In Chopin’s day, Wrocław, the capital of Lower Silesia, was going through a period of rapid economic and cultural development. The demolition of the city walls and gates (1807–1838) made several town planning changes possible (e.g. incorporating suburban areas increased the area of Wroclaw many times over). Wrocław had a population of around 78,000 in 1800 and more than 150,000 by the middle of the century.
Chopin first visited Wrocław on the way to the spa town of Duszniki-Zdrój (Bad Reinerz) in Lower Silesia with his mother at the end of July 1826. The main road to the increasingly popular Silesian and Czech resorts passed through the city. When Chopin’s teacher, Józef Elsner, learned about his trip to Silesia, he asked him to take some letters to friends from his younger days: Friedrich Berner, the organist at St Elizabeth’s, and Joseph Schnabel, the Kapellmeister at Wrocław Cathedral. Chopin fulfilled this request on the way back from Duszniki, sometime in mid September.
Chopin next visited Wrocław in 1829, on his way home from Vienna, where he had given a series of triumphant concerts. All we know is that Chopin and his companions (Ignacy Maciejowski and Alfons Brandt) stayed at the ‘Rautenkranz’ (Rue Garland) inn on ul. Oławska on 5 September. The composer had no time to explore the city, as he probably set out for home via Kalisz with his friends the next day.
Most of the information we have about Chopin in Wrocław is connected with his trip to Vienna with Tytus Woyciechowski in November 1830. Chopin and Woyciechowski arrived in Wrocław on 6 November at 6 p.m. and stayed at the ‘Zur Goldenen Gans’ (The Golden Goose) inn on Junkernstrasse (now ul. Ofiar Oświęcimskich). Unfortunately, the building was damaged during the Second World War and demolished in 1953. Juliusz Słowacki stayed at the inn a year after Chopin. He described his stay there in a letter to his mother as follows: ‘Vile Wrocław. I’ve been horribly ripped off at the "Goldene Gans". I paid 30 thalers for 16 days, and all I got for that was the pleasure of living in an ancient tenement that has roofs higher than three-storey walls and cocks crowing and cats wailing under them’.
Chopin was an opera lover, so immediately after arriving in Wrocław, he and Woyciechowski set off for the City Theatre, which was then on Taschenstrasse (now at the intersection of ul. Oławska and ul. Piotra Skargi), for a performance of Wenzel Müller’s The Alpine King and the Misanthrope (libretto by Ferdynand Raimund). Chopin wrote a few words about his impressions of the performance in a letter to his family dated 9 November 1830: ‘The parterre marvelled at the new stage settings, but we had no reason to marvel at them. The artists played well enough’.
The day after he arrived in Wrocław, Chopin visited Joseph Schnabel, whom he had met four years previously. Schnabel took the opportunity of inviting Chopin to the Great Redoubt Hall, then known as the ‘Polish Hotel’ Hall (on ul. Biskupa in the Old Town), to listen to the rehearsal for the concert that evening. We shall let Chopin himself describe what happened later. This from a letter to his family in Warsaw: ‘I found there an orchestra gathered in small number, as usual, for rehearsal, a piano and some sort of referendary, an amateur by the name of Helwig, who was preparing to play Moscheles’s First Concerto in E flat major. Before he sat down to the instrument, Schnabel, who hadn’t heard me for four years, asked me to give the piano a try. It was difficult to refuse, so I sat down and played a few variations. Schnabel was exceedingly pleased, Mr Helwig got the jitters and the others began to ask me to play that evening. In particular, Schnabel insisted so earnestly that I just didn’t dare refuse the old man. […] So I went with his son to get the scores, and I played the Romance and the Rondo from the Second Concerto for them. During the rehearsal, the Germans marvelled at my playing: “was für ein leichter Szpiel” [German (with some Polish orthography): how lightly he plays], but nothing about the composition. Tytus even heard one of them say that “he can play, but he can’t compose”’.
As well as playing the second and third movements of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, Chopin improvised on operatic themes. His playing certainly impressed everyone, but the reaction to his composition was mixed, as Wrocław audiences were mostly brought up on Classical works: ‘none of the Germans knew what to do. Tytus enjoyed watching them. Since I don’t yet have an established reputation, they marvelled, and were afraid to marvel; they didn’t know whether the composition was good, or whether it just seemed so to them’.
The day after the unexpected concert, Chopin and Woyciechowski explored the city. Chopin does not mention the places he saw, but the Marketplace and Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island) were probably the highlights. This time round, he liked Wrocław and was sorry to leave the city.
On 5 September 2004, a statue of an absorbed Chopin sitting in an armchair, sculpted by Jan Kucz, was unveiled in Park Południowy (South Park), not far from the intersection of ul. Andrzeja Waligórski and ul. Powstańców Śląskich.