Frédéric Chopin’s grand piano

Chopin's Piano

Contributor: Mirosława Modrzewska

Location: Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa (the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera)

Description: The story of Frédéric Chopin’s piano is part of Polish Romantic cultural heritage. It has been passed down in a poem by Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883) entitled Fortepian Szopena. Norwid wrote the poem in the years 1863-64 and it refers to an authentic event in Warsaw, which took place on September 19th, 1863 during the Polish insurrection against Russian occupation. 

In September 1863, one of the insurrectional groups of a leftist and terrorist character (“sztyletnicy” – stiletto men) planned to assassinate Fyodor Fyodorovich Berg (Friedrich Wilhelm Rembert Graf von Berg, 1794-1874). Berg was the last Viceroy of the Kingdom of Poland (1863 to 1874) after the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. He was a distinguished servant of the Russian Imperial Army and was particularly infamous for introducing the Russification system in Poland. The assassins threw bombs onto his coach from the windows of the tenement house known as Zamoyski Palace, in Nowy Świat street in Warsaw. Unlike his less fortunate Cossacks and his horses, Berg escaped unharmed and ordered reprisal, by which the Zamoyski Palace was confiscated and plundered by the Imperial Army. Men were arrested, Count Zamoyski was later sent to Siberia, and all the objects in the Palace were thrown out of the windows, destroyed, and later burnt in the street.

One of the apartments in Zamoyski Palace, nr 69, was inhabited by the Barciński family. Izabella Barcińska, Frederick Chopin’s younger sister, lived there with her parents and one of the objects she inherited after their death was a piano made by Fryderyk Buchholtz in Warsaw around the year 1825. It is visible in the sketch of their drawing room by Antoni Kolberg of 1832 (<31/03/2019>) (<31.03.2019>) This was the piano on which Frédéric François Chopin used to play his juvenile compositions and on which he gave his first public concerts before leaving Warsaw for good in 1830. On September 19, 1863, it was brutally thrown out of the window and destroyed on the pavement (<31/03/2019>).

The poem Fortepian Szopena by Norwid is a reaction to this event in Warsaw, written to commemorate it and as a personal dialogue with a now-dead friend – Fryderyk Szopen (Chopin), whom Norwid visited on his final days in Paris in 1849. They both left Poland not realising they would never be able to come back. Stanzas 1-3 contain Norwid’s very personal memory of the composer, whom he remembers as like the perfect work of a sculptor. He is the “Genius – of the eternal Pygmalion”; he has “Periclean perfection”; he is “complete as myth”, beautiful and faultless as Emmanuel – the ideal presence of the Absolute in the form of music. This remembrance is followed by a dramatic vision of the destruction in Warsaw experienced, as if in dialogue in Paris, by the late Fryderyk and Cyprian Kamil Norwid, the painter, sculptor and poet:

For look – look now, Frederic… This is Warsaw
Under a star ablaze –
Strange gaudy eyesore
Look, the Parish organs! Look! Where you were raised!
There – the patricians’ houses – old
As the Publica Res;
Pavements of the squares grey and cold,
And Zygmunt’s sword in its cloudy crest.

Look! From street to street
Charge Caucasian steeds
Like a storm-spurned starling fleet
Charging the horses speed –
A hundred a time – a hundred a time,
Flames swelling the building, – then dying down
Blazing again – and then – look now!
I see rifle butts pointing at the brow
Of bereaved widows –
And then I see, though through a wall of
Blinding smoke, at the porch, colonnade
A tumbril-like object swayed
To and fro… to and fro… – fallen! Your piano has fallen!

