FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (March 1st, 1810 – October 17th, 1849)
Polish pianist and composer.
- Composed over 200 piano pieces, which continue to be studied and performed by pianists today. These include his Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, which most people would recognize for the famous “funeral march” segment, as well as his “Minute” Waltz, Op. 64 no. 1.
- Experimented with new playing techniques that revolutionized the use of the piano as an instrument; among these were his creative use of the damper pedal and new finger placements. Because Chopin wrote exclusively for the piano, he was able to exploit the instrument’s potential and to craft innovative compositions that the world had never before seen.
- Was the first to apply the term “ballad” to a purely instrumental piece (for the piano, naturally). The concept of the instrumental ballad would later be adopted by such composers as Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy, among others.
Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland, to a family of middle-class French immigrants- they later moved to Warsaw when he was seven months old. There is a measure of confusion over his actual birth date: his baptismal certificate marks it as February 22nd, but Chopin himself and his family later claimed that he was born on March 1st. His father Nicolas tutored Polish students in the French language, but otherwise kept no attachment to his French roots, and young Frédéric was raised inextricably Polish. His older sister Ludwika tutored him in the piano; the two remained close throughout his life.
Like Mozart and Beethoven before him, Chopin’s musical genius became apparent at a very early age. In a family of talented musicians, Chopin stood out: he performed his first piano concert at the staggering age of 7, and shortly thereafter began to compose his own pieces. He was first tutored by the violinist Wojciech Żywny, then by Wilhelm Würfel, then by Józef Elsner. The latter would introduce him to the Warsaw Conservatory, a school he had founded, where Chopin spent his young adulthood. Elsner was insistent that Chopin be allowed to develop at his own pace, refusing to force the young pianist into traditional styles.
After leaving the Conservatory as part of the Great Polish Emigration, Chopin made concert appearances in Vienna and his home in Warsaw before settling in Paris, where he would live the rest of his life. It was shortly after arriving in Paris in 1831 that Chopin began to struggle with his health: he suffered from tuberculosis, the disease that would eventually kill his father, his younger sister Izabela, and Chopin himself. Chopin’s poor health prevented him from touring on a grand scale, but the scope of his compositions ensured his fame in the Paris musical scene, and his work as a music teacher kept him amply supplied with funds.
Throughout the 1830s, Chopin composed some of his most famous piano pieces, and his concert performances met with rave reviews. He became friends with fellow composers such as Franz Liszt and opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, additionally, Robert Schumann was an early fan of his, famously exclaiming “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” in response to Chopin’s 1831 performance of Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” for piano and orchestra, Op. 2. Schumann seems to have written to Chopin several times, but Chopin never reciprocated, as he was not a fan of Schumann’s music.
Although Chopin never married, he was very popular with women. At one point he was engaged to 17-year-old Maria Wodzińska, but his poor health coupled with her young age led her parents to break off the engagement. The most famous of Chopin’s lovers, however, was the Baroness Dudevant, Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin- better known by her writing alias, George Sand. The two first met at a party hosted by Countess Marie d’Agoult, where Chopin was initially “repulsed” by the woman. The two soon warmed up to each other, though, and despite never marrying they dated for ten years.
1846 marked the end of Chopin’s relationship with Sands and the beginning of the end of his life. Sands was tired of having to nurse Chopin’s poor health, and when Chopin took the side of her daughter Solange in an argument regarding Solange’s romances, Sands ended the relationship. Although the breakup was quiet, it had a terrible effect on Chopin: his works suffered because of his depression, and his health took a turn for the worse.
As his fame declined, so too did Chopin’s health: his final years saw him crippled with illness, and he finally died on October 17th, 1849 at the young age of 39. Per his request, Mozart’s Requiem was played at the funeral, and he was buried in the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris.