The 1830s have been called “the decade of the piano” because duringthat period the piano and the music written for it played a dominant role inEuropean musical culture. The piano had, of course, already been popular formore than half a century, but by the third decade of the nineteenth century,changes in the instrument and its audience transformed the piano’s role inmusical life. As the Industrial Revolution hit its stride, piano manufacturersdeveloped methods for building many more pianos than had previously beenfeasible, and at lower cost. Pianos ceased to be the exclusive province of thewealthy; an expanding middle class could also aspire to own them and make musicat home. Thousands of amateur pianists began to take lessons, buy printed music,and attend concerts.
Virtuosos like Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Sigismund Thalberg,and Franz Liszt became the first musical superstars, touring Europe andastonishing audiences with music they had composed to display their pianotechnique. Frederick Chopin was born in a small village named Zelazowa Wolalocated in Poland on March 1st, 1810. His passionate love of music showed itselfat an early age. There are stories, for instance, of how when his mother andsister played dances on their grand piano he would burst into tears for thesheer beauty of the sounds he heard. Soon he began to explore the keyboard forhimself and delighted in experimenting. By the age of seven he had becomesufficiently good for his parents to try and find him a teacher.
Their choicefell on Adalbert Zywny, a Bohemian composer then aged sixty-one and nowremembered solely as Chopin’s first teacher. Within a few months of beginninghis studies with Zywny, Chopin began to play in public, and by the end of 1817,at the age of seven, had already been described by many as ?Mozart’ssuccessor’. Chopin began to compose around this time, and continued to do sothroughout his student years, but only a handful of these works were printed. Inthe autumn of 1826, Chopin began studying the theory of music, figured bass, andcomposition at the Warsaw High School of Music.
Its head was the composer J?zefElsner. Chopin, however, did not attend the piano class. Aware of theexceptional nature of Chopin’s talent, Elsner allowed him, in accordance withhis personality and temperament, to concentrate on piano music but was unbendingas regards theoretical subjects, in particular counterpoint. Chopin, endowed bynature with magnificent melodic invention, ease of free improvisation, and aninclination towards brilliant effects and perfect harmony, gained in Elsner’sschool a solid grounding, discipline, and precision of construction, as well asan understanding of the meaning and logic of each note.
This was the period ofthe first extended works such as the Sonata in C minor, Variations, on a themefrom Don Juan by Mozart, the Rondo ? la Krakowiak, the Fantaisie, and the Trioin G minor. Chopin ended his education at the High School in 1829, and after thethird year of his studies Elsner wrote in a report: “Chopin, Fryderyk,third year student, amazing talent, musical genius”. After completing hisstudies, Chopin planned a longer stay abroad to become acquainted with themusical life of Europe and to win fame. Up to then, he had never left Poland,with the exception of two brief stays in Prussia. In 1826, he had spent aholiday in Bad Reinertz (modern day Duszniki-Zdr?j) in Lower Silesia, and twoyears later he had accompanied his father’s friend, Professor Feliks Jarocki, onhis journey to Berlin to attend a congress of naturalists.
Here, quite unknownto the Prussian public, he concentrated on observing the local musical scene. Now he pursued bolder plans. In July 1829 he made a short excursion to Vienna inthe company of his acquaintances. Wilhelm W?rfel, who had been staying therefor three years, introduced him to the musical environment, and enabled Chopinto give two performances in the K?rtnertortheater. He enjoyed his tremendoussuccess with the public, and although the critics censured his performance forits small volume of sound, they acclaimed him as a genius of the piano andpraised his compositions. Consequently, the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslingerprinted the Variations on a theme from Mozart (1830), a piece he performed atthe K?rtnertortheater.
This was the first publication of a Chopin compositionabroad, for up to then, his works had only been published in Warsaw. Upon hisreturn to Warsaw, Chopin, already free from student duties, devoted himself tocomposition and wrote, among other pieces, two Concertos for piano andorchestra: in F minor and E minor. The first concerto was inspired to aconsiderable extent by the composer’s feelings towards Konstancja Gladkowska,who studied singing at the Conservatory. This was also the period of the firstnocturne, etudes, waltzes, mazurkas, and songs to words by Stefan Witwicki. During the last months prior to his planned longer stay abroad, Chopin gave anumber of public performances, mainly in the National Theatre in Warsaw wherethe premiere of both concertos took place. Originally, his destination was to beBerlin, where Prince Antoni Radziwill, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznan,had invited the artist.
