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14 minutes reading time (2801 words)

Chopin and Pleyel

Translated by Deana Shuman  

The first concert in Paris

Chopin's first concert in Paris (February 25th, 1832) played a determining role in the artist's career, leading to his recognition as a composer and a pianist, providing him contacts with music publishers, opening the most influential salon doors to him, and thereby assuring him a student clientele consisting largely of members of the aristocracy. The key to this inaugural concert, however, passed first through the hands of Camille Pleyel and his associate Frederic Kalkbrenner, pianist-composer and professor of great repute. 

Upon his arrival in Paris on October 5th, 1831, Chopin was entirely unknown. His first concern was to make a name for himself, and, to accomplish that, have his music featured in concert. Thanks to a letter that Dr. Malfatti (Beethoven's last doctor and a distinguished and very influential amateur musician of Vienna) sent to Ferdinando Paer, music director for King Louis-Philippe, Chopin made the acquaintance of Rossini, who reigned in the wings of the "Theatre-Italien," Cherubini, who was then director of the Conservatoire, the violinist Baillot, and others. Chopin recounted in a letter to his confidant Tytus Woyciechowski: "It is also through him [Paër] that I was introduced to Kalkbrenner. I was truly amazed by Herz, Liszt, Hiller, etc.... Yet they are all nothing compared to Kalkbrenner. If Paganini is perfection itself, Kalkbrenner is his equal but in a different manner. It is quite difficult to describe the calm of his playing, his enchanting touch, the unparalleled control of his playing, and his mastery that is affirmed with each note that he plays. He is like a giant, trampling underfoot the Herzes, Czernys, etc.... and consequently me as well" (December 12, 1831).

Such was Chopin's first impression, a month before he had called Kalkbrenner "the best pianist in Europe." The classical virtues of Clementi's disciple and his easy mastery captivated and amazed the newcomer. Chopin hesitated for several weeks before accepting Kalkbrenner's proposition to become his student for a period of three years. His dedicated correspondence with his family and his teacher Jozef Elsner shows an enchantment nonetheless quickly undone by the dreariness, the academic sterility, the absence of organic talent and inspiration on the part of the magister (master): "I am so convinced that I will never be like Kalkbrenner that nothing can take away the idea and the desire, perhaps too audacious but noble, to create a new world," the author of the Etudes Op. 10 (in progress) wrote to Elsner in mid-December, 1831. 

In reality, it was Kalkbrenner who planned on making Chopin his master student, a testimony of Kalkbrenner's legendary vanity as well as his fear of losing popularity following Les Trois Glorieuses [this refers to the 1830 battle in which the Bourbons lost the monarchy and were replaced by the July Monarchy, in the person of Louis- Philippe]. If Chopin were to spontaneously find "Pleyel's pianos [... ] non plus ultra" (no longer supreme), the concert that Chopin was charged with putting on still must go through Kalkbrenner, who was associated not only with the making of instruments (including the device patented by him and extolled in his bilingual Method for Learning Piano With the Help of the Hand Guide) but also with their sale and distribution, as he was a sponsor of Pleyel & Company.

But now we return to the actual event of this concert and its unfolding. Chopin had secured the collaboration of Baillot and his string quartet as well as the help of virtuoso oboist Henri Brod. Kalkbrenner's patronage becomes clear in the second half of the program, a program as varied as custom at the time would have it. Initially planned for December 25th, 1831, the concert was postponed until January 15th when the Royal Academy of Music refused to provide a singer for the evening. Meanwhile, Kalkbrenner became ill in a Paris decimated by cholera. At last, on the 25th of February, 1832 (and not on the 26th, as is widely accepted) the concert took place "in the salons of Mr. Pleyel & Co.," on the second floor of a Louis XV-style hotel (the hotel Cromot de Bourg, 9 rue Cadet). The venue, used primarily as a showroom for Pleyel pianos before the construction in 1839 of a real concert hall on rue Rochechouart, still exists. It consists of a succession of three rooms: a large rectangular central salon, flanked by an antechamber and followed by a smaller salon. 

Very recently I found an existing copy of the program printed for the evening. Chopin's pieces were placed at the end of the first and the second parts, as he was the beneficiary of the concert. He played, in its entirety, the Concerto in E Minor, Op. 11 (Allegro maestoso first; then Romance and Rondo "attacca"), accompanied by Baillot's quartet in a chamber version, according to a model in frequent use until the middle of the century. It is reasonable to assume that he played his Variations, Op. 2, on "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni as a solo, since Baillot and his quartet did not participate in the second part of the program. We know from the memories of pianist Ferdinand Hiller, a friend of Chopin's and a participant in the concert, that the star of the evening performed several Mazurkas and Nocturnes as encores (no doubt borrowed from the future collections Opp. 6, 7, and 9). 

