On Air Now
Calm Classics with Ritula Shah 10pm - 1am
The great composer Frédéric Chopin played his final piano concerts in Britain and wasn’t best pleased by the people, the weather or a near-fatal accident in a horse-drawn carriage.
The 1848 February Revolution in France had left Chopin in despair. Most of his pupils fled Paris and his concerts stopped. On top of everything, the composer had tuberculosis. A devoted pupil, Scotswoman Jane Stirling, invited him to Britain where she and her sister promised to find him work. It’s rumoured that the sisters were a cover for the wealthy soprano Jenny Lind, who had her eye on the great man.
After arriving in Britain, Chopin refused to play with the Philharmonic Society. “The orchestra is rather like their roast beef or their turtle soup,” he said, “excellent, strong, but nothing more.” The more likely truth was that he was not fit enough to manage a full concerto.
Chopin’s contempt was also directed at Lord Falmouth, who hosted a concert for him on 7 July. “Lord Falmouth, a fervent lover of music, rich, celibate and a great Lord, offered me his home in St James's Square for my concert,” Chopin reported. “You might give him a few pence if you passed him in the street and his house is full of servants who dress better than he does.”
Chopin played before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Stafford House. It was the highpoint of his visit. “The staircases are famous for their magnificence,” he wrote. “The Queen...talked with me twice. Prince Albert, an enthusiastic amateur musician and composer, came up to the piano. Everyone told me that both these things are rare."
Chopin heard Jenny Lind - the 'Swedish Nightingale' - sing in 'La Sonnambula' at the Queen’s Theatre, soon after his arrival in London. He loved her voice. He was also struck by the sight of the Duke of Wellington, seated under the Queen’s box, “like an old monarchist dog in its kennel."
Nor was it easy for Chopin to get his British piano pupils to pay up for their lessons. “I am sorely in need of money,” he said. “The people are crafty here. When they don't want to do something they save themselves by going to the country. One of my pupils left without paying me for nine lessons.”
The fog in London exacerbated Chopin's breathing problems so he took off to Scotland, where he received treatment from a Polish homeopathic doctor. He spent a few, slightly more contented, weeks at Calder House (pictured), home of Lord Torphichen.
On 25 August, Chopin travelled eight hours to Manchester. When he arrived, he was horrified to find an audience of 1,200 at the Gentlemen’s Concert Hall (pictured) waiting to hear him play. He felt too weak to perform, saying to a friend, “My playing will be lost in such a large room, my compositions ineffective.” He was pleased with his £60 fee, though - and the critics were not unkind to him.
Chopin went back to Scotland to stay at Johnstone Castle. “The weather has changed, and it is dreadful outside," he wrote. "I am feeling sick and depressed, and everyone wears me down with their excessive attentions.” He was also involved in a near-fatal accident. Out riding in a two-horse carriage, one of the animals reared and broke loose. The carriage hit a tree and smashed into pieces, leaving Chopin to climb free from the wreck.
Chopin travelled on to Keir in Perthshire, the home of William Stirling (pictured), where there were “30 people, very beautiful, very spiritual, very original, very deaf, even an illustrious name (Sir Walpole) blind. Dresses, diamonds, pimples on noses, beautiful hair, marvellous outfits, the beauty of the devil himself, and the devil without the beauty. The last category is the least rare,” Chopin wrote.
All was not doom and gloom, however. On 4 October, at Edinburgh’s Hopetoun Rooms, Chopin played for nearly two hours, a remarkable performance from a dying man. But Jane Stirling and her sister were getting on his nerves. “My Scottish ladies won't leave me in peace and keep coming to fetch me and drive me round their family.”
Back in London on 16 November, Chopin attended the Annual Grand Dress and Fancy Ball and Concert in aid of the Funds of the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland. At last he received a rapturous reception, although little music could be heard above the general noise. It was the composer’s last ever public performance.
Jane Stirling took charge of the disposal of Chopin’s effects and manuscripts after his death the following year. There is no evidence they were lovers, but he did dedicate two of his nocturnes to her. She was often referred to, after his death, as 'Chopin's widow.'