Chopin’s true sound can be heard at last after discovery of his piano
The composer’s own Pleyel grand, which gives a distinctive texture to his music, has been traced to a country house in Surrey.
Musicians have always sought to replicate the divine sounds that Frédéric Chopin made on the piano at the height of his powers. Now they have a chance to do exactly that, after the discovery of the composer’s own grand piano, which he brought to England in 1848 for the last great concert tour of his life.
Chopin’s French-made piano disappeared into obscurity after his death, but more than 150 years later it has been tracked down to an English country house.
Two decades ago Alec Cobbe, a collector of antique keyboard instruments, purchased the Pleyel piano for just £2,000. However, it was not until this year that the instrument was revealed to be Chopin’s own beloved instrument, after a remarkable piece of detective work by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, one of the foremost Chopin scholars.
The discovery of the instrument, which is on display at Hatchlands, the National Trust house in Surrey where the Cobbe Collection of pianos is housed, will enable British music lovers to hear what Chopin’s music would have sounded like to the great composer in his own salon.
The Polish-born composer was deeply attached to the piano, manufactured in Paris by his close friend Camille Pleyel. Indeed, there appears to have been a verbal contract between the pianomaker and the composer, similar to a modern sponsorship deal: Pleyel agreed to provide Chopin with the pianos he loved, free of charge, and in return Chopin promoted Pleyel pianos to his pupils and admirers (and received a 10 per cent commission from resulting sales).
“Pleyel pianos are the last word in perfection,” Chopin once remarked.
Chopin had lived in Paris since 1831, but left for London in 1848, fleeing revolutionary France and bringing with him a Pleyel piano made two years earlier and personally selected by the composer. It is almost certainly the one depicted in a watercolour of Chopin’s Paris apartment, on which he gave one of the earliest renditions of his cello sonata.
John Broadwood & Sons, the English pianomaker, had agreed to provide the composer with pianos during his stay, but Chopin preferred to compose and practise on his own instrument. The composer took up lodgings in Dover Street, Mayfair, where he wrote: “I have three pianos. In addition to my Pleyel, I have a Broadwood and an Erard, but I have so far only been able to play on my own.” Chopin played this piano during a recital at the home of the Count d’Orsay and the Countess of Blessington at Kensington Gore. For his other recitals in England, including a concert at Stafford House attended by Queen Victoria, Chopin played a Broadwood, which is also part of the Cobbe collection.
Alfred Hipkins, an employee of Broadwood, described the composer on his English tour as being “of middle height, with a pleasant face, a mass of fair curly hair like an angel, and agreeable manners . . . He was painstaking in the choice of the pianos he was to play on anywhere, as he was in his dress, his gloves, his French.” Chopin had visited England only once before, in 1837, and despite his ailing health he was impressed and flattered by his reception. He left a breathless description of the Stafford House concert: “You should have seen the Queen standing on the stairs in the most dazzling light, covered with all her diamonds . . .”
But he came to harsher conclusions about English cultural attitudes: “They consider everything in terms of money. They love art because it is a luxury.”
At the end of the London season, Chopin performed two concerts in Scotland. He returned to London in November, and gave another performance at Guildhall at a charity recital in aid of Polish refugees. This was to be the last concert of his tour, and the last of his life.
The London fogs worsened Chopin’s health, and on November 23, he returned to Paris, leaving behind his Pleyel piano but already making plans to obtain another in France. “On Thursday I shall be leaving this beastly London,” he wrote to a friend, Wojciech Grzymala. “You might even tell Pleyel to send me any kind of piano on Thursday evening.” Chopin died in Paris the following October.
Before leaving London, Chopin sold his Pleyel piano, for £80, to one Lady Trotter, whose daughter, Margaret, was his friend and probable pupil. For almost 160 years, Chopin’s “English” Pleyel vanished into obscurity, until Dr Eigeldinger, Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the University of Geneva, set about correlating the scattered Pleyel archives. By matching serial numbers in Pleyel’s ledger, Professor Eigeldinger was able to identify the piano owned by Mr Cobbe, no 13819, as the one Chopin had brought to England in 1848. “I was absolutely astonished,” Mr Cobbe says. “Surviving Pleyels number in the hundreds, but I had absolutely no idea which was Chopin’s own piano.”
Mr Cobbe believes that Margaret Trotter, who died unmarried, bequeathed the instrument to her grandniece, Margaret Lindsay, who married Sir Lewis Majendie, of Castle Hedingham, near Saffron Walden.
As the piano was passed on, the story of its provenance was forgotten. The Hon Tom Lindsay inherited Castle Hedingham in the 1970s and was told by a housekeeper that a piano had just been sold from the property.
In 1988 Mr Cobbe bought the Pleyel piano from a dealer in early pianos, who had purchased it at auction in Saffron Walden in the late 1970s. The collection is now owned and cared for by a charity, The Cobbe Collection Trust, which aims to enable musicians and audiences to hear music played as nearly as possible to the way that composers would have heard it. The collection is the largest of its kind in the world, and includes instruments owned or played by Purcell, Bach, Mozart, Mahler and Elgar.Chopin believed that the Pleyel piano was the only one ideally suited to his music. “When I feel in good form and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano,” he said.
Mr Cobbe says: “The pianos of today produce lone, sustaining, liquid notes, whereas with the Pleyel the notes die away much more quickly and this gives a completely different texture to the music.”
In a sense, Chopin’s Pleyel was an extension of his own genius. Franz Liszt wrote that Chopin “particularly cherished” Pleyel pianos “for their silvery and slightly veiled sonority and their lightness of touch”. In the words of Professor Eigeldinger: “With its distinctive mechanical and timbral qualities, the Pleyel instrument seems to have been the medium par excellence for Chopin, pianist, teacher and composer, from his earliest days in Paris until his death in 1849.”
Chopin died long before his own performances could be recorded, but the rediscovery of Chopin’s piano means that music lovers can once again enter the sound-world of the great composer on his final tour.
— Possibly the world’s most famous piano is the 1887 Alma-Tadema Steinway, with fine-art decorations by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, sold in 1998 for £700,000
— In 2001 George Michael paid £1.5 million to keep the piano on which John Lennon composed Imagine in Britain. The Steinway Model Z still bore two burns from Lennon’s cigarettes
— A white piano owned by Elvis Presley sold for £500,000 at auction in 2003, to be exhibited in a museum at Disney World
— A black Bechstein played by Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry and Annie Lennox made £3,600 at auction in 2005
— In January 2006 a see-through piano owned by Whitney Houston sold for £10,000 at auction
— In 2004 the piano on which Elton John wrote Your Song sold for £91,500
From the Times, March 17, 2007