Anonymous Scottish Lady

(J. Cuthbert Hadden, Chopin, London [J. M. Dent & Co.] 1903, pp. 186÷188)

In compliance with your request that I should tell you something about Chopin as a teacher, I can only speak from my own experience, and after the lapse of fifty-seven years my memory is naturally rather hazy, though I can recall some incidents distinctly.

My first interview with Chopin took place at his room in Paris. Miss Jane Stirling had kindly arranged that my sister and I should go with her. I remember the bright fire in his elegant and comfortable salon. It was in this very month of March, 1846. In the centre of the room stood two pianofortes—one grand, the other upright. Both were Pleyel's, and the tone and touch most beautiful.

In a few moments Chopin entered from another room and received us with the courtesy and ease of a man accustomed to the best society. His personal appearance, his extreme fragility and delicate health have been described again and again, and also the peculiar charm of his manner. Miss Stirling introduced me as her petite cousine who was desirous of the honour of studying with him. He was very polite, but did not give a decided assent at once. Finally he fixed a day and hour for my first lesson, requesting me to bring something I was learning. I took Beethoven's Sonata in A Flat (Op. 26). I need hardly say I felt no slight trepidation on taking my place at the grand piano, Chopin seated beside me. I had not played many bars before he said " Laissez tomber les mains ". Hitherto I had been accustomed to hear “Put down your hands,” or “Strike” such a note. This letting fall was not mechanical only: it was to me a new idea, and in a moment I felt the difference. Chopin allowed me to finish the beautiful air, and then took my place and played the entire Sonata. It was like a revelation. You are doubtless well acquainted with the celebrated Marche Funèbre which of late has so often been played on mournful occasions in public, in conjunction with Chopin's own most beautiful and pathetic composition. He played that Marche Funèbre of Beethoven's with a grand, orchestral, powerfully dramatic effect, yet with a sort of restrained emotion which was indescribable. Lastly he rushed through the final movement with faultless precision and extraordinary delicacy—not a single note lost, and with marvellous phrasing and alternations of light and shade. We stood spellbound, never having heard the like.

My next lesson began with the Sonata. He called my attention to its structure, to the intentions of the composer throughout; showing me the great variety of touch and treatment demanded: many other points, too, which I cannot put into words. From the Sonata he passed to his own compositions. These I found fascinating in the highest degree, but very difficult. He would sit patiently while I tried to thread my way through mazes of intricate and unaccustomed modulations, which I could never have understood had he not invariably played to me each composition—Nocturne, Prelude, Impromptu, whatever it was—letting me hear the framework (if I may so express it) around which these beautiful and strange harmonies were grouped, and in addition showing me the special fingering, on which so much depended, and about which he was very strict.

He spoke very little during the lessons. If I was at a loss to understand a passage, he played it slowly to me. I often wondered at his patience, for it must have been torture to listen to my bungling, but he never uttered an impatient word. Sometimes he went to the other piano and murmured an exquisite impromptu accompaniment. Once or twice he was obliged to withdraw to the other end of the room when a frightful fit of coughing came on, but he made signs to me to go on and take no notice.

On two occasions I arrived just at the termination of a lesson. A lady, young and very attractive, was rising from the piano. She thanked Chopin gracefully for the pleasure he had given her. She was a Russian lady of rank. On the other occasion a German lady, a professional musician, and her husband were taking leave and were expressing their obligations. I heard her say that since receiving Chopin's assistance, her studies were no longer a toil but a delight.

In sending you these fragmentary recollections, I feel it would be unfair to Chopin if they were to convey the impression that he had a cut and dried “method”. The majority of his pupils, I always understood, were already excellent and even distinguished musicians before they went to him. They required no elementary teaching, whereas I was but a young amateur with only a great natural love for music and very little previous training. Chopin questioned me as to this, and I told him I had learned more from listening to singing than anything else. He remarked: “That is right; music ought to be song.” And truly in his hands the piano did sing, and in many tones. I watched, I listened, but can find no adequate description of that thrilling music. One never thought of “execution”, though that was marvellous. It seemed to come from the depths of a heart, and it struck the hearts of listeners. Volumes have been written, yet I think no one who did not hear him could quite understand that magnetic power. It is still a deep, though somewhat mournful pleasure to me to open the pages marked with Chopin's pencillings on the margins—graceful little additions to the printed music.


[*] In 1903 J. Cuthbert Hadden published a biography of Chopin he justifies in the Preface as follows: «I have endeavoured to tell the story of Chopin's life simply and directly, to give a clear picture of the man, and to discuss the composer without trenching on the ground of the formalist». In fact, taking for granted the Niecks' leading authority, «Karasowski's life-says Hadden-is valuable… (but) it is written without literary skill, and is disfigured by many uncritical embellishments». And what about Liszt's biography? A biography!? For heaven's sake, «Liszt's so-called biography is not a biography at all, but rather a symphonie funèbre». Well, among all authors Hadden feels indebted only to Hadow (1859-1937) (s. Studies in Modern Music, Second Series, by W. H. Hadow, New York [Macmillan and Co] 1894, pp. 77÷170) and Huneker (1857-1921) (s. James Huneker, Chopin, The Man and His Music, New York [Charles Scribner's Sons] 1900).
Beyond all evaluation of Hadden's work, he carries some interesting documents, one of which is a letter of an old Scottish lady who had had lessons from Chopin. «The writer desires to remain anonymous–writes Hadden–, but I am allowed to say that she is a distant cousin of the Miss Stirling». This letter is dated 27th March 1903.

In summary, from this short letter, written by a Lady as modest as intelligent, we can detect that Chopin as a teacher:
– explained the structure, the meaning of a piece, before making the pupil study it;
– showed the fingering, about which he was very strict;
– enlightened the most difficult passages by playing them to the student slowly;
– emphasized the importance of singing.
The remark about “letting fall” the hand, tacit in other witnesses, but only here expressly uttered, shows our Lady's acumen. Why was Chopin always so patient with her? Perhaps, because despite her extreme unpretentiousness she grasped anything immediately.
The notes on Chopin as a pianist agree with other sources: paramount mastery in getting various effects; the piano does sing; technique's precision; magnetism. And his playing was as marvellous as indescribable, in short unparalleled.

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