FRÉDÉRIC FRANÇOIS CHOPIN
Biography by Allen Krantz
Born: March 1, 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, Poland
Died: October 17, 1849 in Paris, France
The piano music of Frédéric Chopin is among the most original and influential work of the nineteenth century. With Chopin we leave the world of the eighteenth century piano completely and enter a new realm of idiomatic writing that grows directly out of the technique of the instrument and its development that brought it close to our modern instrument in sonority.
Ironically, Chopin didn't care much for the music of his illustrious contemporaries even though many were friends or acquaintances. Schumann, who had been extravagant in his praise of Chopin in introducing him to Germany, was too idiosyncratic. Berlioz and Mendelssohn didn't interest him and Liszt was often vulgar. Chopin's heroes were Bach and Mozart. This sense of classical proportion and elegance combined with a love of bel canto operatic singing and his Polish heritage form Chopin's basic aesthetic. The Polish expatriate who spent most of his creative life in Paris is the first nationalist composer.
Chopin was born in 1810 in Poland to a French father and Polish mother. Beginning in 1822, he studied harmony and counterpoint at the Warsaw Conservatory with Joseph Elsner who encouraged his appreciation of Bach. By age nineteen he had written his F minor piano concerto and had played two concerts in Vienna. After many foreign concerts during 1829 and 1830, he arrived in Paris in 1831 where he was to stay until his death in 1849.
Paris was the great center of culture at this time and the home of many artists of the highest caliber. Hugo, Balzac, Sand and Heine were among the writers. The supreme painters of the time, Delacroix (painter of the most famous Chopin portrait) and Ingres lived there as did many great composers including Liszt, Rossini, Berlioz and the important pianists Kalkbrenner, Thalberg and Herz. Chopin's debut recital was the talk of the city.
Through his aristocratic Polish friends, Chopin knew the influential Rothschilds and soon could set up a teaching studio that was his primary support and allowed him to live in an elegant style for most of his short life. His concertizing became less frequent and was limited to the semi-public world of the drawing room.
''I have my place among ambassadors, princes, ministers. I don't know by what miracle it has come about ... but today that sort of thing is indispensable to me ... I have five lessons to give today. You will imagine that I am making a fortune but my cabriolet and white gloves cost more than that ...'' Chopin was famously fastidious and looked out the window as his society students placed their payment for the lesson on the mantel.
In spite of the sense that Chopin was somewhat of a dandy and a prude, he apparently had a perfectly healthy and active interest in the opposite sex and an active although discreet, social life in his circle. This life changed however, at age twenty six when Liszt introduced him to the thirty two year old George Sand (nom de plume of Aurore Dudevant). Sand was famous not only for her writing but for wearing men's clothes, smoking cigars and her general disdain of convention.
At first Chopin was more shocked by than attracted to Sand and their affair grew slowly. By 1838 they were living together and in 1839-9, they took their famous trip to Mallorca where they spent the winter and Chopin wrote many of the 24 Preludes, Op.28. What was supposed to be an idyll became a disaster as it rained constantly and Chopin's already weak lungs responded badly. He would eventually die of tuberculosis.
Chopin and Sand stayed together until 1847. In Paris they lived in adjoining houses and they spent their summers at Sand's home in Nohant where Sand apparently mothered the increasingly frail Chopin and he wrote some of his greatest music. Family misunderstandings involving Sand's children eventually led to their breakup. Chopin only lived a year more.
After returning from a depressing trip to England, Chopin was so weak that he could neither teach nor barely compose. His sister came from Warsaw to nurse him in his final illness, and ignored George Sand's wish to see him. Instead Sand's daughter Solange was at his side when he died on the morning of October 17, 1849.
Chopin as early as 1831 expressed his ''perhaps too audacious but noble wish and intention to create for myself a new world.'' And so he did. In music that is by turns poetic, proud, defiant, elegant and heroic, it was truly a world like no other. Schumann described Chopin's music as ''cannon buried in flowers.'' The surface of Chopin's music may be of the drawing room particularly in pieces such as the Waltzes (for example, from Opus 64: No.1, Valse in c#, (La Valse Minute), and No.2, Valse in c#; Valse in e, Op.posth.), but works such as the Polonaises (including Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brilliante, Op.22; Polonaise in Ab (Heroic), Op.53; Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op.61) and Mazurkas (from his Opus 24, No.1 in G; No.2 in C; No.3 in Ab; No.4 in Bb) are filled with a distillation of folk music and national pride.
Chopin's harmonic language is also completely original. Complex chromatic harmonies mingle with the droning fifths of folk music and the modal scales of Poland. The fifty-five Mazurkas are a microcosm of his style and within the repetition of a single dance form have something like the variety of the Well Tempered Clavier.
For all his romanticism, Chopin's forms are abstract and have none of the literary references of a Schumann. Titles such as ''Raindrop Prelude'' were not his. Although the four Ballades, which are among his greatest works ( No.1 in g, Op.23 ; No.2 in F, Op.38 ; No.3 in Ab, Op.47 ; and No.4 in f, Op.52 ), may have been inspired by poetry, they do not have any direct programmatic implications. Other important forms include Scherzos ( No.2, Op.31; No.3, in C#), Etudes( Op.10; Op 25; Op. Posth.), and the Nocturnes ( No.2 in Eb, Op.9 No.2; No.9 in B, Op.32 No.1; and No.17 in B, Op.62 No.1), which were inspired by the works of an Irishman, John Field. Chopin is one of the few greatest composers to be known primarily for his work for a solo instrument. His chamber music output was small and his only orchestral works were piano concertos (No.2 in f, Op.21: 1.Maestoso; 2.Larghetto; 3.Allegro vivace).
Chopin was probably one of the greatest and most refined pianists in history. His teaching advocated the Mozart tradition of playing in time with the left hand and freely with the right. Chopin's use of rubato must have been a miracle of subtlety and taste. His elaborate and virtuosic ornamentation is never displayed for its own sake and must always be treated poetically. Chopin's discovery of the piano's potential to inhabit a complete and poetic world of song and color set the standard for all piano writing of the latter part of the century. Only with Debussy, Prokofiev and Bartók do we finally have a departure from Chopin's domination of the medium.