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The Loves of Great Composers|
Chopin and the Countess Delphine Potocka
by Gustav Kobbé
|"Her voice was destined to be the last which should vibrate upon the musician's heart. Perhaps the sweetest sounds of earth accompanied the parting soul until they blended in his ear with the first chords of the angels' lyres."
It is thus Liszt describes the voice of Countess Delphine Potocka as it vibrated through the room in which Chopin lay dying. Witnesses disagree regarding details. One of the small company that gathered about his bed says she sang but once, others that she sang twice; and even these vary when they name the compositions. Yet however they may differ on these minor points, they agree as to the main incident. That the beautiful Delphine sang for the dying Chopin is not a mere pleasing tradition; it is a fact. Her voice ravished the ear of the great composer, whose life was ebbing away, and soothed his last hours.
"Therefore, then, has God so long delayed to call me to Him. He wanted to vouchsafe me the joy of seeing you." These were the words Chopin whispered when he opened his eyes and saw, beside his sister Louise, the Countess Delphine Potocka, who had hurried from a distance as soon as she was notified that his end was drawing near. She was one of those rare and radiant souls who could bestow upon this delicate child of genius her tenderest friendship, perhaps even her love, yet keep herself unsullied and an object of adoration as much for her purity as for her beauty. Because she was Chopin's friend, because she came to him in his dying hours, because along paths unseen by those about them her voice threaded its way to his very soul, no life of him is complete without mention of her, and in the mind of the musical public her name is irrevocably associated with his. Each succeeding biographer of the great composer has sought to tell us a little more about her - yet little is known of her even now beyond the fact that she was very beautiful - and so eager have we been for a glimpse of her face that we have accepted without reserve as an authentic presentment of her features the famous portrait of a Countess Potocka who, I find, died some seven or eight years before Delphine and Chopin met.
But we have portraits of Delphine by Chopin himself, not drawn with pencil or crayon, or painted with brush, but her face as his soul saw it and transformed it into music. Listen to a great virtuoso play his two concertos. Ask yourself which of the six movements is the most beautiful. Surely your choice will fall on the slow movement of the second - dedicated to the Countess Delphine Potocka, and one of the composer's most tender and exquisite productions; or play over the waltzes - the one over which for grace and poetic sentiment you will linger longest will be the sixth, dedicated to the Countess Delphine Potocka.
Liszt, who knew Chopin, tells us that the composer evinced a decided preference for the Adagio of the second concerto and liked to repeat it frequently. He speaks of the Adagio, this musical portrait of Delphine, as almost ideally perfect; now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos; a happy vale of Tempe, a magnificent landscape flooded with summer glow and lustre, yet forming a background for the rehearsal of some dire scene of mortal anguish, a contrast sustained by a fusion of tones, a softening of gloomy hues, which, while saddening joy, soothes the bitterness of sorrow.
What a lifelike portrait Chopin drew in this "beautiful, deep-toned, love-laden cantilena"! For was it not the incomparable Delphine who was destined to "soothe the bitterness of sorrow" during his final hours on earth?
But while hers was a soul strung with chords that vibrated to the slightest breath of sorrow, she could be vivacious as well. She was a child of Poland, that land of sorrow, but where sorrow, for very excess of itself, sometimes reverts to joy. And so she had her brilliant joyous moments. Chopin saw her in such moments, too, and, that the recollection might not pass away, for all time fixed her picture in her vivacious moods in the last movement, the Allegro vivace of the concerto, with what Niecks, one of the leading modern biographers of the composer, calls its feminine softness and rounded contours, its graceful, gyrating, dance-like motions, its sprightliness and frolicsomeness. In the same way in the waltz, there is an obvious mingling of the gay and the sad, the tender and the debonair. Chopin thought he was writing a waltz. He really was writing "Delphine Potocka." He, too, was from Poland, and that circumstance of itself drew them to each other from the time when they first met in France.
One of Chopin's favorite musical amusements, when he was a guest at the houses of his favorite friends, was to play on the piano musical portraits of the company. At the salon of the Countess Komar, Delphine's mother, he played one evening the portraits of the two daughters of the house. When it came to Delphine's he gently drew her light shawl from her shoulders, spread it over the keyboard, and then played through it, his fingers, with every tone they produced, coming in touch with the gossamer-like fabric, still warm and hallowed for him from its contact with her.
It seems to have been about 1830 that Delphine first came into the composer's life. In that year the Count and Countess Komar and their three beautiful daughters arrived in Nice. Count Komar was business manager for one of the Potockas. The girls made brilliant matches. Marie became the Princess de Beauvau-Craon; Delphine became the Countess Potocka, and Nathalie, the Marchioness Medici Spada. The last named died a victim to her zeal as nurse during a cholera plague in Rome.