He!… who proclaimed Poland from the height
Of Omniperfection’s eternal form
And wrought with a hymn of delight –
A Poland of the Wheelwright’s House transformed –
He – has fallen – into the mud-bespattered night!
And now, like the wise saying of the Sage,
He lies trampled by the people’s wrath,
Or like all that which – from age
To age – shall summon forth!
And now, like Orpheus’ body,
A thousand Passions dismember his corpse
Each one groaning, “Not me!
Not me!” through grinding jaws…


But you? – But I? Let us sound judgement tones,
Call forth: “Rejoice, late-coming posterity!
The vulgar street – screech muted stones –
The Ideal – has inherited.”

(trans. By Teresa Bałuk,<31.03.2019>)

Norwid wrote a poem about Chopin’s piano as the embodiment of art and the symbol of perfect ideal beauty. Despite the evil intentions of the enemy and its brutal destruction, it may yet bring rebirth for posterity. The poem, like Chopin’s music, belongs to the canon of Romanticism in Poland, and both are equally associated with Polish liberation.

At the instigation and with the funding of Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina (The Fryderyk Chopin Institute) the piano was reconstructed by Paul McNulty and became an object of display and patriotic worship during a concert on March 17th, 2018 in Teatr Wielki in Warsaw. This inaugurated the celebrations marking the 100th anniversary of the recovery of freedom by the Polish state. The liberation movement was at the heart of Polish Romanticism and, as Norwid declared in his Promethidion, “Art will develop in Poland from the grave of Frederick Chopin, as a wreath of morning glory […] turned towards truth and good. Then artistry will make up the whole of national art.” („W Polsce od grobu Fryderyka Chopina rozwinie się sztuka, jako powoju[149]wieniec, przez pojęcia nieco sumienniejsze o formie życia, to jest, o kierunku pięknego i o treści życia, to jest, o kierunku dobra i prawdy. Wtedy artyzm się złoży w całość narodowej sztuki.” Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Promethidion, Rzecz w dwóch dialogach z epilogiem)

The modern replica of Chopin’s grand piano is not the only one of Chopin’s pianos extant. At least two others survive. In CHOPIN’S PIANO: A Journey Through Romanticism (U.S.A. title: Chopin’s Piano: In Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, London 2018), Paul Kildea tells the story of the more widely travelled piano on which Chopin composed his twenty-four Preludes during the winter of 1838/1839 which he spent in Majorca with the French writer George Sand (1804-1876) and her two children. All that he could get in the old monastery in Valdemosa, the mountainous area near Palma, was an upright piano produced by the local craftsman, Juan Bauza (1830s). It was crude even by the standards of the time. Paul Kildea focuses on Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), a legendary Polish-Jewish pianist and harpsichordist, who found Chopin’s Bauza piano in Valdemosa and made it part of her historic musical collection in her apartment north of Paris. After her flight from Paris to America in 1941, the Bauza piano was confiscated by the Nazis and became an object of Nazi cultural propaganda, by which they appropriated Chopin’s high Romantic art as their own. After the war the piano was found in Bavaria and then returned to Landowska’s house in Saint-Leu-la-Forêt in France in 1946 (<02/04/2019>). A third of Chopin’s pianos is to be found in the museum devoted to Chopin in Warsaw – the piano gifted to him by his Scottish benefactress, Jane Stirling during his tour in Scotland late in his life. But that is another story. (


To Anthony C . . . . . . . . .

La musique est une chose étrange!

L’art? . . . c’est l’art – et puis, voilà tout.

I visited you in those days but last
Of life’s inscrutable thread –
Full – like Myth,
Pale – like dawn . . .
– When life’s end whispers to its beginning:
“I won’t destroy you – no! – You I’ll enhance! . . .”

I visited you in those days, days but last,
When you became – moment, by moment –
Likened to the lyre Orpheus let fall,
Where force-of-thrust struggles with song,
And four strings converse,
Nudging each other,
Two – by two –
And in soft strains:
“Has he begun
To strike the tone?
Is this the Master! . . . who plays . . . yet, disdains? . . .”

