Composer (1810 - 1849)
Fryderyk Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, Poland on March 1st, 1810. His father, Nicolas Chopin was French and left France in 1787, when he was 16, to seek his fortune in Poland and apparently broke completely with his past. In Poland he identified himself fully with his new country, mastered its language and developed a patriotism which was a powerful influence on the lives of his children, particularly that of Fryderyk. He tutored in French and met Tekla Justyna Krzyzanowska, a well educated but poor relative of the Skarbek family for whom he worked. They married in 1806 and had four children, three girls and Fryderyk. The family moved to Warsaw and Nicolas began teaching French language and literature at the new high school. They lived in a large house and as a result they took in lodgers to earn some extra money.
Fryderyk received a good education both at home and at school and his parents were always careful to make sure nothing interfered with his studies. He was an intelligent and precocious child and his musical capabilities were evident from an early age. He was writing verses by the age of six. He was taught piano by Wojciech Zywny, who was a violinist, pianist and composer, but Fryderyk's aptitude for the instrument was so great that his lessons may have been superfluous and he ended up being more or less self-taught. This resulted in him having a lack of reverence for tradition in his playing. During his period with Zywny Chopin he wrote a number of pieces of music which have survived and include a number of polonaises (for example one in G minor, published in 1817).
In 1818, Fryderyk made his first appearance at a public concert and played a concerto by Gyrowetz. In high school he continued his musical studies with Jozef Elsner who was the director of the Warsaw Conservatory. Then in 1825 his C minor Rondo Op.1, was published. After Chopin finished his final examinations he gave two concerts in Reinertz for the benefit of two orphans and when he returned to Warsaw he became a full-time student at the conservatory where he did a three year comprehensive course with Elsner. He studied theory, harmony and counterpoint.
Although Chopin tried to write compositions for other instruments, his real love was for the piano and his first Sonata Op.4 was written in 1827 under Elsner's supervision. It is not characteristic of the work he composed when alone like, for example, in his early E minor nocturne, Op.72 no.1. Elsner, however, recognized the profound talent in his student and did not try to influence his way of writing. Chopin, having exhausted the resources of his own city, wanted to travel to gain more experience. This idea was reinforced when he met Paganini in Warsaw and realized how many things lay outside of his reach. In 1828 he went to Berlin and there he had the opportunity of hearing music which he had no chance of hearing in Warsaw, for example Handel's Ode on St Cecilia's Day.
In 1829 Chopin's father applied for a travelling scholarship for his son to the government but it was refused. Although the noble families in Warsaw encouraged the composer and were interested in his work, no-one helped with his finances. He went, however, to Vienna to try to get some of his work published and there he made a successful debut at the Kärntnertor-Theater where he played his Variations Op.2 and his concert rondo Krakowiak Op.14. He also performed a Polish folk song which was very impressive and a week later he gave a second concert which was again successful. Subsequently he planned a tour of Germany and Italy.
Chopin's departure from Warsaw, however, was repeatedly postponed due to political troubles and also the fact that he was in love with a young singer and student, Konstancia Gladkowska. In this period, which was a very happy one for him, he composed many pieces of work including the slow movement of the F minor Concerto and the Waltz in D flat Op.70 no.3. He gave his first important concert at the National Theatre in Warsaw in 1830 and a second one a few days later. The audience adored his national rhythms and gained him important recognition. He was beginning to be perceived as the national composer. His final concert in Warsaw took place on October 11th of the same year where he performed his E minor Concerto. He then left for Vienna with the aim of repeating the success he was awarded for his initial concerts. This was not to happen but at least he was able to widen his musical experience, especially in chamber music and opera. During this time he composed the Grand Polonaise in E Flat and the popular mazurkas Op.6 and Op.7. Songs and waltzes (including the celebrated Op.18 in E Flat) were also written and drafts of the G minor Ballade and the B minor Scherzo were drawn up and were completed when he moved to Paris. Political problems resulted in his visit to Italy being cancelled and he set out for Paris, arriving in the city in September 1831.
