Chopin visited London and the British Isles from 20th April to 23rd November 1848 because of the revolution which broke out in France on February 24th 1848. The government of King Louis Philippe was overthrown and the royal family fled to England. Chopin earned his living teaching wealthy pupils and most of these fled along with everyone else, so he lost his livelihood overnight. Most of the musicians in Paris decided to leave, seeing that there would be no work for them for quite some time, and because revolutions were breaking out all over Europe, England – which had a comparatively stable government – became the favourite destination.
However there is some evidence that Chopin had been contemplating a visit to London even before it became a matter of financial necessity.
Chopin had acquired a Scots pupil, Jane Stirling, in 1843, and although there was no intimacy between them, she was utterly devoted. She was a decent and keen pianist and, had Chopin lived, they may well have jointly produced an edition of his works. Last but not least, she was wealthy and had a lot of contacts both in London and Paris. It may well have been she who first put the idea of going to London into Chopin’s mind. Chopin was apparently in contact with a well-known London magazine ‘The Athenaeum’ in 1847 and perhaps this was also Jane’s idea. She longed to introduce him to London society.
Jane Stirling and her sister Mrs. Erskine made all the arrangements, and Chopin duly arrived at the flat they had found for him at 10 Bentinck Street W1 on Maundy Thursday, April 20th, armed with letters of introduction.
A well-known London critic who had been a great admirer of his music now described his works as ‘a motley surface of ranting hyperbole and excruciating cacophony’. Chopin’s last major work for piano, the Polonaise-Fantasy, was described as ‘pathological in content’.
In spite of the venom of this particular critic, Chopin was now at the height of his fame and arrived in London as something of a celebrity.
In 1848 when he set out for London Chopin undoubtedly suffered greatly, with feelings of suffocation, coughing up blood, chest pains and swelling. There were a lot of question marks about Chopin’s health. What did he have? TB? Asthma? Heart disease? And to what degree was it psychologically induced?
Berlioz made a famous remark that “Chopin has been dying all his life”.
Throughout his visit to Britain he was to adapt his programmes to his strength, for example leaving out the turbulent passages of the second Ballade and refusing to play a concerto for the Philharmonic Society, giving as a reason that they only had one rehearsal. At his private concerts he would have been more daring and undoubtedly played some large pieces, but his programmes for public concerts kept to the 2nd Ballade, 2nd Scherzo, Andante spianato, Berceuse, the Op.36 Impromptu, and a selection of nocturnes, preludes, etudes, valses and mazurkas – in particular the Op.55 Nocturnes dedicated to Jane Stirling, the newly published Op.64 Waltzes and the first two of the Op.25 Etudes.
He moved to an apartment at 48 Dover Street W1 which had a large drawing room where he was able to install three pianos: his own Pleyel that he had brought from Paris, an Erard lent by the London branch of the French firm, and a Broadwood. Chopin described Henry Broadwood as the English Pleyel, and did not waste a minute in visiting the firm’s warehouse and choosing not only the piano for his flat but also the one he was to use for three of the semi-public concerts Broadwood was to organise for him in London and Manchester, as well as for the final appearance at Guildhall. Another piano was sent to Scotland for the Glasgow and Edinburgh concerts. Henry Broadwood and Chopin became friends and Chopin was touched by his kindness in sending over a mattress and pillows to make him more comfortable.
Chopin performed at countless private morning concerts, afternoon concerts, and soirées, as well as informally in salons. When not performing he was out dining, going to the opera and visiting friends. Chopin went to hear the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, sing in La Sonnambula at the Queen’s Theatre Haymarket, almost as soon as he arrived in London, and was particularly impressed by her voice. Chopin also heard Lind in Lucia di Lammermoor and they became great friends. She went to hear him at Eaton Place, a fact that was noted in a knowing way by the newspapers, and he spent one evening alone with her and her chaperone Mrs. Grote. He says “From nine to one in the morning we did not leave the piano”.
Judging by the enthusiasm in his letters when describing how he found himself in the best London society, he obviously found this first part of his London visit, from April 20th to August 5th, extremely stimulating and enjoyed being fêted as a celebrity. He was also making money, in spite of endless complaints about the cost of things in London. It is interesting to note that when he returned from the Scottish part of his visit he opened a bank account with Coutts, and was able to deposit £250 – a considerable amount in those days.
He had made a lot of friends and there were many sympathetic circles who welcomed him. He himself said that “If I had not been spitting blood for several days, if I was younger, if I was not as attached to my friends as I am, I might think of starting a new life”.
Photo: Chopin's "own" Pleyel N. 13819 (1848)