The Solitude of Chopin
Portrait of Frederic Chopin by Ary Scheffer (1847)
The solitudes of nature and of man ; or, The loneliness of human life
"The Life of Chopin, by his friend Liszt, is a work of rare interest, as an example of a noble friendship, as an acute and powerful psychological portraiture of an etraordinary genius, and as a revelation of that wonderful world of emotion in which the souls of great musicians live. The intense fineness and ardor of Chopin's imagination, the violence of his feelings, his sickly and irritable constitution, his exiled lot, his secretive pride, his subtle originality of mind and sentiment, the lofty ear nestness of his aims, and his fastidious purity, made his experience one of bitter contrasts, unhappy and lonely.
Sheathed in manners of kind and tranquil courtesy, which covered his convulsive soul as slopes of verdure and vine cover a volcano, he moved among men separate from them, reading the secrets of all, never baring his own. He veiled his sufferings under the impenetrable calm ness of a proud resignation that scorned either to utter complaints or to make demands. He strictly excluded from conversation all subjects relating to himself, care fully keeping others in the circle of their own interests lest they should intrude into his. He was apparently so free from self-occupation that people thought him absorbingly interested in them. Accordingly, he gave much pleasure but awakened little curiosity.
“His personality remained intact, unapproachable under the polished sur face on which it was impossible to gain footing."
Excluded by his infirm health from the ordinary arena, where “a few bees with many wasps expend their strength in useless buzzing, he built a secluded cell for himself, apart from all noisy and frequented ways." He never suffered the world to suspect the secret convulsions that agitated him, never unveiled the shudder caused by the contact of more positive and reckless individualities with his own.
His caustic perception caught the ridiculous both on the surface and in the depth, and he could easily hide within or repel without whatever he wished to hide or repel, by gay mystification or satirical raillery. No ennui annoyed him, because he expected no interest. Yet this unsuspected absence of his soul from the outward scene, this dense concealment of his real life, arose not from any shallow apathy or poverty of being, but in truth from the haughty royalty of his wants, the inconceivable susceptibility of his soul to hurts.
"He constantly reminded us ,"Liszt says,"of a convolvulus balancing its heaven-colored cup on an incredibly slight stem, the tissue of which is so like vapor that the slightest contact wounds and tears the misty corolla.”
Conscious of the uselessness of his vivid indignation and vexation, and too jealous of the mysteries of his emotions to betray them, he sought strength in isolation and self-control, and, “by dint of constant effort, subjected his sensibilities, in spite of their tormenting acuteness, to the rule of what ought to be, rather than of what is.”
Shrinking from the world and the crowd, with the mystic richness of his fancy, and a bleeding sensitiveness of forlorn feeling, he had one charmed resource, - music.
“In his compositions he collected, like tears in a lachrymatory, the memories of his youth, the passions and dreams of his country, the affections of his heart, the mysteries of his desires, the secrets of his sorrows.”
What the pious never say except on their knees, in communion with God, he said in his palpitating compositions, uttering in the language of tones those mysteries of emotion which man is permitted to understand without words, because no words can utter them. He was a tone -poet. He seemed to live upon music, the moody food of imagination. All the elegiac tenderness, passionate coquetry, martial heroism, and profound melancholy of the Polish nationality, echoed from his soul, breathe in his strains.
He knew that he could not warm and move “the multitude, which is like a sea of lead.” The public intimidated and paralyzed him. But his magic performance electrified the select audiences to whom he revealed the secrets his delicate genius had caught from
“those reserved yet impassioned hearts which resemble that plant so full of burning life that its flowers are always sur rounded by a subtle and inflammable gas.”
Liszt compares the ineffably poetic fascination of Chopin's playing to the perfume of the Ethiopian calla, which refuses to diffuse its aroma in the breath of crowds, whose heavy air can retain only the strong odor of the tuberose, the in cense of burning resin.
