Among the Great Masters of Music: Scenes in the Lives of Famous Musicians Chopin byWalter Rowlands
Liszt, the friend and rival of Chopin, wrote a biography of him which may almost be ranked among the curiosities of literature. Liszt was a genius, but not a good biographer, and his life of Chopin is largely a rhapsody.
For instance, Liszt writes thus about Chopin's short-lived passion for the singer Constantia Gladkowska. "The tempest, which, in one of its sudden gusts, tore Chopin from his native soil, like a bird dreamy and abstracted, surprised by the storm, upon the branches of a foreign tree, sundered the ties of this first love and robbed the exile of a faithful and devoted wife, as well as disinherited him of a country." And the same tendency to "gush" is here again apparent. "Chopin," he says, "could easily read the hearts which were attracted to him by friendship and the grace of his youth, and thus was enabled early to learn of what a strange mixture of leaven and cream of roses, of gunpowder and tears of angels, the poetic ideal of his nation is formed. When his wandering fingers ran over the keys, suddenly touching some moving chords, he could see how the furtive tears coursed down the cheeks of the loving girl, or the young, neglected wife; how they moistened the eyes of the young man, enamoured of and eager for glory. Can we not fancy some young beauty asking him to play a simple prelude, then, softened by the tones, leaning her rounded arms upon the instrument to support her dreaming head, while she suffered the young artist to divine in the dewy glitter of her lustrous eyes the song sung by her youthful heart?"
It has been asserted both by Liszt and others that Chopin owed his musical education to the generosity of Prince Anton Radziwill, but the statement is untrue. That wealthy and cultured nobleman was, however, always a warm friend and helpful patron of the great Polish pianist, who often visited the prince at his country-seat. Prince Radziwill was a musician himself, - a good singer and "cellist," and the composer of numerous pieces, among them being the first portions of Goethe's "Faust." To him Chopin dedicated his first trio for pianoforte, violin, and violoncello, published in 1833. Chopin seems to have passed a very pleasant time with the prince and his family, and, indeed, not to have been blind to the fascinations of the prince's charming daughters, one of whom was an excellent pianist. The prince himself was no mean performer on the violoncello, and he and Chopin played a good deal together. Writing from Antonin, Chopin says: "I have written during my stay here an Alla Polacca with violoncello. It is nothing more than a brilliant salon piece, such as pleases ladies. I should like the Princess Wanda to practise it. She is only seventeen years of age, and very beautiful; it would be delightful to have the pleasure of placing her pretty fingers upon the keys." Chopin was a susceptible being and ever a victim to the latest impression, so it is not strange that the lovely Wanda was soon forgotten.
A countryman of Chopin's, the distinguished artist, Siemiradski, has produced a picture of the young pianist playing in the salon of Prince Radziwill, which itself convinces us of its truthfulness. The painter (born in 1843, and a pupil of Piloty) secured a wide renown through his painting of "The Living Torches of Nero." From a long list of notable pictures by Siemiradski, we select for mention "Phryne at Eleusis," "The Sword Dance," and "The Cremation of a Russian Chieftain in the Tenth Century."
