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Chopin is universally acclaimed as one of the most original and innovative composers of music for the piano, especially in the romantic and lyrical field. Much of his music is deeply patriotic and infused with a love of his native Poland. 2010 marks the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Whilst it is well known that Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, born in 1810, left his native country of Poland for Paris at 21, never to return, it may be interesting to speculate how much he knew about the country of his immediate forefathers before he left. His grandfather, François, came from a peasant-family which had established itself in the Vosges growing vines. It was in Marainville that Chopin’s father, Nicolas, was born in 1771. It was by chance that the landowner was a Polish Count whose Polish steward befriended him and offered him the chance to improve his prospects in Poland. Thus it was, aged 16, he departed intending it only as a temporary visit but a letter home three years later shows that he was staying to avoid conscription in to the Revolutionary army. His life did certainly improve in Poland, first as a clerk and then in the Polish Guard where he rose to the rank of Captain. He became a children’s tutor for aristocratic families where his knowledge of French proved highly valuable. It was in the service of a Count on an estate near Warsaw that he met his wife and Ludwika was born in 1807 followed by Fryderyk three years later on 1st March. The family then moved to Warsaw where Nicolas became the teacher for French language and literature in the new high school. Two further daughters were born of which one died of consumption at the age of 14.
Although his father taught French he increased his reputation by adopting the language and culture of Poland and this dual national inheritance was crucial in forming the young Chopin’s views and future career. When the boy was only five the final defeat of Napoleon meant that Warsaw was to suffer under the oppressive rule of Russia. As with all prodigies Chopin took to music early, even crying with emotion when his mother played the piano or sang to him. At the age of six he was given a thorough basic knowledge of the music of Bach and the Viennese Classics. He seems to have taught himself how to play the piano and his teacher would write down his improvisations for him. His first to be published in 1817 was a polonaise in G minor (CD 8 ). It was dedicated to a Countess, the daughter of his godparents and similar such acts gave him access to the aristocratic salons where his father’s native tongue rather than Polish was spoken, being the language of culture. His music also impressed the military commander of the occupying forces, the Tsar’s brother, who arranged for a march of Chopin’s to be orchestrated and played by his band.
Besides his musical education his other studies took place at the high school where his father taught and he obtained his diploma in 1826.
Before that he had taken lessons with Jósef Elsner who, amongst other things, taught him how to write out his own compositions. His first work given an Opus number was the Rondo (CD 13 ) which was published in 1825. The Sonata Op. 4 (CD 13 -) followed in 1828 but Chopin’s real interest at this time were the dance forms of the mazurka and polonaise together with the Rondo. With Elsner he also completed his first Nocturne (later published as Op. 72 No. 1, CD 6 ). It was in this year that he had first experience of foreign travel when a zoology professor and friend of his father’s, took him to Berlin. On his return journey he was able to try out the first movement of his piano trio with Prince Antonin Radziwill, a cellist; he was to be the dedicatee of the work. He also completed the first two studies of Op. 10 (CD 10 [2&3]).
The Berlin experience clearly whetted Chopin’s appetite for more as Warsaw, under Russian rule, gave him little chance to hear the latest music although there were the occasional visits by Hummel and Paganini.
In July 1829, after completing his final exams at the Conservatory he set off with three friends for Vienna. He wanted to see his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, and it was he who was the mastermind in arranging two concerts for him. These were immensely successful particularly those pieces which allowed his improvisatory skills to shine. He returned home in August via Prague and Dresden.
Although his concerts at home were successful and he was now regarded as a burgeoning national figure he craved the international life which only a move to a major city would bring. In November the following year he returned to Vienna but the succeeding eight months were frustrating. His two concerts were not successful and no more works were published. It was natural for him, with his French ancestry and knowledge, to desire to go to Paris and he eventually arrived there in September 1831.
He quickly established himself and was immediately recognised as a pianist of quality by his fellows including Liszt and Mendelssohn; the famous remark “Hats off, a genius” by Schumann appeared in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that December. The local Parisians were less forthcoming and his concerts were financially not successful; so he limited his performances and found that he was just as able to obtain both fame and fortune by not appearing before the public. He was supported by the aristocracy whose judgements were based more on musicality and not the mere technical wizardry of the spectacular virtuosos who used this for effect whereas the musical content was comparatively limited.
For the next few years he both toured – primarily Germany – and wrote; his compositions of this time included all the dance forms he made famous together with nocturnes, preludes and studies many of them being his popular compositions in those styles. In August 1835 he met his parents for the last time in Karlsbad; they returned to Poland whilst he went on to Dresden where he joined the family whose three sons had been at school with Chopin; one of the daughters, Maria, aged 16, took a fancy to Chopin and, even though there were nine years between them, he did not dismiss the idea of a relationship as he was struck by her youth and beauty. A present of his Waltz “L’Adieu” (Op, 69 No, 1, CD 9 ) was made to her on his departure for Leipzig where Mendelssohn introduced him to Schumann and Clara Wieck, whom he regarded as ‘the only woman in Germany who can play my music’. On visiting Heidelberg he became ill – indeed he struggled with ill health throughout his life – and rumours of his death appeared in newspapers in Warsaw. The following year he took up the pursuit of Maria and proposed marriage in September; although the parents liked him their opposition grew probably on the grounds of his health and the engagement was terminated in the summer of 1837.
The keyboard instrument that we now call the piano was undergoing a major part of its development and Chopin, through his friendship with a major manufacturer, Pleyel, was a pivotal influence in this; he and Pleyel came to London and visited John Broadwood, the manufacturer who had supplied Beethoven with a number of pianos.
In late 1836 Liszt introduced Chopin to the novelist Baroness Aurore Dudevant who was immediately attracted to him. Chopin, on the other hand, thought her, who had been brought up as a boy, too masculine in appearance and manner. She was six years older and already had had numerous lovers and one husband by whom she had had two children. She had left him five years earlier as she had inherited considerable wealth including an estate and chateau to which she now invited Chopin.
Gradually she wore down his reticence and finally seduced him, this was the start of the nine year affair with the Baroness whose pen name was George Sand. Her son, Maurice, suffered from rheumatic fever and had been recommended a warmer climate so for the winter of 1838 they went to Palma, Majorca. They had to leave when Chopin, who had been for some years suffering from latent tuberculosis, became seriously ill. Their relationship became more of a friendship with Sand acting like a mother.
In May 1839 he finally went to her estate and chateau and was entranced, it was the only country house in which he ever made a permanent home.
Several productive years followed but in 1846 Sand’s children and an adopted daughter showed open hostility towards Chopin and his friends and a family crisis developed; the relationship was finally terminated when Sand’s daughter, Solange, became pregnant, not by her then fiancé, whom Chopin liked, but by another man whom Sand preferred and who, in the end, married the girl.
The last years of Chopin’s life were marked by few compositions caused, no doubt, by the loss of the tranquil atmosphere of earlier years and his rapidly worsening health. There was a brief revival of his activity as a concert pianist but the Paris Revolution of February 1848 terminated that as well as his teaching engagements. He took up a long-standing invitation to visit Britain giving some concerts including one attended by Queen Victoria. Besides London he visited Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh before returning to France. Throughout his time in France he never contacted his father’s relations in the Vosges, not even now, when he needed assistance. He turned to his family by asking his sister, Ludwika, to come with her husband; she nursed him through his last two painful months, dying on 17 October 1849 aged only 39. After a funeral at the Madeleine, attended by nearly 3000 people, at which his own funeral march from the B flat minor sonata in an orchestral arrangement was played, he was buried at the cemetery of Père-Lachaise.
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