WAS CHOPIN AN ANTISEMIT?

When you think of Frederic Chopin, what is your first thought? I bet it has something to do with lyricism, romantic soul, artist with incredible talent and so on. But, would you ever think of Chopin as the antisemit? I know, I know, it is quite a strong word and possibly even slander, but would you think of that when it comes to Chopin? I think you would not. But, did you read his letters? If not, than this article may be a very good read for you.

Even though the word antisemit was first used in 1880, the hatred for Jews was a few thousand years old up to that point. The peak of this problem, as we know, occurred some 50 years later. However, not so many people know about Chopin’s “hatred” towards Jews. While he was not violent towards them, he used a lot of problematic words in his letters. The context matters, so I will talk about that as well.

Chopin and Herr Geymüller

It was December the 1st 1830, Chopin was writing a letter to his family. At that time he was in Vienna. It was a time when he was trying to promote himself to the Austrian aristocracy. Certain Herr Geymüller, the Austrian merchant and banker Johann Jakob Geymüller was his host one day at the Geymüllerschlössel. But as it turned out, after flattering chat about how great artist Chopin is, Geymüller said that he “cannot advise me to get myself heard, for there are so many good pianists here that one needs a great reputation to gain anything”. Can you even imagine someone saying this to Chopin? What kind of high hat you have to be to not recognize one of the greatest pianists of all time? Well, I guess you had to be Herr Geymüller. Obviously, this enraged Chopin, who said in his letter that he had to gape at him, and swallow all that. However, Chopin did not remain indebted to him. He waited for Herr Geymüller to finish his tirade, and only after that he told him about the letter of introduction from the Grand Duke from Warsaw, which made Herr Geymüller look like a fool. The best part is yet to come, wait for it…

Chopin finishes this story with this sentence: “Wait a bit, you hycel Jews!”. Word hycel describes the destroyer of stray dogs and cats; a trade formerly practiced in Poland by a very poor class of Ghetto Jews. The word is also employed as a general term of abuse. Obviously, Chopin’s pride was hurt. It is interesting that he equalizes the banker with someone from a very poor class. My guess that this was quite accurate portrayal of Her Geymüller’s sense of culture and knowledge of musical art. However, from our perspective, it does not look right, right? But, on the other side, to cool off Chopin like that, come on man!

Chopin and his Jewish publishers

I’ve got the first grips with Chopin letters while I was searching for a biographical story behind his Sonata Op. 35. I found a book written by Henkryk Opilenski, translated, with a preface and editorial notes by E. L. Voynich, published by Dover Publications, INC. In those years I was interested in, Chopin repeatedly wrote about Jews in negative contexts. In December 1838 Chopin was writing a lot of letters to his friend Juljan Fontana, who was in Paris at that time. On the other hand, Chopin was in Palma, Spain, recovering from his illness. In the letter written on 28th of December, Chopin writes:

“As for what people are saying about me, it doesn’t matter. Leo is a Jew! I can’t send you the preludes; they aren’t finished … and I’ll send the Jew a short open letter of thanks that will go down to his heels. The rascal! … Schlesinger is still more of a cur, to put my waltzes into an album!! And sell them to Probst, when I gave them to him for his collection for Gyc.”

This rant will continue for couple of more letters, but here we can clearly see the verbal hostility towards the one of his publishers, Leo. As I managed to understand from these letters, Chopin was furious because Leo gave his friend Juljan, who was in charge of Chopin payments while he was in Spain, very small amount of money for his compositions.

Three months later, in March 1839 Chopin wrote another latter to his friend Juljan. He said this:

“My Dear: If they’re such Jews, hold back everything, till I come. The Preludes are sold to Pleyel (I have received 500 francs) – so I suppose he has the right to wipe the other side of his belly with them; but as for the Ballade and Polonaises, don’t sell them, either to Schl. or to Probst. I will have nothing to do with any Schonbergers at any time.”

