Chopin's Scottish autumn.
Chopin came to Britain at the instigation of Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, youngest daughter of John Stirling, Laird of Kippendavie, a well-known Scottish family. She was born at Kippenross House in Dunblane, on July 15th, 1804. Jane's parents died while she was in her teens, and she was taken in hand by her widowed elder sister Katherine Erskine. The pair became inseparable.
In 1826 Jane and Katherine, rich, independent and thirsting for culture, went to Paris. A sojourn in the heady atmosphere of the French capital was |de rigueur' for the wealthy, and they became fully involved in the Parisian scene.
They met Chopin in 1840, a year after his return to Paris after his Majorcan experience with George Sand. Within two years Jane became Chopin's piano pupil, and, by Chopin's own account, a very good one. Her admiration for him grew, and with it her devotion and affection. Chopin, touched by her generosity of spirit, dedicated his two Nocturnes Op. 55 to her.
Chopin arrived in London in April 1848, and was quickly absorbed into its social and cultural life. Surrounded by adoring women and lovers of his music, his concerts and soirees were triumphs which earned him both money and adulation. He supplemented this income with private lessons at a guinea a time - although some privileged ladies failed to pay after only a couple of lessons, booked only for the further privilege of |name-dropping' their teacher.
At the end of July, Queen Victoria left London for Osborne House and then Balmoral. Society followed for the shooting and fishing season in estates north of the Border.
This was Jane's cue to arrange for Chopin to visit the land of her forebears, and introduce him to her family. Chopin had already been invited by Jane's brother-in-law, Lord Torphichen, to stay at Calder House, near Edinburgh. Facing a socially deserted London with no prospects of concerts or lessons, Chopin accepted the invitation.
Chopin left for Edinburgh from Euston Railway Station on August 5th, travelling first class along the freshly opened western route via Birmingham and Carlisle. This latest example of Victorian enterprise was well subscribed by the wealthy landowners migrating to their Scottish estates.
The London piano-maker James Broadwood paid for the tickets for Chopin and his devoted Irish servant Daniel, booking the seat opposite so that the sick composer could put his feet up during the journey. John Muir Wood, the Scottish music publisher and owner of music shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow, also travelled on the train.
In Edinburgh, Chopin stayed at the Douglas Hotel in St. Andrew Square. The journey had taken a considerable toll on his health, but by noon the next day he recovered enough to see the sights of |this exquisite city'. He visited the two-year-old Memorial to his hero, Edinburgh-born Sir Walter Scott, in East Princes Street Gardens.
On Monday morning, he visited Muir Wood's music shop at 12 Waterloo Place. According to legend, he heard a blind man playing one of his own mazurkas in the shop, joined in, and later played a duet with Muir Wood. They discussed plans for an Edinburgh concert in October, to coincide with the Caledonian Rout - an action packed week of revelry and socialising in the Scottish calendar.
Calder House, west of Edinburgh, an imposing old manor whose solid fabric exuded a rich air of history, delighted Chopin. In 1556 John Knox had first celebrated communion there. Lord Torphichen welcomed Chopin with true Scottish hospitality, insisting that he stay all summer, and return the following year. |My worthy Scots!' wrote Chopin to his family, |I am unable to think of anything which isn't realised immediately.'
But formal dinners were an ordeal. They were long-drawn out affairs, and when the ladies |retired' they left a bewildered Chopin in the company of men discussing shooting and fishing. Chopin spoke only French and Polish. Despite plentiful contact with English speakers, he never learnt English. As he had no interest in blood sports, was a martyr to tobacco smoke and now drank very little, the routine of port and cigars held no attraction for him, and he found the long evenings at the table wearing.
When there were no guests, Chopin spent the evenings informally with his host. |Some evenings I play Scotch songs to the old lord', he wrote. |The good man hums the tunes to me and expresses his feelings in French as best he can.'
Calder House, in Mid Calder near Livingston, is still the private home of the Torphichen family.
During his stay Chopin met the Stirlings' homeopathic physician, the Polish-born but |scotticised' Dr. Adam Lyszczynski. Concerned for his fellow-countryman's failing health, he invited Chopin to his Edinburgh house at 10 Warriston Crescent. Chopin's tuberculosis was gaining ground, and he had difficulty in breathing, so after three weeks at Calder, he accepted the invitation. Every evening he had to be carried to his bedroom on the first floor by the doctor, as he was too weak to climb the stairs.
