Born over two hundred years ago, Frédéric Chopin’s creative genius and virtuoso piano performances dazzled the society of the day. Despite a restless and turbulent life, he produced compositions—the famous nocturnes, études, polonaises, and many more—that are amongst the most famous piano pieces ever written.
Frédéric Chopin was born in Poland in 1810, and is known as one of the greatest composers for the piano. Frédéric Chopin showed a prodigious talent from a very young age, composing and also writing poetry at the age of six, and going on to give his first public piano recital aged eight.
Frédéric Chopin quickly became recognised as Poland’s musical treasure, coming under the personal supervision of Józef Elsner in 1822, the founder-director of the Warsaw Conservatory. From his earliest attempts at composition, Frédéric Chopin was strongly influenced by the music he heard around him, which was largely Polish folk and dance music that could frequently be heard in the city streets and also in the countryside where peasant workers were the music makers.
Frédéric Chopin is best known for his solo piano pieces, especially the famous nocturnes and études. At the time, Frédéric Chopin was credited with having ‘invented’ the nocturne as a musical form. In more recent times musicologists have revealed that in fact the nocturne was created some years earlier by the Irish piano genius, John Field (1782-1837), although Frédéric Chopin was to become the most famous exponent of the nocturne, composing 21 pieces in this ravishing style.
Field, however, was already an accomplished composer by the year of Frédéric Chopin’s birth 1810. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Frédéric Chopin went on to develop the style and structure of the nocturne, taking influences (a trait Chopin seemed particularly attuned to, as mentioned earlier) from the music he heard around him which, by this stage in his relatively short life were French and Italian opera arias. There are also Mozartian influences to be found in the Chopin nocturnes and other compositions.
This powerful mix of influences and inventiveness gave an overall effect at the time of piano music dramatically ‘new’ but also reflecting the very powerful romantic fingerprints we encounter in almost all of the art forms of the period—the young Wordsworth in England, Delacroix in France, Freidrich in Germany, the list goes on—although it is said that nineteenth-century romanticism lends itself more obviously to expression through literature and music.
And perhaps Frédéric Chopin’s music more than any other, displays that sense of the infinite and transcendental, of forces exceeding the boundaries of reason—challenging that eighteenth-century culture of ‘reason’, just fifty years earlier, and since famously known as ‘the age of reason’. The new generation, the romantics, found no place for reason, only the sublime.
Frédéric Chopin had arrived in Paris in September 1831 with the ambition of working his way into the social and musical life of the city. The following year, February 1832, he gave a piano recital to great acclaim. It is interesting to note that the pianos favoured by Frédéric Chopin were those made by the French firm Pleyel et Cie, piano makers founded by composer, publisher and piano maker Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), the latter who had also been a pupil of none other than the great Joseph Haydn.
As well as providing the pianos used by Frédéric Chopin, the firm of Pleyel also ran a concert hall, the Salle Pleyel, in which Frédéric Chopin performed his first—and last—Paris concerts. Pleyel’s major contribution to the development of the piano was that they were the first to use a metal frame in a piano.
In 1836, Frédéric Chopin met the French writer and feminist, Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin, who wrote under the pen name ‘George Sand’. He was at first anything but attracted to her, writing in a letter: ‘What a repulsive woman Sand is! But is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it.’ But we must assume George Sand made all the running because, two years later, in the summer of 1838, her affair with Frédéric Chopin was common knowledge.
The same year the pair made their way to Majorca together with Sand’s two children. Here they spent a turbulent and unhappy winter together, with Frédéric Chopin’s health deteriorating and the local islanders taking against them when their unmarried status became known.
The spring of 1839 saw the family of four once more on the mainland, first to Barcelona, then Marseille and then to Sand’s estate at Nohant for the summer, returning to Paris in the autumn.
1839-43 became the final creative phase of Frédéric Chopin’s life, and this included the composition of the majestic Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53, the ‘Heroic’, one of his most famous pieces. Sand later gave a most compelling picture of the exhausting emotion that went with Frédéric Chopin’s creative process, referring to the composer’s real torments, amid weeping and complaints, with hundreds of changes to the initial concept, only to return to the initial idea.
By this point, Frédéric Chopin’s popularity as a virtuoso performer had also waned and he made his last public performance at London’s Guildhall on 16 November 1848. Finally departing for Paris, Frédéric Chopin died the following year on 17 October 1849. The cause of death was stated on the death certificate as ‘tuberculosis’, however, as recently as 2008, medical experts have suggested cystic fibrosis as the actual cause of Frédéric Chopin’s death.
Although there is something fundamentally tragic about Frédéric Chopin’s restless life and early death, in his music his genius shines through and his legacy remains an inspiration to all pianists and music lovers.
Find out about Italian American guitars and harpsichords.