Frédéric François Chopin

Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849), a Polish-French composer and pianist, was one of the creators of the typically romantic character piece. All of his works include the piano.

The imaginative schemes of Frédéric Chopin for his piano pieces include the following features: concentration on one motive in preludes and études; elaboration of dance forms in mazurkas, waltzes, polonaises, the Bolero, and the Tarantella; improvisational effects from piano figurations in the nocturnes; and episodic, vigorous writing in the larger works such as the scherzos, ballades, impromptus, and the Fantasy. Thus, in an era when the piano was becoming the preeminent solo instrument in both the home and the concert hall, Chopin devised new figurations, delicate traceries, and elaborate quasivocal fioriture and fashioned them for use at the keyboard. He wrote no symphonies, no operas, no string quartets, and only one trio (piano, violin, and cello). Besides his two significant sonatas and two piano concertos, he is best known for his musical miniatures, many of which are within the technical grasp of amateurs.

Chopin was not a conductor, or a writer on music, or a great teacher—although he earned substantial amounts from his teaching—nor did he concertize extensively. Indeed, he represents the curious phenomenon of a legendary pianist who gave approximately 30 public performances in his entire lifetime. From all reports, his playing was extraordinary: quiet, controlled, exquisitely shaded, varying from pianissimo to mezzo forte with only a very occasional forte.

Chopin was born on Feb. 22, 1810, near Warsaw, the second of four children of a French father, Nicholas Chopin, and a Polish mother, who had been a well-educated but impoverished relative in the Skarbek household, where Nicholas had been a tutor. Young Chopin had a good education and studied music privately with Joseph Elsner, founder and director of the Warsaw Conservatory. In 1817 Chopin's first composition was performed publicly; a year later he himself performed in public, playing a concerto by Adalbert Gyrowetz.


Musical Training

In 1826 Chopin became a full-time student at Elsner's conservatory, where he received an excellent foundation in theory, harmony, and counterpoint. The earliest work to display Chopinesque figurations as we know them today is the set of variations on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's theme Là ci darem' la mano, from the opera Don Giovanni. Elsner, after recognizing that Chopin's style was too original to force into traditional patterns, granted him the freedom to develop along distinctly personal lines. Indeed, Chopin is one of the few composers whose style crystallized in his formative years and remained the same throughout his lifetime.

Chopin's first acquaintance with the musical world beyond Warsaw occurred in 1828, when Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a Viennese pianist-composer, visited that city. Italian opera had been the exclusive local musical fare, and Hummel's visit made Chopin aware of happenings in the west. After visiting Berlin, where he was exposed to the music of George Frederick Handel and Felix Mendelssohn, Chopin heard Nicolò Paganini in Warsaw on his return and recognized that he must leave the city for exposure to other musicians. The government rejected his father's request for financial aid to send the boy abroad, so on his own Chopin went to Vienna to try to arrange the publication of several of his works. After a successful debut at the Kärntnerthor Theater on Aug. 11, 1829, he returned home only to prepare for a concert tour, this time through Germany and Italy. His two concertos (the F Minor is the earlier), which he performed in a public concert in Warsaw in 1830, several fantasies incorporating national themes, and the first set of études stem from this period.

After a trip through Breslau, Dresden, and Prague, Chopin arrived in Vienna, but owing to the unsettled political conditions he never reached Italy. He composed the B Minor Scherzo and the G Minor Ballade, as well as some songs, while he waited in Vienna. These works show Chopin's fully developed personal style long before he had met Franz Liszt, Vincenzo Bellini, or Hector Berlioz, all of whom were said to have influenced his writing. Besides Hummel, the only musician whose piano style inspired Chopin was the Irish composer John Field, who first used the term nocturne on several of his short, lyrical pieces.


Middle Period

When the 20-year-old Chopin arrived in Paris, he first considered—then rejected—the idea of studying with F. W.M. Kalkbrenner, the renowned virtuoso. Poor physical health as well as an unsuitable temperament prevented Chopin from giving public performances. Nevertheless, he became a significant figure in Parisian artistic circles, numbering among his friends musicians, writers, and painters as well as many wealthy and talented women. His pupils were all aristocratic ladies who paid well for their lessons. Some were gifted, but not one was sufficiently accomplished to establish or to preserve a method derived from her teacher.

