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- Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician - 1/151 -

Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician

Frederick Niecks

Third Edition (1902)





While the novelist has absolute freedom to follow his artistic instinct and intelligence, the biographer is fettered by the subject-matter with which he proposes to deal. The former may hopefully pursue an ideal, the latter must rest satisfied with a compromise between the desirable and the necessary. No doubt, it is possible to thoroughly digest all the requisite material, and then present it in a perfect, beautiful form. But this can only be done at a terrible loss, at a sacrifice of truth and trustworthiness. My guiding principle has been to place before the reader the facts collected by me as well as the conclusions at which I arrived. This will enable him to see the subject in all its bearings, with all its pros and cons, and to draw his own conclusions, should mine not obtain his approval. Unless an author proceeds in this way, the reader never knows how far he may trust him, how far the evidence justifies his judgment. For-- not to speak of cheats and fools--the best informed are apt to make assertions unsupported or insufficiently supported by facts, and the wisest cannot help seeing things through the coloured spectacles of their individuality. The foregoing remarks are intended to explain my method, not to excuse carelessness of literary workmanship. Whatever the defects of the present volumes may be--and, no doubt, they are both great and many--I have laboured to the full extent of my humble abilities to group and present my material perspicuously, and to avoid diffuseness and rhapsody, those besetting sins of writers on music.

The first work of some length having Chopin for its subject was Liszt's "Frederic Chopin," which, after appearing in 1851 in the Paris journal "La France musicale," came out in book-form, still in French, in 1852 (Leipzig: Breitkopf and Hartel.--Translated into English by M. W. Cook, and published by William Reeves, London, 1877). George Sand describes it as "un peu exuberant de style, mais rempli de bonnes choses et de tres-belles pages." These words, however, do in no way justice to the book: for, on the one hand, the style is excessively, and not merely a little, exuberant; and, on the other hand, the "good things" and "beautiful pages" amount to a psychological study of Chopin, and an aesthetical study of his works, which it is impossible to over- estimate. Still, the book is no biography. It records few dates and events, and these few are for the most part incorrect. When, in 1878, the second edition of F. Chopin was passing through the press, Liszt remarked to me:--

"I have been told that there are wrong dates and other mistakes in my book, and that the dates and facts are correctly given in Karasowski's biography of Chopin [which had in the meantime been published]. But, though I often thought of reading it, I have not yet done so. I got my information from Paris friends on whom I believed I might depend. The Princess Wittgenstein [who then lived in Rome, but in 1850 at Weimar, and is said to have had a share in the production of the book] wished me to make some alterations in the new edition. I tried to please her, but, when she was still dissatisfied, I told her to add and alter whatever she liked."

From this statement it is clear that Liszt had not the stuff of a biographer in him. And, whatever value we may put on the Princess Wittgenstein's additions and alterations, they did not touch the vital faults of the work, which, as a French critic remarked, was a symphonie funebre rather than a biography. The next book we have to notice, M. A. Szulc's Polish Fryderyk Chopin i Utwory jego Muzyczne (Posen, 1873), is little more than a chaotic, unsifted collection of notices, criticisms, anecdotes, &c., from Polish, German, and French books and magazines. In 1877 Moritz Karasowski, a native of Warsaw, and since 1864 a member of the Dresden orchestra, published his Friedrich Chopin: sein Leben, seine Werke und seine Briefe (Dresden: F. Ries.--Translated into English by E. Hill, under the title Frederick Chopin: His Life, Letters, and Work," and published by William Reeves, London, in 1879). This was the first serious attempt at a biography of Chopin. The author reproduced in the book what had been brought to light in Polish magazines and other publications regarding Chopin's life by various countrymen of the composer, among whom he himself was not the least notable. But the most valuable ingredients are, no doubt, the Chopin letters which the author obtained from the composer's relatives, with whom he was acquainted. While gratefully acknowledging his achievements, I must not omit to indicate his shortcomings--his unchecked partiality for, and boundless admiration of his hero; his uncritical acceptance and fanciful embellishments of anecdotes and hearsays; and the extreme paucity of his information concerning the period of Chopin's life which begins with his settlement in Paris. In 1878 appeared a second edition of the work, distinguished from the first by a few additions and many judicious omissions, the original two volumes being reduced to one. But of more importance than the second German edition is the first Polish edition, "Fryderyk Chopin: Zycie, Listy, Dziela, two volumes (Warsaw: Gebethner and Wolff, 1882), which contains a series of, till then, unpublished letters from Chopin to Fontana. Of Madame A. Audley's short and readable "Frederic Chopin, sa vie et ses oeuvres" (Paris: E. Plon et Cie., 1880), I need only say that for the most part it follows Karasowski, and where it does not is not always correct. Count Wodzinski's "Les trois Romans de Frederic Chopin" (Paris: Calmann Levy, 1886)--according to the title treating only of the composer's love for Constantia Gladkowska, Maria Wodzinska, and George Sand, but in reality having a wider scope--cannot be altogether ignored, though it is more of the nature of a novel than of a biography. Mr, Joseph Bennett, who based his "Frederic Chopin" (one of Novello's Primers of Musical Biography) on Liszt's and Karasowski's works, had in the parts dealing with Great Britain the advantage of notes by Mr. A.J. Hipkins, who inspired also, to some extent at least, Mr. Hueffer in his essay Chopin ("Fortnightly Review," September, 1877; and reprinted in "Musical Studies"--Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1880). This ends the list of biographies with any claims to originality. There are, however, many interesting contributions to a biography of Chopin to be found in works of various kinds. These shall be mentioned in the course of my narrative; here I will point out only the two most important ones--namely, George Sand's "Histoire de ma Vie," first published in the Paris newspaper "La Presse" (1854) and subsequently in book-form; and her six volumes of "Correspondance," 1812-1876 (Paris: Calmann Levy, 1882-1884).

