Chopin on Scotland: 'Beautiful country' and 'doubly brilliant' but 'every creature here seems to have a screw loose' – Laura Waddell

One-hundred-and-seventy-four years ago this very week, in 1848, Polish composer Chopin visited Scotland.

In 1848, Frédéric Chopin was paid fees similar to those received by many Edinburgh Festival performers today (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In 1848, Frédéric Chopin was paid fees similar to those received by many Edinburgh Festival performers today (Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Like the many musicians, comics, poets and playwrights just now descending for the festival, he was there to work, giving concerts inbetween enjoying, and sometimes, tolerating, hospitality of lords and ladies keen to host the famous performer in grand homes and castles.

Reading Chopin’s letters, directed staidly to his family and more intimately to male friends, I am amused at his miserablist, introverted attitude.

On August 6, he wrote: “I left London a few days ago, and made the journey to Edinburgh in 12 hours… I have given two musical matinees, which people apparently enjoyed; this does not prevent my having been equally bored.”

He praises his hosts for putting him far away from everyone else, “so that I can play and do what I like freely… the first thing to do for a guest is not to interfere with him.” Sounds ideal to me.

But how much have performer’s fees really changed over a century later? Not as much as perhaps they should have. Chopin mentions fees of £100 and £60, which he was “counting on earning". Some performers are on the same kind of money today.

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Chopin expressed admiration for Scotland, which he referred to as “Walter Scott’s beautiful country”, noting how “everything here speaks to the imagination” and is “doubly brilliant, except the sun”.

He praised parks, architecture, and “beautiful Scottish songs". But not all of his words flatter us: “The population here is ugly, but apparently good-natured. On the other hand, the cows are magnificent, but apparently inclined to gore people.”

And of our pipes? “One day, after my piano, and after various songs by other Scottish ladies, they brought a kind of accordion, and she began with the utmost gravity to play on it the most atrocious tunes. …Every creature here seems to have a screw loose.” Well, we can’t have it all.

All in all, it was a successful trip. “I have played in Edinburgh; all the distinguished folk of the region assembled. There was a little success and a little money. This year everyone has been in Scotland: Lind, Grisi, Alboni, Mario, Salvi.”

Some things change little. Here’s to the performers setting up stage now, wishing also for a little success and a little money.

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