Frederic Chopin, child prodigy, virtuoso pianist, and gifted composer, has left modern day pianists with a wealth of beautiful and challenging pieces to master and perform. Chopin’s piano compositions are challenging for all pianists because of their emotional intensity and the technical difficulty found in most pieces. As a great composer of the Romantic era, Chopin has become a foundation for most traditional piano repertoire.
Born March 1, 1810, in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, Poland, Chopin was the second of four children born to French-born Nicolas Chopin and Polish-born Justina Chopin. Both parents were musically inclined, playing the flute, violin, and piano. Though his gift of music was recognized very early on, Chopin did receive a thorough general education at the Warsaw Lyceum, where his father taught, as well as a musical education at the Warsaw University Conservatory.
At the age of seven Chopin’s first piano compositions, the Polonaise in G minor and a second Polonaise in B-flat major, were published; at age eight he performed the first of his 30 public concerts. Throughout his life, Chopin preferred to perform in small settings, giving relatively few public performances throughout the world.
In 1816, Frederic Chopin received his first formal piano instruction from Adalbert Zywyny. Chopin’s elder sister, Ludwika had taught him until this time. He quickly surpassed the abilities of Zynwyny and his next published piece, a Polonaise in A-flat major was offered as a gift to Zynwyny.
The next of the prodigy’s instructors was Joseph Elsner, a composer at the Warsaw University Conservatory. Elsner is credited with allowing Chopin freedom to follow his own instincts rather than adhere to modern rules for performance and composition.
Turning twenty years old, Chopin set off to perform in Vienna just before the November Uprising. Expressing his feelings of the uprising, Chopin composed his Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20 and his “Revolutionary Etude”, in C minor, Op 10, No. 12, though it is important to note Chopin did not name the Etude, others have attached the name to it themselves.
Paris afforded Chopin wealthy piano students to teach and private salons in which to perform. He became a French citizen though he never could fluently speak the language.
Though Chopin never married, he had a brief engagement to Maria Wodzinska, the daughter of old family friends. Her young age and the bout of ill health suffered by Chopin in the winter of 1837 convinced the family to postpone the marriage indefinitely. Several compositions can be attributed to Maria and the emotions surrounding the engagement and the loss of Maria including the famous “Minute Waltz”, in D flat major, Op. 64, No. 1.
An affair spanning ten years between Chopin and Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin, known as George Sand, began in 1837. Chopin and Sand, with her two children, spent much time travelling. They were in search of a climate that would help Chopin recover his health. In the winter of 1839, the couple spent several months in Majorca. Although forced to leave due in part to Chopin’s rapidly declining health and in part due to the moral beliefs of the residents, the winter in Majorca is known as one of Chopin’s most productive periods in life. Following the winter in Majorca, Chopin’s health continued to decline and Sand became more of a nurse and less of a lover, prompting her to become increasingly critical of Chopin in person and in print.
As with many, Chopin’s popularity as a performer and as an instructor began to fade. His final concert in Paris was held in February 1848. His ill health limited his ability to teach leaving him nearly destitute. He left for London shortly thereafter to perform at the request of a Jane Stirling. A former Scottish student, Jane Stirling funded Chopin’s transportation and lodging while visiting London and Scotland. His last public appearance was on November 16, 1848, where he performed for Polish refugees in London.
A return to Paris marked the end of 1848, the last full year of his life. Too weak to teach or perform, Jane Stirling rented an apartment for the now penniless Chopin. She also financed a trip for Chopin’s eldest sister, Ludwika to remain in Paris until after his death.
Chopin died at age 39 on October 17, 1849. It is believed the cause of death to be tuberculosis. Auguste Clesinger, George Sand’s son-in-law, created Chopin’s death mask and a cast of his left hand. His heart was removed and preserved for transportation to Poland. In accordance to his wishes, his preserved heart is encased in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church of Warsaw where it has been removed only once for its’ protection during World War II.
A massive funeral, with more than three thousand in attendance, featured several compositions by Chopin. Mozart’s Requiem, performed at both Haydn and Beethoven’s funerals was also performed for Chopin’s. The “Funeral March” from Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.35 was performed at the graveside.
His legacy is remembered not only by the compositions left behind but in numerous monuments throughout the world. The International Chopin Piano Competition, held in Warsaw, Poland, is one of the oldest piano competitions in the world. Held once every five years, the Chopin Competition, as it is most generally referred to as, is one of the few competitions based on a single composer.