Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, the Polish composer and pianist, was born on 1 March 1810, according to the statements of the artist himself and his family, but according to his baptismal certificate, which was written several weeks after his birth, the date was 22 February. His birthplace was the village of Zelazowa Wola near Sochaczew, in the region of Mazovia, which was part of the Duchy of Warsaw. The manor-house in Zelazowa Wola belonged to Count Skarbek and Chopin’s father, Mikolaj (Nicolas) Chopin, a Polonized Frenchman, was employed there as a tutor. He had been born in 1771 in Marainville in the province of Lorraine in France, but already as a child he had established contacts with the Polish families of Count Michal Pac and the manager of his estate, Jan Adam Weydlich. At the age of 16, Mikolaj accompanied them to Poland where he settled down permanently. He never returned to France and did not retain contacts with his French family but brought up his children as Poles.
In 1806, Mikolaj Chopin married Tekla Justyna Krzyzanowska, who was the housekeeper for the Skarbek family at Zelazowa Wola. They had four children: three daughters Ludwika, Izabela and Emilia, and a son Fryderyk, the second child. Several months after his birth, the whole family moved to Warsaw, where Mikolaj Chopin was offered the post of French language and literature lecturer in the Warsaw Lyceum. He also ran a boarding school for sons of the gentry.
The musical talent of Fryderyk became apparent extremely early on, and it was compared with the childhood genius of Mozart. Already at the age of 7, Fryderyk was the author of two polonaises (in G minor and B flat major), the first being published in the engraving workshop of Father Cybulski. The prodigy was featured in the Warsaw newspapers, and “little Chopin” became the attraction and ornament of receptions given in the aristocratic salons of the capital. He also began giving public charity concerts. His first professional piano lessons, given to him by Wojciech Zywny (b. 1756 in Bohemia), lasted from 1816 to 1822, when the teacher was no longer able to give any more help to the pupil whose skills surpassed his own. The further development of Fryderyk’s talent was supervised by Wilhelm Würfel (b.1791 in Bohemia), the renowned pianist and professor at the Warsaw Conservatory who was to offer valuable, although irregular, advice as regards playing the piano and organ.
From 1823 to 1826, Fryderyk attended the Warsaw Lyceum where his father was one of the professors. He spent his summer holidays in estates belonging to the parents of his school friends in various parts of the country. For example, he twice visited Szafarnia in the Kujawy region where he revealed a particular interest in folk music and country traditions. The young composer listened to and noted down the texts of folk songs, took part in peasant weddings and harvest festivities, danced, and played a folk instrument resembling a double bass with the village musicians; all of which he described in his letters. Chopin became well acquainted with the folk music of the Polish plains in its authentic form, with its distinct tonality, richness of rhythms and dance vigour. When composing his first mazurkas in 1825, as well as the later ones, he resorted to this source of inspiration which he kept in mind until the very end of his life.
In the autumn of 1826, Chopin began studying the theory of music, figured bass and composition at the Warsaw High School of Music, which was both part of the Conservatory and, at the same time, connected with Warsaw University. Its head was the composer Józef Elsner (b. 1769 in Silesia). Chopin, however, did not attend the piano class. Aware of the exceptional nature of Chopin’s talent, Elsner allowed him, in accordance with his personality and temperament, to concentrate on piano music but was unbending as regards theoretical subjects, in particular counterpoint. Chopin, endowed by nature with magnificent melodic invention, ease of free improvisation and an inclination towards brilliant effects and perfect harmony, gained in Elsner’s school a solid grounding, discipline, and precision of construction, as well as an understanding of the meaning and logic of each note. This was the period of the first extended works such as the Sonata in C minor, Variations, op. 2 on a theme from Don Juan by Mozart, the Rondo á la Krakowiak, op. 14, the Fantaisie, op. 13 on Polish Airs (the three last ones written for piano and orchestra) and the Trio in G minor, op. 8 for piano, violin and cello. Chopin ended his education at the High School in 1829, and after the third year of his studies Elsner wrote in a report: “Chopin, Fryderyk, third year student, amazing talent, musical genius”.
After completing his studies, Chopin planned a longer stay abroad to become acquainted with the musical life of Europe and to win fame. Up to then, he had never left Poland, with the exception of two brief stays in Prussia. In 1826, he had spent a holiday in Bad Reinertz (modern day Duszniki-Zdrój) in Lower Silesia, and two years later he had accompanied his father’s friend, Professor Feliks Jarocki, on his journey to Berlin to attend a congress of naturalists. Here, quite unknown to the Prussian public, he concentrated on observing the local musical scene. Now he pursued bolder plans. In July 1829 he made a short excursion to Vienna in the company of his acquaintances. Wilhelm Würfel, who had been staying there for three years, introduced him to the musical milieu, and enabled Chopin to give two performances in the Kärtnertortheater, where, accompanied by an orchestra, he played Variations, op.2 on a Mozart theme and the Rondo á la Krakowiak, op. 14 , as well as performing improvisations. He enjoyed tremendous success with the public, and although the critics censured his performance for its small volume of sound, they acclaimed him as a genius of the piano and praised his compositions. Consequently, the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger printed the Variations on a theme from Mozart (1830). This was the first publication of a Chopin composition abroad, for up to then, his works had only been published in Warsaw.