A plaque commemorating the 100th anniversary of Chopin's stay was placed on the house by the Polish community in Edinburgh and their Scottish friends in 1948.
Meanwhile, James Broadwood had arranged a concert in Manchester for the end of August. Revived by the doctor's treatment, Chopin braved the eight-hour train journey to Manchester, where he stayed with the wealthy manufacturer, Salis Schwabe, at Crumpsall House, well outside the smoke-filled and polluted city.
The concert, at which his performance was documented as |elegant, polished and delicate, but lacking in power and passion', took place on the 28th August before 1,200 people, It only earned Chopin 60 [pounds], a pittance compared to the 150 [pounds] a time he commanded in London.
After the concert Chopin returned to Dr. Lyszczynski.
Jane was anxious to show Chopin off to her relations, her long-term vision being a closer relationship than Chopin was prepared to give. With countless relatives in the Lowlands, she launched Chopin on a gruelling round of family homes. Meaning well, her devotion was growing into an obsession, blinding her to the burden the visits were imposing on a dying man.
On September 2nd, Chopin was whisked away to stay with Jane's sister, Mrs. Ludovic Houston, at Johnstone Castle, outside Glasgow. Muir Wood had organised a concert for Chopin in Glasgow for the end of September, and Johnstone Castle was an ideal base.
There was a large house-party at the Castle. Chopin had neither the health nor the desire to shoot or fish, and chose to stay behind with the children and older guests. The weather deteriorated, precluding strolls in the grounds, and boredom began to set in.
The evenings were a greater ordeal. He wrote to his friend Albert Grzymala that he had to |sit for two hours with the men at table, and look at them talking and listen to them drinking - bored to death. I go to the drawing room, where I need all my courage to revive myself, for then they are eager to hear me. Then my good Daniel carries me upstairs to my bedroom, undresses me, puts me down, leaves a candle, and I am allowed to breathe and dream until morning'.
Johnstone Castle served as a springboard for other visits, including one to Admiral Napier, who was married to Jana's sister Elizabeth, at nearby Milliken House. Chopin probably visited the nearby Glentyan House, owned by Jane's brother Captain James Stirling, who had been appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Renfrewshire that year.
He also spent a week at Strachur House, on Loch Fyne, with Lord and Lady Murray. Sixty-year-old Lady Murray had been Chopin's first pupil in London and was a leading patroness of music in Scotland.
Fresh herrings from the loch, salmon from the rivers and venison from the hills were the seasonal fare at the dinner table, as well as Bordeaux wines imported by the francophile Lady Murray.
Back at Johnstone, Chopin learned from Dr. Lyszczynski that his prime pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (nee Radziwill), and her husband Alexander were in Edinburgh. Eager to see the Czartoryskis again, he took the train to Edinburgh. |Princess Marcelina is the same angel of kindness as last year', he wrote. |I revived somewhat under their Polish ambience.' A few days later he returned to Johnstone Castle to prepare for the Glasgow concert.
Chopin had a brush with death when driving near the coast. The horses bolted on a slope. The coach hit a tree, overturned down a steep drop and was smashed into pieces with Chopin inside. Chopin was bruised, cut and very shaken, but otherwise unhurt.
The concert took place at 2.30 on September 27th at the Merchants' Hall, Hutcheson Street. The Hall was packed with the aristocracy and friends who came from all over Scotland to support him, including the Duchess of Argyll, the Countess of Eglinton and Winton, the Countess of Glasgow, the Countess of Cathcart, Lady Isabella Gordon, Baroness Sempill, Lady Blantyre and Lady Belhaven.
Lord and Lady Murray drove down from Strachur, Lord Torphichen travelled across from Calder, Prince and Princess Czartoryski were there, the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton attended, as did the Stirling clan, and Dr. and Mrs. Lyszczynski arrived from Edinburgh.
Muir Wood was relieved that Chopin was able to perform; there had been times when he had wondered if it would all come together.
