Józef Elsner (1760–1854)
Unknown artist, oil on canvas, [c.1805], 628 x 509.
Collection: Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina, Warsaw [M/227].
Józef Elsner – Polish composer, pedagogue, publicist and publisher, leading organiser of musical life and schooling, vice-chancellor of the conservatory and High School of Music. Fryderyk Chopin’s teacher in harmony, counterpoint and composition from 1826 to 1829. In a school report from 1829, he wrote alongside Chopin’s name the expression ‘musical genius’, expressing for the first time the opinion that the whole of humanity would come to bestow upon him.
The German musician Hieronymus Truhn wrote the following about Józef Elsner in his travel correspondence: ‘The pre-eminent figure in the musical life of Warsaw remains the old, but youthfully spry Józef Elsner, a master of our art worthy of both adoration and respect. […] When all in Warsaw were claiming that Chopin was going astray, that what he was producing was not music, that he should cling to Hummel tooth and nail, the wise Mr Józef Elsner was perfectly aware what a poet lay within that pale young dreamer, realised at once that he had before him the architect of a new era in piano playing, and he refused to allow him to be bridled, aware that such a thoroughbred horse must be guided very carefully and cannot be subjected to ordinary training and fettering if it is to reach its goal victorious’ [Czartkowski and Jeżewska, pp. 56–58].
In his biography of Chopin, Ferenc Liszt wrote that Elsner passed on to Chopin ‘ the rarely known and difficult task of being exacting towards himself, and placing the just value upon the advantages which are only to be obtained by dint of patience and labor.’ [Liszt].
The close friendship between teacher and pupil is confirmed by recollections in Elsner’s diaries: ‘This truly grateful and devoted pupil still remembers about me today, cheering his old friend in letters with filial tenderness and informing me of virtually every step he takes, which gives me inexpressible pleasure’. Chopin dedicated to Elsner his Sonata in C minor, Op. 4, composed during his school years, and from Paris he sent his old teacher his lithographed portrait with dedication.