Chopin:The Public Face of Poland

During his brief life, the Polish master of the musical miniature became a living symbol of his troubled nation. Adam Zamoyski looks at the reception given to Chopin by a divided public when he visited Britain in 1848, a year of revolution throughout Europe.

Chopin may have been the most innovative and patriotic of composers, but he was no revolutionary. And, although he spent half of his life as a political exile, this was largely the result of circumstance. In November 1830, when revolution broke out on the streets of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Poland created by the Congress of Vienna attempted to throw off the Russian yoke, the 20-year old composer was in Vienna on the first leg of a tour of Europe. He carried on to Paris, where he was to have gone anyway, and there manifested his solidarity with his fellow Poles by choosing a life of exile.

Unlike most of his compatriots, however, he quickly accommodated himself to the capitalist regime of King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-48). It was not that he was particularly conservative by inclination. But he was fastidious to a degree, dressing like a dandy and furnishing his lodgings like a cocotte. He loved refinement, luxury, good manners and all the other attributes of the aristocratic society in which he thrived. The aristocracy and newly rich middle class of Paris paid lavishly to hear him play and have him teach piano to their daughters and treated him like one of themselves.

At the same time, his nine-year liaison with one of France’s most celebrated socialists, George Sand, brought him into frequent contact with radicals such as Louis Blanc and he was as happy to play at the bedside of the dying republican Godefroi Cavaignac as he was to give a command performance for the French royal family. So there was nothing for him to fear when revolution broke out in Paris at the end of February 1848. All it cost him was a cancelled concert. But with age he had begun to resent change and, as his health grew more frail, to fear upheaval, political or otherwise. The attendant disruption meant he could not carry on giving lessons and the possibility of further trouble caused him to seek refuge in England. Yet his sojourn did not go according to plan and he soon found himself in the eye of a minor political storm.

Ever since the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century, the Polish cause had enjoyed considerable popularity in the British Isles. There was a rich vein of sentimental novels, mostly written by women, with titles such as The Count de Poland and Thaddeus of Warsaw. Polish heroes such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a kind of Che Guevara figure, were the subject of popular prints and plays and featured in poems by Keats, Leigh Hunt, Walter Savage Landor and Tennyson. Even the fact that so many Poles fought for Napoleon did not tarnish the image of them as a wronged heroic nation.

This reputation was further burnished in 1830 when the Poles rose up and declared their independence from Russia. The Polish armies were initially successful, defeating the Russians in a series of battles, but they were eventually crushed in the autumn of 1831. Thousands of Polish soldiers and patriots sought asylum in countries such as France and Britain. Here they were greeted as heroes and Parliament voted funds to grant them a modest pension, with the result that many settled for good (one of whom was a cavalry officer by the name of Jan Gielgud).

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