The high point of the evening, however, must have been the Grande Polonaise, preceded by an Introduction and March for six pianos by Kalkbrenner (the original version of a composition published as Op. 92 for piano and string quartet or quintet). Chopin described the event to Tytus in these terms: "I will furthermore give, with Kalkbrenner, a March followed by a Polonaise for two pianos accompanied by four other pianos. It is something crazy. Kalkbrenner will play on an immense pantalion [pantalion from the original Polish]. I will have a small monochord piano whose tone nonetheless carries like the bells on a giraffe. As for the other instruments, they are large and will make up an orchestra. They will be played by Hiller, Osborne, Stamati, and Sowinski" (December 12th, 1831). 

The terminology used here calls for a few clarifications. From Chopin's pen, in his Polish letters, the word pantalion seems simply to designate a grand piano (as opposed to a square piano). On the other hand, in 1825 Pleyel had filed a patent for a unicord upright piano, one of the advantages of which was the ease in its tuning. 

Claude Montal described it in his The Art of Tuning Your Piano (Paris, 1836), a work dedicated to Camille Pleyel. A few examples of this instrument, produced for about ten years, have been preserved. Finally, the possible play on words of "giraffe" is, according to Gireffen-Flugel, a reference to the height of that particular instrument using a Viennese mechanism of which the best Polish manufacturer of the time, Fryderyk Buchholtz, made a number of models: one of them currently is found at the house where Chopin was born, in Zelazowa Wola, placed there by the National Museum of Warsaw. This kind of instrument, which possessed numerous stops, could include a set of bells and timpani, after the example of certain Conrad Graf pianos of the same era. 

The relatively cramped dimensions of the salons of 9 rue Cadet, the central salon being crowded with a grand piano, four uprights, and the unicord (such was the instrumentation used five years previously for the same work in the same venue), left little room for the audience for this second part-even when we consider that it was customary at the time for men to remain standing, filling the room right up to the window recesses. 

We can hazard a guess that no more than a hundred people were assembled for this concert that sufficed to establish the reputation of this unknown Pole in France (Chopin's name meant nothing at the time). Part of the audience was made up of exiled Polish aristocrats, another part included illustrious representatives of the piano world. In addition to Camille Pleyel, Kalkbrenner, and the four accompanists for the Grande Polonaise-Hiller, Osborne, Stamaty, and Sowinski-the presence of Liszt, Mendelssohn, Louis Adam, the Farrencs, the Herz brothers, Pixis, Friederick Wieck, and his daughter Clara was witnessed. In the Paris of that time Marie Pleyel- Moke (wife of Camille), Bertini, Body, Schunke, and Zimmerman were also counted among the pianistic celebrities. In its unfolding, this event turned out to be a two-part exhibition: Kalkbrenner presented this young genius of the piano as his student, but Chopin's talent was also used to demonstrate the excellence of the products from the Pleyel & Co. workshop. 

"...These Pleyel pianos of which he was particularly fond" (Liszt) 


That Chopin was immediately taken with Pleyel pianos and remained faithful to them all of his life cannot be doubted. At his home in Paris and his summer house in Nohant, there was always a grand piano and a pianino (small upright piano), even a square piano or another type. Pleyel was also the instrument on which he composed. We know of the misfortune regarding the shipping of the pianino to Mallorca, an instrument without which he could not finish the writing of his 24 Preludes, Op. 28. At the time of his visit to London in 1848, where it was most often required that he play an instrument of the respectable Broadwood brand, Chopin- in a state of physical exhaustion-mentioned in a letter: "I have three pianos: in addition to my own, one Broadwood and one Erard (the English subsidiary), but until now I have only played on my own" (letter to W. Grzymala, London, May 13, 1848). "My own," meaning the Pleyel, was sent by special delivery to London, touching testimony of Chopin's attachment to this particular brand of instrument, the trusted "depository" for his "voice." In Warsaw, Chopin-who had known all manner of instruments, experimental and not - had a predilection for Buchholtz pianos; this was a revelation to Graf in Vienna, whose factory and salons Chopin haunted. 

A sales prospectus of Pleyel products in 1839 gives a precise idea of the pianos that Chopin used and loved in the middle of his Parisian career. Among twelve models, four kinds of instruments were represented: grand, square, vertical (upright), and the pianino. Use of the square piano, originating in the French Ancien Regime, hardly weakened in the years preceding 1848; the enthusiasm for the pianino was even greater, this "specialite de la maison" having met considerable success in the era of the Juste-Milieu thanks to its small size and modest price. We know how much Chopin appreciated its docile touch as well as the sweetness and intimacy of its tone. In his manufacturing process, Camille Pleyel remained constantly faithful to the simple escapement action, refined after the English model that served as his point of departure. 

