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Chopin’s Piano: On Mallorca, A Century-Old Musical Mystery Finally Solved

For generations, two families in Mallorca have laid competing claims to the legacy of Frédéric Chopin. Starting in 1838, the Polish composer lived in a room on the island with his mistress, and composed some of his great works. But which room was it? And which piano did he play?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Valldemossa, Mallorca, where Chopin sojourned with his mistress, George Sand, in 1838

The news from the courthouse in Palma de Mallorca comes as a tough blow Frédéric Chopin fans who paid good money to see what was supposed to be the piano and living space used by the legendary composer during his late-in-life sojourn on the Spanish island.

For a century, the Ferrá-Capllonch family, which owns “Cell Nr. 2” in the former Carthusian monastery in Valldemossa, lured tourists to where they claimed Chopin had lived with his mistress, George Sand, and her children. The site also features the piano on which he supposedly completed his 24 Preludes (Op. 28).

As it turns out, they were wrong – about both the living quarters and the famous piano. Based on extensive research, the jurists were able to show conclusively that the instrument in Cell No. 2 was built after Chopin’s 1849 death, and that the composer had in fact occupied another cell – one that’s owned by a family with the surname Quetglas.  

The court awarded the Quetglas family exclusive marketing rights, cutting the Ferrá-Capllonch family completely out of the Chopin legacy. What’s more, the Ferrá-Capllonch family must now publically announce that their piano is not the real thing. The piano had attracted approximately 300,000 tourists per year to Valldemossa, where visitors paid for tickets based on the idea they were buying a bit of proximity to the life and work of a man who is one of music’s all-time greats,.

Chopin came to Mallorca on Nov. 15, 1838 accompanied by his mistress, the French writer Amantine Dupin, Baroness Dudevant (1804-1876), who used the pseudonym George Sand. At the time, Mallorca was considered a remote location. Valldemossa was even more off the beaten path – a dark village in the picturesque Tramuntana mountain range, an ideal place for a celebrated musician to get well away from it all. Sand wrote a book about the sojourn, Winter in Mallorca, which was to become as much a part of her legend as it is of Chopin’s.

A three-generation family feud

Chopin afficianados from around the world flock to the charterhouse, which belongs to the Ferrá-Capllonch and Quetglas families and was turned into a museum in 1910. Exhibits include letters, musical scores, drawings – even some of Chopin’s hair. Over time, restaurants and souvenir shops set up business, and the old monastery became something of a pilgrimage site. But soon enough, hostilities broke out between the two families, and the feud has carried on through three generations.

As early as 1932, Chopin biographer Édouard Ganche went to Mallorca to try and clear up the issue of the cell and the piano. He interviewed the Quetglas banking family and examined their piano, made by the Pleyel company, which at the time was in their home. Ganche stated that this was without a doubt the instrument played by the composer, so the family moved it back into the cell they owned.

The problem was that the Ferrá-Capllonch family was already advertising their piano as the real thing, and when they heard of the recent developments on the Quetglas side, they announced that their instrument – made by the Oliver Suau company – had been “certified as authentic.” The arguments went on for years, outliving the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship, with the Ferrás enjoying the upper hand.

By the 1990s, the Quetglas family had had enough, and had a new edition of Édouard Ganche’s book published. More and more Chopin experts were meanwhile casting their vote with the Quetglas cell and piano. There was documentation to support them. One letter that Chopin penned to French piano maker Camille Pleyel stated: “I’m sending you the Preludes, that I finished composing on your piano.” The missive seemed like fairly conclusive evidence. Additional proof was found in an account by a translator of Sand’s book who had spoken with someone who was alive at the time and personally confirmed that the room occupied by Chopin was in fact the Quetglas cell. Finally, a drawing by Sand’s son, Maurice, shows details specific to the Quetglas cell.

Before issuing their verdict, the judges in the Palma case visited the charterhouse. Their decision appears to put an end to a long-lasting farce. Still, the Ferrá-Capllonch family, while it may have lost the case, still has a huge collection of Chopin memorabilia – and they are also the organizers of Valldemossa Chopin Festival.

Read the original story in German

Photo - hanspoldoja

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