Long before Lech Walesa and Madame Curie, the only Polish person I had ever heard of was Frederic Chopin. Born near Warsaw in 1810, he died in Paris in 1849, at a very early age. But fortunately for us, his great music and composition lives on. He was perhaps, best known as both a pianist, and his solo pieces for piano and piano concerti. In fact, he wrote little else.
His father was an immigrant from France and was employed as a tutor to wealthy families in Poland. His father became a French teacher at the Warsaw lyceum. Chopin himself attended from 1823 to 1826. He became fascinated by his mother and his older sister playing the piano. By the age of six, he was trying to emulate their sound, and at seven, started piano lessons. He quickly surpassed his instructor, Zwyny, and discovered his own approach to the piano, free of academic rules and discipline.
Soon, he was playing at private events, and by the age of eight, played in a charity event. A mere three years later, he played for Russian tsar Nicholas I, who was in Warsaw to open Parliament. At seven, he wrote his first piece, Polonaise in G Minor, which was published. He followed that with a march that was favored by a Russian duke. “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.”
Fortunately for us, Elsner realized that Chopin’s talent must never be limited by academics, though he stressed traditional training. Chopin himself showed strong interest in Polish countryside music, which permeates his later work. His training at the Conservatory provided instruction in harmony and composition. His piano playing continued to develop with high individuality.
In an effort to broaden his musical horizons, his parents sent him to Vienna. He made his performance debut there in 1829. And after a second successful concert, he returned to Warsaw and wrote “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.”
He left Poland, heading to Italy and Germany, when the Polish revolution against Russia began, leaving him in Vienna, then ultimately Paris. Here, he flourished, established ties with other young composers Liszt, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, and Bellini. His talent allowed him to write and teach, earning substantial income while freeing him from the stress of concert giving.
“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 favorite 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.”
After two youthful love affairs, he met novelist Aurore Dudevant (Sand) in 1838. They wintered in a Majorca villa, hereupon Chopin became ill, and was forced to stay in a monastery. Rumors of tuberculosis caused the villa owner to evict him. The cold and wet conditions, malnutrition, and lack of a concert piano impeded both is work and his health. They left for Marseilles in 1839, where a local physician brought him back to health in mere months. But the tuberculosis would ultimately take his life ten years later.
The period after Majorca was the best of his life, happy and productive, resulting in several masterpieces. He returned to private teaching for income, living elegantly while developing unconventional fingering and agility. The result was beautiful music that was shrewdly and profitably published.
Despite continued concerns for his health, he continued to produce “soul searching” music through the early 1840s, while now living in Nohant. In the country, he found peace and was able to indulge his 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.”
By 1848, his relationship with Sand ended, and his health likewise further eroded. After a strenuous tour through England, where he was unable to socialize or compose, he returned to Paris, where he died in 1849. He was buried in a Paris cemetery, but his heart was interred in Warsaw.
During his lifetime, he gave few more than 30 public performances. His lasting legacy to music: “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 colorful 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.”