Frédéric François Chopin (February 22 or March 1, 1810–October 17, 1849), born in Żelazowa Wola, a village forty-six kilometers west of Warsaw in the Province of Mazowsze, Duchy of Warsaw, and known in Poland as Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist. The parish baptismal recordgives his birthday as February 22, 1810, but a date one week later, March 1, was stated by the composer and his family as his birthday. Chopin’s father, Nicolas Chopin, was a Frenchman from Lorraine who had migrated to Poland in 1787 at age sixteen. Nicolas subsequently tutored children of the Polish aristocracy, including the Skarbeks, whose poor relation, Justyna Krzyżanowska, he married. The wedding took place at the 16th-century parish church in Brochów on June 2, 1806. Frédéric was the couple’s second child and only son. The eldest child, Ludwika, was to become his first piano teacher.
In October 1810, when Chopin was seven months old, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father had accepted an offer from lexicographer Samuel Linde to teach French at the Warsaw Lyceum. The school was housed in the Saxon Palace, and the Chopin family lived on the palace grounds. In 1817 Grand Duke Constantine requisitioned the Saxon Palace for military purposes, and the Lyceum was moved to the Kazimierz Palace, which also hosted the newly founded Warsaw University. The family lived in a spacious second-floor apartment in an adjacent building. Chopin attended the Warsaw Lyceum from 1823 to 1826. Others in Chopin’s family were musically talented. Chopin’s father played the flute and violin; his mother played the piano and gave lessons to boys in the elite boarding house that the Chopins maintained. As a result Chopin became conversant with music in its various forms at an early age.
Chopin’s first professional piano tutor, beginning in 1817, was the Czech, Wojciech Żywny. Seven-year-old “little Chopin” began giving public concerts that soon prompted comparisons with child prodigies Mozart and Beethoven. That same year, Chopin composed two Polonaises, in G minor and B-flat major. The first was published in the engraving workshop of Father Izydor Józef Cybulski, a composer, engraver, director of an organists’ school, and one of the few music publishers in Poland. A substantial development of melodic and harmonic invention and of piano technique was shown in Chopin’s next known Polonaise, in A-flat major, which the young artist offered in 1821 as a name-day gift to Żywny. About this time, at the age of eleven, Chopin performed in the presence of Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, who was in Warsaw to open the Sejm (Polish Parliament).
In the 1820s, when teenage Chopin was attending the Warsaw Lyceum and Warsaw Conservatory, he spent every vacation away from Warsaw. At the village of Szafarnia and at his other vacation venues, Chopin was exposed to folk melodies that he later transmuted into original compositions. Chopin, tutored at home until he was thirteen, enrolled in the Warsaw Lyceum in 1823, but continued studying piano under Żywny’s direction. In 1825, in a performance of the work of Ignaz Moscheles, he entranced the audience with his free improvisation, and was acclaimed the “best pianist in Warsaw.” In the autumn of 1826, Chopin began a three-year course of studies with the Silesian composer Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory, which was affiliated with the University of Warsaw.
In 1827, soon after the death of Chopin’s youngest sister Emilia, the family moved to lodgings just across the street from Warsaw University, in the south annex of the Krasiński Palace at Krakowskie Przedmieście. Here the parents continued running their elite boarding house for male students. Young Chopin lived here until he left Warsaw in 1830.
In September 1828, eighteen-year-old Chopin struck out for the wider world in the company of a family friend, the zoologist Feliks Jarocki, who planned to attend a scientific convention in Berlin. There Chopin enjoyed several unfamiliar operas directed by Gaspare Spontini, attended several concerts, and saw Carl Friedrich Zelter, Felix Mendelssohn and other celebrities. Back in Warsaw, in 1829, Chopin heard Niccolò Paganini play and met the German pianist and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel. The same year, three weeks after completing his studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, Chopin made a brilliant debut in Vienna. He gave two piano concerts and received many favorable reviews. In one of these concerts on 11 August, he premiered his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2 (variations on a theme from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni) for piano and orchestra. This was followed by a concert, in December 1829, at the Warsaw Merchants’ Club, where Chopin premièred his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. In this period he also began writing his first Études (1829–32).
Later, in 1830, with Chopin still in Vienna, the November Uprising broke out in Warsaw. Then in September 1831 Chopin learned, while traveling from Vienna to Paris, that the uprising had been crushed. His outcries of a tormented heart found musical expression in his Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20, and his “Revolutionary Étude”, in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12. Chopin arrived in Paris in late September 1831, still uncertain whether he would settle there for good. On February 26, 1832 Chopin gave a concert at the Salle Pleyel that garnered universal admiration. In Paris, Chopin found artists and other distinguished company, as well as opportunities to exercise his talents and achieve celebrity, and before long he was earning a handsome income teaching piano to affluent students from all over Europe. He formed friendships with Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Vincenzo Bellini, Ferdinand Hiller, Felix Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Eugène Delacroix, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, Alfred de Vigny, and Charles-Valentin Alkan. Though an ardent Polish patriot, a French passport was issued on August 1, 1835, after Chopin had become a French citizen.
