The Life and Works of Frederick Chopin
The 1830s have been called “the decade of the piano” because during that period the piano and the music written for it played a dominant role in European musical culture. The piano had, of course, already been popular for more than half a century, but by the third decade of the nineteenth century, changes in the instrument and its audience transformed the piano’s role in musical life. As the Industrial Revolution hit its stride, piano manufacturers developed methods for building many more pianos than had previously been feasible, and at lower cost. Pianos ceased to be the exclusive province of the wealthy; an expanding middle class could also aspire to own them and make music at home. Thousands of amateur pianists began to take lessons, buy printed music, and attend concerts. Virtuosos like Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Sigismund Thalberg, and Franz Liszt became the first musical superstars, touring Europe and astonishing audiences with music they had composed to display their piano technique.
Frederick Chopin was born in a small village named Zelazowa Wola located in Poland on March 1st, 1810. His passionate love of music showed itself at an early age. There are stories, for instance, of how when his mother and sister played dances on their grand piano he would burst into tears for the sheer beauty of the sounds he heard. Soon he began to explore the keyboard for himself and delighted in experimenting. By the age of seven he had become sufficiently good for his parents to try and find him a teacher. Their choice fell on Adalbert Zywny, a Bohemian composer then aged sixty-one and now remembered solely as Chopin’s first teacher.
Chopin’s music sold so well that publishers were obliged to reprint his works frequently in order to keep up with demand. Most of these reissues used the plates from the first editions; and since printed scores of this period almost never bore publication dates, later printings are often distinguished only by changes on the title pages, such as the price or the publisher’s address. However, there are frequently alterations in the music as well. In Paris editions, some of these variants may be corrections or second thoughts originating with the composer, although it is rarely possible to document his responsibility for them.
Maria Wodzinski, the sister of three brothers of whom Chopin was close friends of, was engaged to Chopin shortly after a return to Warsaw Chopin had made. She had shown considerable musical and artistic talent, which resulted in Chopin falling in love with her and wanting to create a family home of his own in exile. The following year, during a holiday spent together with the seventeen-year-old Maria and her mother in Marienbad (modern day Márianské Lázne in the Czech Republic), and then in Dresden, he proposed and was accepted on the condition that he would take better care of his health. The engagement was unofficial, and did not end in marriage.
After a year-long “trial” period, Maria’s parents, disturbed by the bad state of the health of her fiancé who was seriously ill in the winter, and especially by his irregular lifestyle, viewed him as an unsuitable partner for their daughter. Chopin found this rejection an extremely painful experience, and labeled the letters from the Wodzinski family, tied into a small bundle, “My sorrow”.
In July 1837, Chopin travelled to London in the company of Camille Pleyel in the hope of forgetting all unpleasant memories. Soon afterwards, he entered into a close liaison with the famous French writer George Sand. This author of daring novels, older by six years, and a divorcee with two children, offered the lonely artist what he missed most from the time when he left Warsaw: extraordinary tenderness, warmth, and maternal care.
Chopin and Sand spent the winter of 1838 and 1839 on the Spanish Island of Majorca, living in a former monastery in Valdemosa. There, due to unfavorable weather conditions, Chopin became gravely ill and showed symptoms of tuberculosis. For many weeks, he remained so weak as to be unable to leave the house. Nonetheless, he continued to work intensively and composed a number of masterpieces: the series of 24 preludes, the Polonaise in C minor, the Ballade in F major, and the Scherzo in C sharp minor.
On his return from Majorca in the spring of 1839, and following convalescence in Marseilles, Chopin, still greatly weakened, moved to George Sand’s manor house in Nohant, in central France. Here, he was to spend long vacations up to 1846, with the exception of 1840, returning to Paris only for the winters. This was the happiest, and the most productive, period in his life after he left his family home. The majority of his most outstanding and profound works were composed in Nohant. In Paris, the composer and writer were treated as a married couple, although they were never married.
For years, the couple enjoyed a deep love and friendship, but with time the increasingly hostile attitude of George Sand’s son, who exerted a strong influence on the writer, caused ever more serious conflicts. A final parting of ways took place in July 1847.
Grievous personal experiences so important for the health and creativity of the composer had a devastating effect on Chopin’s mental and physical state. He almost completely gave up composition, and from then to the end of his life wrote only a few miniatures. In April 1848, persuaded by his Scottish pupil, Jane Stirling, Chopin left for England and Scotland. Together with her sister, Stirling organized concerts and visits in various localities, including the castles of the Scottish aristocracy. This exceptionally hectic lifestyle and excessive strain on his strength from constant travelling and numerous performances, together with a climate injurious to his lungs, further damaged his health. On November 16, 1848, despite frailty and a fever, Chopin gave his last concert in the Guildhall in London. A few days later, he returned to Paris.
His rapidly progressing disease made it impossible to continue giving lessons. In the summer of 1849, Ludwika Jedrzejewiczowa, the eldest sister of the composer, came from Warsaw to take care of her ill brother. On 17 October 1849, Chopin died of pulmonary tuberculosis in his Parisian flat in the Place Vendôme. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In accordance with his will, however, his sister brought his heart, taken from his body after death, to Warsaw where it was placed in an urn installed in a pillar of the Holy Cross church in Krakowskie Przedmiscie.
Chopin published 159 works distributed among sixty-five opus numbers, but he also composed more than seventy other works that he chose not to publish. In some cases, he may have decided that the music was not up to his standards or that it needed further revision. Other works had been presented as personal gifts to close friends, and Chopin may have considered it inappropriate to publish them. On his deathbed, he had asked that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed, but that wish was not honored, and in 1853 his mother and sisters asked Julian Fontana, Chopin’s friend and amanuensis, to select from among them works that he considered worthy and edit them for publication. He selected twenty-three piano pieces, which he grouped into eight opus numbers (66-73).
Chopin’s music, no matter what the setting, is instantly recognizable. His unique sense of lyricism and unparalleled melodic genius produced some of the most purely beautiful music ever written; music which would influence many composers who followed, from Brahms to Debussy. He was a revolutionary light in Romantic music, the ultimate craftsman of whimsical melody and heart-rending harmony. In the structure and form of his compositions, he is quite alone; his sense of balance and architecture in music was not particularly related to the Classical or budding Romantic tradition, but seemed to spring from some unknown well-source. The overwhelming power and influence of his musical legacy is forever assured.
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