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Episode 23: Chopin's Brave Scots

Three Écossaises, Op. 72

rc-bravescots-200a Chopin never wrote for the bagpipes. And there wasn’t a drop of Scottish blood in him. But even as a teenager he was a dedicated follower of fashion – and dances. And in those days, you were as likely to hear the Écossaise – French for “Scottish” – as you would a Mazurka or a Waltz.

Like its country of origin, the Écossaise was by nature straightforward, sturdy, and a bit…numpty, as the Scots might say.

Chopin was sixteen – at the start of his career – when he wrote his three Écossaises as Warsaw party favors. He never wrote another.

But the Scots weren’t done with Chopin. Here’s how George Sand’s daughter described two of his most important students: “During lesson-times at the master’s house, one would often come across two long persons, of Scottish origin and size, thin, pale, ageless, solemn, dressed in black, never smiling.” Chopin, however, called them "mes braves Écossaises" – “My Brave Scots”. They were Jane Stirling and her sister, Katherine Erskine.

It was Jane Stirling who spirited Chopin away to Scotland when the revolution broke out in Paris. Ostensibly it was to promote Chopin’s concert career. But Stirling had her own motives, which backfired: Indifferent audiences, drafty castles, and chilly members of the Stirling clan had a disastrous effect on Chopin’s health. “I cannot compose anything,” he wrote from Glasgow. “I am closer to the coffin than the marriage bed.”

About that Chopin was right. He fended off both marriage proposals and a last-ditch attempt to convert him to Presbyterianism before returning to Paris. He would be dead within a year.

Jane Stirling may have been a Scot, but there was nothing stingy OR frugal about her devotion to Chopin. She wound up paying his bills, publishing his works, and buying up most of his estate. This “Brave Scot” did much to preserve Chopin’s legacy for the world. - Benjamin K. Roe

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Radio Chopin Episode 23: Chopin's 'Brave Scots'

Three Ecossaises, Op. 72

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