Chopin's Scottish Autumn

Article excerpt

Frederick Chopin alighted at Edinburgh's Lothian Road station on August 5th, 1848, exhausted by the twelve-hour train journey from Euston. His affair with George Sand was over, there was revolution in France and Poland, and he was now very ill from the tuberculosis that was to kill him the following year.

Chopin came to Britain at the instigation of Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, youngest daughter of John Stirling, Laird of Kippendavie, a well-known Scottish family. She was born at Kippenross House in Dunblane, on July 15th, 1804. Jane's parents died while she was in her teens, and she was taken in hand by her widowed elder sister Katherine Erskine. The pair became inseparable.

In 1826 Jane and Katherine, rich, independent and thirsting for culture, went to Paris. A sojourn in the heady atmosphere of the French capital was |de rigueur' for the wealthy, and they became fully involved in the Parisian scene.

They met Chopin in 1840, a year after his return to Paris after his Majorcan experience with George Sand. Within two years Jane became Chopin's piano pupil, and, by Chopin's own account, a very good one. Her admiration for him grew, and with it her devotion and affection. Chopin, touched by her generosity of spirit, dedicated his two Nocturnes Op. 55 to her.

Chopin arrived in London in April 1848, and was quickly absorbed into its social and cultural life. Surrounded by adoring women and lovers of his music, his concerts and soirees were triumphs which earned him both money and adulation. He supplemented this income with private lessons at a guinea a time - although some privileged ladies failed to pay after only a couple of lessons, booked only for the further privilege of |name-dropping' their teacher.

At the end of July, Queen Victoria left London for Osborne House and then Balmoral. Society followed for the shooting and fishing season in estates north of the Border.

This was Jane's cue to arrange for Chopin to visit the land of her forebears, and introduce him to her family. Chopin had already been invited by Jane's brother-in-law, Lord Torphichen, to stay at Calder House, near Edinburgh. Facing a socially deserted London with no prospects of concerts or lessons, Chopin accepted the invitation.

Chopin left for Edinburgh from Euston Railway Station on August 5th, travelling first class along the freshly opened western route via Birmingham and Carlisle. This latest example of Victorian enterprise was well subscribed by the wealthy landowners migrating to their Scottish estates.

The London piano-maker James Broadwood paid for the tickets for Chopin and his devoted Irish servant Daniel, booking the seat opposite so that the sick composer could put his feet up during the journey. John Muir Wood, the Scottish music publisher and owner of music shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow, also travelled on the train.

In Edinburgh, Chopin stayed at the Douglas Hotel in St. Andrew Square. The journey had taken a considerable toll on his health, but by noon the next day he recovered enough to see the sights of |this exquisite city'. He visited the two-year-old Memorial to his hero, Edinburgh-born Sir Walter Scott, in East Princes Street Gardens.

On Monday morning, he visited Muir Wood's music shop at 12 Waterloo Place. According to legend, he heard a blind man playing one of his own mazurkas in the shop, joined in, and later played a duet with Muir Wood. They discussed plans for an Edinburgh concert in October, to coincide with the Caledonian Rout - an action packed week of revelry and socialising in the Scottish calendar.

Calder House, west of Edinburgh, an imposing old manor whose solid fabric exuded a rich air of history, delighted Chopin. In 1556 John Knox had first celebrated communion there. Lord Torphichen welcomed Chopin with true Scottish hospitality, insisting that he stay all summer, and return the following year. |My worthy Scots! …