Chopin's Last Concert

Was Chopin's final public appearance quite the 'sad conclusion to a noble artistic career' (Niecks, 1888) that we have always been led to believe? Only last month James Rhodes described the event in The Times as 'a rather miserable affair'; yet setting it in context for tonight's anniversary celebration suggests that in some details at least these impressions need to be modified.

Between 1834 and 1852 the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland, under the chairmanship of Lord Dudley Stuart, staged 17 major fundraising events in aid of Polish refugees in London. Several hundred Poles had fled here in the wake of the 1830/31 uprising and Lord Dudley, a Liberal MP and younger son of the first Marquess of Bute, had identified himself with their plight after meeting and becoming a close friend of Prince Adam Czartoryski. The Association's events took the form of a concert and ball, usually in the autumn, that for 1848 being the fourteenth. Like most of the others, it was held in London's Guildhall and timed to follow within a few days the annual Lord Mayor's Banquet attended by Queen Victoria.

The lavish decorations mounted for the latter occasion habitually remained in place, with the Great Hall quickly transformed from state banqueting hall into 'a magnificent salon de danse'. Organised jointly by the Association and the Court of Common Council, there is no doubt that these were highly prestigious affairs, the most visually dazzling of any public balls given in London ('... the coup d'oeil from the gallery was one of almost unapproachable splendour', commented The Times in 1847) and attracting between 1,400 and 3,000 of the great and the good.

A list of nearly 70 titled Lady Patronesses published in the press in 1845 is headed by the Duchess of Kent and includes among other well-known society figures the Duchess of Sutherland, Viscountess Palmerston, the Baroness L de Rothschild and Lady Shelley. A probable reason for the consistent failure of the Queen and Prince Albert to attend in person was the element of controversy first stirred in the columns of The Times by a succession of anonymous writers signing themselves 'John Bull', 'Britannicus', 'Saxon Junior' etc, all protesting vociferously at the raising of funds for non-native purposes.

But it is important to realize that the concert, not the ball, was generally recognised as the highlight of the evening and that its commencement at 9.30 or 10pm effectively started the night's proceedings. Indeed for many it was the only proceeding: at 2-3 hours' length this was hardly a side-show. The concert took place in the Common Council Chamber, a fine 1777 interior by George Dance (demolished 1908) which seated several hundred people in addition to providing a large stage (the 1834 concert featured a 40-strong orchestra) and was invariably packed. (The Standard's reviewer in 1848 could not get beyond the door!)

Although no actual programmes have yet been traced, that for the 1848 concert was fully quoted in The Times and shows a standard Vocal Concert format of the time, with eight singers in repertoire ranging from bel canto arias and ensembles to English ballads and glees. Adelaide Kemble, Clara Novello and Sims Reeves were among the world-class singers who appeared in the series, while occasional instrumental variety was provided by performers such as the double-bass virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti, the violinist Nicholas Mori and the cellist Jules Lefort. Prominent among the 'conductors' – after 1834 they were probably what we would describe as accompanists and organisers rather than baton-wavers – was Sir Julius Benedict.

One of the several innovations welcomed in 1848 was the banning of all refreshments to adjacent rooms (not of course including the Common Council Chamber) to allow maximum space in the Great Hall for dancing and promenading. Although some dancing took place from about 9pm, the Ball proper began only after the concert (and then continued until 3 or 4am). It is therefore unlikely that those people who, as an unnamed witness from 1848 told Francis Hueffer, 'hot from dancing, went into the room where [Chopin] played, were but little in the humour to pay attention, and anxious to return to their amusement' were in anything but a minority. Among the leading dance bands engaged were those of Weippert, Jullien and (in 1848 and at least five other years) Thomas Adams. Again no ball programmes are known, but the most popular dances will have been quadrilles, waltzes and (after 1844) polkas. A handful of specially composed dances can be identified.

So what of the 1848 concert? First of all, to correct some of the mis-statements: Chopin did not play 'a sorry little upright piano' but the Broadwood Grand (No 17047) which [was returned here for the Chopin Society's 2010 Gala]. It is quite untrue to say that his name was omitted from all the newspaper accounts. Though absent from The Times's brief coverage, he is described as 'the great attraction of the concert' in at least five other papers ('next to the singing of Mr. Sims Reeves', according to The Era!) The title 'Annual Grand Dress and Fancy Ball and Concert' was in no way 'whimsical' – simply factual. A Dress Ball denoted full or court dress, a code which was varied by the Association for the first time in 1845, when its ball followed so closely on the heels of one of Queens Victoria's famous bals costumés that the opportunity to redisplay costumes, specially rehearsed dances and Jullien's 'period' music proved irresistible. Thereafter 'Fancy Dress', although rarely favoured by guests, remained an acceptable option.

Chopin shared the bill with some fifteen English singers, of whom the tenor Sims Reeves and the contralto Charlotte Dolby (later Sainton-Dolby) were undoubted star quality and the sisters, Anne and Martha Williams very popular duettists. Two years previously all three of these ladies had sung under Mendelssohn's baton in the first performance of Elijah, the contralto part of which had been composed specially for Dolby. Reeves was the current sensation at Covent Garden, singing Donizetti and Bellini (which he had studied in Italy) as stylishly as he did English opera and Mozart. He was also well known in oratorio and in the ballad repertoire – and indeed in lieder, with Beethoven's Adelaide a particular favourite.

With Benedict in charge of the concert (and Chopin's pupil Lindsay Sloper as assistant) there can be no question that the context for Chopin's appearance was one of the highest standard, and similarly no possible doubt of the programme's popular appeal to what we are told was a capacity audience. By placing the piano group 'between the [two] Parts', Benedict not only gave Chopin the prime spot for instrumental performance but provided the best conditions for the now frail composer to draw the audience away from the operatic scale to some of the singing into his own subtle sound world. It is of course quite likely that some listeners were unwilling or unready to follow him there, thus explaining Princess Marcellina Czartoryska's comment on Londoners' deficient artistic education and The Examiner's statement that true appreciation was limited to 'a judicious few'. However, the reviews refer to the 'celebrated pianist' being a considerable draw in himself and to his receiving 'much applause'.

Chopin himself considered that he had played well – the Princess said that he 'played like an angel' – and described the evening as 'most brilliant' (though of course he left early and collapsed on reaching home). It is also worth mentioning that the newspapers were happy to count themselves among the 'judicious few'. Most of them joined in praising 'his beautiful compositions', 'that pure and vigorous style which has already earned him admiration in musical circles' and 'all his graceful skill and exquisite refinement'.


About Oliver Davies

Oliver Davies - photo Oliver Davies studied at the Royal College of Music, where for many years he was both a piano professor and Keeper of the Department of Portraits and Performance History (which he founded).

His playing career has covered many styles, from recordings, recitals and broadcasts on early pianos to modern British premières at the Wigmore and Queen Elizabeth Halls. He is particularly known as a chamber music player and for his programmes on special themes, including scholarly reconstructions of historical concerts (fore Aldeburgh and the BBC), surveys of the musical histories of great British houses, and re-assessments of historically significant composers and performers.

Recent programmes have included Darwin and Music (for the Horniman Museum), Queen Victoria and Price Albert as performing Musicians (the Queen’s Gallery/National Gallery), Mahler and the Viennese Lied (the Austrian Cultural Forum), anniversary celebrations of Sarasate, Dussek and Cherubini (The Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands Park) and the 300th anniversary of a house in Kent.

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