It is 1836 and the room is full of cigar smoke and pomp. We are at a party thrown by Daniel Stern, a well known author, and as well known authors do-- they invite other well-known authors to their fancy cigar smoking parties. Well... and at least one composer. And as we are at most events that will, unknowingly, alter the course of our lives-- he is bored. Hello and welcome to Gin and the Tonic. A reckless unpacking of music history’s weirdest stories. I’m Colin Healy and today’s gin is Bombay Dry. It’s fancy and a bit expensive and was a gift from someone who makes more money than me. And today’s tonic is E. Which stands for Frederic. Frederic Chopin was born in... good lord, so much Polish... Zelazowa Vola in 1810. He was either born on February 22 or on March 1. We don’t know for sure because it was 1810 and children didn’t matter and neither did their birthdays.
Shortly after Chopin was born they moved from Zelazowa Vola, a town that to this day has 65 people, to Warsaw where they lived in a palace because his father was a teacher and that’s how they treated teachers back then. Chopin, or as they said, “the child” as he grew was of “slight build” and “prone to illness.” So he was short and sickly. Par for the course. Also, even though we’re only on episode 2 of this whole thing right now, one thing should be becoming abundantly clear-- you can’t be a genius if you’re not sickly. You can’t get both the mind and body right. It was not allowed back then. Of course, Chopin was a child prodigy who started playing for Dukes and writing polonaises and shit when he was 7. I’m 29 and had to look up how to spell the word “polonaise” for this script. The following year in 1818, the young Chopin would be invited over to play at his friend’s palace-- the son of a Russian Grand Duke. He would play piano for the Grand Duke and his posse, one of which was a high society poet named Julian Niemcewicz (nyemt-SAY-vitch), who would remark in his work of “Little Chopin’s popularity.”
[Musical interlude - upbeat, bright] All the stuff you’d expect happened over the rest of his childhood. Normal stuff-- he went to conservatory, studied music, he was given a diamond ring by the Tsar, he played recitals on weird chimera instruments called crazy shit like the “aeolomelodicon”, a hybrid of the piano and organ, and the “aeolopantaleon”, a hybrid of the piano and a pair of trousers. Oh, and his sister died. [Stop music] After the death of his sister, Frederick would finish school and promptly leave Warsaw. He would not return to Poland for the rest of his life. In 1830, he left for Paris with his last report from Conservatory in hand-- “Chopin F., third-year student, exceptional talent, musical genius.
Paris was actually his second choice. He wanted to go to Italy but it was just too violent. So, he settled on Paris. He joked while trying to obtain his passport that he was going to Paris “only in passing.” Funny. Chopin began to hob-nob around with his contemporaries like Hector Berlioz and Eugene Delacroix and all these other future episodes of this show. But he didn’t find critical success in Paris until 1831, when a review came in that said of Chopin “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” That review was penned by none other Gin and the Tonic’s resident shit-talker and emo darling boy, Robert Schumann. Chopin was in. But one of Chopin’s contemporaries would stand out and become a great friend of his-- and that was Franz Lizst. In music history circles (dorks!) their friendship has endured the ages-- there’s even a web comic about them, it’s called Chopin Lizst (”Shoppin’ List”), look it up, it’s funny.
