Monday, March 1, 2010

Chopin’s photograph?

Well now we’ve established when his birthday is (or not!), how about what he looked like. Have you noticed how in almost every picture of Chopin he looks completely different? His face and character were without question too subtle and mobile for painters to capture, and I can imagine, with the constant changes of expression on his face, he would have looked very different to every artist that tried to paint him. Certainly that is the impression created by all the myriad of different likenesses of him. The paintings that feel more accurate (whether they are or not) are always the ones that concentrate not on his appearance but his personality. Luckily there are one or two irrefutable pieces of evidence to show what Chopin actually looked like, namely two photographs and a death mask. Yes you heard me correctly, two photographs.

There is a famous daguerreotype of Chopin, likely taken in Paris at the studio of L.A. Bisson around 1847. In it Chopin’s deteriorating health and the signs of lack of sleep are clearly evident, though the often quoted description of his face being swollen as a result of his disease (TB) is actually a mistaken observation. What people are seeing (and mistaking for a swollen face in poor reproductions of the photograph) is the angular shape of his jaw line, which matches perfectly his death mask (a life size copy of which I have in my possession). Chopin did complain of a swollen face at times during his final illness and the Chopin biographer Arthur Hedley made the connection with Chopin's description and what he interpreted as swollen features in the Chopin photograph and the description seems to have stuck. The most striking feature of this famous picture is of course Chopin’s expression in his eyes. To some observers his expression might simply convey the anguish of someone suffering in extreme ill-health. I see it differently, and it might explain why I find this picture so inspiring. What I feel we are really seeing is Chopin without any front. He was too ill to hide his feelings in any way (even though Chopin was well known for being a very private person) and what we are indeed seeing is the composer of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, the Barcarolle, the B minor Sonata, etc.. Chopin’s gaze is penetrating, deeply intelligent, scientific as much as artistic (even Liszt noticed this aspect) and filled with an amazing combination of extreme wisdom and extreme distance. Without doubt it’s one of the most extraordinary pictures ever taken.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): one of only two photographic images of the composer, this one taken at the studio of L.A. Bisson at 65 rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois no later than the end of 1847. Also in the image is what appears to be a score of Chopin's music, carefully placed in view on a piece of furniture positioned next to the composer

Now to the second photograph of Chopin. I first became aware of this picture in 1990 when I saw it reproduced in John O'Shea’s excellent 'Music and Medicine: Medical Profiles of Great Composers' (London, Dent, 1990). The image was rediscovered, along with the later daguerreotype, in 1936 at the offices of Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1936 and photographed by Czeslaw Olszewki (the originals were lost during WWII) and first displayed at an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Polonaise in Paris in 1937. When I first saw this second image of Chopin, having thought I’d seen every known reproduction of the composer’s likeness, I was staggered. Sadly the photograph is extremely deteriorated and the photographer is unknown. Although it’s very hard at first to see anything in the photograph, if you keep looking you begin to see more detail. It was my belief that the picture had been printed the wrong way round in John O'Shea's book (I had no proof, only that Chopin’s hair parting, assuming it is Chopin, was on the opposite side of his head compared with the more famous daguerreotype of Chopin). But close scrutiny of this 2nd photograph did indeed show that this person had the exact physical likeness of Chopin from the other photograph, from the death mask, and even from one or two of the portraits done of the composer. Although it’s hard to make out the expression in the face because of the picture’s deterioration, what does come across is the extreme tension of the subject, like a coiled up spring, something that makes sense if you think that at the time this photograph was taken (possibly 1845 or earlier) Chopin was still composing, working on some of his greatest music. Chopin always found composing a huge struggle; initially when he was ensconced at Nohant for the summer, George Sand’s country retreat near Châteauroux south west of Paris where Chopin did most of his writing, George Sand was able to entice him away from the piano when he was stuck and unable to proceed. After an outing in the countryside he usually came back with his equilibrium restored and was able to resume his composing with renewed enthusiasm. But as the years went by even George Sand was worried about interrupting Chopin in his room, as his hypercritical nature laboriously reexamined every bar of his music with an increased passion and commitment as his music became more and more intense. To quote George Sand:

1st August, 1841: George Sand to P. Gaubert
“Maurice [her son] and I are spending eight hours a day together, drawing and painting... Meanwhile Chopin gets on with his own things and gets cross with the piano. When the keyboard does not carry out his orders he aims such a powerful blow at it with his fist that the poor instrument groans!... He thinks that he is slacking if his back is not breaking under a load of work”

It’s a pity that the earlier photograph of Chopin is so deteriorated, as it would be amazing to see more clearly the expression of this “incomparable genius” [Eugène Delacroix] at such a crucial time of his life, perhaps while still working on some of his last masterpieces, or perhaps the photograph was taken a little later, around the time of his acrimonious split with George Sand that left him so devastated.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): one of only two photographic images of the composer. This one is rarely reproduced due to its deteriorated state. The image was possibly taken in 1845 or earlier.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): photographic image taken 1845 or earlier (reversed).

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): 1847 pencil drawing my Franz Winterhalter, described by Chopin himself as "a very good likeness".