Clearly, the problem was about the money. As it usually happens in the life. Pleyel and Leo are the main culprits here. And the previous problem now is expanded from one to two publishers. However, it is interesting how Chopin is connecting their ethnicity with some personality traits. When he says “If they’re such Jews, hold back everything…” it sounds like a generalization, really. Like all of them are the same. Chopin, you naughty boy! Moreover, in the same month Chopin sent another letter to his friend, saying:

“I did not expect that Pleyel would Jew me; but, if so, please give him this letter … If I have to do deal with Jews, let it at least be Orthodox ones. Probst may swindle me even worse, for he’s a sparrow whose tail you can’t salt. Schlesinger has always cheated me; but he has made a lot out of me, and won’t want to refuse another profit; only be polite to him, because the Jew likes to pass for somebody.” Again, Chopin was using the word “Jew” as a foundation for negative personal traits.

Should we call Chopin antisemit because of this?

Well, when you read this you could easily think that he was an actual antisemit. However, there is the other side of this story. Chopin was quite emotional person. Explosive, sensitive, quick-tempered, even neurotic in some aspects – you can find it out by reading his letters as well. So, even with all his words we previously seen, in 1841 he was still doing business with Leo and Pleyel. Again, the letter to his friend Juljan reveals it:

“Don’t tell Leo anything about it, he’s ill; go to him if you have a chance and remember me to him; thank him, and apologize for his trouble; it was, after all, a courtesy on his part to undertake the consignment.”

Here, we can clearly see a lot different relationship between Chopin and Leo. Affection and empathy I would say. It would not be the only time when these kinds of words about Leo emerged in his letters. Also, the amount of Chopin’s trust in Leo is embodied in one particular letter from October 1841, again addressed to his friend Juljan, where he says: “You can cut down similarly the manuscript in my handwriting of the Polonaise … add my letter to Mechetti, seal it up in the envelope that I send you, and give it into Leo’s hands, asking him to send it by post, as Mechetti is waiting for it”. The words speak for themselves.

Also, there’s one account unrelated to any of previous events. In May 1830 Chopin was writing a lot of letters to Tytus Wojciechowski. In one of those letters, Chopin mentioned some Woerlitzer, a young pianist to His Majesty the King of Prussia. As he pointed out: “He’s a little Jew, very intelligent by nature, and has played us several things which he has learned very thoroughly. He has called on me. He’s really only a child, still 16. His forte is the Moscheles Variations on Alexander’s march. He plays them splendidly; I think there is nothing lacking. When you hear him, you will be pleased with his playing; although, between ourselves, he is not up to the title that he bears”.

Here, we can clearly see a normal behavior towards a young man, giving a positive critique about his playing. There are no insults, nor belittling.

From our point of view, Chopin’s negative words about Her Geymüller, Leo and Pleyel are terrifying because we know what will happen in the next century. For him, that kind of discourse obviously did not have that weight. After all, the fact is that Jews generally know how to handle the money and business in general. Even Tony Soprano mentions that. 😊 On the other hand, Chopin, enthusiast and impulsive as he was, probably did not have the best skills when it comes to the trade, and may be overreacting in these cases. As E. L. Voynich says in his preface to the book of Chopin’s letters, in these letters we can see his irritable temper and warm heart; his naïve contempt for Jews and English, for publishers. He had no true hatred towards any of them.

What would be your verdict about this, was Chopin antisemit after all? I don’t think so.  I think he was very impulsive, that’s for sure. And that he might have been better with his words. But anti-semitic, no. It is quite difficult for us to determine this from our historical point of view, because of all those things that happened in the 20th century. If you would like to read about what happened to Jews in the 20th century and how it was musically depicted in one of the Sabaton’s songs, you can click here. On the other hand, if you want to stay on Chopin’s course, you can check this nice article about Ballade Op. 23 in G minor. Until the next reading, be happy and enjoy music.

References:

  • Chopin’s Letters – Collected by Henryk Opienski (Translated, with a preface and editorial notes, by E. L. Voynich), Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1988

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