Chopin's visit to Britain, 1848

On February 16th 1848 Chopin gave a concert in Paris at the Salle Pleyel with his friend the cellist Franchomme, and the violinist Alard. It was a great success and there were plans for another in March. Then on February 23rd revolution broke out in the streets of Paris. The July monarchy of King Louis Philippe was overthrown, and the French Royal family fled to England.

Chopin's world was shattered. Most of his aristocratic pupils left the city, musical events ground to a halt, and he found himself without a livelihood. Never one to save, and with steadily declining health due to advanced tuberculosis, his situation was desperate.
Jane Stirling and her sister
Jane Stirling and her sister

To his rescue came a devoted pupil, Jane Stirling, and her elderly sister Mrs. Katherine Erskine, who proposed that Chopin should come to London, where they promised to find him both pupils and engagements.

Jane was the daughter of a wealthy Scottish landowner. She and her sister spent much of their time on the Continent, interesting themselves in the Protestant movement, and social issues such as prison reform, as well as participating keenly in artistic life. Jane was also very interested in homeopathy. It is probable that she became a pupil of Chopin in 1842. She must have been a rather good pianist, for in 1844 he dedicated two nocturnes to her.

Chopin took up the sisters' proposal, arriving in London on April 21st armed with letters of introduction, and lost no time in going to Richmond to visit the French Royal Family. In this he showed very good sense. He was a monarchist, but friends of his had worked hard for the 1848 revolution, and many Poles also supported it. As revolution spread across Europe - on the whole nationally motivated - Chopin's music with its strongly nationalistic character was bound to fall under suspicion in certain quarters. Some were quick to recall Schumann's description of it as "cannons hidden by flowers". The London Times wrote so viciously about the Poles that complaints were made in the House of Commons. Not surprisingly, The Times' music critic was a sworn enemy of Chopin, and never missed a chance to disparage him.

In July Poland joined other European countries in revolt, and in this may lie one of the reasons why Queen Victoria did not invite Chopin to play for her, as the British government were hostile to the Polish cause. Chopin, however, thought that the reason was that he had refused to play for the Philharmonic Society.

"I have been offered the Philharmonic, but don't want to play there because it would be with the orchestra... the orchestra is rather like their roast beef or their turtle soup; excellent, strong, but nothing more".

The sad truth was that he no longer had the strength to play a concerto with orchestra.

Jane and her sister had arranged an apartment for him at 10 Bentinck Street, but Chopin found the rooms too expensive. He asked the agent of Prince Adam Czartoryski and the Polish Government in Exile to find somewhere more suitable, and on his return from Richmond he moved into 48 Dover Street. There he had three pianos: a Pleyel he had brought with him; an Erard lent by its maker, and a Broadwood he had chosen in London.
Original Concert Programme, 1848
Original Concert Programme, 1848

Henry Broadwood was indeed to prove his most useful friend in London.

"Broadwood, who is a real London Pleyel, has been my best and truest friend. He is as you know a very rich and well educated man .... He has splendid connections".

Broadwood arranged two semi-public concerts for Chopin, to bring in much-needed revenue: at Mrs Sartoris's house, 99 Eaton Place on June 23rd, and at Lord Falmouth's house in St James's Square on July 7th. Chopin was not entirely polite about the noble Lord.

"Lord Falmouth, a fervent lover of music, rich, celibate and a great Lord, offered me his home in St James's Square for my concert. He had been very kind to me. You might give him a few pence if you passed him in the street and his house is full of servants who dress better than he does".

These two concerts netted Chopin £300. He gave other private concerts for £20 each. Among these was one for Lady Gainsborough; one for Lady Blessington at Gore House, Kensington, and one for the Marquess of Douglas. Undoubtedly the grandest of these private engagements was that for the Duchess of Sutherland at Stafford (now Lancaster ) House on May 15th, where Chopin played before the Queen and Prince Albert.

He wrote a detailed description of the evening to his family.

"All the royal castles and palaces are old: splendid, but neither so tasteful nor so elegant as Stafford House ... for instance, the staircases are famous for their magnificence. They are neither in the entrance nor in the vestibule, but in the middle of the rooms, as if in some huge hall with the most magnificent paintings. Statues, galleries, hangings and carpets: of the loveliest design, with the loveliest perspective. On these stairs one could see the Queen, under a brilliant light, surrounded by all sorts of bediamoned and beribboned people with the Garter, and all descending with the utmost elegance, carrying on conversations, lingering on various levels, where at every point there is some fresh thing to admire."

Coutt's Bank, in The Strand, where Chopin had an account
Coutt's Bank in The Strand, where Chopin had an account
Chopin now found himself moving in the grandest circles and with many pupils, although getting them to pay for their lessons could sometimes prove difficult.

"I am sorely in need of money. The people are crafty here. When they don't want to do something they save themselves by going to the country. One of my pupils left without paying me for nine lessons".

At the end of July the London season ended, and society did indeed take itself off to the country. Chopin, prostrated by the London fogs, once more found himself abandoned. He was again rescued by Jane Stirling, who arranged for her relatives in Scotland to invite him to stay.

Henry Broadwood accordingly booked four tickets for the train journey from Euston to Edinburgh: one for Chopin, one for his legs; also one for his new servant, Daniel, and one for Muir Wood, a pianist charged by Broadwood with the arrangement of Chopin's Scottish concerts.

After a journey lasting twelve hours they arrived in Edinburgh on August 5th at Lothian Road Station. Here they were met by a Pole, Dr Lyszcynski, who Jane had thoughtfully provided to give Chopin homeopathic treatment during his visit.

