by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)
Jane Stirling’s (OBM) name has long been associated with Chopin’s (OBM) whenever discussions occur regarding his teaching and the final period of his life. In Western music history, she is known as an ardent supporter of her teacher, arguably the most popular classical music composer of today, and she is credited to have provided financial and professional support for him during his most desolate days. The Fryderyck Chopin Museum in Poland entitled their special exhibition in 2011 with the following words from the famous pupil, “I trust that there will always remain something to be done for him.” Her tireless devotion to Chopin is evidenced by her multiple roles as Chopin’s pupil, secretary, agent, business manager, concert organizer, benefactor, and the first “musicologist” of his music.
Jane Wilhelmina Stirling (OBM) was a descendent of the aristocratic Scottish clan, “Stirlings of Keir.” The family made its fortune from West Indian Sugar plantations, and Stirling was brought up as a prim Calvinist. She possessed a reputation of unimpeachable purity and was rumored to have turned down over 30 marriage proposals. It is known that Stirling was an accomplished pianist, and Chopin once remarked that “one day you will play very, very well.” The works she studied with Chopin included his finest and most technically advanced output such as the Etudes op. 10 and 25, the Fantaisie op. 49, the Sonatas and the Concerto No. 2. Stirling was a well educated noblewoman who spent copious time in Paris. She was introduced to Chopin around 1842 or 1843 and subsequently became his pupil. Stirling’s scores, along with annotations in Chopin’s hand had become a treasure trove of insight into his teaching and provided invaluable glimpses into his ideas regarding tempo indications, fingerings, ornamentation and pedaling. In terms of personal dedications, Chopin wrote two nocturnes in F minor and E-flat major, Opus 55 between 1842 and 1844 for Stirling. Following his death, she remained in close contact with Chopin’s sister Ludwika Jedrzejewicz (OBM) in order to manage his estate and his manuscripts.
Chopin wrote two nocturnes in F minor and E-flat major, Opus 55 between 1842 and 1844 for Stirling.
In 1848, Chopin encountered immense financial difficulties. His teaching of aristocratic students in Paris became unstable due to the outbreak of the French revolution, and his income virtually vanished overnight when nobilities fled the city. In order to alleviate him from debt, and having been informed of his break up with George Sand (OBM), Stirling initiated a plan for Chopin to tour and teach in England. Upon his arrival in London, Stirling stocked his apartment “with writing paper bearing his initials” and attended to every detail. However, despite performing in front of Queen Victoria (OBM) and Prince Albert (OBM) and socializing with the upper echelons of London society, Chopin was still “sorely in need of money,” since some pupils failed to pay for their lessons. Once again, Stirling became aware of the difficulties Chopin encountered and extended an invitation for him to visit Scotland and to pay for his expenses. He would be a welcomed guest at the Stirling family estate and concerts were organized for him in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Manchester. Unfortunately, Chopin was not able to acclimatize to the damp, cold British weather, and along with the lack of rest, all these factors took a serious toll on his health. He wrote to his friends, “my health varies from one hour to the next. In the mornings there are times I think I’ll absolutely cough myself to death.” (1)
However, despite performing in front of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and socializing with the upper echelons of London society, Chopin was still “sorely in need of money,” since some pupils failed to pay for their lessons.
While in Scotland, Stirling, along with her sister Katherine Erskine (OBM) the widow, transported Chopin around the Scottish region with countless visits to the homes of aristocracy and clan members. Due to his inability to communicate and understand English, he was only able to “watch them talk and listen to them drink.” Clearly this type of daily routine become tiresome increasingly insufferable for Chopin. He wrote, “one more day here will drive me mad if it doesn’t kill me.” (2) He found that the English and Scots were not a crowd of audience with the sense of artistic appreciation that he craved. “I feel alone, alone, alone, although I am surrounded,” he wrote.
When Stirling learnt of this news, she bought 100 tickets at half a guinea apiece to distribute to friends in an attempt to fill up the hall.
