Who knows what type of "letters" will scholars study in the future. For now, we have the letters of Fryderyk Chopin and his friends, hundreds of letters and notes, a dozen of editions. The image that emerges from these handwritten notes is not that of a sublime romantic genius, conversing with the greatest minds of his time about the most elevated subjects, dwelling in a spiritual realm. Not at all: in Chopin's letters we discover his humanity, we learn how vulnerable and weak he was, how angry at his illness, self-centered and inconsiderate of his friends, yet often greatly concerned about the well-being of his parents and sisters. The Chopin that we feel we know from his music does not seem to be the same Chopin that we discover in his letters.
There is a lot of suffering there, true, and a lot of humor. There are quick notes left when visiting someone who happened not to be at home (the equivalent of a phone call or texting). There are discussions about arrangements of the most mundane matters - ordering sets of evening gloves, tailored suits and shirts, or bill payments and earning from teaching.
All the collections of Chopin's letters start from a card he wrote for his father. It is his epistolary message no. 1 in the following collections and editions:
- Bronisław Edward Sydow, editor - Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina [Correspondence of F. Chopin], in 2 volumes. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1955.
- Bronisław Edward Sydow, editor - Correspondance de Frédéric Chopin. Paris: Richard-Masse, 1953-1960. In three volumes, reprinted in 1981.
- Arthur Hedley, editor and translator - Selected Correspondence of Fryderyk Chopin, abridged from Sydow. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.
- Krystyna Kobylańska, editor - Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina z rodziną. [F. Chopin’s Correspondence with his family]. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1972.
- Zofia Helman, Zbigniew Skowron, and Hanna Wróblewska-Straus, editors. Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina [Fryderyk Chopin's Correspondence] , volume 1: 1816-1831. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Universytetu Warszawskiego, 2009.
- Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina [The Fryderyk Chopin Institute]. Chopin’s Letters. Warszawa: Internet Chopin Information Centre, 2010. http://en.chopin.nifc.pl/chopin/letters/search/
What did the boy say to his dad? The equivalent of "Happy birthday" and "I love you, Dad" - but in a more formal fashion, surprising for a six-year old. The lovely card was written for Nicholas Chopin's "Name-day" - a far more important celebration in Poland than that of a birthday. The Chopin family paid homage to their patriarch on the feast day of St. Nicholas, December 6 (1816):
Gdy świat Imienin uroczystość głosi Twoich, mój Papo, wszak i mnie przynosi Radość, z powodem uczuciów złożenia, Byś żył szczęśliwie, nie znał przykrych ciosów, Być zawsze sprzyjał Bóg pomyślnych losów, Te Ci z pragnieniem ogłaszam życzenia. F. Chopin. Dnia 6 grudnia 1816
Whereas the world proclaims the celebration of your Name-day, my dear Papa, thus it is also a great joy of mine, occasioned by the expression of heartfelt feelings, to wish you a happy life, that does not know sorrow, nor adversity, that is always blessed by God with good fortune, so these are, longingly expressed, my wishes. F. Chopin. On the 6th day of December, 1816.
If written by a child, and not dictated by his mother, older sister, or caretaker, these wishes surprise with the maturity of vocabulary and complication of syntax. What was Chopin's last letter, then? And how many letters did he write? This remains an issue of contention.
Scholars Zofia Helman, Zbigniew Skowron, and Hanna Wróblewska-Straus have been working for more than two decades on a fully annotated critical edition of all currently known Chopin's letters. The national edition, handsomly issued by the University of Warsaw (available in Polish only) features not only detailed context of each letter, revised and defined placement in chronology, but also extensive notes about every single person mentioned in the letters or in any way associated with them. The hosts of summer vacations, the musicians and friends of musicians, the students and their families - all find their life-stories briefly noted. They were blessed and immortalized by their encounters with a genius whom the world does not want to forget. The one issue that makes it difficult to use along with older edition is letter numbering. The universally accepted numbering by Sydow has been changed, as new letters were inserted in the proper slots and those that were assigned to wrong dates or years, were moved to the appropriate point on the chronology.
The first volume, covering the years up to Chopin's departure from Poland and ending with the famous, tortured pages from his so-called Stuttgart Diary, written after Chopin heard about the end of the November Uprising (started in November 1830), with the fall of Warsaw to Russian troops on September 7, 1831. As the editors ascertained, the Stuttgart press published the first reports about these tragic events on September 16. The famous, dramatic and despairing monologue of an embittered exile was written partly before and partly after that date. Following von Sydow, it is customarily attributed to September 8, a day after the fall of Warsaw, but Helman and her team were able to argue for a more accurate date. After the outburst of despair, on September 18, 1831, Chopin left Stuttgart to continue his way on to Paris where he spent the rest of his life.
