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard, teaching in both the Art History and Written Arts programs since 1999. His books include The Other Paris, Kill All Your Darlings, The Factory of Facts, and Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. His honors include a Whiting Writers Award, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Grammy (for album notes), an Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, Guggenheim and Cullman fellowships, and, most recently, the first French Heritage Society Literary Award.

What’s In a Name?

by Christopher H. Gibbs, James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Music; Coartistic Director, Bard Music Festival

Twelve years ago the Bard Music Festival decided that our featured composer each summer should be given a first name. While Brahms and His World had sufficed for the 1990 inaugural season, 25 years later it was Franz Schubert and His World for the annual book of essays published by Princeton University Press. Neither composer needs much introduction. (Richard Strauss was given his full name in 1992 so as to eliminate any doubt—we have yet to tackle Johann Strauss Jr.)

This year we have to make a call that in various ways captures much at the heart of the 2017 Bard Music Festival: should we say Fryderyk or Frédéric Chopin? The question is not only politically weighted between Poland and France, but also revealing about how the program committee makes fundamental decisions about the unfolding of the festival.

Every year poses challenges, and one this time is how to represent the almost exact split in Chopin’s life: his first 20 years spent in Poland, the remaining 19 mainly in Paris. And even this neat chronological divide is more complicated than it first appears. His father was French and Chopin was raised imbibing French culture and exposed to the language. Once he moved to Paris he became deeply involved with a vibrant diaspora, had Polish patrons, students, friends, and even a roommate; Chopin probably spoke Polish almost daily. His letters home also reflect the divide: he wrote to his father in Polish, who responded in French.

As we finalize the plans for this summer we want to represent both of these worlds and much more, while also considering the intriguing implications. We no doubt think too easily of Chopin as the 19th-century artistic emblem of Poland. His life, loyalties, and legacy were far more complex, cosmopolitan, and interesting. While the grateful beneficiary of an elite education in Warsaw, his most commanding musical models from the start were leading foreign composers, past and contemporary. Chopin longed to travel. After a brief and somewhat disappointing trip at age 18 to Berlin, he made his way to Vienna, the “music city” that captivated him and where he was immediately embraced by the preeminent musical figures. (Schubert had died just eight months earlier, precluding what might have been a fascinating connection.) In Vienna, Chopin discovered the considerable appeal that his Polish exoticism had with foreign audiences, as well as the contempt in which his country was sometimes held: “In Polen ist nichts zu holen” (roughly, “There’s nothing to be done with Poland”) was a phrase he overheard, to his chagrin and resentment.

Russia crushed Poland in late 1830, during Chopin’s second trip to Vienna. He felt he could not return home, and so pressed forward to Paris, never to see his native country again. Much of Chopin’s music continued exhibiting a deeply rooted connection to Poland. Many of his teenage pieces written in Warsaw drew upon Polish songs and dances; he would now export this music across Europe. Robert Schumann, his earliest, most ardent, and powerful critical advocate, stated that if Tsar Nicholas I, who had done the crushing of Poland, “knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in Chopin’s works, he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are guns buried in flowers.”

While exposing his own “ethnocentric” point of view—the undeniable centrality of German music—Schumann raised the crucial issue of nationalism that must have haunted Chopin as well. Chopin found astonishing ways in his compositions to combine Slavic exoticism with Bachian counterpoint, Beethovenian boldness, Schubertian inwardness, Lisztian virtuosity, and Bellinian lyricism. How his music relates to Poland, to Paris, to the domestic music-making of the salon, to the tradition he inherited, and to the legacy he passed on—well, these are exactly the issues we will explore with this summer’s programming.

One of our main challenges, however, will be to do justice to Chopin’s dual identity: beginning with his formidable training in Warsaw, the youthful influences, relations with Polish culture and politics while in Paris, and his legacy across Europe. The young Chopin was molded by a broad European musical scene. Benefiting from the advice of this year’s scholars-in-residence, Jonathan Bellman and Halina Goldberg, we are programming concertos that Chopin either played himself or admired, especially piano concertos. These pieces provide missing links between the Beethoven concertos we know, Chopin’s own teenage efforts, and the later more symphonic ones by Liszt, Brahms, and Rachmaninoff. Concertos by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Friedrich Kalkbrenner (to whom Chopin dedicated his E-Minor Concerto), Ferdinand Ries, and Ignaz Moscheles are especially revealing. 

The great cultural critic Walter Benjamin called Paris the “capital of the nineteenth century.” Chopin spent his entire adult life in the city and got to know many of its luminaries, not just the greatest musicians, but also cultural figures such as Eugène Delacroix, Balzac, Heinrich Heine, and Victor Hugo. His long, fascinating, and fraught relationship with Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, brought him in touch with other leading personalities. The festival ends by pairing Chopin with the preeminent French composer and critic of the day, Hector Berlioz, and his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette.

I confess to a longstanding fascination with composers’ deaths, burials, monuments, and memorials. In Chopin’s case, the circumstances around his death are revealing about the issues of identity signaled by the two versions of his first name. He died at age 39 in his Paris apartment surrounded by friends and family. The funeral at the Madeleine was attended by thousands of mourners and Mozart’s Requiem was sung. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Before the burial, however, his heart was removed for his sister to take back “home” to Warsaw, and later some soil from “home” was brought to Paris to be placed on his grave. What a perfect metaphor for his divided life: Frédéric Chopin is buried in Paris, but Fryderyk’s heart remains in Poland. Chopin and His World, as our festival will inevitably be called, will open on August 11.