"When I am feeling indisposed, Chopin said one day, I play on an Erard piano and I easily find in it a ready-made sound; but when I feel alive and strong enough to find my own sound, I need a Pleyel piano," relayed Henry Blaze of Bury in 1856. Lacking absolute proof of these sentiments, we find confirmation in the diary of an excellent Latvian student, who had previously been taught by the pianist Adolf Henselt: "Until now I played more on resistant pianos than on easy pianos: this has greatly strengthened my fingers. However, on the resistant kind of piano, it is impossible to obtain the finer nuances of movement in the wrist and forearm, each finger moving in isolation. I experienced this nuanced playing at the home of Chopin on his beautiful piano with a touch so like that of the Viennese instruments. He calls it a 'perfidious traitor.' What came out perfectly on my solid and robust Erard became brusque and ugly on Chopin's piano. He found it dangerous to use for too long an instrument with a beautiful sound, such as the Erard. He said that those instruments destroy the touch: 'It makes no difference whether you tap the keys lightly or strike them more forcefully: the sound is always beautiful and the ear asks for nothing more, for it is under the spell of the full, rich sound.'" The linking together of Pleyel and the Viennese instruments makes sense in relation to the experience of Chopin himself, as he traveled from the Austrian capital to Paris. Another student, the Russian musicologist Wilhelm von Lenz, made a similar remark in his acerbic delivery: "Chopin played a Pleyel, an instrument with a light action on which one can more easily create nuances than on an instrument with a luscious sonority." 

Thanks to the more direct contact between the hammer and the string, the simple escapement action, constantly improved by Camille Pleyel and Kalkbrenner, assured a more exact control than the "double escapement" invented and patented (1822) by Erard. Joined with these qualities of precision and ease ("Easily, easily," Chopin would often repeat during a piano lesson), the elegant tone of the middle register ("This middle register is like the diapason of the voice, it is where we find the chest of the piano, it is from there that a large singing tone can emanate" wrote the pianist Zimmerman) promoted the legato cantabile, a basic postulate of Chopin the professor who demanded: "One must sing with the fingers." The "silvery and somewhat veiled sonority" (Liszt) of the treble register, the clarity of the bass notes-these were some of the tonal characteristics that endeared Chopin to Pleyel's instruments. To those qualities we can add the flexibility in the adjustment of the two pedals, a fundamental element in the execution of Chopin's music. Despite having editorially indicated only the damper pedal in his autographs-often with great daring-he nonetheless just as frequently used the left pedal (una corda or mute pedal, depending on the kind of instrument), alone or in combination with the damper, creating a sort of registration or effect of sonority that one could label as pre-impressionistic. 

After 1835, Chopin had given up on a career of piano virtuoso that he did not feel fit him well, leaving the stage to Liszt, Thalberg, Herz, Doehler, and others. Thus the three public concerts that he gave at Chez Pleyel in 1841, 1842, and 1848 entered into the imagination of his contemporaries as so many mythical apparitions. His reputation had been established in Paris as something of a poet-musician, creating sublime compositions, adulated in whatever salon he might choose, where his inexhaustible improvisations seized the soul. The picture of the professor of studied genius, adored by his students, completed Chopin's image. All in all, Chopin and his double, the Pleyel piano, were at the heart of a network of musical excellence that never ceased to inspire. There is no better pen than that of Berlioz to evoke this mystery and enchantment: 

"Thus Chopin, despite his magnificent talent of execution, was not the crowd's favorite, the virtuoso of large halls and huge concerts. He had long ago renounced this turmoil. A small circle of chosen listeners, in whom he found a genuine desire to hear him play, was the only thing that could bring him to the piano. His playing gave rise to such emotions! In what ardent and melancholic reveries he loved to pour out his soul! It was usually at about midnight that he gave himself up with the most abandon; when the great socialites of the salon had left, when the political question of the evening's agenda had been dealt with, when all the gossipers had come to the end of their stories, when all the traps had been set, all the treacheries accomplished, when all were tired of prose, yielding to the silent prayer of a few beautiful and knowing gazes, he would become a poet and would sing the Ossianic loves of the heroes of his imagination, their chivalrous joys and the pain of the absent native land, his cherished Poland, always ready to conquer and yet always defeated. But apart from these conditions, which every artist should be grateful that he demanded in order to perform, it was useless to appeal to him. The curiosity aroused by his fame seemed merely to irritate Chopin and he hid himself as soon as possible from an unsympathetic world into which he had wandered by chance." (Journal of Debates, October 27th 1849). 

Clavier Companion extends a special thanks to David Delambre, Jacques Leiser, and Richard Zimdars for their help in preparing this article. 

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