Chopin comes of age

October 2, 2015
Ray Heigemeir
Chopin's signature, from MLM 217 (detail)

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Piosnka litewska (Lithuanian song), op. 74, no. 16 [1830?]

Drei Ecossaises, op. 72, no. 3 (sketches) [1830?]

A song and piano sketches by Chopin share two sides of a single leaf, once belonging to Polish ethnologist and composer Oskar Kolberg (1814- 1890), and now residing in Stanford's Memorial Library of Music.  The Kolberg and Chopin families were neighbors, and Oskar followed Chopin at the Warsaw Lyceum, studying piano with one of Chopin’s teachers. Kolberg was a lifelong collector of music manuscripts, specifically Polish folk and national music, which he used in his scholarly endeavors.

Piosnka litewska, a folk song translated by Ludwik Osinski (1775-1838), is a through-composed ballad with a mazurka-like interlude. The lyrics tell an old folk tale: A mother becomes suspicious after noticing the sweat on her daughter’s brow, and questions her activities. The daughter lies, saying she had been hauling water. The daughter then confesses that she was with her lover in the fields (mothers always know).

The ecossaise (Scottish contradance) sketched here is an examples of a popular genre typically heard in early 19th century European salons. Both Beethoven and Schubert wrote numerous ecossaises. The popularity of the form waned mid-century, overtaken by the waltz and polka.  

Chopin's ecossaises were composed in 1830, a time of uncertainty in young Chopin’s life. Following an 1828 trip to Berlin, where he was well received in musical circles, he returned to Warsaw with much on his mind. He was hesitant about a concertizing career and the trappings of fame; he keenly felt the limitations of Warsaw’s artistic community; and he likely wrestled with travails common among all teenagers (an unrequited love, perhaps?). He continued to compose works including the ecossaises, op. 72, the first two etudes of op. 10, and the F minor piano concerto, op. 21, an early milestone in his developing mature style.

Chopin decided to embark on a tour to Vienna, Italy, France and possibly England. After a tearful family meal and a heartfelt musical sendoff by his friends, Chopin departed for Vienna on November 1, 1830, unaware that he would never return. His first months in Vienna produced a flurry of compositions including the full set of op. 10 etudes, the opp. 6 and 7 mazurkas, and, likely, Piosnka litewska and other songs. He led an active social life but a thread of loneliness ran through.  Chopin despaired about the political situation in Poland following the November Uprising, and about his subsequent ill treatment by the Austrians. Spending his first Christmastime alone, Chopin wrote his close friend Matuszynski,

“[After coffee hour] … I pay my calls, return to my place just before dark, curl my hair, change, off to a party. I get back about ten or eleven, never later than twelve. I play, cry, read, stare, laugh, get into bed, blow the candle out and dream about home.”

Chopin family parlor, Warsaw, 1827-30

The Chopin family parlor, Warsaw, 1827-1830

With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of this manuscript.