Personally I have never understood why this 2nd photograph of Chopin has not been taken more seriously. True it's terribly damaged, but for anyone devoted to Chopin's music any photograph of him, no matter how deteriorated, has huge value. Over the last two decades I have regularly reproduced it in concert programmes, CD sleeves, etc. and recently began including it in the photo montages that accompany many of my own Chopin videos on YouTube. I was still mystified as to why the picture was so completely ignored on the internet. Detailed internet searches always failed to turn up anything other than the later photographic image and Wikipedia contributors proudly claimed there was only one known photograph of Chopin. Had I been hoodwinked all these years? Was the picture not even of Chopin? Quite recently a screen shot of the photograph taken from one of my YouTube videos appeared on Wikipedia and before long everyone was talking about the ‘2nd photograph’ of Chopin. So we must thank Dr O’Shea for helping to make the picture more accessible back in 1990, and I feel very proud that my efforts helped to get the photograph better known on the internet and into people's awareness.

As for Chopin’s death mask, it’s truly remarkable (as well as the death mask, another of my most cherished possessions is a life size cast of Chopin's left hand). Chopin’s friends stated that after his death the muscles in his face relaxed and his face resumed a more youthful quality minus all the strain of his last illness. This is certainly evident in the death mask, taken by Auguste Clésinger on the morning of 17 October 1849. Clésinger also created the funeral monument over Chopin’s tomb (of which Chopin’s close friend the painter Delacroix was so disparaging). It’s amazing when viewing this death mask to realise we are looking at Chopin’s exact profile, that so many people must have gazed at at his concerts. I'll never forget the first time I saw the mask: having no idea what Chopin really looked like, I was stunned. I was surprised at the level of expression in the face, considering it was a death mask, and I was equally stunned by the fact that he looked exactly as I had expected him to look, just like his music in fact, even though that's an irrational thing to say (interestingly a century later Kay Swift said the same thing of George Gershwin's appearance). At the same time it’s impossible not to forget the words of Solange Clésinger, George Sand’s daughter and Auguste Clésinger's wife, who was present at Chopin’s death bed. She later wrote of the absolute horror after he passed away, as she looked into his eyes (that so movingly stare back at us in that soul searching way in the 1849 photograph) and saw “that the soul had died too”.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): death mask front view (from Jack Gibbons' own collection)

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): death mask side view (from Jack Gibbons' own collection)

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Chopin’s birthday?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on 1 March 1810, according to all the statements of both Chopin, his friends and contemporaries, and his family including his mother. But in 1892, 43 years after his death, a baptismal record was found that gave his birth date as 22 February, exactly one week earlier. The baptismal certificate was written nearly two months after his birth, on 23rd April, when the infant was presented at the local church by his father (also oddly enough ‘22 February’, the date written on this document, happened to be the birth date of Chopin’s godfather, who was supposed to be at the baptism but didn't make it). If you’re the kind of person who favours the ‘status quo’ then you’ll probably side with the ‘official’ church document. And if your approach is more emotional you’re more likely to favour the date that Chopin and his mother gave for his birth!

This is why I am a little disappointed with some figures in the music world, who favour 22 February for Chopin’s birth, sighting as reference the London Chopin Society’s position which in turn bases its position on the views of its founder Lucie Swiatek. Rose Cholmondeley from the Society tells an interesting, though hard to verify, story that Jane Stirling, Chopin’s pupil, was told by Chopin that she was the only one to know Chopin’s ‘real’ birthday. This is odd, because the same Chopin Society article also sights confusion between ‘name-days’ and ‘birthdays’ being the reason for the discrepancy of dates over Chopin’s birth, even though Chopin and his family also celebrated his name-day separately on 5th March, and even went to some trouble to celebrate and acknowledge birthdays and name-days within the family. And why would Chopin, one of the most down-to-earth and rational people to have existed in this world (who even initially refused ‘last rights’ on his deathbed ‘to avoid being a hypocrite’) try to knowingly hide his ‘real’ birth date from everyone, including presumably George Sand, his mother and family, and closest friends, but not from Jane Stirling, a pupil to whom Chopin was not particularly close. Jane Stirling’s position makes this story, assuming it to be a true Jane Stirling recollection, unreliable to say the least: her fanatical devotion to Chopin was such that she would have done everything she could to preserve a story about Chopin to which she alone held the key! Having had the pleasure of meeting Lucie Swiatek and bearing in mind Jane Stirling’s partisan position, I can safely say that neither of these sources should be considered trustworthy when it comes to facts regarding Chopin (to put it mildly!). If one day it is proved I am wrong I will be prefuse in my recantation! Jane Stirling however does deserve considerable credit for keeping everything in her possession connected with Chopin after his death (including music scores with Chopin’s annotations, letters, etc.) and which now serves as a very valuable study source. Unfortunately some music bloggers are so swayed by Lucie Swiatek and the London Chopin Society’s position that they don’t wish Chopin a 200th birthday greeting today, 1st March, on their blogs, even though Chopin’s own mother wrote these words to her only son:

“Dear Fryderyk, The 1st and the 5th of March [Fryderyk’s birthday and name-day] are approaching and I am prevented from embracing you… “
[Chopin’s mother (Justyna Chopin) to Fryderyk in Paris;
Warsaw, end of February 1837]

Of course we still have the problem of the date written into the church baptismal document of 23 April 1837 (which remember is also, coincidentally, the date of birth of Chopin’s godfather – it should also be pointed out that there are other mistakes on Chopin’s birth document, such as wrong form of employment given to the co-signatories and so on). So let me put this to the test. Do YOU know when your birthday is? And does your MOTHER know when your birthday is? If you or your mother cannot remember your birth date then I would suggest you go with the 22 February date for Chopin’s birth. If on the other hand you have, during the course of your life, come across a document from a government official or civil servant with a mistake on it then you should go with the 1 March date for Chopin’s birth. Problem solved! Personally I favour trusting myself and especially my mother for confirmation of my birthday!

1st March 2010

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