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.
Within a few months of beginning his studies with Zywny, Chopin began to play in public, and by the end of 1817, at the age of seven, had already been described by many as ‘Mozart’s successor’. Chopin began to compose around this time, and continued to do so throughout his student years, but only a handful of these works were printed.
In the autumn of 1826, Chopin began studying the theory of music, figured bass, and
composition at the Warsaw High School of Music. Its head was the composer Józef Elsner. Chopin, however, did not attend the piano class. Aware of the exceptional nature of Chopin’s talent, Elsner allowed him, in accordance with his personality and temperament, to concentrate on piano music but was unbending as regards theoretical subjects, in particular counterpoint.
Chopin, endowed by nature with magnificent melodic invention, ease of free improvisation, and an inclination towards brilliant effects and perfect harmony, gained in Elsner’s school a solid grounding, discipline, and precision of construction, as well as an understanding of the meaning and logic of each note. This was the period of the first extended works such as the Sonata in C minor, Variations, on a theme from Don Juan by Mozart, the Rondo á la Krakowiak, the Fantaisie, and the Trio in G minor. Chopin ended his education at the High School in 1829, and after the third year of his studies Elsner wrote in a report: “Chopin, Fryderyk, third year student, amazing talent, musical genius”.
After completing his studies, Chopin planned a longer stay abroad to become acquainted with the musical life of Europe and to win fame. Up to then, he had never left Poland, with the exception of two brief stays in Prussia. In 1826, he had spent a holiday in Bad Reinertz (modern day Duszniki-Zdrój) in Lower Silesia, and two years later he had accompanied his father’s friend, Professor Feliks Jarocki, on his journey to Berlin to attend a congress of naturalists. Here, quite unknown to the Prussian public, he concentrated on observing the local musical scene.
Now he pursued bolder plans. In July 1829 he made a short excursion to Vienna in the company of his acquaintances. Wilhelm Würfel, who had been staying there for three years, introduced him to the musical environment, and enabled Chopin to give two performances in the Kärtnertortheater.
He enjoyed his tremendous success with the public, and although the critics censured his performance for its small volume of sound, they acclaimed him as a genius of the piano and praised his compositions. Consequently, the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger printed the Variations on a theme from Mozart (1830), a piece he performed at the Kärtnertortheater. This was the first publication of a Chopin composition abroad, for up to then, his works had only been published in Warsaw.
Upon his return to Warsaw, Chopin, already free from student duties, devoted himself to composition and wrote, among other pieces, two Concertos for piano and orchestra: in F minor and E minor. The first concerto was inspired to a considerable extent by the composer’s feelings towards Konstancja Gladkowska, who studied singing at the Conservatory. This was also the period of the first nocturne, etudes, waltzes, mazurkas, and songs to words by Stefan Witwicki. During the last months prior to his planned longer stay abroad, Chopin gave a number of public performances, mainly in the National Theatre in Warsaw where the premiere of both concertos took place.
Originally, his destination was to be Berlin, where Prince Antoni Radziwill, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznan, had invited the artist. Radziwil, who had been appointed by the King of Prussia, was a long-standing admirer of Chopin’s talent and who, in the autumn of 1829, was his host in Antonin. Chopin, however, ultimately chose Vienna where he wished to consolidate his earlier success and establish his reputation.
Chopin’s reputation as a composer was principally that of a miniaturist who achieved great melodic and harmonic richness within brief and simple musical forms. Once firmly established in Paris, however, Chopin began to experiment with more complex musical structures, most notably in his scherzos, ballades, and polonaises. As titles for independent piano pieces, scherzo (Italian for “joke”) and ballade (usually a lyrical vocal work) had no specific meaning for nineteenth-century audiences, so Chopin was free to define these genres himself.
Unlike the other composer-pianists of his time, however, Chopin rarely gave public concerts; his performing was generally confined to the salons of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen. Public awareness of Chopin’s music came about primarily through its publication, and the process of shepherding his works into print assumed great importance for him. However, this was not simply a matter of converting his manuscripts into printed form. Chopin felt that many performance details regarding expression were not fixed elements of his music, even though they have a substantial impact on the way it sounds. He was inconsistent about including performing instructions in his manuscripts, and when publishers asked him to supply them at the proof stage, he often changed his mind several times. Some musical changes also appeared first in proofs and were never copied into his manuscripts. Moreover, due to the inconsistencies of contemporary copyright law, nearly all of Chopin’s works had to be issued simultaneously by publishers in France, Germany, and England in order to discourage piracy.
Chopin’s large-scale works were not among his most popular ones. They were difficult to learn, and their musical form and content puzzled contemporary musicians. It is a measure of Chopin’s stature that publishers not only printed these pieces but also paid substantial sums for them, even though they were unlikely to reap an immediate profit.
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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