Composer, Pianist. The Romantic movement's "Poet of the Piano." Chopin was unique among the world's great composers in writing almost exclusively for that instrument, bringing it to new heights of expressiveness. His harmonic and rhythmic daring, united with unforgettable melodies, had a profound influence on Western music. Claude Debussy said of him, "Chopin is the greatest of us all, for with the piano alone he discovered everything." Frédéric François Chopin (in Polish, Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin) was born in the village of Żelazowa Wola, 30 miles west of Warsaw, Poland. Church records noted his birthday as February 22 but he and his family observed it on March 1. His father was a French immigrant, his mother a poor relation of a Polish aristocratic family. A child prodigy, he was initially given keyboard lessons by his sister Ludwika and had a piano piece (a polonaise) published in 1817. From age eight he regularly performed in the salons of the upper classes, a milieu he later found essential to his career and sense of well-being. His only professional piano teacher, the Bohemian Wojciech Zywny, instilled in him a devotion to the music of Bach and Mozart, and from 1823 he was tutored privately by Jozef Elsner. Chopin's reputation as a young virtuoso quickly spread throughout the country; at 15 he played for Russian Czar Alexander I, who presented him with a diamond ring. He studied composition and music theory under Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory from 1826 to 1829. The nationalistic Elsner urged Chopin to use his gifts to glorify Polish culture - he always hoped, in vain, that his star pupil would one day compose a great Polish opera. But he was wise enough to allow Chopin's genius to develop in its own direction, and it pointed to Western Europe. Following visits to Berlin (1828) and Vienna (1829), he planned a big European concert tour and left Warsaw on November 2, 1830. Four weeks later the Poles rebelled against the ruling Russian Empire. Advised to stay out of the conflict, and with political unrest rocking other parts of Europe, Chopin spent several months in Vienna. The Polish Uprising was crushed in September 1831 and that same month Chopin found refuge in Paris, his home for the rest of his life. Although he loved his country and expressed patriotic sentiments in his letters, he never returned to Poland. He took French citizenship in 1835. His brilliant Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel on February 26, 1832, attended by Franz Liszt, opened the doors of highest French society to him; soon he was in such demand as a well-paid piano instructor that he was able to forego concertizing for teaching and composing. He had never enjoyed playing in public anyway. Crowds made him nervous, and he lacked the stamina to compete with what he called "the piano pounders" of the French school. Critics lauded his technique except for its small sound, which rarely rose to forte and was less than suitable for large venues. In the end Chopin gave only 30 public concerts during his career. An effete, dandyish man and something of a snob, he preferred the rarified atmosphere of the aristocratic salon, where he could mingle with the rich and famous and bewitch them with the exquisite soulfulness of his music. "Unless one is a prince, minister or ambassador, it is difficult to dream about the joy of hearing him", lamented Hector Berlioz. The fortunate few witnessed Chopin performing with regal poise while he revolutionized pianism with innovations in fingering and pedal technique, exploiting the instrument's resources as no one before. Pianist Ferdinand Hiller marveled at how Chopin could spread his fingers to cover a third of the keyboard "like a snake opening its mouth to swallow a rabbit whole." He toyed with the idea of writing a book about his piano methods, but the new music he wrought from his discoveries proved more important than any treatise. It won immediate popularity with audiences and pianists alike, and by 1833 Chopin had publishers in France, Germany and England clamoring for his works. In other areas he was not so fortunate. He probably contracted tuberculosis as a child and was physically frail his whole life; as an adult the 5'7" Chopin was recorded as weighing less than 100 pounds. His "chest complaint" and chronic cough were common knowledge, giving him the romantic aura of a doomed genius. Health issues also led to the break up of his 1836 engagement to Maria Wodzińska, setting the stage for one of the art world's most discussed romances. In October 1836 Chopin met author Aurore Dudevant, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand. She was a cross-dressing, cigar-smoking bohemian and feminist who had left her nobleman husband for a string of affairs while becoming the toast of literary Paris. The introduction was a shock to Chopin's refined sensibilities. "What a repulsive woman Sand is!" was his initial reaction. "But is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it." Sand pursued him relentlessly, however, and he felt drawn to her in spite of himself. Late 1837 saw them deeply involved. In November 1838, Chopin followed Sand and her two children to Valldemossa, Majorca, for a winter holiday they hoped would improve his health. It had the opposite effect. The weather was miserable, Chopin fell ill, his piano was held up in customs for weeks, and the villagers grew suspicious of the couple because they did not attend church. They were forced to seek shelter in a drafty former monastery building. The composer was near death when the group finally returned to France in March 1839. The trip was not a total disaster: Chopin wrote many of his preludes at Valldemossa. After a period of convalescence in Marseilles, Sand took Chopin to her country estate at Nohant, where he gradually recovered. As if to comment on his recent experience he constructed the Piano Sonata No. 2 (1839) around a Funeral March he had composed some two years earlier. Opinion remains divided over the Sonata as a whole but the march is the most famous of its kind. The seven summers Chopin lived with Sand at Nohant were among the most productive of his life. Their relationship was physical at first but then evolved to where Sand