Frédéric Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek Szopen, on March 1, 1810, in Żelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, Duchy of Warsaw [now in Poland], was the composer and pianist of the Romantic period, best known for his solo pieces for piano and his piano concerti. Although he wrote little but piano works, many of them brief, Chopin ranks as one of music’s greatest tone poets by reason of his superfine imagination and fastidious craftsmanship.
Chopin’s father, Nicholas, a French émigré in Poland, was employed as a tutor to various aristocratic families, including the Skarbeks, at Żelazowa Wola, one of whose poorer relations he married. When Frédéric was eight months old, Nicholas became a French teacher at the Warsaw lyceum. Chopin himself attended the lyceum from 1823 to 1826.
The Aristipposian Poet
The Life You Give: Frédéric Chopin
in celebration of his life in music
March 1 at 9:30pm EST
All the family had artistic leanings, and even in infancy Chopin was always strangely moved when listening to his mother or eldest sister playing the piano. By age six he was already trying to reproduce what he heard or to make up new tunes. The following year he started piano lessons with the 61-year-old Wojciech Zywny, an all-around musician with an astute sense of values. Zywny’s simple instruction in piano playing was soon left behind by his pupil, who discovered for himself an original approach to the piano and was allowed to develop unhindered by academic rules and formal discipline.
Chopin found himself invited at an early age to play at private soirées, and at eight he made his first public appearance at a charity concert. Three years later he performed in the presence of the Russian tsar Alexander I, who was in Warsaw to open Parliament. Playing was not alone responsible for his growing reputation as a child prodigy. At seven he wrote a Polonaise in G Minor, which was printed, and soon afterward a march of his appealed to the Russian grand duke Constantine, who had it scored for his military band to play on parade. Other polonaises, mazurkas, variations, ecossaises, and a rondo followed, with the result that, when he was 16, his family enrolled him at the newly formed Warsaw Conservatory of Music. This school was directed by the Polish composer Joseph Elsner, with whom Chopin already had been studying musical theory.
No better teacher could have been found, for, while insisting on a traditional training, Elsner, as a Romantically inclined composer himself, realized that Chopin’s individual imagination must never be checked by purely academic demands. Even before he came under Elsner’s eye, Chopin had shown interest in the folk music of the Polish countryside and had received those impressions that later gave an unmistakable national colouring to his work. At the conservatory he was put through a solid course of instruction in harmony and composition; in piano playing he was allowed to develop a high degree of individuality.
Despite the lively musical life of Warsaw, Chopin urgently needed wider musical experience, and so his devoted parents found the money to send him off to Vienna. After a preliminary expedition to Berlin in 1828, Chopin visited Vienna and made his performance debut there in 1829. A second concert confirmed his success, and on his return home he prepared himself for further achievements abroad by writing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor (1829) and his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor (1830), as well as other works for piano and orchestra designed to exploit his brilliantly original piano style. His first études were also written at this time (1829–32) to enable him and others to master the technical difficulties in his new style of piano playing.
In March and October 1830 he presented his new works to the Warsaw public and then left Poland with the intention of visiting Germany and Italy for further study. He had gone no farther than Vienna when news reached him of the Polish revolt against Russian rule; this event, added to the disturbed state of Europe, caused him to remain profitlessly in Vienna until the following July, when he decided to make his way to Paris. Soon after his arrival in what was then the centre of European culture and in the midst of its own late-flowering Romantic movement, Chopin realized that he had found the milieu in which his genius could flourish. He quickly established ties with many Polish émigrés and with a younger generation of composers, including Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz and, briefly, Vincenzo Bellini and Felix Mendelssohn. The circles to which Chopin’s talents and distinction admitted him quickly acknowledged that they had found the artist whom the moment required, and after a brief period of uncertainty Chopin settled down to the main business of his life—teaching and composing. His high income from these sources set him free from the strain of concert giving, to which he had an innate repugnance.
Initially, there were problems, professional and financial. After his Paris concert debut in February 1832, Chopin realized that his extreme delicacy at the keyboard was not to everyone’s taste in larger concert spaces. But an introduction to the wealthy Rothschild banking family later that year suddenly opened up new horizons. With his elegant manners, fastidious dress, and innate sensitivity, Chopin found himself a favourite in the great houses of Paris, both as a recitalist and as a teacher. His new piano works at this time included two startlingly poetic books of études (1829–36), the Ballade in G Minor (1831–35), the Fantaisie-Impromptu (1835), and many smaller pieces, among them mazurkas and polonaises inspired by Chopin’s strong nationalist feeling.
Chopin’s youthful love affairs with Constantia Gladkowska in Warsaw (1830) and Maria Wodzińska in Dresden (1835–36) had come to nothing, though he actually became engaged to the latter. In 1836 he met for the first time the free-living novelist Aurore Dudevant, better known as George Sand; their liaison began in the summer of 1838. That autumn he set off with her and her children, Maurice and Solange, to winter on the island of Majorca. They rented a simple villa and were idyllically happy until the sunny weather broke and Chopin became ill. When rumours of tuberculosis reached the villa owner, they were ordered out and could find accommodations only in a monastery in the remote village of Valldemosa.
The cold and damp, malnutrition, peasant suspiciousness of their strange ménage, and the lack of a suitable concert piano hindered Chopin’s artistic production and further weakened his precarious physical health. Indeed, the privations that Chopin endured hastened the slow decline in his health that ended with his death from tuberculosis 10 years later. Sand realized that only immediate departure would save his life. They arrived at Marseille in early March 1839, and, thanks to a skilled physician, Chopin was sufficiently recovered after just under three months for them to start planning a return to Paris.