His friendly biographer thinks his abnegation of popular applause veiled an internal wound. He was perfectly aware of his own superiority ; it did not receive sufficient reverberation to assure him that he was appreciated. A gnawing discontent, scarcely understood by himself, secretly undermined him. “The praise to which he was justly entitled not reaching him in mass, isolated commendations wounded him. This was evident from the polished phrases with which he shook such commendations off, like troublesome dust,” making it clear that he preferred to be left undisturbed in the enjoyment of his solitary feelings.
“The joys, the consolations which the creations of true art awaken in the weary, suffering, believing hearts to whom they are dedicated, are destined to be borne into far countries and distant years by the sacred works of Chopin. He could not labor to attract auditors and to please them at whatever sacrifice."
He aimed to leave a celestial and eternal echo of the emotions of his soul.
“What are the fading bouquets of an hour to those whose brows claim the laurel of immortality ?"
If he could not have from men all he deserved and wanted, he would have nothing from them, - nothing except love and kindness from his chosen friends. He would build his hopes in God, wreak his soul in art, and leave his fame to time.
Repeatedly, Chopin seemed for months to be in a dying state, when he wouid rally, as by some surprising volition. In such ethereal natures imagination is almost omnipotent, and through its fixed ideas, its magnetic centres of association, works miracles. Twelve years before his death he started for Italy in such a condition that the hotel-keepers demanded pay for the bed and mattress that he used, that they might be burned. Yet the winter that he then spent on the Island of Majorca, under the ministrations of natural beauty and a sleepless love, wrought on him with a strange efficacy of restoration. His biographer becomes a poet in describing this enchanted oasis in the existence of the Polish composer.
“In this solitude, shaded by groves of oranges, and surrounded by the blue waves of the Mediterranean, he breathed that air for which natures unsuited to the world and never feeling themselves happy in it long with such a painful homesickness; that air which may be found everywhere, if we can find the sympathetic souls to breathe it with us, and which is to be met nowhere without them, the air of the land of our dreams, of the country of the ideal. The story of this bewitching residence is described by Madame Sand in “Lucrezia Floriani,” with all the empassioned gorgeousness of her art : she herself is La Floriani; Chopin is Prince Karol, and Liszt is Count Albani.
At length, after a fatal rupture of affection, an agony worse than death, by a lingering decline not fuller of pain and sadness than of beauty and majesty, the long tragedy of life drew to a close ; the lacerating conflict of the outer and the inner life, so successfully shrouded under that de meanor of tranquil politeness, was to find relief. The noblest of his Polish countrymen, the loveliest of his countrywomen, idolatrous friends, were unremitting in their attentions. One evening near his end, at sunset, he saw the beautiful Countess Potocka, draped in white, weeping, at the foot of his bed. “Sing,” he murmured. Amidst the hushed group of friends, the rays of the set ting sun streaming upon them, she sang with her own exquisite sweetness the famous canticle to the Virgin which once saved the life of Stradella. “How beautiful it is ! My God, how beautiful !” sighed the dying artist. None of those who approached the dying Chopin “could tear themselves from the spectacle of this great and gifted soul in his hours of mortal anguish.”
Whispering "Who is near me," he was told, Gutman, - the favorite pupil who had watched by him with romantic devotion. He bent his head to kiss the faithful hand, and died in this act of love. They buried the room in flowers. The serene loveli ness of youth, so long dimmed by grief and pain, came back, and he lay there smiling, as if asleep in a garden of roses. At the farewell service in the Madeleine Church, his own Funeral March and the Requiem of Mozart were performed. Lablache, who had sung the supernatural Tuba Mirum of this Requiem at the burial of Beethoven, twenty-two years before, now sang it again.
In the cemetery of Père la Chaise, under a chaste tomb surmounted by his own marble likeness, between the monuments of Bellini and Cherubini, where he had asked to be laid, sleeps the hapless musician, whose weird and solemn strains are worthy to carry his name into future ages as long as men shall continue to contemplate the mysterious changes of time and the mute entrance of eternity.
Chopin's grave at the "Père-Lachaise", ca 1920