Chopin’s Left Hand, Favorite Piano Honor 200th Birthday: Review

Eugene Delacroix's portrait of Frederic Chopin
Eugene Delacroix's portrait of Frederic Chopin (oil on canvas, 1838.) The painting, on loan from the Louvre, is part of the show to honor the composer at the Musee de la Vie Romantique in Paris, which runs through July 11, 2010.

Only the dog is missing.

Apart from George Sand’s Pekinese, which inspired Frederic Chopin’s famous “Minute Waltz” as he watched it chasing its tail, the Musee de la Vie Romantique in Paris has assembled all the composer’s muses, patrons and friends.

Chopin was born 200 years ago and spent the second half of his short life (he died in 1849) in Paris, where he is buried -- reason enough to honor him with not one, but two exhibitions.

The Musee de la Vie Romantique is a natural candidate for such a show. The house was built in 1830, the year before Chopin moved to Paris, for the then-fashionable painter Ary Scheffer. Every Friday, Scheffer received the artistic creme de la creme, including Chopin and his trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking lover, Baroness Aurore Dudevant, alias George Sand.

What’s more, the museum owns furniture, paintings and other memorabilia from Nohant, Sand’s country house, where Chopin wrote much of his music.

Some 80 objects enrich the permanent collection for this show, chiefly portraits. Some are masterpieces by Eugene Delacroix, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Gustave Courbet. Others are interesting less for their artistic value than for the sitter, such as the busts of Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giacomo Meyerbeer, or the paintings of Franz Liszt and his mistress, Marie d’Agoult (the mother of Cosima Wagner).


Scheffer, the landlord, is represented by his portraits of Chopin, Rossini and the singer Pauline Viardot, who played piano duets with Chopin and called him “Chip-Chip.”

You also find Chopin’s death mask and a plaster cast of his left hand, both by the sculptor Auguste Clesinger, who married Sand’s daughter Solange. When Solange fell out with her mother in 1847 and was shown the door, Chopin sided with her -- which ended his nine-year relationship with her mother.

Solange was one of the few people who were present when he died two years later in his apartment on Place Vendome.

The other exhibition, “Chopin a Paris” at the Cite de la Musique, chiefly displays manuscripts, first editions, prints, drawings and pianos produced by Camille Pleyel’s company, Chopin’s favorite brand.

The first section, dubbed “Pianopolis,” reminds you that Paris was, alongside Vienna, Europe’s capital of music, attracting virtuosos of all sorts.

Expensive Lessons

Chopin, who had neither Liszt’s glamorous looks, nor Sigismund Thalberg’s flamboyant technique, gave relatively few public concerts. His main source of income was piano lessons. Thanks to his growing reputation as a composer, he was able to charge high fees which only rich pupils -- mostly blue-blooded young ladies -- could afford.

In 1842, Breitkopf & Hartel, his German publisher, paid him 600 francs for a scherzo and a ballad, and another 500 for the A-flat major Polonaise. That was more than poor Franz Schubert had earned in his whole life.

Chopin was not only well connected with Paris’s artistic and intellectual elite. He was also, as the show demonstrates, a prominent member of the Polish diaspora.

After the suppression of the uprising against their Russian masters in 1831, some 10,000 Poles left their country; 6,000 of them settled in Paris.

Chopin’s polonaises and mazurkas are more than just musical miniatures. They are political statements.

“Frederic Chopin: La Note Bleue” -- the subtitle refers to his nocturnes -- runs through July 11 at Le Musee de la Vie Romantique. For details, see or call +33-1-5531-9567.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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