In one of my masterclasses in Australia recently, a young pianist sat down at the piano, and opened her copy of Chopin’s Nocturne Op 55 No 1. As always with this piece, it was the name of the dedicatee which struck me when I looked at the score –Mlle J.W. Stirling. A few days ago, I played Jane Stirling’s piano.
Any biography of Chopin will, sooner or later, mention this lady who fulfilled a crucial role in the latter part of his life. A Scot, she studied with Chopin in Paris; it was Jane Stirling who invited him to England and Scotland in 1848. She was with him when he died, and helped to pay for his vast funeral. When I visited La Madeleine and Chopin’s grave in 2010, she was in my thoughts, as having been present at both venues on the day of his burial.
Her English Erard piano is one of the collection of keyboard instruments in the Cobbe Collection housed at Hatchlands Park, a beautiful National Trust property in Surrey. Not only is Jane’s English Erard there, but also Chopin’s Pleyel used in his 1848 London visit, and the Broadwood he played at his London concerts.
Next to Chopin’s Pleyel there stands a French Erard, signed by Sigismond Thalberg, whose pianism challenged Liszt’s supremacy in 1830s’ Paris, prompting Liszt’s defending his position via a play-off at Princess Belgiojoso’s. Not far away, tucked discreetly in a corner, is a small, fairly non-descript black upright, with candlestick brackets to right and left above the keyboard. Made by Carlo Ducci, it is inscribed by Liszt, to whom it was lent in 1880 in Florence.
Chopin, Liszt and Thalberg, all present and correct in one room in an English country house. Extraordinary. I’ll be returning in October to give a recital on the piano known as ‘Thalberg’, of which more anon.