The long and dramatic text, permeated with interruptions and exclamations, written in a stream-of-consciousness narrative expresses the composer's distress at a turning point of his life. The format and accusatory tone recall the - written much-later - monologue from Adam Mickiewicz's romantic play, The Forefather's Eve Part III. Chopin really sounds like Konrad in his Grand Improvisation: "Oh God, You are there! You are there and take no revenge! Have You not had Your fill of Muscovite crimes – or – or else You are Yourself a Muscovite! And I sit here idle, and I set here with my hands bare, sometimes just groaning, grieving at the piano, in despair..."
The "national edition" of the last letters is not ready yet, though the second volume went to print. Therefore, for Chopin's final word in epistolography, I turned to the online edition of full text of his letters in Polish and the original languages found on the Fryderyk Chopin Information Centre website, managed by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Poland. Alas, the list compiled by NIFC includes mistakes in dates in the summaries of letters - so much so that it appears that he was still writing letters to Auguste Franchomme while dying (listed on October 17, the actual date was September 17) and to Tytus Wojciechowski, that Chopin appears to have written three days after breathing his last (listed on October 20, but actually written on August 20).
The last words, scribbled on a piece of paper, were not a letter but a somber instruction to his attendants, family and friends: "When all this coughing will finally suffocate me, I beg you, please order my body to be opened, so that I will not be buried alive." (Comme cette toux m'étouffera je vous conjure de faire ouvrir mon corps pour je suis pas enterré vif). These are customarily dated "somewhat before October 17, 1849" - not by Chopin.
One of the final dates Chopin wrote in his own hand was that of August 1849, when he sent a note to Auguste Franchomme in Paris, asking for some good wine to be delievered at Chailot where the composer was spending his summer:
"My Dear. Send me some of your Bordeaux. I must drink wine today and I do not have any at home. But pack the bottle well and do not forget to mark it with your seal; oh, these messengers! I do not know to whom you will entrust this package. How suspicious have I become! Yours truly, C. (Mon Cher, Envoie-moi un peu de ton Bordeaux. Il faut que je boive aujourd'hui un peu de vin et je n'en ai d'aucune sorte. Mais enveloppe bien la bouteille et n'oublie pas d'y mettre ton cachet, car les porteurs!! Je ne sais à qui tu confieras cet envoi. Comme je suis devenu soupçonneux! Tout à toi C.
From filial devotion, to patriotic duty, to mundane concerns: Chopin's letters reveal a complicated, conflicted man whose idyllic childhood was followed by adult age tormented by loneliness and disease, yet transfigured in the most inspired music. Two studies of letters of his friend Julian Fontana and his lover George Sand reveal Chopin's character and habits to a greater extent and merit further exploration.
As if Chopin's own letters were not enough, poets wrote new letters in his name. The anthology Chopin with Cherries includes three imaginary letters to and from Chopin by Tammy L. Tillotson. She tries to capture Chopin’s heartbreak in the 1830s, marked by a packet of letters, that he had tied with a ribbon and inscribed “moja bieda” (“my misery”).
Similarly, through two epistolary poems, Martin Willitts Jr. recreates the growing discord between Chopin and Sand after their romance fell apart and the sick pianist was close to death in 1847. Willitts was nominated for four Pushcart Awards. His recent poems appeared in Blue Fifth, Parting Gifts, Bent Pin, New Verse news, Storm at Galesburg and other stories (anthology), The Centrifugal Eye, Quiddity, Autumn Sky Poetry, Protest Poems, and others. His tenth chapbook was The Garden of French Horns (Pudding House Publications, 2008) and his second full length book of poetry is The Hummingbird (March Street Press, 2009). He also has won many national storytelling contests and was invited to Denmark to tell many of the Hans Christian Andersen stories.
"Discord" consists of two letters, one from Chopin to George Sand and one from her to her "beloved little corpse" that she lovingly nicknamed her former lover and patient. Through these invented letters, Willitts tells the story of a romance with a bitter end.
by Martin Willitts, Jr.
1. Chopin to George Sand, 1847
The delicate touch you felt on your neck
is the same as on a piano, with the same lyrical rush,
the music of leaves in the resolute winds.
It is the same idiomatic language of geese leaving.
My heart has the same feeling, restless, yearning.
When I play a rondo, no one can hear the silence after.
I leave these early movements behind
like I must leave you.
Some things are finished when they are finished.
I thought of returning to you.