Like good friends, they also they hated each other. Lizst and Chopin were neighbors and would often share studies in each others parlors. That sounds like a euphemism. They literally would go over to each other’s houses to play piano which is cute-- but not a euphemism for anything sexual. Chopin and Liszt did not have sex. This is history, not my fan-fiction. Lizst wrote like he was the greatest piano player to ever live because he was the greatest piano player who ever lived. I went to school for voice, actually, not piano (if you couldn’t tell), and I performed a piece that Lizst had had the audacity to write for piano and voice, or more so, it was a piano piece that some 19-year old asshole was shouting over in very poor French. Liszt’s vocal pieces are much like the way I make Gin and Tonic’s. It’s mostly gin... and I’m the tonic. Chopin would say of Lizst, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies.” Liszt would often annoy him at concerts when he would play Chopin’s pieces but then add a bunch of shit. Like one incident where Liszt performed one of Chopin’s nocturnes, a slow and somber type of piece-- that Liszt filled with virtuosic embellishments, of course to the great affection of the crowd, proving that even in 19th century popular music, more is more-- but Chopin was not pleased. In fact, after that performance Chopin and Liszt’s friendship grew cold. However, many historians think that it was more the men’s romantic lives that began to make them drift apart-- Liszt was jealous of the affection for Chopin showed by an author named Marie D’Agoult-- better known by her pen name -- Daniel Stern.
It is 1836 and the room is full of cigar smoke and pomp. We are at a party thrown by Daniel Stern, a well known author, and as well known authors do-- they invite other well-known authors to their fancy cigar smoking parties. One of those well-known authors was a brooding, barely five-foot tall, big eyed, cigar smoker with the pen name George Sand-- and George had eyes for Chopin. George Sand was born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, or “Aurore” to her family. Yes, George Sand was a woman. And look, I know that some of you wanted a gay story on Gin and the Tonic and I’m sorry for tricking you with this one. Worry not, though! Because this is a show about music history. The gay abounds. And before we go on, let’s get this straight: two female authors that go by male pen names-- Aurore Dupin is George Sand. They met at a party thrown by Marie D’Agoult, who goes by Daniel Stern.
During Aurore Dupin’s life, it was very difficult, if not impossible for women to be published authors-- so many women, like Marie D’Agoult as Daniel Stern -- would use male pen names to get around this cultural roadblock. However, in their personal lives, it was an open secret who these women really were-- in fact, while for much of her career as George Sand she was heralded among the French literary giants like Victor Hugo, as Aurore Dupin was widely known for pushing back against these c sultural norms. In addition to the public cigar-smoking and frequenting mens’ only clubs... She wore pants. This was a big deal. At this time, women had to apply for a permit to wear men’s clothing-- be it for health or recreation or whatever. Dupin did not have a permit. And she did not plan on applying for one. She wore them explicitly for the purpose of subverting gender stereotypes and also because, as she said, they were “less expensive and far sturdier than the typical dress.” Also, you know, pockets. Victor Hugo admired her saying, “George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.” Damn, Victor. If only some people in the 2020’s were as progressive as you were in the 1820’s.
In 1822, Dupin married the bastard, orphan son of a baron Casimir Dudevant. They had two children that may-or-may-not have been Casimir’s-- a boy named Maurice -- who is not important to this story but is actually super fascinating, he grew up and took his mother’s pen name, going by Maurice Sand, and revolutionized stage comedy and is part of a movement that paved the way to vaudeville and ultimately musical theatre -- and a girl named Solange, who would not take her mother’s name and is less interesting because she’s not Solange Knowles, however-- Solange is much more important to this story. She left Casimir in 1831 in order to partake in what she called a “romantic rebellion” - Aurore had a ho phase, we all do. She had public affairs with a bunch of socialist dudes (and one lady) with Wikipedia pages, most of which don’t say much about the men (and lady) themselves and more about how they used to hook up with George Sand. It was during this time that she became friends with Marie D’Agoult-- both progressive women around the same age, and both successful authors who used male pen names... And it was through this friendship that, in 1836 she found herself at a certain party with other cigar smoking, well-known authors.
Chopin was initially repulsed by Sand, saying of her “What an unattractive person. Is she really a woman?” The following year, they were madly in love with each other. In 1838, Sand wrote of Chopin, “I must say I was confused and amazed at the effect this little creature had on me ... I have still not recovered from my astonishment, and if I were a proud person I should be feeling humiliated at having been carried away." A “little creature” and an “unattractive person”, they were made for each other. Unfortunately, a side effect of a ho phase, as we all know, is one of those boys was bound to be crazy. Felicien Mallefille, another one whose Wikipedia page reads: wrote some plays, got fired by Franz Liszt for being a bad playwright, hooked up with George Sand -- began sending Dupin threats. Around this time, Chopin’s health was fading-- so Aurore decided it would be a good idea to go away for the winter to Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean and not only nurse Chopin back to health but also to escape the threats of Mallefille.
