Chopin's voices

A BBC Four documentary explores the female singers that inspired Chopin, writes Rebecca Franks

Chopin and the piano. The words will always go together - however much lovers of bad puns try to insist a better match for ‘Chopin’ is ‘Liszt’, ‘Board’ or ‘Bag’. But, as a lunchtime recital at St George’s Bristol reminded me yesterday, the poet of the piano did on occasion branch out into other musical realms. One of his lifelong loves, after all, wasn’t the piano but the human voice.

One can hear the essence of Italian operatic melody – that entrancing singing style of Bellini and Donizetti – in the long-breathed lines of, for example, the Nocturnes.  'He was the first composer obsessed with the idea of reproducing the bel canto voice at the piano,' says Canadian pianist Louis Lortie in BBC Music Magazine. 'Chopin makes the piano sing like nobody else.' But it wasn't just popular opera tunes of the day that inspired him. The voices of particular singers, particularly female, caught his ear.

One of the first was Konstancja GÅ‚adowska, a young soprano for whom the 19-year-old pianist harboured a youthful passion. Later, when Chopin was immersed in the glamorous echelons of Parisian society, the promiscuous Countess Delfina Potocka (dubbed ‘The Great Sinner’) became one of his students and a muse. On his deathbed, it's reported, she was the person he begged to hear sing. Playing piano duets with the famous mezzo-soprano, and gifted pianist, Pauline Viardot was one of Chopin’s great pleasures, while in the final few months of his life, he became besotted with the Swedish nightingale Jenny Lind.

I didn't hear any of Chopin's 19 songs or any of his opera-infused piano music at the aforementioned concert. Instead, on the programme were two of his three works for cello. Yes, for this soulful string instrument Chopin wrote three complete pieces (and let's not forget the G minor Piano Trio either). The early Polonaise Brillante, Op. 3 was, he wrote to his friend Titus Woyciechowski, ‘nothing more than a brilliant salon piece, such as pleases ladies.’ (No marks for flattery there, Chopin.) The most Parisian of 19th-century interests – the opera house – inspired the Grand Concertant in E, which draws on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. But the substantial work of the cello triumvirate is the Sonata in G minor, written in 1845-46 for his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme.

So, why did the cello catch Chopin's interest? Perhaps it’s because, of all the instruments, the cello is most like the human voice. It can soar to a soprano's high notes and sink to a bass’s golden growl. Written after his bitter separation from the novelist George Sand, it seems unsurprising the Cello Sonata is in the dark key of G minor. The Largo seems to speak from the instrument’s soul, a study in expressive melancholy. And are there, as some suggest, echoes of Schubert’s song-cycle masterpiece charting lost love, Die Winterreise, in the Sonata’s first movement? 

A love of the voice is part of what makes Chopin, well, Chopin. But what, then, drew him to the individual female voices with which he became infatuated? It's the subject of pianist James Rhodes's  BBC Four documentary, to be broadcast this evening (15 October) at 7.30pm, which sees him visiting Warsaw, Paris and London in search of their stories, and talking to pianists including Emanuel Ax and Garrick Ohlsson. For any Chopin fan, it should be one to watch.

Rebecca Franks is online editor and staff writer for BBC Music Magazine