Julian Fontana

Julian Fontana


Julian Fontana (1810–1869)

Reproduction of a photograph: Henryk Opieński, Listy F.Chopina (Warsaw, 1937).

Collection: Photographic collection of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Warsaw [F.3516].


Julian Fontana—Polish pianist and composer, friend of Chopin at the Warsaw Lyceum, and then at the High School of Music in Elsner’s class (theory and composition). As an emigrant following the November Rising, in which he took an active part, Fontana renewed his contacts with Chopin in Paris. The two musicians became warm and faithful friends. Their closest contacts were in the period 1837–1844, from which years we have the greatest number of letters addressed by Chopin to Fontana. Between 1837 and the end of 1841, Fontana was his permanent copyist, authorised to carry on negotiations with publishers, and also a general factotum. In recognition of his services, Chopin dedicated to him the two Polonaises, Op. 40.

When completing work on his Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49, Chopin wrote to Fontana on 18 October 1841: ‘For God’s sake, take care of my manuscript and don’t crumple or soil it or tear it (things you cannot avoid doing), but I must write about it for I do so love the tedious things I write [in Polish, a play on words: nuty = notes, nudy = tedious things]. […] Get on with the copying out. The manuscript you have will remain in Paris. Tomorrow you’ll receive the Nocturne and at the end of the week the Ballade and Fantasy: I can’t quite finish it off. If you’re bored with copying, then do it for the forgiveness of your great sins, as I’d not like to give this spidery scrawl to any clumsy copyist. If I had to write these 18 pages out again, I’d go mad. Above all, don’t crumple the pages!!’ [Sydow, ii, 44].

There are numerous extant copies produced by Fontana which have often been mistaken for Chopin autographs, due to the similarity of the two men’s script.

When Fontana left Paris (he spent a few years in Cuba, then lived in New York from 1844 to 1852), Fryderyk missed their conversations and longed for Fontana’s warm friendship. This is what he wrote to him on 4 April 1848, to New York: ‘You’re a curmudgeon, a beast, you’ve not given me an honest word in any of your letters; but there’s no harm done, somewhere there in your soul you love me, just like I love you. And perhaps now even more so, as we’re both greater Polish orphans: Wodziński, Witwicki, the Platers and Sobański have all left us. You’re my good old Julian, and that’s that. A hearty hug, my dear friend’ [Sydow, ii, 239].

It is Fontana whom we have to thank for violating, with the consent of Chopin’s mother and sisters, the composer’s formal will and producing a posthumous edition of his works under the opus numbers 66–73 (Paris, Meissonier [1855]; Berlin, Schlesinger [1855]), and then Op. 74 No. 1–16 [Songs] (Berlin, Schlesinger [1857 and 1859], Warsaw, Gebethner & Spółka [1859]). In his preface to the Oeuvres posthumes de F. Chopin, Fontana wrote: ‘From his earliest youth, the richness of his improvisation was astonishing. But he took good care not to parade it; and the few lucky ones who have heard him improvising for hours on end, in the most wonderful manner, never lifting a single phrase from any other composer, never even touching on any of his own works—those people will agree with us in saying that Chopin’s most beautiful finished compositions are merely reflections and echoes of his improvisations. This spontaneous inspiration was like an inexhaustible torrent of precious materials in ferment. From time to time, the master would draw out of it a few cups to throw into his mould, and these were found to be full of pearls and rubies’ [Eigeldinger 1986, p. 282].