It was an unseasonably cold winter in Mallorca. It was wet and miserable. And also Maurice and Solange were there. How romantic. It’s 1838 and because of that this should come as no surprise to you but Chopin, by now had developed incipient tuberculosis. Aurore knew about this, in fact he had it since before they got together-- but the cold and wet winter spent in Mallorca wasn’t particularly good for him. He complained of his doctors in Mallorca saying "Three doctors have visited me ... The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die." He requested that a piano be sent to him but it didn’t come for some time becuase you know, it’s a piano and they’re on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean and it’s 1838 -- but that didn’t stop Chopin. Aurore had furnished a small, sub-par by Chopin’s standard, piano that like him did not fair well in the unseasonable winter. Yet, it was during this winter and on this piano that Chopin would have one of the most productive compositional periods of his life where he would compose five pieces: a ballade, a scherzo, two polonaises, and of course... his preludes in E minor. E, of course, today’s tonic.
Chopin, Sand, Maurice and Solange returned from Mallorca and moved around for a bit before settling back in Paris in the Square d’Orleans in 1842 where they lived in adjacent buildings. It was at this point that Chopin started showing signs of his health deteriorating. The pianist Charles Hallé wrote of him that Chopin was “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” Historians today believe that this might’ve been as a result of epilepsy. By 1846, Sand had become more of a nurse than a lover, openly referring to Chopin as her “third child” and a “sufferer” and her “beloved little corpse.” He was apathetic toward her socialist politics, and she had great disdain for Chopin’s high-society friends. This disdain extended to the now-19-year-old Solange’s fortune hunting husband. Aurore and Solange had famously loud and over the top fights, in which Chopin would often side with Solange-- which went over just as well as you think it would. It was against the backdrop of all this drama that Sand and Chopin would end their relationship in 1847. Oh yeah, and also Chopin somehow found it within himself, despite the tuberculosis and epilepsy, to hook up with Solange for awhile after he broke it off with Sand. So what did Sand do? What do you think she did? She went and hooked up with Franz Lizst.
In 1849, Chopin’s health would take a turn for the worse as his one surviving sister Ludvika and her family came to live with him. Though mostly his family remained by his side at the end, some would come entertain him on piano, as Chopin found himself too weak to play. On October 17, 1849 a doctor asked him if he was still suffering. “No longer,” Chopin replied. Those would prove to be his last words. His funeral was delayed by weeks because people had to buy tickets-- though people would show up without tickets from all over Europe. Over 3000 people attended his funeral. George Sand was not one of them. Chopin’s heart was preserved in a jar that has not been opened to this day, though a few visual examinations have been done to more accurately determine his cause of death-- which as recently as 2017, it seems no one can agree upon. Chopin’s improvisational style and revolutionary harmonic structure was a capstone of the romantic Era. His work is known for being played with rubato, outside of strict or conventional time often for dramatic effect. That’s Chopin though. A rule-follower, no. A flair for the dramatic, yes-- but also... timeless.
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I was, and still very much am, obsessed with history. When I was in school — and I think this was a normal thing, right? — I wondered what it was like to “live through history.” I looked at these tragedies like the Great Depression and The Civil War and, in a sick way, almost had envy for the people who got to live through those time periods. They were in my history book. There are countless forms of media made about them. They mattered.
I’m also obsessed with language. Now, English is not a particularly concise language. Unlike German or Hebrew, we don’t have a lot of single words that are poetic or profound — rather, the art of writing in English is the ability to string simple words together. However— this is not totally true. One of my favorite English words (which the internet tells me is “completely made up” but I think they really mean “recently created” because all words are “completely made up”) is “Anemoia.”