In Paris, Chopin seldom performed publicly. In later years he generally gave a single annual concert at the Salle Pleyel, a venue that seated three hundred. He played more frequently at salons – social gatherings of the aristocracy and artistic and literary elite – but preferred playing at his own Paris apartment for small groups of friends. His precarious health prevented his touring extensively as a traveling virtuoso, and beyond playing once in Rouen, he seldom ventured out of the capital. His high income from teaching and composing freed him from the strains of concert-giving, to which he had an innate repugnance. 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.”
In 1835 Chopin went to Carlsbad, where, for the last time in his life, he met with his parents. En route through Saxony on his way back to Paris, he met old friends from Warsaw, the Wodzińskis. He had made the acquaintance of their daughter Maria, now sixteen, in Poland five years earlier, and fell in love with the charming, intelligent, artistically talented young woman. The following year, in September 1836, upon returning to Dresden after having vacationed with the Wodzińskis at Marienbad, Chopin proposed marriage to Maria. She accepted, and her mother approved in principle, but in the winter of 1835–1836 he was so ill that word had circulated in Warsaw that he had died so that Maria’s tender age and Chopin’s tenuous health forced an indefinite postponement of the wedding and never led to the altar.
Chopin’s feelings for Maria left their traces in his Waltz in A-flat major, “The Farewell Waltz”, Op. 69, No. 1, written on the morning of his September departure from Dresden. On his return to Paris, he composed the Étude in F minor, the second in the Op. 25 cycle, which he referred to as “a portrait of Maria’s soul.” Along with this, he sent Maria seven songs that he had set to the words of Polish Romantic poets Stefan Witwicki, Józef Zaleski and Adam Mickiewicz. After Chopin’s matrimonial plans ended, Polish countess Delfina Potocka appeared episodically in Chopin’s life as muse and romantic interest. He dedicated to her his Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, the famous “Minute Waltz”.
In 1836, at a party hosted by Countess Marie d’Agoult, mistress of friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, Chopin met French author Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand. By the summer of 1838, Chopin’s and Sand’s involvement was an open secret. In the winter of 1838 and 1839, they went to Majorca in the hope of improving Chopin’s deteriorating health. On December 3, he complained about his bad health and the incompetence of the doctors in Majorca. Yet during this time he completed several works: some Preludes, Op. 28; a revision of the Ballade No. 2, Op. 38; two Polonaises, Op. 40; the Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39; the Mazurka in E minor from Op. 41; and he probably revisited his Sonata No. 2, Op. 35. The winter in Majorca is still considered one of the most productive periods in Chopin’s life. During that winter, the bad weather had such a serious effect on Chopin’s health and chronic lung disease that, in order to save his life, the entire party was compelled to leave the island.
They went first to Barcelona, then to Marseille, where they stayed for a few months to recover. In May 1839, they headed to Sand’s estate at Nohant for the summer. In autumn they returned to Paris, while spending most summers until 1846 at Nohant. During the summers at Nohant, particularly in the years 1839–43, Chopin found quiet but productive days during which he composed many works. They included his Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, the “Heroic”, one of his most famous pieces. As the composer’s illness progressed, Sand became more of a nurse to Chopin. In 1845, as Chopin’s health continued to deteriorate, serious problems emerged in his relations with Sand, and in 1847, Sand and Chopin quietly ended their ten-year relationship.
Chopin’s public popularity as a virtuoso waned, as did the number of his pupils. In February 1848 he gave his last Paris concert. In April, with the Revolution of 1848 underway in Paris, he left for London, where he performed at several concerts and at numerous receptions in great houses. In late October 1848, at the home of Dr. Łyszczyński, Chopin wrote out his last will and testament. Chopin made his last public appearance on a concert platform at London’s Guildhall on November 16, 1848. At the end of November, Chopin returned to Paris. He passed the winter in unremitting illness. He no longer had the strength to give lessons, but he was still keen to compose. He lacked money for the most essential expenses and for his physicians. He had to sell off his more valuable furnishings and belongings. Feeling ever more poorly, Chopin longed to have a family member with him. In June 1849 his sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, who had given him his first piano lessons, agreed to come to Paris.
On October 15, when Chopin’s condition took a marked turn for the worse, his numerous visitors were asked to leave, and a handful of his closest friends remained with him. A couple of times during those last two days, they thought that the end had come, but the composer was able to catch his breath again. He asked Delfina Potocka to play sonatas and prayed and called out to God. On October 17, after midnight, the physician leaned over him and asked whether he was suffering greatly. “Not any more,” Chopin replied. He died a few minutes before two o’clock in the morning. Chopin’s disease and the cause of his death remained unclear and have since been a matter of debate. His death certificate stated the cause as tuberculosis. Chopin is widely considered one of the greatest Romantic piano composers. Most of his works are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces and some songs to Polish lyrics. His piano works are often technically demanding. He invented the instrumental ballade and made major innovations to the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu, scherzo and prélude.
The following works by Chopin are included in my collection:
Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante in EbM with orchestral accompaniment, op. 22 (1834).
Grand Fantasy on Polish Airs, op. 13 (1828).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in em, op. 11 (1830/1833).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in fm, op. 21 (1829/1836).
Rondo a la Krakowiak, op. 14 (1828).
Variations on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano,” op. 2 (1827).