Sources returnpage

Chopin

Category: Musician or composer

 Maria Wodzińskis's portrait of the composer aged 25 is considered, along
with Delacroix's, as among Chopin's best likenesses

Frédéric François Chopin (1 March 1810 – 17 October 1849), born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era who wrote primarily for the solo piano.

Chopin was born in what was then the Duchy of Warsaw and grew up in Warsaw, which in 1815 became part of Congress Poland. A child prodigy, he completed his musical education and composed his earlier works in Warsaw before leaving Poland at the age of 20, less than a month before the outbreak of the November 1830 Uprising.

At 21 he settled in Paris. Thereafter, during the last 18 years of his life, he gave only some 30 public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon. He supported himself by selling his compositions and by teaching piano, for which he was in high demand. Chopin formed a friendship with Franz Liszt and was admired by many of his musical contemporaries, including Robert Schumann. In 1835 he obtained French citizenship.  He died, aged 39, of consumption - tuberculosis, with which he suffered seemingly his entire life.

…… in the ninth edition of Encyclopædia Britannica (1885),  it says “Few diseases possess such sad interest for humanity as consumption, both on account of its widespread prevalence and its destructive effects, particularly among the young.” Causing as much as one-quarter of all deaths in Europe, arising with particular frequency among young adults between the ages of 18 and 35, and bringing on a lingering, melancholy decline characterized by loss of body weight, skin pallor, and sunken yet luminous eyes, tuberculosis was enshrined in literature as the “captain of death,” the slow killer of youth, promise, and genius. Prominent artists who died of consumption in the 19th century included the English poet John Keats, the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, and all of the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne); in the early 20th century they were followed by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and the German writer Franz Kafka.

Chopin as a piano player

 

All of Chopin's compositions include the piano and most are for solo piano, although he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces, and some songs to Polish lyrics. In his day, he gained worldwide renown as a leading musician of his era, whose "poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation."

Chopin’s music was written to be performed by himself, his compositions are based around his individual style of playing. His keyboard style is highly individual and often very technically demanding; but his own performances were noted for their nuance and sensitivity. Any player who really interprets Chopin correctly will be emotionally involved, as his pieces capture despair and grief, love and unrequited love, tragedy and forms of ecstasy.

Chopin did give concerts, and on 26 February 1832 he gave a debut Paris concert at the Salle Pleyel which drew universal admiration. The critic François-Joseph Fétis wrote in the Revue et gazette musicale: "Here is a young man who ... taking no model, has found, if not a complete renewal of piano music, ... an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else ..."

But it was after this concert, that Chopin realized that his essentially intimate keyboard technique was not optimal for large concert spaces. Later that year he was introduced to the wealthy Rothschild banking family, whose patronage also opened doors for him to other private salons -social gatherings of the aristocracy and artistic and literary elite.  Chopin was also sought after for piano lessons, for which he charged the high fee of one guinea per hour, and for private recitals for which the fee was 20 guineas.

the hand of death reaching out

At his first engagement in London, the audience included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Prince, who was himself a talented musician, moved close to the keyboard to view Chopin's technique.

As such, the general public rarely heard Chopin, his performances were confined to playing for much smaller groups.  There is thus something a little odd these days about seeing major concert performances of his work.  The intimacy, the emotion and the gentle keyboard touches are lost in large concert halls.

Chopin was appreciated as much by his fellow musicians and artists as the public.  Chopin met Felix Mendelssohn and he mentioned in a letter to his friend Woyciechowski that he had met Rossini.  In Paris, Chopin was to become acquainted with, among many others, Hector Berlioz, Ferdinand Hiller, Heinrich Heine, Eugène Delacroix, and Alfred de Vigny.  Franz Liszt was in attendance at Chopin's Parisian debut on 26 February 1832 at the Salle Pleyel, which led him to remark: "The most vigorous applause seemed not to suffice to our enthusiasm in the presence of this talented musician, who revealed a new phase of poetic sentiment combined with such happy innovation in the form of his art."  The two became friends, and for many years lived in close proximity in Paris.

In later years, Chopin generally gave a single annual concert at the Salle Pleyel, a venue that seated three hundred. He played more frequently at salons, but preferred playing at his own Paris apartment for small groups of friends. The musicologist Arthur Hedley has observed that

"As a pianist Chopin was unique in acquiring a reputation of the highest order on the basis of a minimum of public appearances—few more than thirty in the course of his lifetime."

Works

They called tuberculosis the 'white death'

Chopin invented the concept of the instrumental ballade. His major piano works also include mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, études, impromptus, scherzos, preludes and sonatas, some published only after his death. Over 230 works of Chopin survive; some compositions from early childhood have been lost. All his known works involve the piano, and only a few range beyond solo piano music, as either piano concertos, songs or chamber music.

