A Polish visitor to Britain writes to one of his countrymen: “One day longer here and I won’t just die, I’ll go mad”. A grumble in 2010 from a Polish expat working hard in the UK? Actually, the words were written in 1848 by Poland’s great musical genius, Frederic Chopin (1810-49). The composer penned these thoughts in Britain, barely one year before his death in Paris at the tragically young age of 39. Chopin’s life, marked by exile, nationalist political passion and sublime music, is now the subject of a new exhibition running at the British Library at St Pancras, London. “Chopin: The Romantic Refugee” marks the 200th anniversary of the Polish pianist’s birth. Besides revealing many remarkable mementos, the show throws new light on his experiences as a Polish émigré musician in Britain – he made two visits in 1837 and 1848 – and on the ever-complex nature of Anglo-Polish relations. These are without doubt a multifaceted affair, characterised since the 18th century by mutual attraction, passion, cooling ardour and, at times, the charge of betrayal.
The key moment for Chopin came in November 1830. Tens of thousands of his fellow Poles rose up against Russian rule, and following defeat in October 1831, exiles poured out of the Tsarist lands, many to France and Britain. Chopin, who has been performing in Vienna when the rebellion broke out, would ultimately become a French citizen in 1835.
Britain and France welcomed Polish émigrés with open arms. In Victorian Britain, Poles established sizeable communities in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Portsmouth and Glasgow. Polish exiles in Britain such as Krystyn Lach Szyrma, philosophy professor, writer and translator, worked tirelessly for the Polish cause. In February 1832, exiled Prince Adam Czartoryski came to London to set up the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland under the presidency of Scottish poet Thomas Campbell. This new group set about forging a close Anglo-Polish cultural exchange and in 1833 minted a popular commemorative medal. Dedicated to “unhappy, heroic Poland”, the medal depicted two goddesses united and was entitled “Britannia embraces Polonia”. The association was patronised by several leading British politicians, most notably Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart (1803-1854), who campaigned vigorously in Parliament on Poland’s behalf. Poland was depicted in the British press sympathetically as a heroine deprived of liberty by a rapacious Russia. The British Library exhibition displays a contemporary edition of The Times, with an editorial that thunders: “Poland’s cause is glorious – and the sentiment of Polish freedom beats in every British heart”. Leading poets and writers also eulogised Poland’s courage. Alfred Lord Tennyson dedicated a sonnet to Poland in 1833: “How long shall the icy-hearted Muscovite oppress the region?” he pondered.
Chopin’s own close links to Britain were forged in 1837. He visited London under the pseudonym “Mr. Fritz”, and he was highly impressed by Britain – at first. The composer found an audience that was highly receptive for all things Polish. British romantic sympathy for Poland’s loss of national sovereignty was widely held and genuine. There was also a political dimension. Poland’s struggle against Russia resonated because the latter was also a key competitor of Britain. Russia and Britain were manoeuvring aggressively as part of their so-called “Great Game” (1813-1907), vying for imperial influence in Central Asia, Afghanistan and beyond. As a result, Chopin’s soulful Polish nocturnes and polonaises, delightful ballades and heroic mazurkas (and their political messages in favour of national liberty) became hugely popular in Britain and highly profitable for Chopin. He was deluged by requests to play, and star-struck music pupils from the British upper classes begged him to tutor them at the piano.
As the 1830s ended, both Chopin and Poland were held in deep affection in British polite society. But as the 1840s progressed, British popular support for Poland’s political causes began to wane. The lobbying efforts of Lord Dudley Stuart in Parliament did not bear fruit – he confided to Polish friends that he had failed. British policymakers began to view Poland as a lost cause. Some Polish émigrés concluded that Britain would no longer press their case. They began to voice despair – even betrayal – as they faced increasing destitution in their adopted country. Then in 1848, popular revolutions convulsed Europe. A new Polish uprising – in the Prussian-occupied town of Posen (Poznań) – faltered and was crushed. The British press were notably critical, characterising the Poles as militarily “anarchical”. Chopin had wanted to join the Posen uprising but his recurrent tuberculosis was taking hold. In April 1848, he made his second and final visit to Britain. Lodging in Dover Street in London’s Mayfair, he played for Queen Victoria herself and in several private houses. He went on to Manchester and Scotland at the behest of his Scottish friend and pupil Jane Stirling. But his illness meant he found performances in Glasgow, Edinburgh and in several Scottish country houses extremely draining and socially depressing. At one intimate piano recital, the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle noted Chopin’s sensitive playing but also his suffering countenance.
By the autumn of 1848, Chopin wrote that his affections for Britain were cooling, rapidly. The British, he recorded, viewed music “as a profession, not an art”. In a note to his friend Wojciech Grzymała, Chopin complained of British philistinism and said he had to get back to Paris before he “went mad”. This letter – included in the British Library display – carries doodles and frequent underlining and gives all the appearance of a man teetering on the edge. The mutual Anglo-Polish love affair was seemingly over. At a final concert, at a Polish Ball at London’s Guildhall, in November 1848, Polish Princess Marcelina Czartoryska detected Chopin’s mood and summed up the Anglo-Polish chemistry. She wrote of his performance: “The concert went off well. Chopin played like an angel: much too well for the inhabitants of London, whose artistic appreciation is a little problematic”. Chopin was back in Paris by the end of the month. Just under a year later, on 17 October 1849, he succumbed to TB. He was buried at the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart removed to Poland for burial at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Chopin’s death mask – a striking inclusion at the British Library exhibition – was a final tribute to one of Europe’s finest artistic spirits and a true Polish patriot.
“Chopin: The Romantic Refugee” is open until 16 May 2010 at London’s British Library, St. Pancras.
See also: 200 Years of Chopin