Music History Monday: An Auspicious Debut

by Professor Robert Greenberg, PhD

186 years ago today—on February 26, 1832—the not quite 22 year-old Frédéric Chopin made his highly anticipated Paris debut at the Salons de Pleyel—the tony concert hall of the Pleyel Piano Company—at 9 rue Cadet in the 9tharrondissement.

Watercolor portrait of Frédéric Chopin
Watercolor portrait of Frédéric Chopin at age 25

(Alas; the concert hall is no longer there. At the time of this writing, the building is occupied by a café/brasserie called “Le Petit Cadet”; a small produce market called “Cours des Halles”; a bookstore called “La librerie de JB”; and a high-end grocery and sandwich shop call “Castro Maison”. My goodness if the original walls could speak what stories they could tell!)

Chopin was born on March 1, 1810 in Warsaw, Poland, the child of a Polish mother and a French father. His father Nicolas had come to Poland in 1787 when he was sixteen years old, and remained there to avoid being drafted into the French Revolutionary Army. By the time Frederic was born in 1810, his father had become a teacher of French, a Captain in the Polish National Guard, and a genuine Polish patriot: something he would pass on to his son.

Chopin—who was, after all, the son of a teacher—received a first rate education. He was a bright and industrious student and so precocious a musician that the locals in Warsaw took to referring to him as “Mozart’s successor”. By the time he was a teenager, Chopin had attained celebrity status in Warsaw and had become accustomed to working with and socializing with people of the “highest quality”. A fastidious, snobbish, foppish person to begin with, Chopin gained early a hauteur, a sophistication, and a love for only the finest things that gained him almost instant entry to the “haute monde” when he relocated to Paris.

The Debut

That event took place in September of 1831, when Chopin was 21. He might have been a small, slim, young, physically unprepossessing provincial from Warsaw, but by the time he arrived in Paris to seek his fame and fortune he was a fully formed composer and already one of the best pianists in the world.

This article originally appeared on Professor Greenberg’s Music Blog

Chopin’s personal charm and off-the-charts talent opened every Parisian door he chose to walk through. Within just a few weeks of his arrival in Paris he had met the German pianist Friedrich Kalkbrenner, who was—at the time—one of the few pianists Chopin admired. He met the composer Luigi Cherubini, who was the Director of the Paris Conservatoire. He met the opera composers Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Vincenzo Bellini; he had been introduced to and had played piano for Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Liszt.

Chopin also met and dazzled Camille Pleyel, the doyen of Pleyel pianos: one of the two leading French piano manufacturers of the time (the other was Érard). In Chopin, Pleyel heard a pianist who played his pianos – known for their light touch and delicate colors – pretty much as well as they could be played. In the same way that the good people at Nike recognized the young Michael Jordan as the ideal spokesperson for their brand, Pleyel realized that Chopin’s endorsement of his pianos would be priceless. (And so it was.)

Chopin and Pleyel became almost instant friends, and it was Pleyel who took the lead in sponsoring Chopin’s Parisian “public” premiere on what was a Sunday evening, 186 years ago today.

The extremely well heeled audience glittered that evening. Among the celebrities in attendance that evening were Luigi Cherubini, Ferdinand Hiller, Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin’s Polish friends and admirers were there in conspicuous number, as were leading French musicians, writer, artists and journalists.

Typical of the concerts of the time, this one was a mixed bag. There were a number of pieces on the program, including a Beethoven quintet, a vocal duet, and a piece for solo oboe. Chopin participated in the performance of the other pieces. He performed his Piano Concerto in E Minor (and not the F Minor as is often claimed), accompanied not by an orchestra but by a string quintet. He joined Kalkenbrenner and four other pianists in a performance of Kalkenbrenner’s Grand Polonaise for Six Pianos, and as a soloist performed a number of his own mazurkas and nocturnes and his variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” (from Don Giovanni).

By every measure the concert was a major event, and it was a coup for Chopin. According to Ferdinand Hiller, “Mendelssohn applauded triumphantly!” The then well-known Polish composer and violinist Antoni Orłowski wrote to a friend in Poland that:

“Our dear Fryderyk gave a concert that brought him a great reputation. He utterly destroyed every local pianist and all Paris was stupefied.”

Lest we think that Antoni Orłowski was rooting a little too hard for the home town kid, here’s what the great Franz Liszt had to say about Chopin “debut”:

“The most vigorous applause seemed not to suffice to our enthusiasm in the presence of this talented musician, who revealed a new phase of poetic sentiment combined with such happy innovations in the form of this art.”

The written reviews were equally laudatory. Of particular interest is a review written by the editor of the influential journal Revue musicale, François-Joseph Fétis, who seems to have realized not just how original Chopin’s music was, but divined, as well, how influential it would become:

Here is a young man who, abandoning himself to his natural impressions and without taking a model, has found, if not a complete renewal of pianoforte music, at least part of what has been sought in vain for a long time – namely an abundance of original ideas of which the type is to be found nowhere [else]. I find in M. Chopin’s inspirations forms which may exercise – in time – much influence over this department of art.

Chopin’s was an auspicious premiere, indeed!

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances
Many of his lectures series, including How to Listen to and Understand Great Music are available to stream at The Great Courses Plus.

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