Prof. Benjamin VOGEL: What pianos did Fryderyk Chopin use?

What pianos did Fryderyk Chopin use?

Photo of Prof. Benjamin VOGEL

Prof. Benjamin VOGEL

Professor emeritus of musicology; has taught at the University of Warsaw, University of Lund (Sweden) and the Chair of Artistic Education, University of Szczecin. Organologist and long-time contributor to Fryderyk Chopin Institute.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

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The last piano owned by Chopin, the one that was in his apartment at the time of the composer’s death, is also the most valuable. Today, it is the centrepiece of the collection held at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Ostrogski Palace – writes prof. Benjamin VOGEL

Chopin’s piano… but what was it exactly?

.It would be extremely difficult to give a short answer to that question. The piano is a very recent invention, dating back some 320 years. Benefiting from the technological and technical advances of the last centuries, its structure and sound evolved rather quickly until the second half of the 19th century, when it acquired the form and tone that we know today. By comparison, the mechanism of the harpsichord, one of the piano’s ancestors, included quills of bird feathers and animal skin (used to make plectrums that plucked the strings) pig bristle and whalebone (serving as springs). “Invented” by Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence around 1700, the piano was initially a harpsichord, where the plucking mechanism was replaced by hammers that hit the strings to make them vibrate. Hence, for several decades, the instrument was referred to as “a hammer harpsichord offering the possibility of playing soft and loud” or piano and forte in musical jargon. It was only later that it was recognised as a separate instrument and given a name that reflected this new dynamic potential: piano-forte or forte-piano. This explains the origin of the Polish fortepian, and the English pianoforte shortened today to just piano.

Instrument for „loud and soft playing”

.In Chopin’s time, the instrument was still rudimentary and rather anaemic compared to its modern version. Light and sleek, the so-called grand pianos with a horizontal case in the form of a bird’s wing did not go beyond 240 cm in length, while today’s pianos can be over 300 cm long. The total tension of the inside strings made of cast iron and low-carbon steel (“iron”) amounted to several tonnes and produced sound that might have been loud enough to be heard in bourgeois parlours and even larger palace rooms, but does not carry well in present-day concert halls. In modern pianos, the total tension of all the strings ranges from a dozen to over twenty tonnes! With the introduction of stronger, thicker and more numerous strings made of high-carbon steel, the instrument had to be reinforced by metal supports, and then later with cast iron frames, to counter the force of the strings bearing upon the case. More tense and thicker strings also required larger hammers and improvements to the entire hammer mechanism.

There is no need to continue with the list of differences to understand the gap between the instruments used by Chopin and those played today. The recent trend has been to revert to historical performances of Chopin’s music and rediscover the sound and interpretative potential of the pianos from the first half of the 19th century by using historical instruments or their copies (which is not to denigrate the value of performing on modern pianos). Before Chopin left Poland, he mainly played Vienna instruments, including those built by local piano makers such as those based in Warsaw (Fryderyk Buchholtz or Antoni Leszczyński). He also had a brief experience of playing French instruments (made by Pleyel) and English ones (the Broadwood piano brought by Maria Szymanowska in 1826). During his emigration days in Paris, his instrument of choice was the Pleyel, whose relatively simple hammer mechanism reminded him (in terms of playing technique) of the pianos he had known and used before. He also played pianos made by Erard, the “European Steinway” of the time, which incorporated more advanced technical solutions (including the hammer mechanism).

Cyprian Kamil Norwid and Chopin’s Piano

.The original instrument that Chopin used up to 1830 has not survived. All we have are enigmatic accounts of the instrument, such as that of Michalina Glogerowa from 1825, who describes a modest “drawing” room in Chopins’ apartment on university premises: “As for the other items, I only remember a very long piano on which the 15-year-old Fryderyk rarely played; when I think about it today, this might have been because his parents were not affluent enough to buy a very expensive instrument that would have been more suited to the genius of the young maestro.” It is likely that Chopin had another, more basic piano (most probably of a rectangular, table type), on which he practised daily according to his colleagues from the boarding house run by his father. When the Chopins moved to a larger flat at Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in 1828 (following Mr Chopin’s promotion), Fryderyk wrote to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski: “There is a room upstairs that has already been planned to suit my needs, with stairs leading up to it from the dressing room. I am to have my old piano and old desk; it is supposed to be my place of refuge.” “Downstairs” there was the grand piano made by Fryderyk Buchholtz, the one that was immortalised in the 1832 watercolour by Antoni Kolberg entitled Chopin Parlour in Krasiński Palace. It was that instrument that was destroyed by Russian soldiers in revenge for the attempt on the life of Viceroy Berg, a scene that lives on in Cyprian Kamil Norwid’s famous poem Chopin’s Piano. Norwid (who lived as an emigrant in Paris at the time) did not witness that national tragedy, so we owe the description to his imagination that soared to the skies in poetic rapture.

Fryderyk Chopin as the national treasure, cult and fetish

.Chopin and his music are Poland’s national treasures, appreciated all over the world. Various mementos of his life, whether genuine or not, have often been treated as objects of a national cult and a kind of fetish. One such fetish is Chopin’s childhood home in Żelazowa Wola – a remnant of the outbuildings of the former Skarbek family’s manor – which has been rebuilt many times, serving as a residential building, a warehouse and even a cowshed. The same is true of the many pianos that have been, or are believed to have been, touched by the composer’s blessed hand. For instance, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Poznań has a special room dedicated to the great artist. It contains not only a bust of Chopin, but also his death mask, a cast of his hand and… a piano on which he is said to have played in Duke Antoni Radziwiłł’s hunting lodge in Antonin during his stays there in 1827 and 1829.

