Tuesday 28 January 2020

Classical: Home thoughts from abroad: Chopin in Rio

Polish genius: Frederic Chopin
Polish genius: Frederic Chopin

George Hamilton

Wherever you go, you'll find music. It's certainly true of Brazil, where life seems to move to the samba beat. But the influence of classical is never far away either and it can turn up in the unlikeliest of places. Just down from the cable car ride to the summit of Rio de Janeiro's Sugarloaf, the soaring granite rock that rises sheer from the sea, we decided to check out a little beach we'd spotted from the top. And there, gazing across the strand apparently lost in thought, was a statue of none other than Frederic Chopin.

How he came to be there is a tale worth telling. It's not as if the Polish genius ever visited South America. But many of his compatriots came, some but not all driven abroad by the horrors of World War II, and made their homes in Brazil.

It was during those war years that these émigrés had the idea of commemorating their ravaged homeland with a monument to one of its favourite sons. Among their number at the time was August Zamoyski, an eminent sculptor. He created a bronze of the composer.

In 1944, it was erected in the centre of the city, in front of the Municipal Theatre, the city's opera house, and was there for 15 years. Then, a Brazilian baritone, Paulo Fortes, a singer credited with the most appearances on the stage in the square, began a campaign which led to the statue's removal.

Fortes argued, not altogether unreasonably, that the location should honour a local musical hero. Carlos Gomes was a composer and conductor who had become the first from South America to make it in Europe. He'd written operas that were in the repertoire alongside the work of his contemporary Verdi, a kind of proto-Puccini. He'd yet to make his mark.

The suggestion by Fortes that a tribute to Carlos Gomes should stand in the square was accepted. The Chopin bronze was replaced and spent the next number of years stored in a warehouse. A new campaign led to its installation overlooking the Red Beach, near the foot of the Sugarloaf.

Now mounted on a plinth, the inscription in local Portuguese dedicates it to the city of Rio de Janeiro from the Polish of Brazil.

When you see the statue, with its back to the city, gazing wistfully out across the sheltered bay, you could imagine the composer standing there, so far from home, wishing he was back there, back in the old country.

For that was the way with the real Chopin. Despite a French name through his father, born to a local woman not far from Warsaw, he felt Polish through and through.

After a spell at the Warsaw conservatory, he knew he had a talent that he could exploit. His travels began, but fate would decree that he'd never see Poland again.

In Vienna, he learned there had been a revolt against the ruling Russian Empire which had been crushed. He couldn't go back.

He headed for Paris where the piano was king. He was a star performer and wrote some of the most magnificent music for his instrument.

But his head never left Warsaw and when ill health claimed him at the age of only 39, his most earnest wish was that his heart would be taken back home.

It was, and rests now secure in one of the columns of the Church of the Holy Cross opposite the university. Zamoyski's statue in Rio really catches the mood.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday from 10am.

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