Artur SZKLENER: Chopin returns to Nohant

Chopin returns to Nohant

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Artur SZKLENER

Director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute.

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On 24 June 2023, a cooperation agreement was signed between Fryderyk Chopin’s house in Żelazowa Wola and George Sand’s house in Nohant. After 177 years, Chopin is symbolically returning to the place where he composed most of his masterpieces.

.For a musicologist working on the works of Fryderyk Chopin, Sand’s home at Nohant has a special significance. It was there that the most prominent Polish composer and one of the greatest geniuses in history found refuge, attentive care, and peace, which he needed to finish his masterpieces – he left an extraordinary number of them on the walls of the house in Nohant. While strolling through its garden, one can’t help but feel as though mazurkas, waltzes, epic ballads and heroic polonaises are still drifting from an open window on the first floor.

And yet, the road from Żelazowa Wola near Warsaw to Nohant was by no means straightforward or obvious. When the son of a French tutor and a poor Polish noblewoman was born in a manor house annex 50 km from Warsaw, no one could have imagined he’d one day live in central France with Aurora Dupin, great-granddaughter of an illegitimate son of the Polish King, Augustus the Strong, and a Swedish aristocrat, Maria on Königsmarck. At the time of the composer’s birth, Aurora had already been living with her grandmother at Nohant for six years. Her grandmother bought the estate in 1793 to protect herself from the terror of the French Revolution. It was there that Aurora established an art house, a melting pot of art of the time, after attaining her desired independence in Paris and adopting the literary pseudonym of George Sand.

Chopin and Sand met by chance, thanks to their mutual friends Franz Liszt and Countess Marie d’Agoult, whose residence they both visited frequently. Chopin’s first impression of the sometimes controversial writer was not very favourable. In 1836, when he was still making plans with Maria Wodzińska, he wrote there was “something repulsive” about Ms. Sand. Even then, only a few years after his arrival in Paris, Chopin was the soul of the local artistic society. Known for his impeccable, even aristocratic manners he had acquired in his youth in Warsaw, his excellent sense of humour, his extraordinary talent for parody, and, above all, for his absolutely unrivalled and original pianistic genius, he was the object of the admiration of the public and the envy of his fellow musicians. Chopin literally enchanted George Sand, who spent over a year rather unceremoniously trying to strengthen their acquaintance. She befriended the composer’s Polish circle, showered him with compliments, took every opportunity to meet him, and invited him to Nohant. In mid-1838, she wrote a 32-page confession letter to Wojciech Grzymała, a close friend of Chopin’s, which probably determined the composer’s decision to become involved with her. As early as the autumn of that year, they left together for Majorca.

Their stay in the Balearic Islands is one of the best known episodes of Chopin’s life, thanks to George Sand’s memoirs, Winter on Majorca published three years later. However, popular biographies of the composer do not always sufficiently emphasise the fact that the ultimately fatal consequences of this idyllic journey would lead Chopin and Sand to stay for a long time at the writer’s country house, a ritual that would be repeated every year (with one exception in 1840) throughout their relationship.

Chopin treated Nohant as his home, and Sand’s family as his own. Historians today challenge the notion that the writer’s son Maurice held animosity towards him, which was often emphasized in the past. Also, Chopin’s later correspondence with Solange as an adult is a prime example of the most affectionate relationship imaginable. Nohant was host to a variety of important individuals, including the composer’s sister, friends, and respected artists of the period: Eugène Delacroix, the Spanish prima donna Pauline Viardot, or the Polish poet Stefan Witwicki. “The mistress of the house”, as the composer often referred to Sands, created very comfortable conditions in which he could not only feel comfortable but also devote himself in peace to the endless process of chiselling his compositions before sending them to publishers. The first floor of the house was furnished with two approximately 40-metre-long living rooms which they occupied. The Chopin’s lounge had double doors and mats to minimize background noise. It is clear from the accounts of both artists that they participated in each other’s creative processes: Chopin was the first reader and reviewer of Sand’s novels, and she listened to his compositions. Sand’s letters and diaries reveal that they talked about them, and, despite her lack of musical expertise, she was able to describe the distinctive features of Chopin’s work with surprising accuracy. It seems that the composer’s mood was also influenced by the nature of the Indre region, in some features reminiscent of the Polish Mazovia.

