He was Chopin’s teen-aged pal in Poland, and his whist partner and house-sitter in Paris. He steered Chopin’s earliest compositions into print, and published his last: Julian Fontana — the MVP in Chopin’s Circle.
His last name is Italian, but Julian Fontana’s Polish roots were centuries deep. In the 1600s his architect ancestors were well enough established in Warsaw to help design the Church of the Holy Cross, the place where Fryderyk Chopin’s heart now resides.
Fontana roomed in a Warsaw apartment owned by the Chopin family. He became Fryderyk’s schoolmate, performing partner and friend. After participating in Poland’s failed uprising against the Russians, Fontana followed Chopin to Paris in 1832. Before long, Fontana moved on to London, where he helped to get Chopin’s music published for the first time. Fontana came back to Paris in 1837, lived with Chopin and became his personal assistant.
In gratitude, Chopin dedicated his two Polonaises, Op. 40, to his friend. The second, which one critic called “the most tragic and somber of Chopin’s polonaises,” is a piece that Fontana helped to revise.
Seven years at Chopin’s beck and call was enough for Fontana. For the sake of his own career he moved on—first to Havana and then New York. He never saw Chopin again. Fontana struggled on his own as a pianist and composer, and finally committed suicide in 1869.
But Julian Fontana is more than a footnote in music history, thanks to what he did for Chopin’s legacy. Chopin’s family chose Fontana to sort through the composer’s unpublished music, including the very last pieces he wrote. Fontana spent most of the 1850s adding opus numbers 66-74 to the Chopin catalog. According to one musicologist's account, he was able to reconstruct “the gaps in the…compositions with memorized images of his master’s performances.” - Don Lee