I hesitated at your window.
I knew if you saw me with that melodic look you have,
it would enrapture me.
Our bodies would become counterpoints.
But it would be fragmentary motifs. Textural nuances
of what used to be.
Our love was illicit, some say.
I say, it was melodic, rhythmic, and full of music.
Our love was repetitions of a single note.
You criticized me for my primitive sense of form
when we would lie in bed, soaked in harmonic intonations.
You were right about me as well as everything else.
I cannot help being in the soundscape of textures,
in the lightness of sound, in the last moment leaving you.
For life is opening one door and descending unknown stairs.
Would the real Chopin ever write anything like it? We do not know. That is what poetic license is for. Another poet, Roxanne Hoffman, writes in Chopin's persona to Sand. Hoffman is an experienced and widely published poet. Her poems and stories appears on and off the net, most recently in Amaze: The Cinquain Journal, Danse Macabre, The Fib Review, Lucid Rhythms, MOBIUS The Poetry Magazine, Word Slaw and two anthologies: The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology By Gang Members And Their Affiliates (Soft Skull Press), and Love After 70 (Wising Up Press). She and her husband own the small press, POETS WEAR PRADA, www.reverbnation.com/pradapoet
Taking the cue from the composer’s notebooks, Hoffman entitles her letter-poem, “G” for George and signs it “F” for Frédéric.
by Roxanne Hoffman
I tell my piano
the things I used to tell you,
pull back its fallboard
after propping up the lid,
stroke its sturdy trusses,
hear the strings vibrate in sympathy,
undampered escapement permits,
as my fingers depress and release its keys
to unlock unsaid thoughts,
the music I dream.
The solid back frame
understands the balanced tension
the give and the take
of the player and the played,
the rhythm of two heartbeats, even at rest,
the somber melody
We of equal temperament
speak at length,
practice our arpeggios and scales,
regulate our voices,
and play Mozart in your absence.
Poet's Note: Lines 1 and 2 are a quotation attributed to Chopin. Toward the end of his life he had a falling out with his long time love George Sand, they separated, and she was absent from his funeral. A final request of Chopin’s was to have Mozart’s Requiem sung in his memory. After his death, among his possessions, a lock of her hair was found in a small envelope embroidered with their initials “G.F” tucked in the back of his diary.
A different Chopin emerges as the lyrical subject and protagonist in a poem by Elizabyth Hiscox, ostensibly narrated by "3784 Chopin" a small asteroid up in the sky:
Fryderyk Speaks to George of the Sky
by Elizabyth A. Hiscox
“3784 Chopin” – small asteroid in main belt
They’ve placed me in the vault:
near Jupiter and Mars;
fastened me to the side of old gods.
Power and War, my love,
a chaos created by moveable giants;
an uprising of stone circling itself
all orbital resonance and constant revolution.
Crowded together like notes
written in failing health.
I miss the way the earth broke
over itself each morning:
tender eyedawn of aurorean love.
Broke all of us.
Space, its extended nocturne
is a grand room, my love.
But, as with the past, there is no sound
– only music.
Poet's Note: Italicized line is from John Keat’s “Ode to Psyche.”
George Sand was the pseudonym for Chopin’s one-time lover, Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin.
Hiscox's venture into the night skies is an imaginative way of personalizing astronomy with a musical romance. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals – most recently The Fiddlehead and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She is the author of the chapbook Inventory from a One-Hour Room (2009) from Finishing Line Press. Former poet-in-residence at Durham University U.K., she currently serves as Program Coordinator for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.
She "met" with Willitts and Hoffman in Chopin with Cherries, a book that provided a meeting space for poets and music lovers. Three of the epistolary poems cited here explored the fascinating love affair of Chopin and Sand, and this will be the subject of our next exploration on this forum.
Photo of the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, with the pillar containing Chopin's heart on the left. (c) copyright February 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk.
Photo of Zelazowa Wola, Chopin's birthplace by Wojsyl (Own work) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Chopin's piano at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, Poland. (c) copyright February 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk.
Rare Autograph Musical Quotation Signed of Frederic Chopin Op.53 Polonaise. Provenace: Private Collection. May 25, 1845. Frederic Chopin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
First known photograph of Chopin (1847) published in John O'Shea, Music and Medicine: Medical Profiles of Great Composers (London, Dent, 1990). O'Shea's source is the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw. The original is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.
George Sand. Paper art decoration at the Chopin's Birthday Concert in Warsaw, Poland, Grand Theater of Opera and Ballet, March 1, 2010, (c) copyright by Maja Trochimczyk (photograph only).