Don’t Love Him Because He’s Beautiful

by Jonathan Bellman, Scholar in Residence 2017

Chopin: the best-loved composer in western music history. Not, perhaps, the best-known; Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart would probably head the line. But best-loved—the scores most often found on the piano, the most infectious dance rhythms and the most memorable melodies: that, very likely, would be Chopin. As one of my professors put it long ago: with Chopin, every vertical sound was an absolute gem. So the most dissonant passages (the coda of the C-sharp-Minor Étude, Op. 10, No. 4, comes to mind, or the even the forbidding and impassive A-Minor Prelude) somehow never overstep the bounds of beauty, “thus remaining music,” as Mozart wrote in a similar context. So it is that this music’s beauty and popularity are taken for granted, and Chopin could be remade in different images: for the theorist Heinrich Schenker, he was an honorary Austro-German; for Soviet propagandists, he instead became a mouthpiece of fire-breathing Revolutionary fervor. His physical fragility, sensitivities, and disposition to à la mode fashion and refinement could be contextualized in deference to the anxieties of later ages. In 1900, the Chopin biographer and devotee James Huneker wrote:

When [Anton] Rubinstein, Tausig, and Liszt played Chopin in passional phrases, the public and critics were aghast. This was a transformed Chopin indeed, a Chopin transposed to the key of manliness. Yet is the true Chopin. The young man’s manners were a trifle feminine but his brain was masculine, electric, and his soul courageous. His Polonaises, Ballades, and Scherzi and Études need a mighty grip, a grip mental and physical.

Of course, Chopin’s music has maintained a strong and consistent popularity since it first appeared. Still, because virtue is its own punishment, we immediately register a certain suspicion of that which that we enjoy too readily. The natural athlete, the beautiful girl, the catchy song, the sweet wine: we no sooner appreciate these than we begin to criticize, distrust, and dismiss them because anything of real merit requires a struggle, something to prevail over, to conquer, to discipline. It wasn’t until Jacob actually wrestled with the angel that . . . and so on. So have we been taught.

We have also been taught that the Western classical tradition is fundamentally teutonocentric—essentially, German and Other. Chopin’s instantly ravishing music (“for piano solo,” smiles the Superior Person, “though of course there’s nothing . . . wrong with that; I’m just saying . . .”) has a long history of being too beautiful, actually, to be good. For a long time, it was music for the second half of the recital, as I once heard explained; music to reward and reassure the audience after the challenging repertoire offered on the first half, when their ears were fresher and goodwill intact. No criticism of Chopin implied, of course; everyone loves him! But the art music repertoire has long had its own hierarchy, in which music of inherent Quality (according to theorists and critics) rates well above music that is merely Enjoyable. And so it is that the Bach fugues felt to be the finest are mature works in which everything may be found in the main motive, not his earlier, often jollier, more diffuse and discursive fugues. If one is to look at Beethoven string quartets, it is the aesthetically stratospheric but stylistically knotty and uningratiating late ones that bear the palm. The tirelessly self-promoting Wagner, seeking to unite all the arts of Mt. Olympus, was the paradigmatic example: whoever drew back from the grandiose gigantism—the sheer force and length and (yes) noise of his mature music-dramas—offended Art herself. Leitmotiv guides were published so that through diligent preparation audiences might appreciate what was put before them. By Schoenberg’s time, it was no longer a question of art pleasing or delighting the audience; the audience had to elevate itself to the point of being worthy of Art.

Where does this leave Chopin? One of the goals of the Bard Music Festival, ultimately, should be to redeem him from the burden of his music’s beauty, or (better) from our Occidental shame and distrust regarding beauty per se. Chopin has been characterized for well over a century as a melodist or miniaturist; these are less designations of a particular gift or strength than circumscriptions that highlight the ways in which he was found wanting. The very loveliness of so much of his writing tends to mute, conveniently enough, legitimate and pressing questions, especially those to do with form. The conventional wisdom about Chopin’s discomfort with large forms is belied by his creation of the Piano Ballade, as flexible and chameleonic a form as Western music has yet devised. The logic behind so many chord progressions found in no harmony text has many inspirations, among them improvisation and the subtly prismatic shadings of 19th-century unequal temperaments, but accepted formal conventions were at of best tertiary importance. Indeed, Chopin’s music shows us, more clearly than that of any other single composer, just how barren our conception of “form,” as we understand it from German-derived textbooks, actually is: which tunes in a piece are important enough to hear again, and the order and in which keys they appear and reappear—a list of signposts, little more. No degrees in music are needed to recognize the inadequacy of that approach to a real-time art that can often achieve expressive beauty, rhetorical eloquence, and dramatic narrative at the same time.

We have, in short, our work cut out for us. Chopin is Central Casting’s idea of a Romantic: exiled from his homeland, tragically unlucky in love, ever-failing in health. Or, perhaps, Central Casting developed the concept of pop-culture Romanticism from his biography. Regardless: for two weekends the performances, panels, and (ideally) constant conversation about Chopin and his contemporaries should begin to frame a better understanding of a composer whose music was too safely beloved and beautiful to receive the study and respect that it is truly owed.

There is much ground to make up. See you here in August.