Radziwil, who had been appointed by the King of Prussia,was a long-standing admirer of Chopin’s talent and who, in the autumn of 1829,was his host in Antonin. Chopin, however, ultimately chose Vienna where hewished to consolidate his earlier success and establish his reputation. Chopin’sreputation as a composer was principally that of a miniaturist who achievedgreat melodic and harmonic richness within brief and simple musical forms. Oncefirmly established in Paris, however, Chopin began to experiment with morecomplex musical structures, most notably in his scherzos, ballades, andpolonaises. As titles for independent piano pieces, scherzo (Italian for”joke”) and ballade (usually a lyrical vocal work) had no specificmeaning for nineteenth-century audiences, so Chopin was free to define thesegenres himself. Unlike the other composer-pianists of his time, however, Chopinrarely gave public concerts; his performing was generally confined to the salonsof wealthy aristocrats and businessmen.
Public awareness of Chopin’s music cameabout primarily through its publication, and the process of shepherding hisworks into print assumed great importance for him. However, this was not simplya matter of converting his manuscripts into printed form. Chopin felt that manyperformance details regarding expression were not fixed elements of his music,even though they have a substantial impact on the way it sounds. He wasinconsistent about including performing instructions in his manuscripts, andwhen publishers asked him to supply them at the proof stage, he often changedhis mind several times. Some musical changes also appeared first in proofs andwere never copied into his manuscripts. Moreover, due to the inconsistencies ofcontemporary copyright law, nearly all of Chopin’s works had to be issuedsimultaneously by publishers in France, Germany, and England in order todiscourage piracy.
Chopin’s large-scale works were not among his most popularones. They were difficult to learn, and their musical form and content puzzledcontemporary musicians. It is a measure of Chopin’s stature that publishers notonly printed these pieces but also paid substantial sums for them, even thoughthey were unlikely to reap an immediate profit. Chopin’s music sold so well thatpublishers were obliged to reprint his works frequently in order to keep up withdemand. Most of these reissues used the plates from the first editions; andsince printed scores of this period almost never bore publication dates, laterprintings are often distinguished only by changes on the title pages, such asthe price or the publisher’s address.
However, there are frequently alterationsin the music as well. In Paris editions, some of these variants may becorrections or second thoughts originating with the composer, although it israrely possible to document his responsibility for them. Maria Wodzinski, thesister of three brothers of whom Chopin was close friends of, was engaged toChopin shortly after a return to Warsaw Chopin had made. She had shownconsiderable musical and artistic talent, which resulted in Chopin falling inlove with her and wanting to create a family home of his own in exile.
Thefollowing year, during a holiday spent together with the seventeen-year-oldMaria and her mother in Marienbad (modern day M?riansk? L?zne in the CzechRepublic), and then in Dresden, he proposed and was accepted on the conditionthat he would take better care of his health. The engagement was unofficial, anddid not end in marriage. After a year-long “trial” period, Maria’sparents, disturbed by the bad state of the health of her fianc? who wasseriously ill in the winter, and especially by his irregular lifestyle, viewedhim as an unsuitable partner for their daughter. Chopin found this rejection anextremely painful experience, and labeled the letters from the Wodzinski family,tied into a small bundle, “My sorrow”.
In July 1837, Chopin travelledto London in the company of Camille Pleyel in the hope of forgetting allunpleasant memories. Soon afterwards, he entered into a close liaison with thefamous French writer George Sand. This author of daring novels, older by sixyears, and a divorcee with two children, offered the lonely artist what hemissed most from the time when he left Warsaw: extraordinary tenderness, warmth,and maternal care. Chopin and Sand spent the winter of 1838 and 1839 on theSpanish Island of Majorca, living in a former monastery in Valdemosa. There, dueto unfavorable weather conditions, Chopin became gravely ill and showed symptomsof tuberculosis.