You’ll find it on those “Top 25 Things You Never Knew Had Names” lists with “aglet” and “desire path.” That doesn’t make “anemoia” any less profound or poetic.
It means “to have a nostalgia for a time that never existed or that you weren’t a part of.” Definitions vary but hey— it’s “completely made up” right. And “a time that never existed” and “a time you weren’t a part of”, existentially speaking are pretty much the same thing.
I had anemoia for those periods in history. I no longer do.
I turn 30 in July. That means I was born in 1990 which, despite what my students think, was not that long ago. That means I was born during the AIDS crisis and at the beginning of a war in the Middle East that has changed names but has never really ended. That means I was welcomed into puberty by 9/11. That means my high school graduation present was the Great Recession.
Those things “shaped” me though. I was still a thing in the oven— gratefully never, myself, the fire but by it, baked in the radiant heat of ever-present tragedy. To quote Donald Glover, “By the time we turn 30, we are who we’ll be for the rest of our lives.” Well, this bun is done, hun— and COVID is ready to eat.
Millennials are a generation forged by crisis. Yet, for a lot of us, this is the first time we’re experiencing one as fully formed people. We weren’t aware during the bulk of the AIDS crisis. We had our parents to hold us during 9/11. We weren’t paying mortgages yet in 2008. But here we are now— isolated. “On our own”, figuratively and literally. At a time when our cultural fabric is fractured by big things that you can see like systemic racism and poverty and politics it is this microscopic thing that comes along and demands that we figure it out on our own.
All this to say that I’m scared, I guess. Not of the virus, statistically I fare well against it. And not really even of this slow tragedy we’re going through right now. More that after it, nothing will change. My biggest fear is that we will want so badly to no longer be inconvenienced, that we will take what comes easy after all this is done. That this will be a blip. That this will be an anomaly for future people to look at the lines on the graphs of history and go “wow, I wonder what happened there.”
We like take comfort in the idea that we matter-- but to whom do we matter? Unemployment spiked last month to the highest levels since the Depression, yet the stock market had its best month since the 80’s. Again, to whom do we matter?
We’ll probably survive COVID but we won’t survive history. We’re all on an autoscrolling level of a video game and COVID is just another boss. I no longer have anemoia for those times in history because I’m recognizing that I got what I wanted. I’m living through history— and it sucks. However, with this knowledge, I feel an obligation— a challenge: the price of knowing you’re living through history is in turn, to make history.
So, let’s matter, shall we?
Today’s tonic is “A.” Which stands for Robert “A” Schumann. Born in Zwickau, then Saxony, now Germany to Johanna Christine and August Schumann, Robert was better than you, composing by the age of 7. He “possessed rare taste and talent for portraying feelings and characteristic traits in melody” meaning, he would spend his formative years writing many “portraits” of himself and his close friends, often portraying them through melodies so melancholic that they would regularly bring his mother to tears. Not to worry! As a teenager, Robert wrote an essay on aesthetics of music in a journal that was published by his father. Nepotism? Yes. He would also spend his spare time reading philosophy, and was wont to smoke cigars and drink champagne-- the 19th century equivalent to vaping in the bathroom and breaking into your mom’s liquor cabinet am I right? Nothing ever changes.
During this time, his father died and his oldest sister, Emilie, drowned herself.
Anyway, while Robert was shaping up to be the quintessential music major, I guess there was a different balance of power back then. Because by all accounts, Robert, the drunk depressed teenage pianist, was going to “settle” on going to law school according to his mother’s wishes. Robert-- 100% “that kid” -- who you could find today, in sandals, with a guitar on his back, no case, walking through the hallway at your local high school, was going to do what his mommy told him and “I guess” become a lawyer. That was until Easter of 1830. Schumann went to Leipzig and saw Niccolo Paganini -- you know, Easter-- the day you go to music festivals. Now, any violinist can tell you that listening to someone play Paganini makes you want to give up music all together because not only is it the most technically challenging music ever written, good ol’ Nic had the audacity to be prolific as fuck.
