Chopin at Nohant. Past, present and future
‘On 24 June 2023, Marie Lavandier, president of the Centre des monuments nationaux, and Artur Szklener, director of The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, signed a cooperation agreement between George Sand’s estate and Chopin’s family home in Żelazowa Wola’, writes Yves HENRY
.It is 1 June 1839. We are in Nohant, in the Berry region. The weather is sunny and mild as it usually is in this central region of France at the beginning of June. Fryderyk Chopin enters the park gates of George Sand’s family estate for the first time. Here ends his journey that began seven months earlier with a trip to Majorca, where Chopin and Sand’s time together severely tested the composer’s health. This day, however, is the beginning of a new chapter, and Chopin’s return to life seems imminent. On 2 June, the day after his arrival, he writes to his friend Albert Grzymała: ‘Here we are, after a week’s journey. We have arrived perfectly. The countryside is beautiful, with nightingales and larks. Only You, Bird, are missing (…)’. Meanwhile, George Sand, overjoyed to see that Fryderyk is regaining his strength, confides in Countess Marliani in a letter: ‘My dear friend, I implore you to come to me as I cannot come to you. Hasten old Grzymała, for his presence here is vital to the recovery of his patient, who, I must say, is making excellent progress in Nohant, where all factors are at last in his favour. He has a beautiful piano and enchants us from morning to night (…)’. Indeed, Sand had one of Chopin’s favourite Pleyels brought to Nohant from Paris and placed in the room he occupied on the mansion’s first floor, with its large windows overlooking the park.
Two months later, Chopin is already in the throes of creative fever and addresses a letter to his faithful secretary, Julian Fontana, saying: ‘I am writing a Sonata si B mineur, which will include my march, the one you know. There is an Allegro followed by a Scherzo mi b mineur, a march and a short finale, perhaps 3 of my pages. Once the march is finished, the left hand parleys in unisono with the right. I have a new Notturno in G major to go with the G minor, if you recall. You know I have 4 new Mazurkas: Palmejski in E minor, 3 composed in here, in B major, A flat major and C sharp minor. I believe they are pretty, as is typical for the youngest children when their parents age.’
Reading these sentences, we can sense that Chopin is overjoyed to have found a place where he can express his creative talents. Here, in this corner of France, he quickly finds his feet and composes many masterpieces right from his first stay. He completes the Sonata, Op. 35, the Impromptu, Op. 36, the Nocturne, Op. 37, the third Scherzo, Op. 39, the three Études, Op. posth. (for Moscheles’s Méthode des méthodes), and the Mazurkas, Op. 41. His subsequent six stays at Nohant until 1846 are equally fruitful. One could say without exaggeration that it is at Sand’s estate that Chopin composes the most important and certainly the best part of his oeuvre. George Sand personally ensures he has ideal conditions for composing, taking steps such as upholstering his door to minimise noise from the house.
Yet, composing is not the only factor determining the rhythm of Chopin’s existence during his long stays at Nohant. It is also structured by family life, whose regularity stays in stark contrast to his life in the capital. In Paris, Chopin filled his time with lessons, opera visits, and socialising, while in Nohant, he alternates between work and various activities: walking and exploring the surroundings, especially the nearby Creuse region; visiting friends, such as Dr Papet who has an estate in nearby Ars, and whom Chopin befriends, saying that ‘he was the only one who understood how to treat me’; participating in local celebrations and festivities, such as the wedding at the Château de Sarzay a few kilometres from Nohant, during which he hears melodies from the Berry region played on bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies, of which he notes down a few lines, doubtless remembering Polish folk music he knows from his teenage years; paying billiards with Hippolyte Chatiron, Sand’s half-brother; performing puppet shows from behind the dining room chairs, entertaining the children; and, above all, hosting close friends whom Sand invites, sending dozens of letters that explain how easy and quick it is to get to Nohant (which, in fact, was not at all!). The painter Eugène Delacroix visits Chopin at Nohant three times: in June 1842, July 1843 and August 1846. The famous Berceuse was probably inspired by the presence of Pauline Viardot, the singer’s daughter, at Sand’s estate in 1843. In the summer of 1844, Chopin’s sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz and her husband stay at Nohant. September already sees the composer missing her, as we learn from the words he pens to her: ‘My love. (…) There are more remnants of you still present in my room – your embroidery of the slipper is laid out on the table, carefully wrapped in English tissue paper, and the small pencil from your document pouch rests on the piano, serving me quite perfectly.’ In the summer of 1846, Chopin stays at Nohant for the last time. The following year, he breaks up with George Sand and never returns to her house.