Although the composer felt slightly uncomfortable at first in the French capital, he soon settled in and within no time, expressed his intention to create for himself a new world. This is exactly what he did demonstrating it in his poetic, defiant and heroic music. Schumann described Chopin's music as "cannon buried in flowers". Even his harmonic language is completely original as his harmonies are mixed with folk music. At that time Paris was the musical and artistic hub of Europe and the great centre of culture and many great artists made their home there, for example Balzac, Delacroix, Liszt, Rossini and Berlioz. When Chopin made his debut recital there in 1832, it was the talk of the city. In Paris, Chopin was introduced to the influential Rothschilds, through his Polish friends, and in no time he had the possibility of setting up a teaching studio which gave him the possibility of living well during his short life. His public performances became rare as he found he could require fame and money without them. He was to give only more or less thirty public performances during his whole career.
For intimate companionship in a foreign country Chopin naturally turned to the Polish refugees who had come to Paris after the disastrous revolt of 1830, and he became a member of the Polish Literary Society and kept in touch with artistic and political trends in his native country. He formed friendships with many brilliant society women, the Countess Delfina Potocka, a singer being one of these. Chopin dedicated the F minor Concerto and the 'Minute' Waltz to her. There was little doubt that they were lovers and much later on, some of the letters he had written to her came into the public eye and became the subject of bitter arguments.
Chopin's entire musical output was devoted to his favourite instrument, the piano. His over 200 solo compositions for the piano all demonstrate his highly individual melodic style, and include two sets of etudes (studies), two sonatas, four ballads, many pieces he variously titled preludes, impromptus, or scherzos, and a great number of dances. Included among the latter are a number of waltzes, but also a great many mazurkas and six polonaises. His mazurkas reflect the rhythms and melodies of Polish folk music, and his polonaises convey the heroic spirit of Poland occupied by other countries during his life. They were for Chopin himself a sincere expression of deeply felt emotion. Some of Chopin's dance pieces are among Chopin's best-known works, including the proud Polonaise in A-flat and the haunting Waltz in C-sharp minor. Many of the composer's most beautiful compositions come from the series of short, reflective pieces he called Nocturnes. As can be heard in the Nocturne in F-sharp, these works are usually gentle and dreamlike with a flowing, rocking bass, and aptly demonstrate Chopin's predilection for sweet, song-like melodies, very much in the style of Italian bel canto opera of the period.
When Chopin was 26 years old, Liszt introduced him to George Sand, a writer who was also famous for the fact that she wore men's clothes. Although at first the composer was more shocked by the writer than attracted to her, a relationship grew slowly. For some ten years Chopin enjoyed a liaison with George and during their time together they spent the winter of 1839 in Majorca where the sun was supposed to aid the composer's weak lungs. The constant rain had the contrary effect however and his health was weakened. However, on his visit he wrote many of his 24 Preludes, Op.28. In Paris the couple lived in adjoining houses and they spent their summers in Sand's home in Nohant where Chopin wrote some of his best work and Sand mothered him. The couple's relationship broke off in 1847.
Chopin's break with George Sand marks the beginning of the last stage of his career. His health began to deteriorate rapidly and he lost all interest in composition. His last concert was given on February 16th, 1848 in Paris to a carefully selected audience and was intensified by apprehension of revolution which finally broke out a week later. It brought Chopin's teaching to an end and he was consequently obliged to accept a long-standing invitation to England from his pupil Jane Stirling who was a very wealthy Scottish lady. He arrived there in April 1848 and was very popular. He played in many great houses including Stafford House, the home of the Duchess of Sutherland where Queen Victoria heard him perform. Following these private performances, he began to give public concerts in various houses. He was terribly ill at this point and it was a great effort for him to get from place to place where he met many celebrities in the artistic world. He went to Scotland for a rest following the season in London but was obliged to give concerts in different cities to make some money. Although content with where he was staying and also with his host, Lord Torphichen, Jane Stirling's brother-in-law, he longed to return to Paris. He made his last public appearance in London in November and returned to Paris the following week where he was no longer capable of teaching or composing. Fortunately the Stirlings helped him with money as he had no other income. For his last summer he stayed in Chaillot and in the autumn he moved to his final home in 12 place Vendôme where he died in the company of his sister and various Polish friends on October 17th. His funeral wasn't held until October 30th due to elaborate arrangements for the performance of Mozart's Requiem at the Madeleine in his honour. He was buried at the cemetery of Père-Lachaise in Paris and in 1850 a monument to him by Clésinger was unveiled.