Not Robert though. Seeing Paganini wow the crowds inspired him to make the totally reasonable decision to quit law school and become a musician! Up there with other great choices like paying your ex a surprise visit or representing yourself in court. He begged his mother, like you do when you’re 20 years old, to send him to study piano-- so she sent him back to his old “master” Friedrich Weick. By ‘master’ I mean childhood piano teacher.
Can we go back to that? I teach a lot of voice lessons to children. I wouldn’t mind if we brought back “master”, I could use the confidence boost.
Friedrich Weick -- by all accounts was a dick, excuse me-- a “dieck.” And not a good teacher. After studying with him all through his childhood, Robert gave up performing completely and dedicated himself to composing-- who would do that? Now there two main theories as to why this happened and only one of them is true-- but we don’t know which one. Either A) Robert developed “an affliction of the whole hand”-- probably syphilis, which checks out if you know where this story is going, or B) that Robert injured his hand at the encouragement of Weick via a finger strengthening contraption called the Dactylion-- and when you hear “contraption” and “1830’s” and some crazy name like Dactylion-- you know that shit is horrifying. And it was-- look it up. So, age 22, Robert gives up playing piano. That means other people have to play his music.
Enter: Clara Wieck, Fredrich’s daughter. Nepotism? Yes. Was she also 13 years old? Yes. Are her and the 22 year old Robert going to hook up in this story not long enough from now to where it might be okay? You bet. And is everyone going to be okay with it because it’s 1832? No, actually. More on that in a minute At 23, there was a worldwide pandemic and Robert’s brother, Julius died. Weren’t the 1830’s just crazy? This brought on the first of the many depressive episodes that would plague him for the rest of his life.
At 24, Robert got engaged to some lady named Ernestine (she was 16). She was the daughter of some noble person and Robert, the law school drop out needed to marry rich so... Ernestine. But it turns out while Ernestine’s father was a rich noble guy, Ernestine’s father’s wife was not Ernestine’s mother. And if we know one thing that thank god has changed since the old times -- guys just love to wrap it up. Especially when they’re out there cheatin’. So no money for Ernestine. Upon this revelation, fearful that he might have to get a day job, Robert dumps her. All the while, though, he was still crushin’ on Clara -- who was now 15. Cool.
They declared their love for each other in December. He dumped Ernestine in August. Hot take: Robert Schumann was a fuckboy.
Fredrich, however, didn’t too much dig Robert dating his daughter. Like super didn’t dig it. Like there was so much not-digging going on that there was, and I quote “long and acrimonious legal battle” between Friedrich and Robert. Is it because she was a teenager and he was on the 30-side of his twenties? Of course not! It was because he had been engaged previously. And Clara was a woman. And this was the 1830’s. See, women needed their father’s consent to get married before the age of 21 in Germany at that time, and Clara was not 21. Surprise. And let’s face it-- if you weren’t married by 21 in those days -- you probably weren’t getting married. Spinsterrrr! Robert and Clara, after YEARS in court were finally married on September 12, 1840. Clara turned 21 on September 13, 1840. Fredrich, sufficiently dunked on, would not speak to Robert or his daughter again for more than a decade.
In the meantime, Robert had been gaining popularity. As a prominent composer yes, but mostly as a shit-talker. He feuded with Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest pianist who has ever lived, who said of Schumman’s “Fantasie in C” “it is a noble work, worthy of Beethoven, who’s career, by the way, it is supposed to represent.” He said, “By the way.” Burn. Schumann would respond by summarily bashing his private studio and his students. It’s prison logic, right? To gain respect, you pick a fight with the biggest guy. But it worked. Robert would spend the next four years writing largely successful works from art song to concertos. Clara would go on tour while he would stay home and write-- which I’m sure was great for their relationship. In 1844, he spent time on the road with Clara but as anyone with depression knows, being home is pretty cool. So after six months, he returned freshly depressed and feeling inferior to Clara as a musician-- which unfortunately for Robert, was categorically true.