After the concert some commentators threw light on Chopin's performance. Sir James Hedderwick described |a little fragile looking man, in pale grey suit, including frock-coat of identical tint and texture, moving about among the company ... With what consummate sweetness and ease did he unravel the wonderful varieties and complexities of sound! It was a drawing room entertainment, more piano than forte, though not without occasional episodes of both strength and grandeur. He took the audience, as it were, into his confidence, and whispered to them of zephyrs and moonlight rather than of cataracts and thunder'. The Glasgow Courier rcported that |the performance was certainly of the highest order in point of musical attainment and artistic skill and was completely successful in interesting and delighting everyone present for an hour and a half'. The Glasgow Herald was more specific: |One thing must have been apparent to everyone of the audience, the melancholy and plaintive sentiment which pervaded his music ... M. Chopin is evidently a man of weak constitution, and seems to be labouring under physical debility and ill health'.
That evening an |apres-concert' banquet was held at Johnstone Castle. Johnstone Castle was demolished in 1950 to make way for a housing estate, although the central tower still survives.
Three days later Chopin arrived at Keir House, outside Dunblane, near Jane's birthplace at Kippenross. It was the residence of Jane's cousin |Willie' Stirling, in later years a well-known traveller, historian and art-collector, Sir William Stirling-Maxwell.
|Everywhere I am received with the most cordial kindness and boundless hospitality', wrote Chopin of Keir, |I find excellent pianos, beautiful pictures and choice libraries; there are also shoots, dogs, dinners that never end and cellars of which I take less advantage'.
Jane's family schedules intensified, to Chopin's growing dismay. Among the visits was one to Gargunnock House, the home of Jane's brother Charles. |As soon as I get accustomed to one place', Chopin continued, |I must go to another, for my Scottish ladies leave me no peace; either they come to fetch me or they drive me to visit their families. They will stifle me with their kindness, and I am too polite to stop them.' He did not visit Kippenross - on the scheduled day he was too ill to go. Jane went alone and brought him back a rose.
Gargunnock House, west of Stirling, is now in trust. The piano that Chopin reputedly played is at the house today. Kippenross House is still in the Stirling family, but Keir House is now in foreign hands.
On October 4th Chopin gave his Caledonian Rout concert in the Hopetoun Hall, Edinburgh. The Edinhurgh Evening Courant recorded that his execution was |the most finished we have ever heard. . . As a chamber pianist he stands unrivalled'. It was apparent by now that Chopin was physically too weak to perform in a large concert hall. The hall has now been replaced by Erskine House, Queen Street, a commercial building.
Chopin escaped from Jane by accepting invitations to Wishaw House to visit Lady Belhaven, and to Hamilton Palace to stay with the Duke and Duchess of Hamilton. Both Wishaw House, in Cambusnethan, and Hamilton Palace have been demolished, although the Hamilton Mausoleum, where the Duke was buried in 1852, still dominates the Strathclyde Country Park.
Chopin returned to Jane and Katherine's increasingly oppressive attentions at Calder House. |My Scottish ladies are kind, but such bores, God help me!' he wrote. |They would have me stay and knock about the Scottish palaces, here, there and everywhere.. . and wherever I go they follow me if they can.' Katherine, staunch Calvinist that she was, had taken to reading the Bible to him, and discussing his obviously impending afterlife!
The damp weather aggravated Chopin's condition, and he returned to the Lyszczynskis. He had become very difficult, never satisfied, demanding breakfast in bed, complaining that his linen was never white enough, nor his shoes black enough. He was aghast at rumours of his impending marriage to Jane. |I am nearer to the grave than the nuptial bed!' he wrote.
Chopin wrote virtually no music in Scotland. A waltz dedicated to Katherine is now lost, and a Scottische that he composed in Gargunnock has been assimilated into Scottish folk music. A song, |Spring', written at Warriston Crescent, has recently been discovered. The manuscript is at Kornik Castle in Poland.
|Where has my art gone?' he wrote. |Where did I lose my heart? I can hardly remember how they sing in Poland. I'm losing myself, I have no strength left. Why doesn't God kill me straight away, instead of bit by bit?'
Chopin left Scotland for London on October 31st to perform for the last time at the Guildhall on November 16th. Jane and Katherine followed him to London and on to Paris. |My Scottish ladies... have latched on so hard that I cannot get away!'
Tuberculosis killed Chopin in Paris on October 17th, 1849. Jane and Katherine attended the funeral in the Madeleine. He is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetry. Embedded in the tombstone is a petal from the rose that Jane brought Chopin from Kippenross.
[The Scottish Autumn of Frederick Chopin by Iwo and Pamela Zaluski will be published by John Donald Ltd., Edinburgh, August 1993.]