Frederic Chopin
(1810-1849)

Frederic Francois Chopin was a Polish composer considered to be a great master of Romantic music. Renowned as a child prodigy of both piano performance and composition, he grew up in Warsaw and completed his musical education there. After the 1830 uprising where the Russians suppressed the Polish, he settled in Paris as part of the Polish Great Emigration. Rarely giving public performances, he supported himself as a composer and a piano teacher. For most of his life, he suffered from tremendously poor health and was very frail. (At best, Chopin stood about 5’7 and weighed no more than 100 lbs. in his life.) However, his health never held him back from his love of music. Compositionally, all of Chopin’s works involve the piano. He invented the musical form known as the instrumental ballade and also made major innovations to the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, etude, impromptu and prelude.

Chopin’s family was very musically inclined. As a child, it has been said that Chopin used to weep with great emotion when his mother played the piano. By six, he was already trying to reproduce what he heard or make up new melodies. He received his earliest piano lessons not from his mother, but instead from his older sister Ludwika. As a seven-year old, he began giving public concerts that prompted comparisons with Mozart and with Beethoven. That same year, Chopin composed his first two polonaises, in g minor and B-flat major.

In the 1820’s, when teenage Chopin attended the Warsaw Lyceum and Warsaw Conservatory, he spent every vacation away from Warsaw, traveling and immersing himself into different areas of music. In the fall of 1826, Chopin began a three-year course of studies with the Silesian composer Jozef Elsner. In year-end evaluations, Elsner noted Chopin’s “remarkable talent” and “musical genius”. His teaching style was based on his reluctance to “constrain” Chopin with “narrow, academic, outdated” rules, and on his determination to allow the young artist to mature “according to the laws of his own nature”.

At this point in his compositional career, Chopin was perceived by his peers and audiences to be already a master who was pointing the path to the coming age. By comparison, at the same age, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were all still apprentices. Thus, comparison of a juvenile Chopin with any earlier composer is difficult because of the originality of works he was producing. Though he lived in the 1800’s, he was educated in the tradition of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Clementi. He would later cite Bach and Mozart as the two most important composers in shaping his musical outlook.

Following the November Uprising’s suppression by the Russian Empire, Chopin remained in France and would never again return to Poland. He formed friendships with Berlioz, Liszt, Bellini, Hiller, Mendelssohn, Heine, and Delacroix.& His high income from teaching and composing freed him from the strains of concert-giving, to which he had an innate repugnance.

From 1837 to 1847 he carried on a relationship with the French woman Amantine Dupin, known best by her writing pseudonym, George Sand. In the winter of 1838, the couple, along with Sand’s two children, traveled to Majorca in the hope of improving Chopin’s deteriorating health. The winter in Majorca is still considered one of the most productive periods in Chopin’s life.

In February 1848, Chopin played his last Paris concert, and made his last public appearance on November 16, 1848, playing for the benefit of Polish refugees in a final patriotic gesture. In June 1849 his older sister Ludwika agreed to join him in Paris, where they stayed in a beautiful, sunny apartment that once housed the Russian embassy. Too lavish for Chopin to afford, Jane Stirling, one of his wealthy Scottish pupils, rented it for him.

On October 15, when his condition marked a final turn for the worse, only a handful of his closer friends remained with him. On October 17, a physician leaned over and asked whether he was suffering greatly. “Not anymore,” he replied. A few minutes later, Chopin died. Before the funeral, pursuant to his dying wish, his heart was removed. It was preserved in alcohol to be returned to his homeland, as he had requested. His sister smuggled it in an urn to Warsaw and was later sealed within a pillar beneath an epitaph reading “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. (Matthew VI:21) Chopin’s heart has reposed within that church in Poland ever since, except for a small period of time during World War II when it was removed for safekeeping.

According to Arthur Hedley, Chopin “had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heart-felt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal.” He was the first composer to take a national genre of music from his home country and transform it into a genre worthy of the general concert-going public, thus creating an entirely new genre. He reinvented the etude, expanding on the idea and making it into a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional showpiece. Additionally, he used his own etudes to teach his revolutionary style, playing with the weak fingers in fast figures, octaves, and playing black keys with the thumb.

Chopin expressed a deathbed wish that all of his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. However, at the request of his mother and sisters, his pianist friend and musical executor Julian Fontana selected 23 unpublished piano pieces and grouped them into eight opus numbers. These works were published in 1865. Only three of Chopin’s 21 nocturnes were published after his death, contrary to his wishes.

Chopin himself never named an instrumental work beyond genre and number, leaving all potential extra-musical associations to the listener; the names by which we know many of the pieces were invented by others.

Over 230 of Chopin’s works survive; some manuscripts and pieces from his early childhood have been lost. All of his known compositions involved the piano. Only a few of them ranged beyond solo piano music, as either piano concertos or chamber music works.

Chopin composed:

  • 58 Mazurkas
  • 27 Etudes
  • 27 Preludes
  • 21 Nocturnes
  • 20 Waltzes
  • 18 Polonaises
  • 5 Rondos
  • 4 Ballades
  • 4 Impromptus
  • 4 Scherzos
  • 4 Sets of Variations
  • 3 Ecossaises
  • 3 Piano Sonatas
  • 2 Concerti for piano and orchestra.

He also composed a fantaisie, an Allegro de concert, a barcarole, a berceuse, a bolero, a tarantella, a contredanse, a fugue, a cantabile, a lento, a Funeral march, and a feuille d’album. Other works include a krakowiak for piano and orchestra, fantasia on themes from Polish songs with accompanying orchestra, a trio for violin, cello, and piano; a sonata for cello and piano, a Grand Duo in E major for cello and piano and 19 Polish songs for voice and accompanying piano.

Ever the romantic, Chopin lived in a constant state of inspiration and improvisation, and was certainly prone to editing and revising his own music even after sending final drafts to his publishers. Especially considering that all published editions of his work during his lifetime were in fact proofed and approved by the composer himself, this is a popular source of anxiety amongst pianists and scholars today.

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