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A Dream Letter From Frederic Chopin.

By Alethea B. Crawford Cox and Alice Chapin.
 
 [Editor's Note.—Some years ago Mrs. Cox completed a book entitled "Letters from Great Musicians," and the success of this book inspired her to write a second series of letters, in collaboration with Miss Alice Chapin. The Etude is indebted to Miss Rebecca Crawford, sister of the late Mrs. A. B. C. Cox, for permission to publish the following letter in this issue of The Etude. These letters are all imaginary notes to children, and are designed to present the biographies of the masters as though they were relating their life stories themselves.]
 
Born 1809    Died 1849
 
"A little wild bird sometimes at my ear
Sings his own verses very clear ;
Others sing louder that I do not hear,
    For singing loudly is not singing well;
But even by the song that's soft and low
    The master-singer's voice is plain to tell."
 
Dear Children:
I was born in a little village near Warsaw in the year 1809. Two children had already been born to my parents, and a fourth came to them a few years later, but I was the only son. While I was very young, my parents moved to Warsaw. The village in which I was born belonged to the Countess Sharbek, whose son, my father's pupil, stood God-father for me, and gave me his name of Frederic. My father was of French descent, and came to Poland while a young man to be established in a tobacco manufactory. The business failing, he turned his attention to teaching. At first he taught French only, but soon widened his sphere and became tutor in a household where he met and married my mother, who was of a noble polish family. So you see I bear a French name, but from my mother I inherited my nature, which is truly Polish. When I was an infant I could never hear music without crying (rather a queer way of showing my affection for it), but as I grew older I showed a taste which led my parents to place me under an excellent master, Adalbert Zwyny.
 
MY FIRST CONCERT.
I was already improvising. The melancholy sounds of the Polish music seemed ever in my brain, and many a waltz or mazurka came stumbling from my baby fingers. Of course I could not write down my fantasies, so this was occasionally done for me. When I was eight years of age I played in a concert. Ah, how grand I felt. But my mind was rather on the glories of my clothes than on my music, for when on my return from the concert, my mother asked me what the public had liked best, I replied with enthusiasm: "O mamma, everybody was looking at my collar!" Possibly the collar did have something to do with it, but my début was such a success that I became much petted by the aristocracy of Warsaw. "Chopinck" they called me, and I was often invited to the different salons, where I improvised to my heart's content. Once while playing I was asked why I looked up to the ceiling, and if I saw notes there. A silly question, for naturally, when improvising, one looks up and away from one's self, and does not look down, as when trying to solve some puzzling example in mathematics.
 
Better than the praises and gifts of the Warsaw nobility was the praise I received when ten years of age from the great singer Cataline. This noble artiste was so pleased with my playing that she gave me a watch on which was engraved: Donné par madame Catalini à Frédèric Chopin, agé de dix ans" (From Madam Catalini to Frederic Chopin, aged six).
 
While still in my eleventh year I composed a march which I dedicated to the Grand Duke Constantine, who had it scored and played by the military band. Now my father thought it advisable to place me under a teacher of harmony and composition. Accordingly Joseph Eisner became my instructor. I was fortunate in my masters, both of them being excellent men, and thorough musicians. In after years, when some of the Vienna critics were surprised that I could have learned so much without ever having studied outside of Warsaw, I replied to them that "from Messrs. Zwyny and Eisner, even the greatest fool must learn something."
 
Until I was fifteen years of age I studied at home with the pupils that, by this time my father took into his house, but when I attained the dignity of fifteen, I entered the Warsaw Lyceum. Polish history and literature were my favorite studies. For a time I worked very hard and carried off one or two prizes, but my hard work was due mainly to my father's wish, and when he relaxed somewhat of his severity I became rather lazy and won no more prizes. My health was in some degree responsible for this. I was always rather delicate and never enjoyed the vigorous, abounding health of other boys. I was subject to fits of depression, when I desired nothing but quiet and rest, though I was at times full of animal spirits and bubbled over with mischief. Caricaturing was my favorite amusement. Whenever I went on a journey I sent home countless drawings of all the grotesque people I saw, and once while in school, a worthy professor caught me drawing a caricature of his own dignified self! What do you suppose he did to me? Nothing! He praised my drawing!
 