Chopin took the new salon genre of the nocturne, invented by the Irish composer John Field, to a deeper level of sophistication. He was the first to write ballades and scherzi as individual concert pieces. He essentially established a new genre with his own set of free-standing preludes (Op. 28, published 1839). He exploited the poetic potential of the concept of the concert étude, in his two sets of studies (Op. 10 published in 1833, Op. 25 in 1837).

Chopin also endowed popular dance forms with a greater range of melody and expression. Chopin's mazurkas, while originating in the traditional Polish dance (the mazurek), differed from the traditional variety in that they were written for the concert hall rather than the dance hall; "it was Chopin who put the mazurka on the European musical map."

The series of seven polonaises published in his lifetime (another nine were published posthumously), beginning with the Op. 26 pair (published 1836), set a new standard for music in the form. His waltzes were also written specifically for the salon recital rather than the ballroom.

The last opus number that Chopin himself used was 65, allocated to the Cello Sonata in G minor. He expressed a deathbed wish that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. At the request of the composer's mother and sisters, however, his musical executor Julian Fontana selected 23 unpublished piano pieces and grouped them into eight further opus numbers (Opp. 66–73), published in 1855.  In 1857, 17 Polish songs that Chopin wrote at various stages of his life were collected and published as Op. 74, though their order within the opus did not reflect the order of composition.

Żelazowa Wola

Life

Early years

Fryderyk Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, 46 kilometres (29 miles) west of Warsaw, in what was then the Duchy of Warsaw, a Polish state established by Napoleon. Chopin was of slight build, and even in early childhood was prone to illnesses.  Simply put he was a sickly child and progressed to become a sickly adult.

Fryderyk's father, Nicolas Chopin, was a Frenchman from Lorraine who had emigrated to Poland in 1787 at the age of sixteen. Nicolas tutored children of the Polish aristocracy, and in 1806 married Justyna Krzyżanowska. The father played the flute and violin; the mother played the piano and gave lessons. Fryderyk was the couple's second child and only son; he had an elder sister, Ludwika (1807–55), and two younger sisters, Izabela (1811–81) and Emilia (1812–27).

.... white death .....

In October 1810, six months after Fryderyk's birth, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father acquired a post teaching French at the Warsaw Lyceum, then housed in the Saxon Palace.

Fryderyk’s first professional music tutor, from 1816 to 1821, was the Czech pianist Wojciech Żywny. His elder sister Ludwika also took lessons from Żywny, and occasionally played duets with her brother. It quickly became apparent that he was a child prodigy. By the age of seven Fryderyk had begun giving public concerts, and in 1817 he composed two polonaises, in G minor and B-flat major. His next work, a polonaise in A-flat major of 1821, dedicated to Żywny, is his earliest surviving musical manuscript.

In 1817 the Saxon Palace was requisitioned by Warsaw's Russian governor for military use, and the Warsaw Lyceum was re-established in the Kazimierz Palace (today the rectorate of Warsaw University). Fryderyk and his family moved to a building, which still survives, adjacent to the Kazimierz Palace. During this period, Fryderyk was sometimes invited to the Belweder Palace as playmate to the son of the ruler of Russian Poland, Grand Duke Constantine; he played the piano for the Duke and composed a march for him.

During 1824–28 Chopin spent his vacations away from Warsaw, at a number of locales. In 1824 and 1825, at Szafarnia, he was a guest of Dominik Dziewanowski, the father of a schoolmate. Here for the first time he encountered Polish rural folk music. His letters home from Szafarnia (to which he gave the title "The Szafarnia Courier"), written in a very modern and lively Polish, ‘amused his family with their spoofing of the Warsaw newspapers’.

Exiled in Paris

Chopin's successes as a composer and performer opened the door to western Europe for him, and on 2 November 1830, he set out, in the words of Zdzisław Jachimecki, "into the wide world, with no very clearly defined aim, forever."  Later that month, in Warsaw, the November 1830 Uprising broke out, and Chopin, now alone in Vienna, wrote to a friend, "I curse the moment of my departure."  When in September 1831, aged just 21, he learned, while travelling from Vienna to Paris, that the uprising had been crushed, he expressed his anguish in the pages of his private journal.

Chopin arrived in Paris in late September 1831; he would never return to Poland, thus becoming one of many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration. In France he used the French versions of his given names, and after receiving French citizenship in 1835, he travelled on a French passport.