Chopin was a man who attracted women. His delicate physique, - he died of consumption, - his refined, poetic temperament, and his exquisite art as a composer combined with his beautiful piano playing, so well suited to the intimate circle of the drawing-room, to make his personality a thoroughly fascinating one. Moreover, he was, besides an artist, a gentleman, with the reserve yet charm of manner that characterizes the man of breeding. In men women admire two extremes, - splendid physical strength, or the delicacy that suggests a poetic soul. Chopin was a creator of poetic music and a gentle virtuoso. His appearance harmonized with his genius. He was one of his own nocturnes in which you can feel a vague presentiment of untimely death.
He is described as a model son, an affectionate brother and a faithful friend. His eyes were brown; his hair was chestnut, luxuriant and as soft as silk. His complexion was of transparent delicacy; his voice subdued and musical. He moved with grace. Born near Warsaw, in 1809, he was brought up in his father's school with the sons of aristocrats. He had the manners of an aristocrat, and was careful in his dress.
But despite his sensitive nature, he could resent undue familiarity or rudeness, yet in a refined way all his own. Once when he was a guest at dinner at a rich man's house in Paris, he was asked by the host to play - a patent violation of etiquette toward a distinguished artist. Chopin demurred. The host continued to press him, urging that Liszt and Thalberg had played in his house after dinner.
"But," protested Chopin, "I have eaten so little!" and thus put an end to the matter.
Some twenty or thirty of the best salons in Paris were open to him. Among them were those of the Polish exiles, some of whom he had known since their school-days at his father's. He was in the truest sense of the word a friend of those who entertained him - in fact, one of them. For a list of those among whom he moved socially read the dedications on his music. They include wealthy women, like Mme. Nathaniel de Rothschild, but also a long line of princesses and countesses. In the salon of the Potocka he was intimately at home, and it was especially there he drew his musical portraits at the piano. Delphine, his brilliant countrywoman, vibrated with music herself. She possessed "une belle voix de soprano," and sang "d'après la méthode des maîtres d'Italie."
[Illustration: Countess Potocka.
From the famous pastel in the Royal Berlin Gallery. Artist unknown.]
In her salon were heard such singers as Rubini, Lablache, Tamburini, Malibran, Grisi and Persiani. Yet it was her voice Chopin wished to hear when he lay dying! Truly hers must have been a marvellous gift of song! At her salon it was his delight to accompany her with his highly poetical playing. From what is known of his delicate art as a pianist it is possible to imagine how exquisitely his accompaniments must have both sustained and mingled with that "belle voix de soprano." He had a knack of improvising a melody to any poem that happened to take his fancy, and thus he and Delphine would treat to an improvised song the elite of the musical, artistic, literary and social world that gathered in her salon. It is unfortunate that these improvisations were lightly forgotten by the composer, for he has left us few songs. Delphine "took as much trouble in giving choice musical entertainments as other people did in giving choice dinners." Her salon must have been a resort after the composer's own heart.
Liszt, who knew Delphine well during Chopin's lifetime, and from whose letters, as yet untranslated into English, I have been able to unearth a few references to her (the last in May, 1861, nearly twelve years after Chopin died, and the last definite reference to her which I have been able to discover), says that her indescribable and spirited grace made her one of the most admired sovereigns of the society of Paris. He speaks of her "ethereal beauty" and her "enchanting voice" which enchained Chopin. Delphine was, in fact, "famous for her rare beauty and fascinating singing."
No biography of Chopin contains so much as the scrap of a letter either from him to her, or from her to him. That he should not have written is hardly to be wondered at, considering that letter writing was most repugnant to him. He would take a long walk in order to accept or decline an invitation in person, rather than indite a brief note. Moreover, in addition to this trait, he was so often in the salon of the Countess Potocka that much correspondence with her was unnecessary. I have, however, discovered two letters from her to the composer. One, written in French, asks him to occupy a seat in her box at a Berlioz concert. The other is in Polish and is quite long. It is undated, and there is nothing to show from where it was written. Evidently, however, she had heard that he was ailing, for she begs him to send her a few words, poste restante, to Aix-la-Chapelle, letting her know how he is. From this request it seems that she was away from Paris (possibly in or near Poland), but expected to start for the French capital soon and wished to be apprised of his condition at the earliest moment. The anxious tone of the letter leads me to believe that it was written during the last year of the composer's life, when the insidious nature of the disease of which he was a victim had become apparent to himself and his friends.... "I cannot," she writes, "wait so long without news of your health and your plans for the future. Do not attempt to write to me yourself, but ask Mme. Etienne, or that excellent grandma, who dreams of chops, to let me know about your strength, your chest, your breathing."
Delphine also was well aware of the unsatisfactory state of his finances, for she writes that she would like to know something about "that Jew; if he called and was able to be of service to you." What follows is in a vein of sadness, showing that her own life was not without its sorrows. "Here everything is sad and lonely, but my life goes on in much the usual way; if only it will continue without further bitter sorrows and trials, I shall be able to support it. For me the world has no more happiness, no more joy. All those to whom I have wished well ever have rewarded me with ingratitude or caused me other tribulations." (The italics are hers.) "After all, this existence is nothing but a great discord." Then, with a "que Dieu vous garde," she bids him au revoir till the beginning of October at the latest.