One day after my return home, my father being out, the assistant tutor found it impossible to control the unruly boys, seeing which, I told them that if they would sit down and listen quietly I would improvise a pretty story for them. Down they sat, much delighted, and after extinguishing the lights I went to the piano and began: "Robbers set out to plunder a house. They come nearer and nearer. They halt and put up ladders they have brought with them; up they scramble, but just as they are going into the house they hear a noise; much frightened they run back into the woods, where, in the stillness and darkness of the night, they lie down under the trees and fall asleep." And now I began to play softer and even softer, till my boy audience was as sound asleep as ever were the robbers. Upon this I crept quietly from the room and called the other members of the family, who came trooping in with lights in their hands, while with a tremendous crashing chord I suddenly awoke the youngsters.
 
MY FIRST OPUS.
In the year 1825 I became very great in my own estimation. I first saw one of my pieces in print. My Opus (or work) one was published! If it had been pleasant to improvise for admiring ladies and gentlemen, and to hear their words of praise, how much more thrilling was it to feel myself an author, and that one of my compositions was in black and white, able to care for itself and go out into the world.
 
Nearly all of my energies and genius I devoted to my favorite instrument— the piano. I have written concertos where the piano is accompanied by an orchestra, but I am always true to my pet instrument. When quite young the smallness of my hands troubled me greatly. I could not handle chords as I wished. After much thinking I invented a contrivance which I put between my fingers and wore it night and day, hoping thus to increase their inflexibility. But let no one follow my example. I did not injure my hands, but I might have done so. The only way to render the hands flexible, and at the same time strong, is to practice steadily and perseveringly, thus educating the muscles and attaining lasting benefit. Sometimes after retiring for the night a sudden musical thought would come to me, and up I would jump to write it down, or play a few bars on my piano, to the horror of the servants who, roused from slumber by music, fancied, first, ghosts;—then that I was out of my mind. I had a comfortable room of my own in which was a piano, and in this den I had many charming musical parties, surrounded by my family and several dear friends.
 
In 1828 I realized the wish of my heart and paid a visit to Berlin. I was mad with delight when I found that I could go, and I scarcely recovered my sanity during the entire journey. I managed to caricature some of the funny people I met on the way, but that was only a sign that I was recovering my usual state of mind.
 
A worthy professor, a friend of my father, had me under his care. He was going to a congress of eminent natural philosophers. I cared not a whit for this congress. The music for which Berlin was famous drew me, and I hoped to meet some of the great musicians who made Berlin their home, but in this I was disappointed. Those who had promised me introductions did not keep their promises, and I was much too timid to introduce myself. So I watched Spontini, Zelter and Felix Mendelssohn from afar. Spontini was then the autocrat of Berlin music. I heard then his opera "Ferdinand Cortez." But the most sublime music to me was Händel's "Ode on St. Cecilia's Day." That was music at its best! I haunted shops and piano manufactories, and only fear of my father's displeasure induced me to do any sightseeing unconnected with music. I have said that I saw Mendelssohn with Zelter and other musicians, but we did not meet until afterwards in Paris, when we became very good friends. He was a most lovable fellow, full of wild pranks and absurdities; not so much given to imitations and satires as myself, but enjoying a race in the moonlight with his great chum, Hiller, or suddenly starting a series of mad jumps when soberly walking home from some musical party. He gave me the pet name of "Chopinnetto," and indeed many of my friends put a diminutive with my name; some called me "little Chopin" or "Chopinick," "Chopinnetto" or "le petit." I imagine that my frail health had much to do with this.
 
