The Mystery of Chopin - The Strange Case of Delphina Potocka
A Tony Palmer film starring Paul Rhys as Chopin, Penelope Wilton as Paulina
Czernicka and Valentina Igoshina, Penelope Wilton and Elizabeth McGorian
as Countess Delphina Potocka. Plus recital of works by Chopin played by Valentina
Igoshina. Directed by Tony Palmer
DVD 100 176.
by Flashpoint UK Ltd in 1999. [167 min] (film: 109 mins; recital: 58
Musical mystery stories seem to be all the rage just now. Following close
on the book, Beethoven's Hair, comes this 'revelation' that threatens
to overturn many a preconception about the character and life of
Immediately after the Second World War when the heart of Chopin was returned
from Paris to Warsaw, a woman named Paulina Czernicka informed the Polish
Ministry of Culture of the existence of several love letters written by the
composer to Countess Delphina Potocka. The authorities were scandalised because
not only had the Countess's estranged husband been a traitor, but the contents
of the letters were salacious, almost pornographic, anti-semitic and full
of malicious tittle-tattle about Chopin's contemporary composers including
Liszt. (A Countess Potocka indeed had existed and there was historical evidence
that she had an affair with the composer and that Chopin had even dedicated
some of his compositions to her). The fact that Czernika could only produce
notarised copies, undated, of fragments of the letters justified the decision
to suppress the material because it was reckoned to be against the best interests
of the state, and would destroy the reputation of one of Poland's musical
heroes. Afterwards Pauline Czernicka committed suicide - or was it murder.
(The death of Pauline Czernicka does seem suspicious. One of the officials
explains that she fell from an eighth-story Ministry window
Palmer's film investigates and theorises about what actually happened. He
hints darkly that the love letters existed and were in some private collection.
He suggests that they were written over a period of many years. (It appears
that the Countess was the main love interest in Chopin's life and that his
affair with George Sand, more of a 'flash-in-the-pan', was over in a space
of six months when Sand got tired of the young composer). A somewhat squalid
picture of the harshness of life in Paris in the 1830s is presented and we
see just how frail and ill Chopin was for much of this time. We learn that
he actually made only about 30 public appearances as a pianist in his life
and even those caused him considerable anguish. The drama unfolding in the
1940s is shot in grim monochrome and the players include John Bird and John
Fortune reprising their political satires from the Rory Bremner show. The
scenes from the life of Chopin are shot in colour.
In the recital (as in the film), the very glamorous pianist Valentina Igoshina
plays with some sensitivity a selection of the most important and best-known
of Chopin's piano compositions. Between the pieces she talks about her early
encounters with Chopin's music, reveals how her interpretation has changed
over the years and describes her own emotional response to the music.
An interesting story but I am not fully convinced, and more importantly I
am not convinced that it has added anything significant to our appreciation
of Chopin. In fact I am inclined to sympathise with the Polish authorities'
viewpoint. Although not entirely a pointless exercise, I feel that this is
not one of Tony Palmer's most successful ventures.