Note that it was in October, 1849, that Chopin took to his deathbed; that in another passage of the letter she advised him to think of Nice for the winter; and that it was from Nice she was summoned to his bedside. It would seem as if she had received alarming advices regarding his health; had hastened to Paris and then to the Riviera to make arrangements for him to pass the winter there; and then, learning that the worst was feared, had hurried back to solace his last hours.
Then came what is perhaps the most touching scene that has been handed down to us from the lives of the great composers. When Delphine entered what was soon to be the death chamber, Chopin's sister Louise and a few of his most intimate friends were gathered there. She took her place by Louise. When the dying man opened his eyes and saw her standing at the foot of his bed, tall, slight, draped in white, resembling a beautiful angel, and mingling her tears with those of his sister, his lips moved, and those nearest him, bending over to catch his words, heard him ask that she would sing.
Mastering her emotion by a strong effort of the will, she sang in a voice of bell-like purity the canticle to the Virgin attributed to Stradella, - sang it so devoutly, so ethereally, that the dying man, "artist and lover of the beautiful to the very last," whispered in ecstasy, "How exquisite! Again, again!"
Once more she sang - this time a psalm by Marcello. It was the haunted hour of twilight. The dying day draped the scene in its mysterious shadows. Those at the bedside had sunk noiselessly on their knees. Over the mournful accompaniment of sobs floated the voice of Delphine like a melody from heaven.
Chopin died on October 17, 1849, just as the bells of Paris were tolling the hour of three in the morning. He was known to love flowers, and in death he literally was covered with them. The funeral was held from the Madeleine, where Mozart's "Requiem" was sung, the solos being taken by Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Castellan and Lablache. Meyerbeer is said to have conducted, but this has been contradicted. He was, however, one of the pallbearers on the long way from the church to Père la Chaise. When the remains were lowered into the grave, some Polish earth, which Chopin had brought with him from Wola nineteen years before and piously guarded, was scattered over the coffin. There is nothing to show what part, save that of a mourner, Delphine Potocka took in his funeral. But though it was the famous Viardot-Garcia whose voice rang out in the Madeleine, it was hers that had sung him to his eternal rest.
[Illustration: The death of Chopin.
From the painting by Barrias.]
How long did Delphine survive Chopin? In 1853 Liszt met her at Baden, postponing his intended departure for Carlsruhe a day in order to dine with her. In May, 1861, he met her at dinner at the Rothschilds'. When Chopin's pupil, Mikuli, was preparing his edition of the composer's works, Delphine furnished him copies of several compositions bearing expression marks and other directions in the hand of Chopin himself. Mikuli dated his edition 1879. It would seem as if the Countess still were living at or about that time.
Besides the aid she thus gave in the preparation of the Mikuli edition of Chopin's works, there is other evidence that she treasured the composer's memory. In 1857, when he had been dead eight years, there was published a biographical dictionary of Polish and Slavonic musicians, a book now very rare. Although the Potocka was only an amateur, her name was included in the publication. Evidently the biographies of living people were furnished by themselves. Chopin's fame at that time did not approximate what it is now. Yet in the second sentence of her biography Delphine records that she was "the intimate friend of the illustrious Chopin."
Forgetting that the line of the Potockis is a long one, the public for years has associated with Chopin the famous pastel portrait of Countess Potocka in the Royal Berlin Gallery. The Countess Potocka of that portrait had a career that reads like a romance, but she was Sophie, not Delphine Potocka. My discovery of a miniature of Countess Sophie Potocka in Philadelphia, painted some fifteen or twenty years later than the Berlin pastel, and of numerous references to her in the diary of an American traveller who was entertained by her in Poland early in the last century, were among the interesting results of my search for information regarding Delphine, but they have no place here. Probably the public, which clings to romance, still will cling to the pastel portrait of Countess Potocka as that of the woman who sang to the dying Chopin - and so the portrait is reproduced here.
Barrias, the French historical painter, who was in Paris when Chopin lived there, painted "The Death of Chopin." It shows Delphine singing to the dying man. As Barrias had his reputation as a historical painter to sustain and as the likenesses of others on the canvas are correct, it is not improbable that he painted Delphine as he saw or remembered her. If so, this is the only known portrait of Chopin's faithful friend, the Countess Delphine Potocka. Of course no one who undertakes to write about Chopin (or only to read about him for that matter) can escape the episode with Mme. Dudevant, - George Sand, - who used man after man as living "copy," and when she had finished with him cast him aside for some new experience. But the story has been admirably told by Huneker and others and its disagreeable details need not be repeated here. It may have been love, even passion, while it lasted, but it ended in harsh discord; whereas Delphine, sweet and pure and tender, ever was like a strain of Chopin's own exquisite music vibrating in a sympathetic heart.