Frédéric Chopin - Biography


Frédéric Chopin, whose compositions for piano were to make him one of the most popular composers and a supreme example of Romanticism, was born Fryderyk Chopin on February 22nd, 1810 in the village of ?elazowa Wola outside of Warsaw, Poland. He died October 17th, 1849 in Paris. His father, Miko?aj (born Nicolas), was originally from Marainville, France who immigrated to Poland in 1787, where he tutored the children of Warsaw aristocrats, one of whose relations, Justyna Krzy?anowska, Chopin married.


At six, Fryderyk received rudimentary piano lessons from his older sister. In 1816, he began receiving lessons from a professional music teacher, Czech composer Wojciech ?ywny. Chopin made his performing debut at eight, performing a concert of material by Bohemian composer, Adalbert Gyrowetz. In his teens, Chopin was to study composition with Joseph Elsner. By his early adolescence, Chopin began to compose waltzes and mazurkas, but his first published composition was a set of variations on Mozart’s Là ci darem la mano for piano and orchestra, written when he was sixteen. By the time he was in his mid teens Chopin was considered the finest pianist in Poland and performed in public and private concerts in Warsaw.


Chopin first went outside of Poland to Germany in 1828, where as a brilliant young man he was exposed to the current musical and intellectual currents in Europe. He graduated from the University of Warsaw and embarked upon his first foreign tour to Vienna in 1829, which received mixed reviews. During the aftermath, he composed his first masterpiece, the Piano Concerto # 2 in F minor, soon followed by the publication of the previously composed Concerto # 1 in E minor. By this time, Chopin’s fame was starting to spread beyond Poland and he played in many European capitals. While he was on tour, Poland (then partitioned between Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia) revolted against Russia in what became known as the November Uprising. Chopin’s travelling companion, Tytus Woyciechowski, returned to Poland to enlist. Chopin travelled on to Paris.


Upon his arrival in the French capital, Chopin unhappily received the news that the Russians had crushed the rebellion and as a result he resolved to stay in Paris. Around this time he composed the first of his four scherzi and Étude. Although already widely celebrated, Chopin next took lessons from Paris-based German composer Friedrich Kalkbrenner to help ease his entry into Parisian society. During this period, his fame was spreading to Germany and his contemporary Robert Schumann wrote a famous review in a Leipzig periodical where he famously declared of Chopin, “Hats off a genius!” Chopin’s formal Paris debut occurred in February of 1832 and was a huge success where he was saluted by the most famous of Belgian music critics, François-Joseph Fétis. Chopin had one flaw as a concert pianist; though he was capable of exquisite nuance on the piano, his frail physique didn’t enable him to produce an adequate amount of tone to fill a large venue. With the help of influential friends, he was able to perform in the private salons of the wealthy. Chopin developed friendships with the many greats of Parisian life in the 1830s, including Hector Berlioz, Vincenzo Bellini, Franz Liszt, Heinrich Heine and Eugène Delacroix, who painted a famed portrait of the young Chopin.


During the early 1830s, Chopin composed ballades, waltzes, nocturnes, mazurkas and impromptus (including the famous Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor). He limited his public recitals to one a year but his composing and teaching made him a sizeable income. Then his health began to fail in 1835. At age 25, he went to Carlsbad, Germany, where he saw his father for the last time. During this trip he met a Polish family he knew in Warsaw, the Wodzy?skis, and fell in love with their sixteen-year-old Daughter, Maria. He eventually asked her to marry him but the family rejected his proposal primarily on the grounds of his poor health, namely the tuberculosis that would take his life fourteen years later (as well as that of his father and two of his sisters). A controversial subject because of his effeminate appearance and nature and extravagant clothes, it was assumed by many people then and now that Chopin was gay but there is no solid evidence of this, although Liberace modeled his persona and style after him. Chopin was to find a muse in a young Polish countess named Delfina Potocka; it was for her that he wrote his most famous composition, Waltz in D flat major, the so-called Minute Waltz.


In 1836, Chopin began what was to become the most famous romance in musical lore. Franz Liszt’s lover, Marie, Comtesse d'Agoult (aka Daniel Stern), introduced him to a fellow French writer and feminist, Amadine Lucille Dupin, better known by her pen name, George Sand. Chopin was initially repelled by the women, who wore men’s clothes and smoked cigars. But Sand, who was a very powerful personality, fell in love with Chopin and left her husband and two children for him. The both of them ran off to the Spanish Island of Majorca late in 1838 to spend the winter. The climate, which was to have helped his tuberculosis, in fact made it worse. His condition was further exacerbated but the couple’s inability to find adequate lodgings, which forced them to live in unheated monastery. Once his Pleyel piano was released from Spanish customs, he revised his famous “Funeral March” from his Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, completed his 24 Preludes, composed two polonaises, some mazurkas and Scherzo for piano No. 3 in C sharp minor.


His health seriously compromised by his stay in Majorca, Chopin and Sand left for Barcelona and then Marseilles. On their return to Paris, Sand decided to separate physically from Chopin, possibly in fear of contagion from Chopin’s tuberculosis. They still remained a couple in the Parisian social circuit through the early 1840s. Despite his health, he composed some of his greatest pieces during this period, including The Heroic Polonaise, the Third Piano Sonata, the remaining Waltzes Mazurka and the Cello Sonata. The strained relations between Chopin and Sand reached a breaking point when she wrote a novel, Lucrezia Floriani, a thinly disguised story based on their relationship where she portrayed Chopin as a weakling and more a burdensome child then a lover. After 1847 they had a permanent break.


Chopin left Paris for an extended visit to England where he performed a few private concerts for the cream of English society that financed his stay. A wealthy Scottish admirer, Jane Stirling, proposed marriage but Chopin sensed he had little time left. His final concert performance occurred in the fall of 1848 in London’s Guildhall at a benefit for Polish refugees. He returned to Paris in the end of 1848 a doomed man. At this time, the only photograph of Chopin was taken, his prematurely aged face seemingly glaring with burning resentment. His extravagant lifestyle, medical bills and lack of income made his last month’s difficult. He died on November 12th, 1849 in a fashionable apartment, attended by his older sister. He requested in his will to be buried in Paris but to have his heart sent to Poland to be entombed in a church. The funeral service included a performance of the requiem of Chopin’s favorite composer, Mozart. He was buried to the strains of his famed Funeral March.


From his lifetime to the present, Chopin has been one of the most beloved and popular composers both for the casual listener and the professional musician. Unlike any other great composer, he concentrated almost entirely on the piano piece. Though on the surface his music was simple enough to entrance the casual music lover, it explored the full potential of the piano in a way that has never been equaled. His models were Mozart and his great Italian contemporary, Bellini. Chopin’s music gained enormous popularity when Tin Pan Alley adapted many of his pieces as vehicles for big bands and pop singers. There was even a hit movie in 1945 entitled A Song to Remember, with the strapping matinee idol Cornel Wilde playing the sickly diminutive Chopin. Unlike Tchaikovsky, this mass popularity never effected the reputation of Chopin with connoisseurs. Great artists like Sergej Rakhmaninov, Alfred Cortot, Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz used recordings to amplify Chopin’s fame. In our day, Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini, Murray Perahia and Emanuel Ax have kept it going. Just as an actor is judged on his Shakespeare, a pianist is measured by his Chopin. 


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