The 100 most inspiring musicians of all time: Frédéric Chopin
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Frédéric François Chopin (b. March 1, 1810, Żelazow, near Warsaw, duchy of Warsaw [now in Poland]—d. Oct. 17, 1849, Paris, France), a Polish-French composer and pianist of the Romantic period, is best known for his solo pieces for piano and for his piano concerti.
Although he wrote little but piano works, many of them brief, Chopin ranks as one of music’s greatest tone poets by reason of his superfine imagination and fastidious craftsmanship. His works for solo piano include about 61 mazurkas, 16 polonaises, 26 preludes, 27 études, 21 nocturnes, 20 waltzes, 3 sonatas, 4 ballades, 4 scherzos, 4 impromptus, and many individual pieces—such as the Barcarolle, Opus 60 (1846); the Fantasia, Opus 49 (1841); and the Berceuse, Opus 57 (1845)—as well as 17 Polish songs.
Early Years in Warsaw and Vienna
Chopin’s father, Nicholas, a French émigré in Poland, was employed as a tutor to various aristocratic families, including the Skarbeks, at Żelazowa Wola, one of whose poorer relations he married. When Frédéric was eight months old, Nicholas became a French teacher at the Warsaw lyceum. Chopin himself attended the lyceum from 1823 to 1826.
Chopin started piano lessons at age 7 with the 61-yearold Wojciech Zywny, an all-around musician with an astute sense of values. Zywny’s simple instruction in piano playing was soon left behind by his pupil, who discovered for himself an original approach to the piano and was allowed
to develop unhindered by academic rules and formal discipline.
Chopin was soon invited to play at private soirées, and at age 8 he made his first public appearance at a charity concert. Three years later he performed in the presence of the Russian tsar Alexander I, who was in Warsaw to open Parliament. Playing was not alone responsible for his
growing reputation as a child prodigy.
At 7 he wrote a Polonaise in G Minor, which was printed, and soon afterward a march of his appealed to the Russian grand duke Constantine, who had it scored for his military band to play on parade. 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.
Elsner realized that Chopin’s individual imagination must never be checked by purely academic demands. Even before he came under Elsner’s eye, Chopin had shown interest in the folk music of the Polish countryside and had received those impressions that later gave an unmistakable national colouring to his work. At the conservatory he was put through a solid course of instruction in harmony and composition; in piano playing he was allowed to develop a high degree of individuality.
Chopin made his performance debut in Vienna in 1829. A second concert confirmed his success, and on his return home he prepared himself for further achievements abroad by writing his 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.
Years in Paris
In March and October 1830 he presented his new works to the Warsaw public and then left Poland with the intention of visiting Germany and Italy for further study. He had gone no farther than Vienna when news reached him of the Polish revolt against Russian rule; this event, added to the disturbed state of Europe, caused him to remain profitlessly in Vienna until the following July, when he decided to make his way to Paris.
Soon after his arrival in what was then the center of European culture and in the midst of its own late-flowering Romantic movement, Chopin realized that he had found the milieu in which his genius could flourish. He quickly established ties with many Polish émigrés and with a younger generation of composers, including Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz. Chopin decided to settle in Paris to pursue teaching and composing.
After his Paris concert debut in February 1832, Chopin realized that his extreme delicacy at the keyboard was not to everyone’s taste in larger concert spaces. However, with his elegant manners, fastidious dress, and innate sensitivity, Chopin soon found himself a favourite in the great houses of Paris, both as a recitalist and as a teacher.
His new piano works at this time included two 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.
In 1836 Chopin met for the first time the novelist Aurore Dudevant, better known as George Sand; their liaison began in the summer of 1838. That autumn he set off with her and her children, Maurice and Solange, to winter on the island of Majorca. They rented a simple villa and were idyllically happy until the sunny weather broke and Chopin became ill. When rumours of tuberculosis reached the villa owner, they were ordered out and could find accommodations only in a monastery in the remote village of Valldemosa.
The cold and damp environment, malnutrition, peasant suspiciousness of their strange ménage, and the lack of a suitable concert piano hindered Chopin’s artistic production and further weakened his precarious physical health. Sand realized that only immediate departure would save his life. They arrived at Marseille in early March 1839, and, thanks to a skilled physician, Chopin was sufficiently recovered after just under three months for them to start planning a return to Paris.
The summer of 1839 they spent at Nohant, Sand’s country house about 180 miles (290 km) south of Paris. This period following the return from Majorca was to be the happiest and most productive of Chopin’s life. For a regular source of income, he again turned to private teaching. There was also a growing demand for his new works, and, since he had become increasingly shrewd in his dealings with publishers, he could afford to live
Health was a recurrent worry, and every summer Sand took him to Nohant for fresh air and relaxation. Chopin produced much of his most-searching music there, not only miniatures but also extended works, such as the Fantaisie in F Minor (composed 1840–41), the Barcarolle (1845–46), the Polonaise-Fantaisie (1845–46), the ballades in A-flat major (1840–41) and F minor (1842), and the Sonata in B Minor (1844).
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. He valued that quality throughout life as much as he abhorred descriptive titles or any hint of an underlying “program.”
Family dissension arising from the marriage of Sand’s daughter, Solange, caused Chopin’s own relationship with Sand to become strained, and he grew increasingly moody and petulant. By 1848 the rift between him and Sand was complete, and pride prevented either from effecting the
reconciliation they both actually desired. Thereafter Chopin seems to have given up his struggle with ill health.
Broken in spirit and depressed by the revolution that had broken out in Paris in February 1848, Chopin accepted an invitation to visit England and Scotland. His reception in London was enthusiastic, and he struggled through an exhausting round of lessons and appearances at fashionable
parties. By now his health was deteriorating rapidly, and he made his last public appearance on a concert platform at the Guildhall in London on Nov. 16, 1848, when, in a final patriotic gesture, he played for the benefit of Polish refugees.
He returned to Paris, where he died the following year.
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