Chopin spent two nights at the Douglas Hotel in St Andrew Square, and then on the 7th was driven the fifteen miles to Calder House, home of Jane's brother-in-law, Lord Torphichen. There he spent a few happy weeks before having to return to Edinburgh, and, after two days of treatment from Dr Lyszcynski, taking the train on August 25th to Manchester for a concert on the 28th. The journey took eight hours and Chopin arrived exhausted at Crumpsall House, where he was the guest of Salis Schwabe, a wealthy businessman.

Chopin was horrified to find an audience of 1200 awaiting him in the Gentlemen's Concert Hall. He knew he was too weak to play to such a crowd, and the concert was not a success, though Chopin was very pleased with the £60 he received.

He returned to Edinburgh. After spending a night at the Lyszcynskis' at 40 Warriston Crescent, he went on September 2nd to Johnstone Castle, the home of the Houstons - Anne Houston being Jane's sister. Johnstone Castle was situated some eleven miles from Glasgow.

Unfortunately the weather had deteriorated, and in spite of the kind attentions of his hosts, Chopin became increasingly dejected.

"I am cross and depressed, and people bore me with their excessive attentions. I can't breathe, I can't work; I feel alone, alone, alone, although I am surrounded. There are a whole lot of ladies, 70 to 80 year-old lords, but no young folk: they are all out shooting. One can't get out of doors because it has been raining and blowing for several days."

Chopin was taken to visit Milliken House, home of Sir William and Lady Napier (yet another of Jane's sisters), and - when the weather cleared - to Strachur on Loch Fyne, the home of Lady Murray. Lady Murray had been his first London pupil.

On his return to Johnstone Castle on September 23rd, Chopin heard that his most gifted pupil, Princess Marcellina Czartoryska, and her husband, Prince Aleksander, had arrived in Edinburgh. Although he had a concert in Glasgow on the 27th, he rushed off to catch the train to Edinburgh, returning on the 25th. Extraordinary behaviour on the part of a dying man, but when he was not exhausted by his disease, it seemed to make him very restless.

Muir Wood had done a good job, despite some problems in persuading Chopin to produce a programme, and this concert was a triumph. The Glasgow Constitutional commented:"His closing performance in the programme as 'Prelude, Ballade, Mazourkas, Valses' seemed an overflowing stream of delicious melody varied beyond description." The recital also included an Impromptu, Etudes, Nocturnes, and the Berceuse.

Elated by this success, Chopin went to stay at Keir in Perthshire, the home of William Stirling, later Sir William Stirling Maxwell, who was currently engaged on writing an important book on the Spanish School of painting.

Chopin found himself in the centre of a large house party all preparing to go to the Caledonian Rout, an early precursor of the Edinburgh Festival. He wrote:

"If the weather is fine I will stay here for October, for I have more invitations than I can reply to and life in the stately homes of grand people here is truly curious. It is something unknown on the continent. If it is fine I will go to the Duchess of Argyll ... and to Lady Belhaven. She is here at the moment where there are 30 people, very beautiful, very spiritual, very original, very deaf, even an illustrious name (Sir Walpole) blind. Dresses, diamonds, pimples on noses, beautiful hair, marvellous outfits, the beauty of the devil himself, and the devil without the beauty. The last category is the least rare. Everyone is going today to Edinburgh for the Caledonian Rout. All week there will be races, amusements, balls, etc. All the nobility will be there. I look forward to some gossip."

Chopin was to give a concert in Edinburgh during the Caledonian Rout and this took place at the Hopetown Rooms on October 4th. It was a unique occasion as not only was he the only artist in the concert, but it would seem that he played for nearly two hours, an extraordinary feat for a dying man. One can say that this Edinburgh concert was his last real performance in public (the later Guildhall Concert being just a token appearance, and something of a debacle).

Judging by the favourable reviews, like the dying swan, he must have given of his best, and fortunately there was an audience of connoisseurs including many of his compatriots who were well able to appreciate what they were hearing.

From then on it was a downhill path. After the concert he returned to Calder House, where Katherine Erskine, a devout Protestant, tried to convert him. His health steadily worsening, he was being driven mad by poor Jane and her sister, Katherine. He complained: "My Scottish ladies won't leave me in peace and keep coming to fetch me and drive me round their family."

He fled to Wishaw House, the home of Lady Belhaven, and went on to stay with the Duchess of Hamilton at Hamilton Palace. He then went back to his close friends the Lyszcynskis in Warriston Crescent, Edinburgh, before returning to London on October 31st.
Hamilton Palace
Hamilton Palace

Chopin spent a few nights at Henry Broadwood's house in Golden Square, before moving to 4 St James's Place. There he remained until November 16th when he took part in what was officially billed as the "Annual Grand Dress and Fancy Ball and Concert in aid of the Funds of the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland". This was held at the Guildhall and organised by Lord Dudley Stuart and the Czartoryskis. The ball was preceded by a concert in the Council Chamber, where Chopin, amongst other artists, played. He was rapturously greeted by his compatriots, and though not much was to be heard above the general noise, Chopin - possibly, unaware that this was to be his last public performance - was very pleased to have taken part.

He left London for Paris on November 23rd, and died a year later, on October 17th 1849, aged 39. Until the end he was closely attended by the faithful Jane, who helped him financially during his last days, assisted his sister Louise after his death, and, together with her sister Katherine, helped pay for his funeral at the Madeleine. This was a magnificent occasion, at which the greatest singers of the day performed the Mozart Requiem.

Chopin had told Jane that she was the only one who knew his true date of birth. She wrote it down and placed it in a box which is buried with him in Père Lachaise cemetery.

© Copyright Rose Cholmondeley 1998 (with acknowledgements to Iwo and Pamela Zaluski).

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