Fryderyk Franciszek Szopen (Frédéric François Chopin), this Polish man of genius with French background, was born on March 1st, 1810, in one of Warsaw suburbs. His father was a Frenchman by birth. Despite his being a commoner, he was a well-educated person; he played a violin and flute, and taught French at various educational institutions in Warsaw. Fryderyk’s mother was a Polish countess. She played the piano and also was good at singing.
The great composer-to-be was growing up as an extremely sensitive child. He would be often moved to tears by his mother’s piano playing. It is also said that the mere sight of falling rose petals could easily make him burst into sobs. He displayed an outstanding aptitude for music at a very early age. His elder sister was his first music teacher. Then, a noted Check pedagogue, Vojtěch Živný, “took him in hand”.
At about the age of six, the little Szopen, or “Szopenek”, started to try composing music. At seven, he would already perform in public, and would be compared to Mozart and Beethoven. Besides, he had a good hand for drawing.
At eleven, Fryderyk happened to play the piano before the Russian tsar Alexander I. Szopenek would also be invited to the home of the governor of Poland, Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich as playmate to his son.
Up to the age of 13, Szopen had been receiving home education, after which he entered the Warsaw Lyceum. The young man of genius would spend his vacation in the country-side, where he would eagerly absorb folk songs that were to subsequently add inimitable flavour to many of his compositions. In the meantime, his music classes continued, and by the age of 15, Szopen was considered to be the best pianist in Warsaw.
In 1826, Szopen entered the Warsaw Conservatoire, where he studied composition under the guidance of the German pedagogue Josef Elsner. It should be noted that Szopen appeared to be extremely lucky with his music advisors. Both Živný and Elsner realized that they were dealing with a genius, so they were fostering it gently, rather “observing” its development, than “affecting” it.
In 1827, his younger, 14-year-old sister, died of tuberculosis, which was a terrible blow to Szopen. If he only knew that it was the “first warning” and that the insidious disease would not spare both his father and then himself.
In 1828, Szopen undertook his first journey abroad, to Berlin, where he attended the opera theatre and concert halls. The journey was quite beneficial in terms of his formation as a performer and composer.
In 1829, Szopen graduated from the Warsaw Conservatoire and went on tour to Vienna, where he made a brilliant debut. There were many rapturous reviews. However, critics took notice of the “small tone” that Szopen drew from the piano. Apparently, this insufficient strength of touch could be signalling of a disease that had already started attacking his body.
By the end of that year, the first public performance by Szopen of his f-minor piano concerto took place. Next year, his e-minor concerto was premiered. These two works written by the 19-year-old Szopen come out perhaps as the pithiest of his compositions. Much of what he would write later looks more like the elaborated fragments of those primary canvasses.
Many people of genius ascend their summits gradually. Szopen, however, had effectively started with them. You may ask: “How about his sonatas?” Surely, sonatas are large and solid pieces. But those at issue were written by an already worldly-wise, mature, and skilled master, and they lack the ingenuousness of expressing one’s feelings, which is only inherent in youthful mentality. By that time, though, Szopen had already written some of his minor compositions, including romances, polonaises, waltzes, etudes, etc.
The scale of Szopen’s gift urged him to abandon the relatively provincial Warsaw and try his luck elsewhere in Europe. Friends advised him that he should leave. He himself realized that he should return to Vienna, where he had had luck and where he had made many acquaintances among musicians. Still, Fryderyk was hesitating, as if he had some presentiment.
At the farewell dinner, friends presented him with a silver cup full of native Polish soil. His teacher J. Elsner had written a cantata for the occasion that contained the following lines:
- “Born in the Polish land, your talent
Is sure to achieve fame everywhere
Although you have to leave your native soil,
Your heart will stay with us forever”.
In November 1830 Szopen departed from his homeland, and, as it turned out, for good. Szopen’s youth was over. Beginning was his lonely and cheerless life in the foreign land, brightened up with memories alone. This overwhelming feeling of his subsequent existence, which he designated with the Slavic word “żal” /zhal/, or “pity”, would become the predominant mood of many of his compositions.
The news of a patriotic rebellion against Russian rule breaking out in Poland reached Szopen in Vienna. He was bursting to go into action and fight in the ranks of the rebels. But friends held him back, trying to convince him that it would do much more good to his family and homeland, if he kept on perfecting himself in his art.
In 1831, Szopen left Vienna for Paris. While on the way, he learned that the Polish uprising had been suppressed. His indignation and dismay knew no limit. Influenced by an influx of feelings that rushed into him, he wrote his celebrated “Revolutionary etude”. Szopen was tormented by doubts about the fate of his relatives and close ones. But, again, friends persuaded him not to return.
Paris, an enormous city of many faces, stupefied Szopen in the beginning. He was afraid to get lost in this “anthill”. On the other hand, he was pleasantly surprised by the scope and variety of the city’s music life. There, one could hear excellent pianists performing on concert platforms, including F. Liszt. Operas by Bellini, Rossini, and Meyerbeer were being staged at the theatres, all this being of the premium-class quality.