Upon his return to Warsaw, Chopin, already free from student duties, devoted himself to composition and wrote, among other pieces, two Concertos for piano and orchestra: in F minor and E minor. The first concerto was inspired to a considerable extent by the composer’s feelings towards Konstancja Gladkowska, who studied singing at the Conservatory. This was also the period of the first nocturne, etudes, waltzes, mazurkas, and songs to words by Stefan Witwicki. During the last months prior to his planned longer stay abroad, Chopin gave a number of public performances, mainly in the National Theatre in Warsaw where the première of both concertos took place. Originally, his destination was to be Berlin, where the artist had been invited by Prince Antoni Radziwill, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznan, who had been appointed by the king of Prussia, and who was a long-standing admirer of Chopin’s talent and who, in the autumn of 1829, was his host in Antonin. Chopin, however, ultimately chose Vienna where he wished to consolidate his earlier success and establish his reputation. On 11 October 1830, he gave a ceremonial farewell concert in the National Theatre in Warsaw, during which he played the Concerto in E minor, and K. Gladkowska sang. On 2 November, together with his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, Chopin left for Austria, with the intention of going on to Italy.
Several days after their arrival in Vienna, the two friends learnt about the outbreak of the uprising in Warsaw, against the subservience of the Kingdom of Poland to Russia and the presence of the Russian Tsar on the Polish throne. This was the beginning of a months-long Russo-Polish war. T. Woyciechowski returned to Warsaw to join the insurgent army, while Chopin, succumbing to the persuasion of his friend, stayed in Vienna. In low spirits and anxious about the fate of his country and family, he ceased planning the further course of his career, an attitude explained in a letter to J. Elsner: “In vain does Malfatti try to convince me that every artist is a cosmopolitan. Even if so, as an artist, I am still in my cradle, as a Pole, I am already twenty; I hope, therefore that, knowing me well, you will not chide me that so far I have not thought about the programme of the concert”. The performance ultimately took place on 11 June 1831, in the Kärtnerthortheater, where Chopin played the Concerto in E minor. The eight months spent in Vienna were not wasted. Strong and dramatic emotional experiences inspired the creative imagination of the composer, probably accelerating the emergence of a new, individual style, quite different from his previous brilliant style. The new works, which revealed force and passion, included the sketch of the Scherzo in B minor and, above all, the powerful Etudes from op. 10.
Having given up his plans for a journey to Italy, due to the hostilities there against Austria, Chopin resolved to go to Paris. On the way, he first stopped in Munich where he gave a concert on the 28th of August and then went on to Stuttgart. Here he learnt about the dramatic collapse of the November Uprising and the capture of Warsaw by the Russians. His reaction to this news assumed the form of a fever and nervous crisis. Traces of these experiences are encountered in the so-called Stuttgart diary: “The enemy is in the house (…) Oh God, do You exist? You do and yet You do not avenge. – Have You not had enough of Moscow’s crimes – or – or are You Yourself a Muscovite […] I here, useless! And I here empty-handed. At times I can only groan, suffer, and pour out my despair at my piano!”.
In the autumn of 1831 Chopin arrived in Paris where he met many fellow countrymen. Following the national defeat, thousands of exiles, including participants of the armed struggle, politicians, representatives of Polish culture, such as the writer Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Romantic poets A. Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki, and the Warsaw friends of Chopin, the poets Stefan Witwicki and Bohdan Zaleski, sought refuge from the Russian occupation in a country and city which they found most friendly. Chopin made close contacts with the so-called Great Emigration, befriended its leader Prince Adam Czartoryski, and became a member of the Polish Literary Society, which he supported financially. He also attended emigré meetings, played at charity concerts held for poor emigrés, and organised similar events.
In Paris, his reputation as an artist grew rapidly. Letters of recommendation which the composer brought from Vienna allowed him immediately to join the local musical milieu, which welcomed him cordially. Chopin became the friend of Liszt, Mendelssohn, Ferdinand Hiller, Berlioz and Auguste Franchomme. Later on, in 1835, in Leipzig, he also met Schumann who held his works in great esteem and wrote enthusiastic articles about the Polish composer. Upon hearing the performance of the unknown arrival from Warsaw, the great pianist Friedrich Kalkbrenner, called the king of the piano, organised a concert for Chopin which took place on the 26th of February 1832 in the Salle Pleyel. The ensuing success was enormous, and he quickly became a famous musician, renowned throughout Paris. This rise to fame aroused the interest of publishers and by the summer of 1832, Chopin had signed a contract with the leading Parisian publishing firm of Schlesinger. At the same time, his compositions were published in Leipzig by Probst, and then Breitkopf, and in London by Wessel.
