Cultural life was flourishing in Warsaw, the capital of the Kingdom of Poland (Congress Poland), when Fryderyk Chopin was growing up there. Prominent Polish and foreign artists could be heard performing in as many as ten concert halls, and chamber music evenings were held in any number of salons. Celebrated virtuosos, especially pianists and violinists, gave concerts in Warsaw, and vocal music aficionados must have been delighted to hear the most famous singers in Europe, such as Henriette Sontag and Angelica Catalani.
In 1820, Warsaw music lovers were given many opportunities to hear Catalani, an Italian singer famed for her exceptional coloratura. As the Warsaw publication Rozmaitość [Variety] reported on 20 January that year: ‘The famous singer Signora Catalani treated Warsaw to several concerts […] her final concert was in aid of the poor. She was given many tokens of our esteem and accorded special respect, which she had earned by dint not only of her talent but also of her admirable attributes. As one brilliant individual has portrayed her, it is not enough to hear her voice to form a proper opinion of her; one must go to her home and see for oneself how modest she is, despite her fame and the accolades she has received all over Europe’.
Catalani gave four of those captivating concerts at the Town Hall, or Jabłonowski Palace. The young Chopin had the opportunity of meeting the artist personally, as he played for her in the salon of Augustyna Konstantowa Wolicka in early January 1820. Catalani was so moved by the young pianist’s talent that she gave him a gold watch with the following engraved dedication as a memento: Mme Catalani à Frédéric Chopin âgé de 10 Ans. A Varsovie le 3 Janvier 1820 [Mrs Catalani to Fryderyk Chopin, aged 10. Warsaw, 3 January 1820]. Chopin used this a decade later to determine that he was born in 1810. The watch is now on display at the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw.
Catalani’s name appears, albeit facetiously, in Chopin’s correspondence four years later. The mischievous, teenage ‘Frycek’ [Fryderyk] wrote in his ‘Kurier Szafarski’ [Szafarnia courier] : ‘On the 29th of the m[onth] of the c[urrent] y[ear], His Lordship Pichon, while driving through Nieszawa, heard a Catalani sitting on a fence, singing something for all she was worth’