Two Polish friends in Paris were also to play important roles in Chopin's life there. His fellow student at the Warsaw Conservatory, Julian Fontana, became Chopin's "general factotum and copyist". Albert Grzymała, who in Paris became a wealthy financier and society figure, often acted as Chopin's adviser and "gradually began to fill the role of elder brother in [his] life."

with George Sand

By the end of 1832, aged only 22, Chopin no longer depended financially upon his father, and in the winter of 1832 he began earning a handsome income from publishing his works and teaching piano to affluent students from all over Europe. This freed him from the strains of public concert-giving.

Chopin's music soon found success with publishers, and in 1833 he contracted with Maurice Schlesinger, who arranged for it to be published not only in France but, through his family connections, also in Germany and England.

Love and lovers

Chopin’s first love was a Polish girl - Maria Wodzińska, with whom he became engaged from 1836 to 1837, only to have the engagement broken off – principally because of his very uncertain health. He then maintained an often troubled relationship with the French woman writer George Sand. Sand, after describing Chopin's creations as ‘miraculous’ and ‘coming on his piano suddenly complete or singing in his head during a walk’, says that afterwards

began the most heartrending labour I ever saw. It was a series of efforts, of irresolutions, and of frettings to seize again certain details of the theme he had heard’, he would 'shut himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, walking, breaking his pens, repeating and altering a bar a hundred times and spending six weeks over a single page to write it at last as he had noted it down at the very first.

A brief visit to Majorca with Sand in 1838–39 was one of his most productive periods of composition. More details are provided in an observation.

In his last years, he was financially supported by his admirer and pupil Jane Stirling, who also arranged for him to visit Scotland in 1848.  He stayed at Calder House near Edinburgh and at Johnstone Castle in Renfrewshire, both owned by members of Stirling's family. In response to rumours about his involvement with Jane, however, he answered that he was "closer to the grave than the nuptial bed."

Declining health and death

Chopin daguerréotype de Louis-Auguste Bisson de 1847

From 1842, aged only 32, Chopin showed signs of serious illness. After a solo recital in Paris on 21 February 1842, he wrote to Grzymała:

"I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much."

Late in 1844, Charles Hallé visited Chopin and found him "hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain", although his spirits returned when he started to play the piano for his visitor. Chopin's health continued to deteriorate, particularly from this time onwards.

Chopin's public popularity as a virtuoso began to wane, as did the number of his pupils, and this, together with the political strife and instability of the time, caused him to struggle financially. In February 1848, he gave his last Paris concert.

In April, during the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, he left for London, where he performed at several concerts and at numerous receptions in great houses. This tour was suggested to him by Jane Stirling and her elder sister. Stirling also made all the logistical arrangements and provided much of the necessary funding.

In late October 1848, while staying at 10 Warriston Crescent in Edinburgh with the Polish physician Adam Łyszczyński, he wrote out his last will and testament—"a kind of disposition to be made of my stuff in the future, if I should drop dead somewhere", he wrote to Grzymała.

Jane Stirling par Deveria

Chopin made his last public appearance on a concert platform at London's Guildhall on 16 November 1848, when, in a final patriotic gesture, he played for the benefit of Polish refugees. By this time he was very seriously ill, weighing under 99 pounds (i.e. less than 45 kg, 7 stone 2 lbs), and his doctors were aware that his sickness was at a terminal stage.

At the end of November, Chopin returned to Paris. He passed the winter in unremitting illness, but was visited by friends. During the summer of 1849, his friends found him an apartment in Chaillot, out of the centre of the city, for which the rent was secretly subsidised by an admirer, Princess Obreskoff.

With his health further deteriorating, Chopin desired to have a family member with him. In June 1849 his sister Ludwika came to Paris with her husband and daughter, and in September, supported by a loan from Jane Stirling, he took an apartment at Place Vendôme 12. After 15 October, when his condition took a marked turn for the worse, only a handful of his closest friends remained with him.  Some of his friends provided music at his request; among them, Potocka sang and Franchomme played the cello.

On 17 October, after midnight, the physician leaned over him and asked whether he was suffering greatly. "No longer", he replied. He died a few minutes before two o'clock in the morning. Those present at the deathbed included his sister Ludwika, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska, Sand's daughter Solange, and his close friend Thomas Albrecht.

Chopin's death certificate gave the cause as tuberculosis, and his physician, Jean Cruveilhier, was then the leading French authority on this disease.

Chopin requested that his heart was returned to Warsaw where it rests at the Church of the Holy Cross. He also bequeathed his unfinished notes on a piano tuition method, Projet de méthode, to Alkan for completion.

 Teofil Kwiatkowski - Chopin On His Deathbed (October 1849)

 

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.