The most important source of Chopin’s income in Paris was, however, from giving lessons. He became a popular teacher among the Polish and French aristocracy and Parisian salons were his favourite place for performances. As a pianist, Chopin was ranked among the greatest artists of his epoch, such as Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Thalberg and Herz, but, in contrast to them, he disliked public performances and appeared rarely and rather unwillingly. In a friendly, intimate group of listeners he disclosed supreme artistry and the full scale of his pianistic and expressive talents.
Having settled down in Paris, Chopin deliberately chose the status of an emigré. Despite the requests of his father, he did not obey the Tsarist regulations, issued in subjugated Poland, and never extended his passport in the Russian embassy. Consequently, being regarded as a political refugee, Chopin deprived himself of the possibility of legally revisiting his homeland. He longed to see his family and friends and, seeking refuge against loneliness, decided to share accommodation with the physician Aleksander Hoffman, another Polish exile, and after the latter’s departure from Paris, with his Warsaw friend, former insurgent and physician, Jan Matuszynski. In this situation, the composer could meet his parents only outside Poland and when in August 1835 they went to Karlsbad for a cure, Chopin soon followed. Afterwards, while in nearby Dresden, he renewed his acquaintance with the Wodzinski family. Years earlier, the three young Wodzinski sons had stayed in the boarding house managed by Mikolaj Chopin. Their younger sister, Maria, now an adolescent, showed considerable musical and artistic talent and Chopin fell in love with her and wanted to marry her and set up a family home of his own in exile. The following year, during a holiday spent together with the seventeen year-old Maria and her mother in Marienbad (modern day Márianské Lázne in the Czech Republic), and then in Dresden, he proposed and was accepted on the condition that he would take better care of his health. The engagement was unofficial, and did not end in marriage, for after a year-long “trial” period, Maria’s parents, disturbed by the bad state of the health of her fiancé who was seriously ill in the winter, and especially by his irregular lifestyle, viewed him as an unsuitable partner for their daughter. Chopin found this rejection an extremely painful experience, and labelled the letters from the Wodzinski family, tied into a small bundle, “My sorrow”.
In July 1837, Chopin travelled to London in the company of Camille Pleyel in the hope of forgetting all unpleasant memories. Soon afterwards, he entered into a close liaison with the famous French writer George Sand. This author of daring novels, older by six years, and a divorcee with two children, offered the lonely artist what he missed most from the time when he left Warsaw: extraordinary tenderness, warmth and maternal care. The lovers spent the winter of 1838/1839 on the Spanish island of Majorca, living in a former monastery in Valdemosa. There, due to unfavourable weather conditions, Chopin became gravely ill and showed symptoms of tuberculosis. For many weeks, he remained so weak as to be unable to leave the house but nonetheless, continued to work intensively and composed a number of masterpieces: the series of 24 preludes, the Polonaise in C minor, the Ballade in F major, and the Scherzo in C sharp minor. On his return from Majorca in the spring of 1839, and following a convalescence in Marseilles, Chopin, still greatly weakened, moved to George Sand’s manor house in Nohant, in central France. Here, he was to spend long vacations up to 1846, with the exception of 1840, returning to Paris only for the winters. This was the happiest, and the most productive, period in his life after he left his family home. The majority of his most outstanding and profound works were composed in Nohant. In Paris, the composer and writer were treated as a married couple, although they were never married. Both had common friends among the artistic circles of the capital, such as the painter Delacroix and the singer Pauline Viardot, as well as the Polish emigrés, such as A. Mickiewicz and W. Grzymala. For years, the couple enjoyed a deep love and friendship, but with time the increasingly hostile attitude of George Sand’s son, who exerted a strong influence on the writer, caused ever more serious conflicts. A final parting of ways took place in July 1847.
Grievous personal experiences as well as the loss of Nohant, so important for the health and creativity of the composer, had a devastating effect on Chopin’s mental and physical state. He almost completely gave up composition, and from then to the end of his life wrote only a few miniatures. In April 1848, persuaded by his Scottish pupil, Jane Stirling, Chopin left for England and Scotland. Together with her sister, Miss Stirling organised concerts and visits in various localities, including the castles of the Scottish aristocracy. This exceptionally hectic life style and excessive strain on his strength from constant travelling and numerous performances, together with a climate deleterious to his lungs, further damaged his health. On 16 November 1848, despite frailty and a fever, Chopin gave his last concert, playing for Polish emigrés in the Guildhall in London. A few days later, he returned to Paris.
His rapidly progressing disease made it impossible to continue giving lessons. In the summer of 1849, Ludwika Jedrzejewiczowa, the eldest sister of the composer, came from Warsaw to take care of her ill brother. On 17 October 1849, Chopin died of pulmonary tuberculosis in his Parisian flat in the Place Vendôme. He was buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In accordance with his will, however, his heart, taken from his body after death, was brought by his sister to Warsaw where it was placed in an urn installed in a pillar of the Holy Cross church in Krakowskie Przedmiscie.
(by Barbara Smolenska-Zielinska)