My researches had for their object the whole life of Chopin, and his historical, political, artistical, social, and personal surroundings, but they were chiefly directed to the least known and most interesting period of his career--his life in France, and his visits to Germany and Great Britain. My chief sources of information are divisible into two classes--newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, correspondences, and books; and conversations I held with, and letters I received from, Chopin's pupils, friends, and acquaintances. Of his pupils, my warmest thanks are due to Madame Dubois (nee Camille O'Meara), Madame Rubio (nee Vera de Kologrivof), Mdlle. Gavard, Madame Streicher (nee Friederike Muller), Adolph Gutmann, M. Georges Mathias, Brinley Richards, and Lindsay Sloper; of friends and acquaintances, to Liszt, Ferdinand Hiller, Franchomme, Charles Valentin Alkan, Stephen Heller, Edouard Wolff, Mr. Charles Halle, Mr. G. A. Osborne, T. Kwiatkowski, Prof. A. Chodzko, M. Leonard Niedzwiecki (gallice, Nedvetsky), Madame Jenny Lind-Goldschmidt, Mr. A. J. Hipkins, and Dr. and Mrs. Lyschinski. I am likewise greatly indebted to Messrs. Breitkopf and Hartel, Karl Gurckhaus (the late proprietor of the firm of Friedrich Kistner), Julius Schuberth, Friedrich Hofmeister, Edwin Ashdown, Richault & Cie, and others, for information in connection with the publication of Chopin's works. It is impossible to enumerate all my obligations--many of my informants and many furtherers of my labours will be mentioned in the body of the book; many, however, and by no means the least helpful, will remain unnamed. To all of them I offer the assurance of my deep-felt gratitude. Not a few of my kind helpers, alas! are no longer among the living; more than ten years have gone by since I began my researches, and during that time Death has been reaping a rich harvest.

The Chopin letters will, no doubt, be regarded as a special feature of the present biography. They may, I think, be called numerous, if we consider the master's dislike to letter-writing. Ferdinand Hiller--whose almost unique collection of letters addressed to him by his famous friends in art and literature is now, and will be for years to come, under lock and key among the municipal archives at Cologne--allowed me to copy two letters by Chopin, one of them written conjointly with Liszt. Franchomme, too, granted me the privilege of copying his friend's epistolary communications. Besides a number of letters that have here and there been published, I include, further, a translation of Chopin's letters to Fontana, which in Karasowski's book (i.e., the Polish edition) lose much of their value, owing to his inability to assign approximately correct dates to them.

The space which I give to George Sand is, I think, justified by the part she plays in the life of Chopin. To meet the objections of those who may regard my opinion of her as too harsh, I will confess that I entered upon the study of her character with the impression that she had suffered much undeserved abuse, and that it would be incumbent upon a Chopin biographer to defend her against his predecessors and the friends of the composer. How

Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician - 1/151

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