A brush with death in Valldemossa, emotional attachment and an eventful asylum in the cell of a former Carthusian monastery led to the creation of his groundbreaking works in Majorca: a cycle of Preludes, the second Ballade and the first Polonaise from Op. 40. The composer finished these works while he was recuperating in Marseilles, but only at Nohant did his creativity really flourish. It was there that he wrote such masterpieces as the ‘heroic’ Polonaise in A flat major, the Polonaise-fantaisie, the Barcarole or both piano sonatas. Almost all of Chopin’s mature works were born in the atmosphere of that house, and its inhabitants became not only witnesses but also participants in the creative process – for example, the Berceuse was written for Louisette, Pauline Viardot’s daughter who Chopin adored.

In 1847, Chopin and Sand experienced a rather violent break-up when Sand clashed with her daughter and son-in-law, the sculptor Auguste Clésinger, whom Chopin defended. He was initially against Solange and Clésinger’s marriage, but after it was done, he decided to take responsibility and focus on Solange’s welfare. Sand took this attitude as a betrayal and a criticism of her, which Chopin in turn interpreted – probably against the writer’s intent – as a cause for their break-up, which became a fact when he decided not to come to Nohant that summer. This decision led to the writer’s eruption of long-suppressed anger, further perpetuating the status quo.

These events were extremely dramatic for both of them. During his first summer back in Paris after seven years, Chopin did not compose any new pieced but only finished and published works he had started earlier, which turned out to be his last. He never returned to Nohant. Sand ‘holed up’ in her house in the countryside, becoming increasingly detached from the Parisian world in which the pair felt so comfortable in their last years together. Eventually isolated by the composer’s immediate circle, Sand was not permitted to see Chopin even before his death, despite her efforts.

George Sand lived at Nohant with her son and his family until her death in 1876. When her granddaughters arrived, she gave them her living room and moved into half of Chopin’s lounge, transforming the other half into a library. In 1952, to celebrate the memory of her grandmother and in the absence of descendants, Aurora (Lolo), the writer’s granddaughter, donated the property to the French state. She reserved the right to live there until her death, which happened nine years later. Since 1961, the house at Nohant has been open to the public, remaining unchanged to this day.

Fryderyk Chopin’s music has grown in popularity and influence since he composed it in that house. Despite its deeply personal and distinctly Polish nature, his music possesses a universal appeal that captivates listeners worldwide, regardless of their background, heritage, culture, or aesthetic tastes. The Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, organized by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, is one of the few high culture events that receive attention similar to pop culture, reaching billions of people across the globe and gaining millions of loyal listeners.

This interest and this peculiar cult make Chopin’s birthplace in Żelazowa Wola a special location on the cultural map of the world, a kind of island, a sanctuary, a place of pilgrimage. Of course, there are more places like this, where Chopin played and composed, which will always reverberate with his music. Nohant has a special place in this archipelago, and we are delighted to further highlight its role. The melodies of Fryderyk Chopin persist in the environs of the House of George Sand, largely thanks to Yves Henry. He is a president of the Chopin Society at Nohant, director of the summer Chopin Festival and the initiator of the partnership that has just been launched between the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw and the Centre des monuments nationaux in Paris – the two institutions managing the memorials of Chopin and George Sand. We anticipate the partnership to yield benefits such as collaborative exhibitions and conferences, the establishment of Chopin’s music as a permanent fixture, or possibly a recreation of the era when the most remarkable classical music masterpieces were produced at Nohant.

.We also hope that our cooperation will result in the emergence of a European network of Chopin sites that will encourage Chopin fans worldwide to pause from their busy lives and appreciate the pure beauty created in Żelazowa Wola and perfected in Nohant.

Artur Szklener

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