When Maria Mirska, a well-known pianist and researcher of Chopin’s and Szymanowska’s biographies, described her stay in Antonin in 1935, she recounted with much joy how the instrument was discovered when Duke Antoni’s great-grandson and heir, Duke Michał Radziwiłł, the then owner of the palace, responded to her enquiries by “ordering that this „Chopin” piano, which had apparently been standing there for several decades, be removed from the storage room on the third floor”. According to an entry in the inventory records of the Museum of Musical Instruments, the piano was found in Antonin after the war in August 1945 by the 5th Tomasz Zan Scout Group from Ostrów Wielkopolski and taken over by the museum on 17 January 1949. Yet, even a cursory examination of the precious artefact reveals that it was assembled of parts from several different pianos built before Chopin’s birth. As such, it was too “imperfect” to be used by Chopin during his stays in Antonin (1827 and 1829). It must have also been long unsuitable as a playing instrument for Duke Antoni Radziwiłł, an accomplished cellist, guitarist, singer and even composer (his works include music to J. W. Goethe’s Faust) and his daughters, who were also proficient piano players. Nevertheless, museum visitors treat the instrument as an original memento of the great artist. What is more, visitors to the palace in Antonin have the same opinion of the piano built in Warsaw around 1844, which is signed by Fryderyk Buchholtz (who died in 1837) but was in fact made by his son Julian. That instrument was acquired for the Antonin collection only a few decades ago.

Competing for „Chopin’s genuine piano „

.The surviving instruments used by Chopin during his time in Paris are also subject to various forms of manipulation. Anyone who visits the former Carthusian monastery of Valldemossa in Majorca, where Chopin spent the winter of 1838/39 with his friend, the writer George Sand, and her children, will find two competing museums. They are run by two local families, each of which now owns half the monastery. Until recently, each museum sold tickets for separate cells (No. 4 and No. 2) consisting of several rooms, where Chopin and Sand are said to have stayed. One of the cells also featured a locally produced piano that Chopin presumably used as he waited for the delivery of his Pleyel instrument (recently put on display in the other cell). The rivalry led to a high-profile court case, the outcome of which was announced in early 2011. Based on an investigation carried out by experts (which included analysing a drawing by Sand’s son showing the view from the cell window), it was established that No. 4 was the genuine cell. What’s more, a specialist organologist proved that the piano exhibited in the rival cell was built after Chopin’s death. Fortunately, this did not sound the death knell for the museum with cell No. 2, as it houses the largest collection of Chopin and Sand memorabilia in the world.

Poland is no exception to such controversy. Some years ago, music lovers were intrigued by the history of two Pleyel pianos made within months of each other in 1847, now in the collection of the Jagiellonian University Museum. Both are linked to Fryderyk Chopin. He played one of them during his stay in Scotland in 1848, and personally selected and tested the other for Princess Katarzyna Potocka, née Branicka, in a Pleyel warehouse. Mass-produced instruments, like cars, are marked with serial numbers, including on individual components. It was discovered a few years ago that, in the case of these two pianos, the serial numbers on the components do not quite match the main number visible inside the case after lifting the lid. However, the numbers found inside one piano matched the main number of the other and the vice versa. The original theory was that the components were accidentally mixed up during maintenance. But there was a more worrying suspicion that an attempt had been made to forge Chopin’s original instrument (the more valuable one which he played in Scotland), by assembling it from the parts of the other piano. It was only on closer inspection that it became clear that someone had deliberately swapped the main numbers so that they no longer matched the internal markings. The Pleyel serial numbers are printed in black ink on wood. The forger removed them with sand paper and then stamped new ones (switching them between the instruments) with metal punches. The suspicion was raised by comparing the numbers with the original ones on other Pleyel pianos. The typeface of the forged number three (3) did not match the threes used in France (Ʒ), which had a flat top. We do not know to this day who forged the serial numbers and why. Did it happen during the war to prevent the piano being seized by the Nazis? Or perhaps later, to take the instrument out of post-war Krakow? All this probably took place in the 1940s and 1950s.

The last and most valuable of Chopin’s pianos

.There are more than a dozen instruments in the world that are directly or indirectly related to Chopin, including some that the composer chose for friends and pupils after trying them out in the showroom of the Pleyel factory, as evidenced by his signature in the account books (yes, he was rewarded with a commission!) and sometimes on the instruments themselves. Several of such pianos have survived in Poland. One has already been mentioned above, but the most valuable instrument is Chopin’s last piano, the one that was in the his apartment at the time of the composer’s death. It was bought by the Scottish aristocrat Jane Stirling, a pupil and admirer of the composer, and then sent to Poland to Ludwika Jędrzejewiczowa, Fryderyk’s sister, in 1850. This explains the handwritten inscription pour Luise made in ink on the inside of the piano’s case. Ludwika’s heirs sold the instrument to the National Museum in Warsaw in 1924. After the war, the museum donated the instrument to the Fryderyk Chopin Society, and since then it has been the most valuable exhibit in the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in the Ostrogski Palace.

Benjamin Vogel

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