However, in order to maximize his income from the visit and to promote her teacher to the audience, Stirling organized recitals for him, and Chopin continued to stay in the northern region of the British Isles. Chopin was due to perform a solo recital at the prestigious Hopetoun Rooms in Edinburgh but due to a lack of publicity, ticket sales were poor. When Stirling learnt of this news, she bought 100 tickets at half a guinea apiece to distribute to friends in an attempt to fill up the hall. At times, the constant doting from Stirling and Erskine became intolerable for Chopin, and he excused himself to stay with the Polish doctor and his wife – the Lyszczyńskis (OBM) – in Edinburgh. Despite this, Stirling wrote to Chopin everyday, and the close contact inadvertently rendered rumors that Stirling had become Chopin’s fiancée and after his death, she was mistakenly named by a few as “Chopin’s widow.” However, the truth is revealed in Chopin’s own words in response to the engagement rumor, that “I’m nearer to a coffin than a wedding bed.” (3)
Nevertheless, Jane Stirling, along with Camille Dubois (OBM), Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (OBM), Eugène Delacroix (OBM), Auguste Franchomme (OBM), Pauline Viardot (OBM), and Jenny Lind (OBM) formed a circle as Chopin’s closest friends and pupils. Through Stirling’s letters and writings, her admiration and respect for Chopin became easily perceptible. In reference to his teaching, she deemed it to be “marvelous” and in her commentary about his playing, she praised that the chords he played “sounded more celestial than of this earth and contained an aspiration that extend into eternity.” (4) After she heard one of Chopin’s most successful pupils – Camille Dubois – perform, she remarked that she “ardently wish[es] her to preserve the [Chopin] tradition.”(5) Personally and professionally, she was devoted to Chopin. Apart from the tour to England and Scotland, Jane Stirling arranged for Chopin to perform at the Salle Pleyel in February 1848, which was to be his final concert appearance in Paris. By this time, Chopin was suffering from influenza, and Stirling had reportedly remained backstage to care for Chopin as soon as he stepped off the performing stage.
After Chopin’s death in 1849, Stirling bought his last Pleyel piano and involved herself with matters regarding the publication of Chopin’s posthumous works. She was reported to have singlehandedly funded his funeral, including the costs of the orchestra and chorus.
Her efforts to preserve his legacy and generosity by providing her personal scores for study had made an immense contribution to the world
According to the memoir of Solange Clésinger-Sand, the daughter of George Sand, Stirling was described as a “thin, pale, ageless, solemn [and] never smiling woman.” But there is no doubt that Stirling, through her devotion, had exerted significant impact on Chopin’s life and especially his later years. She stopped playing the piano for one year following Chopin’s death and in the subsequent years, dressed in black. It had been reported that she repeatedly performed the C minor prelude Op. 28 No. 2 , dubbed the “Funeral March,” in public after her teacher’s passing away. Her efforts to preserve his legacy and generosity by providing her personal scores for study had made an immense contribution to the world of Chopin scholarship, and the knowledge gained still impacts the teaching and playing of Chopin’s music today. The Chopin artifacts she bought, collected, and passed onto his family benefitted Chopin institutions and enriched archive collections.
- Atwood, William G. Fryderyk Chopin: pianist from Warsaw. New York: Columbia U Press, 1987. Print.
- Cholmondeley, Rose. “Chopin’s Visit to Britain, 1848.” The Chopin Society UK, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.
- Eigeldinger, Jean Jacques. Chopin– Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.
- Eisler, Benita. “Chopin’s Funeral.” The New York Times. N.p., 20 Apr. 2003. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.
- Hadden, J. Cuthbert. Chopin: By J. Cuthbert Hadden. Adelaide: Cambridge Scholars, 2002. Print.
- Portraits of Greatness Chopin. New York: Elite Corporation, 1966. Print.
- Smialek, William, and Maja Trochimczyk. Frédéric Chopin: A Research and Information Guide. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.
About the Author:
Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.