The summer of 1839 they spent at Nohant, Sand’s country house about 180 miles (290 km) south of Paris. This period following the return from Majorca was to be the happiest and most productive of Chopin’s life, and the long summers spent at Nohant bore fruit in a succession of masterpieces. For a regular source of income, he again turned to private teaching. His method permitted great flexibility of the wrist and arm and daringly unconventional fingering in the interests of greater agility, with the production of beautiful, singing tone a prime requisite at nearly all times. There was also a growing demand for his new works, and, since he had become increasingly shrewd in his dealings with publishers, he could afford to live elegantly.
Health was a recurrent worry, and every summer Sand took him to Nohant for fresh air and relaxation. Close friends, such as Pauline Viardot and the painter Eugène Delacroix, were often invited too. Chopin produced much of his most-searching music at Nohant, not only miniatures but also extended works, such as the Fantaisie in F Minor (composed 1840–41), the Barcarolle (1845–46), the Polonaise-Fantaisie (1845–46), the ballades in A-flat major (1840–41) and F minor (1842), and the Sonata in B Minor (1844). Here, in the country, he found the peace and time to indulge an ingrained quest for perfection. He seemed particularly anxious to develop his ideas into longer and more-complex arguments, and he even sent to Paris for treatises by musicologists to strengthen his counterpoint. His harmonic vocabulary at this period also grew much more daring, though never at the cost of sensuous beauty. He valued that quality throughout life as much as he abhorred descriptive titles or any hint of an underlying “program.”
Family dissension arising from the marriage of Sand’s daughter, Solange, caused Chopin’s own relationship with Sand to become strained, and he grew increasingly moody and petulant. Some have speculated that, aside from such personal conflicts, his mercurial behaviour may have been attributable to a certain type of epilepsy. In any event, by 1848 the rift between him and Sand was complete, and pride prevented either from effecting the reconciliation they both actually desired. Thereafter Chopin seems to have given up his struggle with ill health.
Broken in spirit and depressed by the revolution that had broken out in Paris in February 1848, Chopin accepted an invitation to visit England and Scotland. His reception in London was enthusiastic, and he struggled through an exhausting round of lessons and appearances at fashionable parties. Chopin lacked the strength to sustain this socializing, however, and he was also unable to compose. By now his health was deteriorating rapidly, and he made his last public appearance on a concert platform at the Guildhall in London on November 16, 1848, when, in a final patriotic gesture, he played for the benefit of Polish refugees. He returned to Paris, where he died the following year; his body, without the heart, was buried at the cemetery of Père-Lachaise (his heart was interred at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw).
As a pianist, Chopin was unique in acquiring a reputation of the highest order on the basis of a minimum of public appearances—few more than 30 in the course of his lifetime. His original and sensitive approach to the keyboard allowed him to exploit all the resources of the piano of his day. He was inexhaustible in discovering colourful new passage work and technical figures; he understood as no one before him the true nature of the piano as an expressive instrument, and he was able to write music that is bound up with the instrument for which it was conceived and which cannot be imagined apart from it. His innovations in fingering, his use of the pedals, and his general treatment of the keyboard form a milestone in the history of the piano, and his works set a standard for the instrument that is recognized as unsurpassable.
Chopin’s works for solo piano include about 61 mazurkas, 16 polonaises, 26 preludes, 27 études, 21 nocturnes, 20 waltzes, 3 sonatas, 4 ballades, 4 scherzos, 4 impromptus, and many individual pieces—such as the Barcarolle, Opus 60 (1846); the Fantasia, Opus 49 (1841); and the Berceuse, Opus 57 (1845)—as well as 17 Polish songs.
As a composer, Chopin acquired increased stature after a period in the late 19th century when his work often was judged by academic standards that were insensible to its individual character. In keyboard style, harmony, and form, he was innovative according to the demands of each specific compositional situation. He had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heartfelt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal. Although “romantic” in its essence, Chopin’s music has a classic purity and discretion, without a sign of exhibitionism. He found within himself and in the tragic story of Poland the chief sources of his inspiration. The theme of Poland’s glories and sufferings was constantly before him, and he transmuted the rhythms and melodies of his youth into enduring art forms. At the same time, he subtly differentiated, for example, the intimate poetic inspiration of the mazurka from the more outward-looking, ceremonial aspect of the polonaise, which in works like the Polonaise-Fantaisie (1846) he expanded to the proportions of symphonic poems for the piano. The waltz, meanwhile, offered him a courtly dance medium on a smaller scale, and he responded not by expanding it but by bringing it to unprecedented levels of polish and grace. From the great Italian singers of the age, he learned the art of “singing” on the piano, and his nocturnes reveal the perfection of his cantabile style and delicate charm of ornamentation. His ballades and scherzos, on the other hand, have a dramatic turbulence and passion that effectively dispel the notion that Chopin was merely a drawing-room composer.
Chopin’s small output was mostly confined to solo piano; yet within its limited framework its range is seen to be vast, comprehending every variety of musical expression. Though Chopin squandered too much time on the drawing-room Parisian aristocracy and disappointed critics who valued artistic worth only in terms of large-scale achievement, he was immediately recognized at his true worth by more-discerning contemporaries, who were astounded by the startling originality he reconciled with exquisite craftsmanship. Present-day evaluation places him among the immortals of music by reason of his insight into the secret places of the heart and because of his awareness of the magical new sonorities to be drawn from the piano.