Fryderyk Szopen-turned-Frédéric Chopin was gradually making himself familiar with the new environment. His very first recitals caused a commotion. There were rapturous reviews from the critics who spoke of adding a “new dimension” to piano music. R. Schumann flung off his catchphrase: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” Chopin’s works, including his famous mazurkas, were published in Paris, London, and Leipzig. Besides, well-off pupils became available for Chopin. So, his financial situation quickly improved.
It should be noted here, that, realizing the insufficient strength of his touch, Chopin tried to avoid performing for big audiences. He would prefer small salons. But he would feel most confident at his own flat playing for a small circle of friends, among whom there were F. Liszt, H. Berlioz, H. Heine, V. Bellini, F. Mendelson, E. Delacroix, and other outstanding artistic figures.
Interestingly, Chopin, as a person, would awake in people emotions similar to those awakened by his compositions. Heedful observers would note that a “wee bit of tenderness was sure to add to the attachment of those who kept friendly relationship with him. Those pale features, more than fragile figure would cause a feeling that could be experienced by a passionate collector of Venetian glass or Dresden china”.
Sometimes Chopin would leave Paris. During one of such trips, he saw his parents. Despite his apprehensions, they, as well as the rest of his family, had not been hurt at the time of the uprising, had not been subject to repression thereafter, and kept on residing in Warsaw, as usual. Moreover, the Russian government gave a chance to all who had left Poland before the uprising to return to their homeland. But Chopin did not avail himself of the chance.
In 1836, a fatal for Chopin acquaintance occurred with a Parisian feminist writer, known under the artistic name of George Sand. Smoking, wearing trousers, the bohemian lioness firstly provoked only his disgust. “Is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it”, – he wrote to his friend. As for George Sand, she, on the contrary, liked Chopin very much and started the real hunt for the “poet of the piano”.
Sand’s efforts proved successful. In the end, the delicate Chopin yielded to the insatiable hetaera’s impudent overtures. Her thirst for superbity was quenched in full – she had an angel twisted round her little finger. She was revelling in her victory, while Chopin was demoralized by the unnatural alliance imposed on him.
For all that, their liaison lasted for more than a decade. For Chopin, this period of time was noted for a steady deterioration of his health. The egoistical Sand did not care about how to do good to Chopin, but she knew very well how to do good for herself. Still, this period proved most fruitful for the composer – perhaps, the bulk of his works were created exactly then. As if sensing his nearing demise, Chopin was hurrying to perpetuate himself in music to the fullest possible extent.
And yet, the intrinsic incompatibility of these basically alien to each other characters had to break out into the open some day. Chopin was more and more shrinking into his shell, while Sand was becoming more and more petty and irritable. The final breakup of their relationship occurred in 1847, just two years before Chopin’s death.
Interestingly, almost immediately after meeting G. Sand Chopin wrote his yet another emblematic composition, the funeral march. It subsequently became part of his piano sonata in B minor, but, as a matter of fact, it was perfectly self-sufficient. Whereas he produced his two piano concertos in the very beginning of his creative path, he was moving towards his funeral march for long enough, considering the limits of his short life. The characteristic monotone motive with a punctuated rhythm sounded more and more persistently even in his apparently most inspiring pieces. The march is slowly ripening somewhere in the depths of his creativity and, finally, cracks down on the listener with all its merciless sincerity. By all accounts, Chopin’s parting with his youth was felt to be tantamount to parting with his life.
All this time, Chopin continued to give piano lessons. Fighting to subdue his illness, weak and pale, coughing every moment, taking various drugs, he taught patiently, persistently, and with inspiration. His lessons lasted the full hour and longer – getting carried away, he would often extend them considerably. One of his pupils later recollected how Chopin had once played in her presence 14 preludes and fugues by J. S. Bach from memory. It appears that the strict and reasonable Bach was the favourite composer of this sensitive romantic.
In 1848, Chopin ventured to go on tour to Great Britain. Shortly before leaving, he gave his farewell recital in Paris. Under the impression of it, one of the listeners wrote in a letter to Chopin the following: “In your music there is still more poetry, more suffering. The sadness of your compositions penetrates still deeper into the people’s hearts. The listener feels one on one with you, even staying in the crowd. When you are playing, it is not the piano that sounds, but the soul itself”.
The tour took away from Chopin the last vestiges of his frail health. On return to Paris, Chopin felt so bad that he could not practically leave his home. His had an intensifying blood spitting accompanied by suffocating coughing fits. As his contemporaries noted, “his spirit was still overwhelmed with harmony, by he was already unable neither to sit at the piano, nor take up the pen”.
Not long before his death his elder sister came from Warsaw to look after him – that very sister who once taught him to play the piano. Chopin passed away on October 17th, 1849. G. Sand’s son-in-law, the sculptor A. Clésinger, made Chopin’s death mask and a cast of his hand. He was also the author of the monument for Chopin’s grave at the Père Lachaise in Paris, featuring Euterpe, the muse of lyrical poetry and music, weeping over a broken lyre. Chopin’s heart, however, in accordance with his will, was returned to his homeland.