Chopin recognized that he did not have the stamina to compete in public against such virtuosos as Liszt and Sigismund Thalberg. So long as he was able to earn enough by teaching, Chopin preferred to forgo concertizing for composition. His musical tastes are public knowledge. Friendly with Berlioz and Mendelssohn, he was not impressed with their music. Nor, for that matter, did he appreciate Robert Schumann's work, despite the latter's warm welcome written for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik when Chopin first arrived in Paris. Schumann introduced Clara Wieck to Chopin's work, and eventually her performances of Chopin's pieces made favorable impressions on innumerable audiences.


Final Years

Several young ladies appear to have been the object of Chopin's affections over the years, but the most celebrated female with whom he had a relationship was Aurore Dudevant, known as George Sand, whom he met in 1836. For 9 years, beginning in 1838, after he had composed the Funeral March (which later became part of the B-flat Minor Sonata), she was his closest associate. They spent the winter of 1838-1839 in Majorca, where she took Chopin in the belief that his health would improve. Unfortunately the weather was bad, Chopin's health deteriorated, and his Pleyel piano did not arrive until a week before they left. Nevertheless, the composer completed his 24 Preludes there at Valldemosa, which today is a Chopin museum. Chopin and Sand spent the following summer at Nohant, Sand's country place near Châteauroux, where Chopin composed the B-flat Minor Sonata and the F-sharp Minor Impromptu. From 1839 to 1846, with the exception of 1840, they passed every summer at Nohant.

Chopin kept to himself in Paris and played only occasionally at social gatherings in the homes of the aristocracy. Because he did not enjoy copying his music, his friend Julian Fontana, who as a student had boarded with the Chopin family in Warsaw, was his copyist. When Fontana left for America at the end of 1841, Chopin's output slowed considerably.

In 1846 Sand's children became a problem. Chopin sided with Solange, her daughter, in arguments against Sand and her son Maurice. Separation became inevitable, and the beginning of the end for Chopin. His health failed, and he lost all interest in composition. The Revolution of 1848 brought Chopin to England, where he accepted a longstanding invitation from Jane Stirling, a Scottish pupil. He gave several private performances in London and on May 15 played for Queen Victoria. After a rest in Scotland he returned to London in the fall of 1848, where on November 16 he played a benefit for Polish refugees at the Guildhall. He returned to Paris shortly afterward, living virtually on the generosity of the Stirlings. He died of tuberculosis on Oct. 17, 1849, in Paris.


His Achievements

Chopin's achievements are closely related to the improvements in the piano, particularly the extension of the keyboard. He was adroit in his use of the pedal to obtain gradations of color and sonority. He experimented with new fingerings, using the thumb or the fifth finger on black notes, sliding the same finger from a black note to a white one, and passing the fourth finger over the fifth. Even his most complicated pieces lie easily under a pianist's fingers because the works are idiomatically suited to the instrument. His creative imagination raised the étude from a practice piece to the concert stage. Chopin's harmonic innovations, often concealed beneath a soaring lyricism, place him on an equal footing with Liszt and Richard Wagner, both of whom extended conventional concepts of tonality. The popularity of Chopin's works has led to a multiplicity of editions, but the best publication today is the Polish national edition issued under the name of his compatriot Ignace Jan Paderewski.


Further Reading on Frédéric François Chopin

Selected Correspondence of Fryderyk Chopin, edited and translated by Arthur Hedley (1963), includes much biographical information as well as peripheral material on Paris in the 1840s. Hedley's Chopin (1947; rev. ed. 1963) is the most useful book in English on the composer. Frederick Niecks, Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician (2 vols., 1888; rev. ed. 1902), is particularly important for its insights into Chopin's character. James Huneker, Chopin the Man and His Music (1900), provides extensive discussion of the music. Alan Walker, ed., Frédéric Chopin: Profiles of the Man and the Musician (1966), offers accounts by several specialists.

Maurice J. E. Brown, Chopin: An Index of His Works in Chronological Order (1960), is the only work of its kind but does not supply sufficient information on the significantly different editions of Chopin's music; fortunately, the Chopin Institute in Poland is continuing publication of a series of facsimiles that provide insight into the reasons for variant editions. For those who read even a little French, Robert Bory's picture history, La Vie de Frédéric Chopin par l'image (1951), is a delight. An excellent scholarly work on the period is Alfred Einstein, Music in the Romantic Era (1947). See also Rey M. Longyear, Nineteenth-Century Romanticism in Music (1969).