For many weeks, he remained so weak as to be unable to leavethe house. Nonetheless, he continued to work intensively and composed a numberof masterpieces: the series of 24 preludes, the Polonaise in C minor, theBallade in F major, and the Scherzo in C sharp minor. On his return from Majorcain the spring of 1839, and following convalescence in Marseilles, Chopin, stillgreatly weakened, moved to George Sand’s manor house in Nohant, in centralFrance. Here, he was to spend long vacations up to 1846, with the exception of1840, returning to Paris only for the winters. This was the happiest, and themost productive, period in his life after he left his family home. The majorityof his most outstanding and profound works were composed in Nohant.
In Paris,the composer and writer were treated as a married couple, although they werenever married. For years, the couple enjoyed a deep love and friendship, butwith time the increasingly hostile attitude of George Sand’s son, who exerted astrong influence on the writer, caused ever more serious conflicts. A finalparting of ways took place in July 1847. Grievous personal experiences soimportant for the health and creativity of the composer had a devastating effecton Chopin’s mental and physical state. He almost completely gave up composition,and from then to the end of his life wrote only a few miniatures.
In April 1848,persuaded by his Scottish pupil, Jane Stirling, Chopin left for England andScotland. Together with her sister, Stirling organized concerts and visits invarious localities, including the castles of the Scottish aristocracy. Thisexceptionally hectic lifestyle and excessive strain on his strength fromconstant travelling and numerous performances, together with a climate injuriousto his lungs, further damaged his health. On November 16, 1848, despite frailtyand a fever, Chopin gave his last concert in the Guildhall in London. A few dayslater, he returned to Paris.
His rapidly progressing disease made it impossibleto continue giving lessons. In the summer of 1849, Ludwika Jedrzejewiczowa, theeldest sister of the composer, came from Warsaw to take care of her ill brother. On 17 October 1849, Chopin died of pulmonary tuberculosis in his Parisian flatin the Place Vend?me. He was buried in the P?re-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Inaccordance with his will, however, his sister brought his heart, taken from hisbody after death, to Warsaw where it was placed in an urn installed in a pillarof the Holy Cross church in Krakowskie Przedmiscie.
Chopin published 159 worksdistributed among sixty-five opus numbers, but he also composed more thanseventy other works that he chose not to publish. In some cases, he may havedecided that the music was not up to his standards or that it needed furtherrevision. Other works had been presented as personal gifts to close friends, andChopin may have considered it inappropriate to publish them. On his deathbed, hehad asked that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed, but that wish wasnot honored, and in 1853 his mother and sisters asked Julian Fontana, Chopin’sfriend and amanuensis, to select from among them works that he considered worthyand edit them for publication.
He selected twenty-three piano pieces, which hegrouped into eight opus numbers (66-73). Chopin’s music, no matter what thesetting, is instantly recognizable. His unique sense of lyricism andunparalleled melodic genius produced some of the most purely beautiful musicever written; music which would influence many composers who followed, fromBrahms to Debussy. He was a revolutionary light in Romantic music, the ultimatecraftsman of whimsical melody and heart-rending harmony. In the structure andform of his compositions, he is quite alone; his sense of balance andarchitecture in music was not particularly related to the Classical or buddingRomantic tradition, but seemed to spring from some unknown well-source. Theoverwhelming power and influence of his musical legacy is forever assured.
Bibliography”The Unofficial Frederic Chopin Homepage. “. March 2000. ? Chopin Foundation of the United States, Inc. “Fryderyk Chopin? A Chronological Biography.
“. March 2000. ? Leszczynski, Krzysztof. “Frederic Chopin:Life?Works?Tradition. “. November 1999.
? Orga, Ates. Chopin: His Life and Times. Tunbridge Wells:Midas Books, 1976. ? Pourtal?s, Guy De. Polonaise: The Life of Chopin.
NewYork: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. ? Szulc, Tad. Chopin in Paris: The Life andTimes of the Romantic Composer. New York: Scribner, 1989.