became a mother figure and nurse to her sickly companion. She eventually tired of the situation, venting in an 1847 letter, "For seven years I have lived with him like a virgin...I know that many accuse me, complaining that I ruined him with my tempestuous sensuality...As for him, he complains that I ruined him with my lack of tenderness." Her resentment was made public with her novel "Lucrezia Floriani" (1847). Those who knew about the couple recognized it as an unflattering roman à clef of their liason. (Liszt for one never forgave Sand for it). When she finally left him that year, Chopin confessed that the split "broke his life." From then on his health declined steadily, he wrote little and published nothing. The February 1848 revolution caused most of his aristocratic students to flee Paris, and with no other source of income he agreed to an exhausting recital tour of England and Scotland, arranged for him by former pupil Jane Stirling. One concert was attended by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. On November 16, 1848, Chopin gave his final performance at a benefit for Polish refugees in London's Guildhall; the audience was more interested in dancing and socializing, and his playing fell on deaf ears. A week later he returned to Paris, ill beyond recovery. He rarely ventured out but in early 1849 Chopin managed to sit for a haunting portrait photograph - the first great composer to be so immortalized. Friends put him up in a luxurious apartment on the Place Vendôme and Ludwika came from Warsaw to help care for him. He planned his funeral down to the smallest detail; terrified of being buried alive, he begged that his body be cut open after his death. Just after midnight on October 17, 1849, Chopin's physician asked if he was suffering greatly. "Not anymore", he whispered. He died two hours later. The elite of Paris attended his services at the Church of the Madeleine, where Mozart's Requiem and his own Funeral March were performed as he had requested. His body was buried at Pere Lachaise, where a container of Polish soil he had kept since 1830 was sprinkled over his coffin. Ludwika brought Chopin's heart back to Poland in an alcohol-filled crystal urn, which is enshrined at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Chopin produced some 300 compositions, about half of which were published in his lifetime. No composer before or since has made a more extensive contribution to the living keyboard repertory. The powerful emotional appeal of his music marks him as a Romantic, but in contrast to the expansiveness and excess of his contemporaries (especially Berlioz and Liszt) he was a master miniaturist. He never indulged in programs or descriptive titles, and the familiar nicknames for some of his pieces - the "Heroic" Polonaise, the "Revolutionary" and "Sadness" Etudes, the "Minute" Waltz, the "Raindrop" Prelude - were added by others. One of his supreme interpreters, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, described Chopin's creative personality as "one in which passion was combined with lucidity, temperament with discretion, and forcefulness with self-control." Chopin's first taste of international success came with the Vienna premiere of the "Variations on 'Là ci darem la mano'" (1829), one of four short student efforts he turned out for piano and orchestra. This was the piece that inspired Robert Schumann to exclaim in an 1831 review, "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!" The two Piano Concertos, in F minor and E minor, were premiered in Warsaw in 1830, shortly before Chopin left Poland. Their attractive themes and sparkling keyboard writing have kept them popular despite the lackluster accompaniments. Chopin intended them as vehicles for his concert career, but once he abandoned that ambition he never wrote for orchestra again. (He planned a Third Piano Concerto in the early 1830s but apparently failed to get beyond the piano part of the first movement, which he published as the "Allegro de Concert" in 1841). Apart from the Piano Trio (1829) and Cello Sonata (1846), 19 songs to Polish texts, and a few chamber trifles, the rest of his output was for solo piano. It includes 60 mazurkas (1825 to 1849); 27 etudes (three sets, 1833, 1837, 1840); 26 preludes (24 gathered in his Op. 28, 1839); 21 nocturnes (1827 to 1846); 20 waltzes (1824 to 1849); 16 polonaises (1817 to 1846); 4 ballades (1835 to 1842); 4 scherzos (1832 to 1842); 3 impromptus (1837 to 1843); and 3 sonatas (1828, 1839, 1844). On his deathbed Chopin asked that his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed, a wish that was not observed; one gem emerged from his posthumous papers, the Fantaisie-Impromptu (1834, published 1855). His Polish roots run deep in the mazurkas and polonaises, folk dances he raised to a level of high art, and in his Slavic sense of harmony and rhythm; but his style embraced wider influences and was polished with French elegance and concision. Chopin's fondness for Italian opera can be heard in the way he made the piano "sing" with soaring cantabile melodies. He brought refinement to the Viennese waltz and was the first great developer of the nocturne (night or mood piece), a new form he acquired from its creator, the Irish John Field. He transformed the prelude and scherzo into independent units and carried the etude from the exercise book to the concert hall. The ballade, or piano ballad, was his invention. Many believed (and still believe) that Chopin used the piano to speak for the oppressed Polish people of his era. Poles were not alone in thinking this way; the German Schumann provocatively called the mazurkas "cannons concealed in flowers" aimed at Russia. In the land of his birth Chopin's status as a national hero is unassailable, even though he spent his adulthood in voluntary exile and never openly endorsed a nationalist view of his music. It is safe to say he was a singular cosmopolitan artist above all else. 20th Century Polish composer Karol Szymanowski probably came closest to the mark when he wrote, "Chopin was an eternal example of what Polish music was capable of achieving – a symbol of Europeanized Poland, losing nothing of his national features but standing on the highest pinnacle of European culture."
Bio by: Bobb Edwards