Frédéric François Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola (near Warsaw, Poland) on March 1, 1810 (or on February 22, according to his baptismal certificate). He was born into a small family of a French father, Nicolas Chopin, and of a Polish mother, Tekla Justyna Krzyzanowska. He showed great admiration for the piano at a very young age, and he composed two polonaises (Polish dances) at the age of seven years. At the same time, he gave concert performances to impressed audiences and, being humble, stated that the public was admiring the collar of his shirt.
He began his studies with violinist Wojciech Zywny in 1816. As he soon acquired greater skill than that of his teacher, he continued his studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, under the tutelage of Wilhelm Wurfel. At the age of 15 years, he published his first work (Rondo, op. 1). At 16, he began to study harmony, theory, figured bass and composition with Jozef Elsner, a Silesian composer who taught at the Conservatory.
In early 1829, Chopin performed in Vienna, where he was received with several optimistic reviews. The next year, he returned to his homeland and performed the premiere of his piano concerto in F minor, at the National Theatre on March 17. After these travels, Chopin decided to move to Paris, in order to eschew the volatile political situation back home. On the road, he learned that the Russians had captured Warsaw, and he composed the great “Revolutionary Etude,” in reaction thereto. Once in Paris, he began working on his first ballade (Op. 23) and scherzo (Op. 20), as well as his first etudes (Op. 10). It is also at this time that he began his unfortunate struggle with Tuberculosis.
In France, Chopin had the opportunity to acquaint himself with his contemporaries who were also participants of the Romantic Revolution in Paris. Among them were Liszt, Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Bellini, Balzac, Heine, Victor Hugo and Schumann. Reluctantly, the introvert expanded his horizons and made many lasting friendships. He also came across the friend of Liszt’s mistress, the French author best known by her pseudonym, George Sand. When they met, she was 34 and he was 28. Madame Sand was courageous and domineering: her need to dominate found its counterpart in Chopin’s need to be led. She left a memorable description of the composer at work:
His creative work was spontaneous, miraculous. It came to him without effort or warning… But then began the most heartrending labour I have ever witnessed. It was a series of attempts, of fits of irresolution and impatience to recover certain details. He would shut himself in his room for days, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, repeating and modifying one bar a hundred times.
The 1830s in Paris proved to be a progressive and productive time for Chopin. He completed some of his most popular works and performed regular concerts, receiving fantastic reviews. However, Chopin was not in favour of public performance; he therefore imposed a constant demand of himself as a composer and as a teacher, often holding a piano class for local musicians. He was demanded in the Parisian salons, and he played less reluctantly under these circumstances.
Madame Sand shared the gelid winter of 1838-9 with Chopin. They stayed in an unheated peasant hut and in the Valldemossa Monastery. Chopin encountered many difficulties in acquiring a piano from Paris in these parts. Much of this miserable and desperate time is depicted in his 24 preludes (Op. 28), which were composed during this time. Due to the terrible conditions—and Chopin’s unpleasant reaction thereto—he and Madame Sand returned to Paris.
During the following eight years, Chopin spent his summers at Sand’s estate in Nohant. It is in this location that she entertained some of France’s most prominent artists and writers. Unfortunately, the couple’s happiness was relatively short-lived, and they shifted from love to conflict. Their intense relationship ended two years before Chopin’s death, in 1847. Sand had begun to suspect that Chopin had fallen in love with her daughter, Solange; they parted in rancour. One of Chopin’s best friends, Franz Liszt, stated that Chopin once declared that, in ending this long affection, he had ruined his life. Once found in his later letters: “What has become of my art? And my heart, where have I wasted it?”
On an interesting personal note, Chopin once stated that he had never been attracted to Sand. “Something about her repels me,” said he to his family. Moreover, Sand once suggested in her correspondence that Chopin was asexual; that is, he had no inclination to have sexual relations with anyone, male or female.
On October 17, 1849, tuberculosis ended the life of a young genius. At the age of 39, Chopin passed away, blessing us with no further melodies or harmonies. Thousands joined together to attend his funeral and to pay him homage. His funeral was held at the Church of the Madeleine, and he was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His heart was entombed at the Church of the Holy Cross in Poland, and Polish soil was sprinkled over his tomb in France, as he had requested.
Every year, many inspired tourists visit Chopin’s grave to pay their respects. To this date, his music has been performed and recorded very frequently. The Composer of Poland is known as one of the best composers of the Romantic period; ironically, he did not consider himself of this group. He was the Poet of the Piano, and the intense expression and emotion present in his music is the cause of this common belief. Anyhow, his music has fuelled the inspiration of millions of musicians and will certainly continue to do so for quite some time.
Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.
– Frédéric François Chopin