Twenty years from the time at which Siemiradski has painted Chopin, the great pianist lay on his death-bed in Paris. "His sister never left him for a moment. His dearest friend and pupil, Gutmann, was also now constantly with him, and both friend and sister felt that the end was not far off. On the 15th of October, his friend, the Comtesse Delphine Potocka, arrived in Paris, having hastened from Nice, where she was at the time, directly she heard of the master's illness. No sooner was he made aware of her presence than he implored her to sing to him." Says Liszt; "Who could have ventured to oppose his wish? The piano was rolled to the door of his chamber, while with sobs in her voice and tears streaming down her cheeks his gifted countrywoman sang. She sang the famous 'Canticle to the Virgin,' which, it is said, once saved the life of Stradella. 'How beautiful it is!' he exclaimed. 'My God, how very beautiful! Again, again!' Though overwhelmed with emotion, the countess had the noble courage to comply with the last wish of a friend and compatriot. She again took a seat at the piano, and sang a hymn from Marcello. Chopin now feeling worse, everybody was seized with fright; by a spontaneous impulse all who were present threw themselves upon their knees - no one ventured to speak; the sacred silence was only broken by the voice of the singer floating, like a melody from heaven, above the sighs and sobs which formed its mournful earth accompaniment." Since the publication of Professor Niecks's biography, considerable doubt must be felt as to the accuracy of Liszt's statement touching upon what the lady sang; for he states that "Gutmann positively asserted that she sang a psalm by Marcello, and an air by Pergolesi, while Franchomme insisted on her having sung an air from Bellini's 'Beatrice di Tenda,' and that only once, and nothing else." We know that both the authors of these statements were present, whereas Liszt was not; but while that leaves no doubt as to the incorrectness of the abbé in this particular, it does not help us in deciding between the relative statements of the two witnesses. This, of course, is impossible, as there is nothing whatever to guide us to a trustworthy decision. To Professor Niecks, also, do we owe much of interest concerning these last hours of the master, inasmuch as he has brought to light much new testimony of a further witness, M. Gavard, who relates how, on the day following, Chopin called around him those friends who were with him in his apartment. To the Princess Czartoryska and Mlle. Gavard, he said, "You will play together, you will think of me, and I shall listen to you." Beckoning to Franchomme, he said to the princess, "I recommend Franchomme to you; you will play Mozart together, and I shall listen to you!" How well he was cared for, and how much devotion and tenderness were lavished upon him, we can judge from another letter of M. Gavard, quoted by Professor Niecks, in which he says: "In the back room lay the poor sufferer, tormented by fits of breathlessness, and only sitting in bed resting in the arms of a friend could he procure air for his oppressed lungs. It was Gutmann, the strongest amongst us, who knew best how to manage the patient, and who mostly thus supported him. At the head of his bed sat Princess Czartoryska; she never left him, guessing his most secret wishes, nursing him like a Sister of Mercy, with a serene countenance which did not betray her deep sorrow. Other friends gave a helping hand to relieve her, - every one according to his power; but most of them stayed in the two adjoining rooms. Every one had assumed a part; every one helped as much as he could, - one ran to the doctor's, to the apothecary; another introduced the persons asked for; a third shut the door on intruders.
"But, alas! the door was not to be shut upon the greatest of all intruders, and on the evening of the 16th of October the Abbé Alexander Jelowicki, the Polish priest, was sent for, as Chopin, saying that he had not confessed for many years, wished to do so now. After the confession was over, and the absolution pronounced, Chopin, embracing his confessor, exclaimed, 'Thanks! thanks to you, I shall not now die like a pig.' The same evening two doctors examined him. His difficulty in breathing now seemed intense; but on being asked whether he still suffered, he replied, 'No longer.' His face had already assumed the pure serenity of death, and every minute was expected to be the last. Just before the end - at two o'clock of the morning of the seventeenth - he drank some wine handed to him by Gutmann, who held the glass to his lips. 'Cher ami!' he said, and, kissing his faithful pupil's hands, he died. 'He died as he had lived,' says Liszt, 'in loving.'"
Barrias has worthily painted the last scene in the life of Chopin. A native of Paris, where he was born in 1822, this artist has to his credit a long list of meritorious works which have secured him many honours. They include the "Exiles under Tiberius," in the Luxembourg, "The Death of Socrates," "Sappho," "Dante at Ravenna," "The Fairy of the Pearls," "The Sirens," "The Triumph of Venus," and "Camille Desmoulins at the Palais Royal," in addition to a number of important decorative works. The "Death of Chopin" was exhibited in 1885. A gold medal was bestowed upon Barrias at the Paris Exposition of 1889, when the artist was in his sixty-seventh year. The critic, Roger Ballu, said of him: "A painter of style, very careful of the dignity of his art, he has never made a compromise with the taste of the day."