During the year following my trip to Berlin, in the company of three friends, I visited Vienna, where I played twice in public. How proud I was then to be called a master of the pianoforte! No student, but a master! I will quote to you from a letter I wrote to my parents after my debut: "The sight of the Viennese public did not at all excite me, and I sat down, pale as I was, at a wonderful instrument of Graff's, at that time perhaps the best in Vienna. Beside me I had a young man who turned the leaves for me in the variations, and who prided himself on having rendered the same service to Moscheles, Hummel and Herz. Believe me when I tell you that I played in a desperate mood; nevertheless the variations produced so much effect that I was called back several times. Of my improvisation I know only that it was followed by stormy applause and many recalls."
 
After my second concert I was overwhelmed with praise and congratulations. I was always very sensitive to both praise and blame, and remember once that I marched hotly out of a room where many people were assembled, discussing my playing, because one individual who entered did not speak very enthusiastically about me.
 
I gave, in 1830, a grand concert in Warsaw, at which I played a concerto, which I had recently composed, and a fantasia on Polish airs. Two young ladies sang. One of them was my ideal —she sang divinely. My playing was much praised, and indeed the entire concert was so great a success that I was for the time very happy, though the shadow of a parting from home and all I held dear was already darkening over me. Indeed in November, 1830, I left my home for a long journey, and in my heart I carried the miserable presentiment that I was leaving it forever; that I would never again return to the friends and country I loved so tenderly. After wandering, sometimes alone, and sometimes with some Polish friends, through several German towns, and after quite a long stay in Vienna, where I met many musical people, I went to Paris for a visit. On my passport was written: "Passing through Paris." I never got any further on my journey, for though I made many short trips, and once went to England, Paris always remained my home. I used sometimes to refer laughingly to my first descent upon the gay capital by saying: "You know I am only 'passing through' Paris."
 
CHOPIN IN PARIS.
I made so many pleasant friends, and Paris was at that time such a brilliant musical center, that it is no wonder that I made it my home. At the Italian Opera House such great artists as Madame Malibran-Garcia and Madame Pasta, with Messrs. Rubini and   Lablache, were singing. The Académie also boasted some fine singers, while among composers came first the pompous old Cherubini, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Hiller, and for a time Mendelssohn. There were also pianists, among them being Liszt, Baillot, who was an exquisite violin player, and Franchomme, a famous violoncellist, with whom I established a warm friendship. At that time Kalkbrenner was considered the pianoforte master and, in his own opinion, was the greatest of living masters. He wished to give me lessons. Mendelssohn, who despised him, was furious upon hearing this. I went, however, to a few of his classes, as indeed I admired his playing, but I did not care to give three years (the time he required) to studying with him. He was very prim and precise and always wanted to be treated with the respect he felt was his due. One day, when Hiller, Felix Mendelssohn and myself were sitting before a café on the Boulevard des Italiens, we saw him approaching. A wicked spirit took possession of us and jumping up we surrounded him with noisy friendliness, pulling him along with us and talking every moment. With ruffled dignity he fled, for nothing could have vexed him more than being addressed by such a noisy company.
 
After my first concert I became quite the rage. The newness of my style found some objectors, but the musical circle was delighted, and again, as in Warsaw, the aristocratic circle opened its doors to me. My playing always gave particular pleasure to the ladies. I lacked the physical strength for vigorous handling of the instrument, so my playing was dreamy, tender and poetic.
 