George Sand dies at Nohant in 1876, in a room adjoining the one formerly occupied by Chopin. This room was divided into two after their separation so that no one else could occupy it. It was rumoured that Sand’s intention was to eradicate all recollection of Chopin from the residence. However, I believe it was quite the opposite: in a way, she sanctified this historically important place for the composer’s works created there.
.In the 20th century, Nohant was the home of George Sand’s two granddaughters. First to Gabrielle, and after her demise in 1909, to Aurore, who cultivated both her grandmother’s and Chopin’s memory, especially in 1949, the centenary of his death. Several concerts were then organised at the estate. After Aurore died in 1961, the house became the property of the State. Managed by the Centre des monuments nationaux, it is one of the 120 most important and best-maintained estates in the care of the French state. The authenticity of the site has been preserved, and the park has been awarded the ‘Jardin remarquable’ label.
In 1966, at the invitation of Jeunesses Musicales de France, Aldo Ciccolini – an Italian-born pianist and French citizen since many years, winner of the 1949 Marguerite Long competition – performed two recitals in the courtyard of the former sheepfold at the Sand’s estate in Nohant. One was dedicated to Chopin, the other to Liszt. As a storm hung in the air, it was decided to move the piano inside the sheepfold. It is easy to imagine the conditions: earthen floor and plain benches for the audience… But the magic worked, and these two unforgettable concerts gave rise to a festival called ‘Fêtes Romantiques de Nohant’, which has since hosted the likes of Byron Janis, Alexis Weissenberg, Claudio Arrau, Jorge Bolet, Arthur Rubinstein, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Yehudi Menuhin, Gidon Kremer, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, Arcadi Volodos, Evgeny Kisin, Nikita Magaloff, Yulianna Avdeeva, Rafal Blechacz and many others.
On the initiative of the Musique au Pays de George Sand association, the festival organisers, the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth in 2010 offered an opportunity to celebrate the composer in Nohant. Symbolic events were plentiful, for example: the Centre des monuments nationaux adapting a former sheepfold to the needs of the modern public and naming it the Frederic Chopin Auditorium; the erection of the composer’s bust – a gift from the Polish state; the unique ‘Bon anniversaire, Monsieur Chopin’, organised in conjunction with the Société de Chopin in Paris – over the course of one weekend, 60 pianists performed Chopin’s complete piano works at the Salle Pleyel in Paris and Le Tarmac in Berry. The concerts were recorded by French public television. The event culminated with the release of Les étés de Frédéric Chopin à Nohant, de 1839 à 1846, published by Éditions du Patrimoine and the Centre des monuments nationaux, which included a summary of the week’s remarkable achievements.
After the celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, it was decided to change the name of the festival to Nohant Festival Chopin, to further emphasise the link between the composer and Nohant.
Since then, the festival’s ‘Hors les murs’ programme, aimed at supporting young musicians, has comprised 35 concerts, 25 of which are held on Sand’s estate. The Nohant Festival Chopin also manages a collection of period pianos (mainly Pleyels and Erards) and organises the Chopin Night at the Château d’Ars.
Chopin’s place in Nohant is growing year by year, to the delight of many a music lover.
.On 24 June 2023, Marie Lavandier, president of the Centre des monuments nationaux, and Artur Szklener, director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, signed a cooperation agreement between George Sand’s estate and Chopin’s family home in Żelazowa Wola. It will not only support the growth of the Nohant Festival Chopin but also introduce fresh endeavours to raise awareness of the exceptional musical genius who thrived in the writer’s home in Nohant to give the world some of the most beautiful scores of Romantic music.
The digital reconstruction of Chopin’s room is one of the numerous new initiatives that are likely to attract huge public interest. Emerging technologies are proving highly effective in such endeavours, making possible what was once unthinkable. Visiting George Sand’s house using a 3D virtual reality helmet and seeing Chopin’s room as if he were there composing on his Pleyel would be a truly extraordinary experience…
Besides, Chopin’s work on new forms of musical notation, which would later influence generations of composers including Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and many others, makes it fitting to make a location near Nohant a European place of meetings around the piano of a Romanic era. The Château d’Ars, less than a kilometre from Nohant and once owned by Dr Papet, a friend of George Sand and Chopin, would be the ideal location for this project, given its location and size. Such a centre would allow visitors to become acquainted with historical instrumental practice and aesthetics while facilitating access to period pianos for young musicians.
These are just ideas for now, but they demonstrate the potential impact of projects like these in highlighting the significance of this special location in Chopin’s work – a place that still retains a living trace of his presence and continues to cultivate the Romantic spirit.