Now, we’ve joked about Robert this whole time. But the man was suffering. His dad died, his brother died, his old master hates him, he can’t play piano, he probably has undiagnosed syphilis, and his wife, who he literally fought for in court, is always gone. Oh, but Bobby is going to make so much worse for himself. Quote, he was “seized with fits of shivering and an apprehension of death”, began experiencing an abhorrence of high places and all metal instruments” including the piano, and he began taking drugs. Most notably-- mercury. He also suffered from perpetually hearing a ringing in his ears -- specifically, as his diaries state, an A. -- today’s tonic.
It was around this time Robert would write his Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, now known as his Piano Concerto in A minor which was heralded as Beethoven-esque and a spiritual triumph. It is one of the most performed and beloved piano concertos to this day. Even Franz Liszt liked it. In 1846, Robert claimed to have started feeling better-- and I guess he did! Over the next 8 years, Robert and Clara would have EIGHT children, a few named for famous composers who the couple idolized -- but only one with a wikipedia page-- Eugenie. Who was a prominent piano teacher and an fairly open lesbian who lived all the way until 1936! Seriously, every single person was fascinating in the Romantic Era. Period.
By 1850, he had fallen back into a depression and as composers with depression do, he decided to do something he’d never done before-- write an opera -- I guess to try to capture lightning in a bottle. It was called Genoveva and it was not good. It was universally panned which was great for Robert’s mental state. He would never write an opera again. You’d be shocked at how hard it is to capture lightning in a bottle.
This was the beginning of a stretch of time where Robert would jump wildly from style to style, with compositions described nicely as “lucid experimentation.” In 1853, a young man showed up unannounced at the Schumann’s door. He would wow Clara and Robert with his compositions which were completely unknown at the time. This young man was Johannes Brahms and he would become a very close friend for the rest of both Clara and Robert’s lives.
In 1854, with his depressive episodes worsening, now suffering from demonic visions and in fear that he would hurt Clara, he jumped from a bridge into the Rhine in an attempt to drown himself as his older sister had nearly 30 years earlier. He would survive and asked to be placed in a sanatorium where he would spend the last two years of his life. He would be diagnosed with “psychotic melancholia”, now widely thought to be a combination of symptoms stemming from what we now know as bipolar disorder as well as late-stage syphilis and mercury poisoning. As part of his treatment and for her safety, Clara was not allowed to visit him. Brahms visited regularly though and after Robert’s death would be integral in preserving his legacy by promulgating his music and helping Clara care for their children -- the last of which, Felix, was born just before Robert’s suicide attempt in 1854. Clara was finally allowed to visit on July 27, 1856 where an incoherent Robert possibly didn’t recognize her. Robert would die two days later on July 29.
Clara would remain a concert pianist finding enough success to support her family which was unheard of at the time. Were it not for the patriarchal culture at the time, she might’ve been the more famous Schumann, as she had her own compositions, which despite being of equal quality to Robert’s, were largely over shadowed until many years after his death. Clara attempted to showcase Robert’s work in concert but it was often poorly received, many thinking his work was tainted by madness. When Clara became the editor of Robert’s work after his death, it is rumored that her and Brahms destroyed much of his work for this same reason. She would spend the vast majority of her career playing the work of established composers. The Romantic Era equivalent of a washed-up cover band. Clara would outlive Robert by almost 40 years. Though it is speculated that her and Brahms had an affair, Clara, in the memory of Robert, would wear black every day for the rest of her life. And it was the tenacity of their memory for Robert that was the kindling for his resurgence in popularity in the late-Romantic era which proved to be what ultimately saved Robert from obscurity and secured him among the most beloved composers of all time.