Liszt played some of my pieces with superb strength. He simply conquered everything. When he played my compositions as I wrote them I enjoyed hearing them, but he was forever meddling with them, filling in cadenzas or double octaves just to show his skill as a gymnast. Oh, it put me out of all patience! I soon assembled about me a select circle of pupils, and a very adoring group they were, too, though you are no doubt lucky in not having such a teacher as was I. I was sometimes very passionate, then I could be sarcastic also, and really I do not know which is the worst. However, my pupils took my fault-finding in a very humble spirit. One of them, who died at the age of thirteen, would have been a marvel. Liszt said that when Filtsch came before the public he (Liszt) would retire. I taught the little fellow, among other things, my E minor Concerto. I only allowed him to study one solo at a time, till at last when all were perfect, I arranged for him to play the whole. Practicing I now forbade, preparing him for the great event by a course of reading, and being a devout Romanist he fasted and used the prayers of the Church. Finally, all my special circle being present, we played the Concerto in my salon, I filling in all the orchestral parts on another piano. Filtsch played marvelously well. Those who were present heard something which they could hold in their memories for a lifetime. After it was all over I took my little pupil to a music shop and presented him with the score of Beethoven's "Fidelio."
 
I loved Mozart above all other masters, but I generally taught more of my own music than of any other composer. Brinsley Richards was one of my pupils and several ladies who studied with me were fine musicians. Perhaps Gutmann was my best pupil. I know that I loved him very tenderly, and that during my last painful illness I loved best to be waited upon by him, or to rest in his arms. Besides teaching and composing or playing to my own special circle I played several times in public with Liszt. Once, with Liszt and Hiller, I played Bach's Concerto for three pianos, and once Moscheles and myself went to St. Cloud and played before the Queen and the Royal Family. We roused our hearers to very flattering enthusiasm. I played many of my nocturnes, waltzes,etc., and together we played Moscheles' E Flat Sonata.
 
I spent one year with some friends on the island of Majorca, living part of the time in a deserted monastery, where, in the cell of some dead and gone monk, I composed or improvised on my Pleyel piano. The rainy season there was terrible; the wind moaned and howled about the old place like an unquiet spirit. My stay in Majorca did not strengthen me, but sent me back to Paris weaker than when I left it.
 
One of my diversions, either in my own salon or among my friends, was to give impersonations. I could so disguise myself that no one would recognize me. Sometimes I would go quietly out of the room and return almost immediately as a stolid Englishman, or else I came trotting in as a little hunchback and sat down so to play. Once a Polish musician who was visiting me said that he must, while in Paris, hear Liszt. Pixis and other celebrated players. I said that he need not trouble about that, and, getting up quickly, imitated each one in turn. The next evening, if I remember rightly, while in a box at the opera, I left the box for a moment and Pixis, coming in, sat down in my place. My friend, turning, saw this figure which I had imitated only the evening before, and supposing it another jest of mine, clapped his hand familiarly on Pixis's shoulder, saying: "Oh, Frédèric, don't imitate now!"
 
I suppose that many of you play my nocturnes and mazurkas. I wish that I could show you just how I wanted them played, but then, perhaps, you would be timid about playing before me. Do any of you play my waltz in D flat (opus 64)? I will tell you how it came into my head. A friend of mine had a little dog who used to turn round and round after his own tail. One day my friend said to me: "If I were such a musician as you, I would compose something for that little dog." Down I sat and improvised this waltz, which is therefore called "Valse du petit chien" (Valse of the little dog).
 
I think that I have told you enough about myself. You know what I did and what I enjoyed, and I don't care to sadden you by saying much about the many times when I was sad, miserable and depressed. The world now gives me my due. In my own time a London publisher sent word that he wished no more of my music, as there was no sale for it. And, indeed, its sale in France and Germany was small. All these things ate into my heart, for I felt myself unappreciated and I knew my own worth. What genius does not? My own circle understood me. but the musician in me often yearned to conquer the whole world, not to be pent up in a little circle. Consumption was fastened upon me, and at last, after much suffering, in the arms of my pet pupil, while the voice of one of my Polish friends was still throbbing in melody through my room, I laid down a burden which had often seemed intolerably heavy, passing to where, beyond these voices, there is rest.
 
Your friend,
Frédèric Chopin.

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You are reading A Dream Letter From Frederic Chopin. from the August, 1910 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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