I visited you in those days, Frédéric!
Whose hand . . . with its alabaster
Whiteness – and manners, and chic,
Its swaying touches like an ostrich plume –
Fused in my eyes with the keyboard
Of elephant tusk . . .
And you were that form, which
From marble’s bosom,
Still uncarved,
With chisel withdrawn,
By the genius – eternal Pygmalion!

In what you played – and what? asked the tones, what?
Though echoes will strum differently,
Than when you blessed with Your Own hand
Every chord –
In what you played, was the simplicity
Of Periclean perfection,
As if some Virtue of antiquity,
Entering a larch-wood country manor –
Said to herself:
“I was reborn in Heaven
Its gates became – my Harp,
Its path – my ribbon . . .
The Host – through the pale wheat I see . . .
And Emmanuel already dwells
On Mount Tabor!”

And in this was Poland – from its zenith
Through Ages’ all-perfection,
Captured in songs of rapture –
– That Poland – of wheelwrights transfigured into kings!
The very same – indeed
A golden-bee . . .
(Recognize it I would, at the limits of existence! . . .)

And – thus – you’ve ended your song – and no more
Do I see you – – merely – hear:
Something? . . . like children quarrelling –
– These are the keys of the piano wrangling
For their not-fully-sung wish:
And nudging each other in soft strains
By eight – by five –
They whisper: “has he begun to play? or does he disdain us? . . .”

O You! – who are Love’s profile,
Whose name is Fulfilment;
The one – that in Art they call Style,
For it infuses song, chisels stone . . .
O! You – who through the ages bear the name: Era,
Even in times that aren’t history’s zenith,
You are named both: Spiritus et Littera,
And consummatum est . . .
O! You – Consummate-completion,
Whatever is Your sign . . . and where?
Be it in Phidias? in David? or Chopin?
Or in an Aeschylus scene? . . .
Always – you’ll be revenged by: NOT ENOUGH . . . !
– Privation is this globe’s stigma:
Fulfillment? . . . pains it! . . .
It – prefers ever to begin
Prefers always to pay – a deposit!
– An ear of wheat? . . . when ripe – a golden comet –
When barely moved by the breeze,
It sprays the rain of its wheaten seeds –
Its own perfection scatters it . . .

Look then – Frédéric! . . . this is – Warsaw:
Under a flaming star
Strangely brilliant – –
– Look, the organs at St. John’s! Your nest –
There – old patrician homes
Like the Publica-Res,
The squares’ cobbles dull and gray,
And King Sigismund’s sword in clouds.

Look! . . . from alleys to alleys
Caucasian horses tear forth,
Like swallows before a storm,
Ahead of their brigades –
Hundred – by hundred – –
A house – engulfed by fire, which dims,
Flares up again – – and here – by a wall –
I see widows’ mourning brows
Pushed by rifle butts – –
And again I see, though blinded by smoke,
As – through a balcony’s columns –
A coffin-likened object
They heave . . . it tumbled . . . tumbled – your grand piano!

The very one! . . . that proclaimed Poland
– From the zenith of Ages’ all-perfection
Captured – in hymns of Rapture;
That Poland – of transfigured wheelwrights –
That same piano – cast – on a street of granite!
– And so it is, like man’s noble thought,
Besullied by men’s wrath,
Or, so it is – ever and evermore –
With all that will awaken!
And – thus – as Orpheus’ body,
A thousand passions tear it into shreds;
And each one howls: “Not I! . . .
Not I!” – grating her teeth –
But You? – but I? – let’s break into judgment chant,
And exhort: “Rejoice, our grandson yet to come! . . .
The dull stones groaned:
The Ideal – has reached the street – –”

English Translation copyright © 2011 Danuta Borchardt
First Archipelago Books Edition, 2011

Date: 1825-1827

Creator: Fryderyk Buchholtz

Subject: Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and Cyprian Kamil Norwid’s poem „Fortepian Szopena” (1865)

Media rights:<30/09/2018>

Object type: 2018 wooden reconstruction of Frederick Chopin’s piano