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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 7 Self and Other

Chopin and Gottschalk as Exotics; Orientalism

CHAPTER 7 Self and Other
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


All these poets write as if they were ill, and as though the whole world were a hospital.

Goethe to his amanuensis Eckermann, 20 september (1827)

Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” exclaimed Eusebius on Wednesday morning, 7 December 1831, in the dignified pages of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.1 With these words the twenty-one-year-old Schumann, making his critical debut three years before founding his own journal, welcomed the twenty-one-year-old piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin into the ranks of published composers and introduced him to German music lovers, for whom previously he had hardly been a name. Also appearing for the first time in print were Schumann's Davidsbündler: the article would have been historic even were it not for the clairvoyance with which one genius had recognized another. But the opening has become a catchphrase; the composer it heralded soon proved to be the very embodiment of everything that the word genius implied in the early nineteenth century, and only Schumann spotted him—or even could have spotted him, one easily believes—so early.

Even more than a genius, Chopin was music's supremepoète maudit. An intruder from an alien terrain, he captivated and mystified with a strange fascination. (Even in 1831 Schumann described himself as being transfixed in Chopin's presence by “strange basilisk eyes,” naming a mythical creature that killed with a glance.) And then he wasted mysteriously away, dying of “consumption” (tuberculosis), the most romantic of diseases, before his fortieth birthday.

Chapter 7 Self and Other

fig. 7-1 Chopin Evoking Memories of Poland, by Jan Styka.

Chapter 7 Self and Other

fig. 7-2 Chopin at the Radziwill salon (Hendrik Siemirdzki, 1887).

One of the most romantic things about Chopin was his place of origin. Despite his French surname, he was a Pole, baptized with the name Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin in Zelazowa Wola, a settlement near Warsaw, where he was born in 1810 to the family of a French expatriate, Nicolas Chopin, who had come there in 1787 for reasons unknown and stayed on there to avoid conscription in the French revolutionary army. The future composer's father married a cultured Polish woman and raised his children as Polish patriots.

But although Polish patriotism burned brightly at the time, and would greatly increase, there was no such thing as Poland. In 1795 the country had been swallowed up by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, its powerful perfidious neighbors, in what was called the Third Partition. Its king was forced to abdicate, and it disappeared from the map of Europe until 1918, when it was restored after all three of its devourers had been defeated in the First World War. Like the Jews, those who identified as Poles now constituted a diaspora, a “scattering” among other nations.

The part of Poland in which Chopin was born had been incorporated into Russia, and he was legally a subject of the Russian tsar. But a Russian was the very last thing Chopin would have called himself. In the context of post-Revolutionary romantic politics, as we have seen, nation was no longer synonymous with state. Indeed Schumann, in a later review, noted wryly that “if the mighty autocrat of the North”—that is, Tsar Nikolai I, who had put down a major Polish rebellion in 1831—“knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in Chopin's works,” simple and pretty as many of them were, “he would forbid this music. Chopin's works are guns buried in flowers.”2 Chopin thus became the first major European composer to be actively touted abroad as a nationalist. “And because this nationalism is in deep mourning,” Schumann wrote, alluding to Poland's tragic fate, “it attracts us all the more firmly to this thoughtful artist.”

Indeed, it was only because the exiled Chopin's nationalism was an oppressed and offended nationalism that Schumann noticed it as nationalism at all. Although the romanticism to which he so ardently subscribed was, as we have seen, very much the product of German nationalism, Schumann did not think of himself as a nationalist. He was already used to thinking of the values of his nation, at least those to which he personally subscribed, as the general values of humanity, thus professing an unwitting double standard—we now call it ethnocentrism—that perpetuated the oppression with which he consciously sympathized on Chopin's behalf.

There was of course a residual social component to Schumann's double standard as well. In the early nineteenth century most Slavic languages were regarded as peasant vernaculars (and their speakers, implicitly, as peasants), especially within large multinational imperial states like Austria and even Russia, itself a Slavic state but with a French-speaking court, and an arrogant overlord to many smaller Slavic linguistic groups. Austria encompassed many Slavic-speaking territories: Bohemia and Slovakia, Western Poland (Galicia), and Croatia, to name only the largest. A speaker of Czech, Polish, or Serbo-Croatian, however, could achieve no social advancement within the empire unless he or she spoke German, the language of civil administration, and preferably French as well, the diplomatic and high-society lingua franca.

The linguistic hierarchy translated directly into a cultural and social hierarchy based on political power, inspiring rebellion. Herder's utopian brotherhood of nations, one of the bedrocks of romanticism, had been predicated on the God-given uniqueness and equality of all languages—something utterly contradicted by social and political realities. Herder had come to his idealistic vision by studying the local Lettish (or Latvian) folklore in the environs of Riga, a German-speaking enclave within the Russian empire. Herder-inspired attempts to turn Slavic vernaculars into literary languages, as precondition for national liberation, were just beginning in Chopin's time. His countryman Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855) composed epics, dramas, sonnets, and ballads in the Polish language. Modern Czech literature began with the national historian František Palacký (1798–1876). The first Ukrainian writer to win an international reputation for writing in his mother tongue was the poet Taras Shevchenko (1814–61).

Significantly enough, in view of Schumann's comment about Chopin's “guns amid flowers,” all three of these writers faced political persecution from imperial authorities who recognized in their work a threat to Germanic or Russian hegemony. Mickiewicz and Palacký took active part in national insurrections (in 1830 and 1848 respectively) and spent a good part of their lives, like Chopin, abroad. But whereas Chopin lived abroad by choice, in pursuit of his fortune, the writers were true political exiles whose romantic luster, perhaps somewhat undeservedly, rubbed off on the composer, too. In the real world languages and their speakers were far from equal, but in the world of art oppression carried (and still carries) a cachet.


(1) Robert Schumann, “An Opus 2,” Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker, Vol. I (Leipzig, 1854), p. 3.

(2) Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, trans. Paul Rosenfeld, ed. Konrad Wolff (New York: Pantheon, 1946), p. 132.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 17 Jun. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Self and Other. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Self and Other." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 17 Jun. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-007.xml