Composers / Fryderyk Chopin

Fryderyk Chopin is Poland’s greatest composer and pianist. He was born on 1 March 1810 in an annexe of the manor of Count Skarbek in Żelazowa Wola, where his father, Mikołaj Chopin, a Polonised Frenchman, was employed as a tutor. Fryderyk Chopin was the second of four children born to Mikołaj and Tekla Justyna (née Krzy­żanowska) Chopin. He had three sisters: Ludwika, Izabela and Emilia. The family moved to Warsaw, where Mikołaj had obtained a position at the Warsaw Lyceum, in 1810.

Chopin began regular piano lessons with Wojciech Żywny, a Czech immigrant, at the age of 6. It was not long before he began to compose as well. He made numerous appearances in the salons of the Warsaw aristocracy and his musical talent flourished with extraordinary rapidity. After 6 years of teaching Chopin at home, Żywny declared that he was unable to develop his pupil’s piano skills any further. Chopin’s parents decided that he would continue his musical education by studying composition with Józef Elsner.

Chopin received his general education at the Warsaw Lyceum, which he attended from 1823. During this time, he regularly spent his holidays outside Warsaw, most often on the family estates of his friends. The teenage composer visited Szafarnia, Sanniki, Poturzyn, Duszniki, Toruń, Gdańsk, Płock and several other places in Greater Poland, Pomerania and Silesia. These travels allowed him to immerse himself in Poland’s cultural riches and its folk music. This was to prove a chief source of inspiration throughout his life.

Chopin commenced his studies at the Main School of Music at Warsaw University in 1826. He graduated three years later with the assessment: ‘extraordinary aptitude, a musical genius’. He penned his first serious compositions during this time, viz. the Piano Sonata No. 1 in C minor, Op. posth. 4, the Fantasy on Polish Airs in A major, Op. 13 and the groundbreaking Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni in B flat major for piano and orchestra, Op. 2.

Chopin’s first trip to Vienna in 1829 was a resounding success. Not only did he win over the public, but he was given an enthusiastic review by Robert Schumann (which ended with the oft-quoted ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius’) once his Variations Op. 2 had been published by a Viennese concern. Chopin composed his two piano concertos, regarded as masterpieces of the genre, soon afterwards and planned to return to Vienna in the autumn of 1830. A week after crossing the border into the musical capital of Europe, however, he received word that the November Uprising had broken out. Now an émigré with no hope of organising any major concerts in Austria, he set out for Paris via Germany in July 1831. He heard that the uprising had been crushed when he was in Stuttgart, which brought on a nervous breakdown. This prompted him to set off for a ‘different world’. He never returned to Poland.

Chopin’s first few months in Paris were by no means easy. At the end of February 1832, he performed for – and impressed – the elite of the then musical world in the Pleyel salons. Chopin joined the ranks of the most outstanding artists of the day in very short order. He befriended Liszt, Berlioz, Hiller, Heine, Mickiewicz, Delacroix and many others. He made contacts with Polish exiles from the Great Emigration, befriending Prince Adam Czartoryski and Delfina Potocka.

Chopin was trying to put his personal life in order at the same time he was achieving his greatest triumphs in Paris. In 1835, he strengthened his ties with the Wodziński family from Służew. A year later, he proposed to Maria Wodzińska and was accepted. No marriage, however, eventuated. It is still not known why the wedding plans fell through, although in 1836, Chopin met French writer Aurore Dudevant (George Sand). Sand was to change his life forever.

Chopin’s union with Sand lasted until a couple of years before his death in 1847. His greatest compositions were written during this period and there can be no doubt that the six successive summers he spent on Sand’s summer property in Nohant were the happiest time of his life since leaving Poland.

Chopin, who by then was gravely ill and had broken up with Sand, gave his final concert in Paris in 1848. After that, he travelled around England and Scotland at the prompting of his pupil Jane Stirling. It was here that Chopin made his last public appearance, despite his seriously weakened condition, when he gave a concert for Polish émigrés at London’s Guildhall on 16 November 1848. He then returned to Paris, where he spent his remaining few months in the care of his sister Ludwika.

Chopin died at two o’clock in the morning of 17 October 1849. He was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In accordance with his final wishes, his sister Ludwika brought his heart back to Poland, where it is immured in a pillar in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.