The unquestionable musical genius of Frederic Chopin is perhaps most remarkable for the extreme narrowness of its focus: he composed almost exclusively for the piano, and none of his music fails to feature the instrument.
Born near Warsaw on 1st March 1810 to a French music teacher father, Nicholas, and his wife Justyna Krzyżanowska, the ‘poor relation’ of one of the aristocratic families he taught, Frederic was the second of four children, and the only boy. His formal musical education began at an early age: he began receiving instruction from his first professional tutor in 1816, although it is likely he received some tuition from his mother before then.
Nicholas Chopin was fiercely loyal to his adopted homeland, and his passion was transmitted to his son. Holidays in the country during his teenaged years exposed the young Chopin to the rural folk music of the time, and the mazurka and the more upmarket polonaise would find expression in his mature work. However, his early musical successes in Warsaw and then Berlin would lead him to embark on a longer tour of Europe in 1830, and it was while he was abroad that the November 1830 Uprising, led by military cadets against a government which was effectively a puppet of Russia, broke out. Chopin dreamed of independence for his homeland, but saw those dreams crushed by the defeat of the Uprising, and became one of a significant number of disenfranchised Poles unable to return home.
Instead, he settled in Paris where he made his living as his father had done before him, tutoring piano players. He also composed and gave occasional performances, most usually in the intimate settings of the salons. Chopin’s list of friends and acquaintances at the time reads like a who’s who of classical music: he was good friends with Liszt (1811-1886), although the friendship soured over musical differences, and of Berlioz (1803-1869). He met Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and attended several of his performances. He was painted by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), and, after a romance with fellow-Pole Maria Wodzińska ended in 1837, became romantically involved with the novelist George Sand (b. Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin).
Chopin had experienced ill health since childhood, and in 1839 Sand decided that wintering in Majorca might aid his health. While the period was musically one of Chopin’s most productive it was otherwise disastrous: the devoutly-Catholic Majorcans were horrified to discover that the couple weren’t married and that Sand’s two adolescent children were not Chopin’s, and refused to rent accommodation to them. In addition, one of Sand’s ex-lovers was causing trouble, and the local doctors were of limited use. In early 1839 the couple returned to France via Spain.
Chopin and Sand remained together for almost a decade, although Chopin’s declining health often rendered Sands more of a nursemaid than a lover. Difficulties with Sand’s children exacerbated the situation, and the relationship ended in 1847. The two were never to meet again.
Although Chopin travelled to England and Scotland in 1848 at the invitation of his student Jane Stirling (thereby avoiding the 1848 ‘February’ Revolution which led to the creation of the second French Republic), he responded to rumours of a romantic relationship with the observation that he was closer to the grave than the marriage-bed. The observation was all too accurate: his appearance at the London Guildhall in November 1848 was to be his last. Returning to Paris, he spent the winter in unremitting illness, and although he lingered through much of the following year he passed away in the early hours of 17th October 1849. The likely cause of death was tuberculosis, then an all-too-common disease. Although he was buried in Paris his heart, in accordance with his wishes, was returned to Poland.
As mentioned at the very start of this post, Chopin focused his musical talents almost entirely on the piano. Most notably, he developed the emerging musical form of the nocturne, adding depth and sophistication to the style, which, as the name would suggest, is intended to evoke impressions of night-time. Chopin composed a total of 21 nocturnes, as well as etudes, dances, and several concertos. In all around 230 of his pieces – his entire known adult output as well as some childhood compositions – survive and retain their popularity today.