Writer Ted Libby may have said it best in his 2010 NPR article celebrating 200 years of the musical genius Frédéric Chopin. Libby argues that no one before or since Chopin has contributed as many significant piano works and writes that Chopin's impact on other musicians is "entirely out of proportion to the number of concerts he gave — only 30 public performances in 30 years of concertizing." In his surprisingly short career, Chopin managed to leave a lasting mark on the classical genre and the music world at large.
Born on March 1, 1810, in Zelazowa Wola, Poland, Fryderyk Franciszek Szopen, who went on to be known as Frédéric Chopin, developed an early ear for music. His parents, Justyna Krzyzanowska and Nicholas Szopen, moved to Warsaw soon after their son's birth when Nicholas found a job as a tutor for aristocratic families. By age 6, Chopin was already playing the piano and toying with composition, so his parents jumped at the opportunity to hone his early talent. They hired professional musician Wojciech Zywny to provide their young son piano lessons, but Chopin quickly outgrew the kid-level classes.
"The education Chopin received in Poland included composition lessons, literature, mathematics, science, instruction in six languages, logic, philosophy, geography and more," Roza Kostrzewska Yoder, artistic director of Los Angeles piano studio, Chopin Academy, writes via email. "It served as a basis for his entire life."
Chopin Debuts in Vienna at 19
By the time he was 8 years old, Chopin was fully writing his own compositions and performing for audiences in salons. By age 16, he had several original piano compositions of varying styles under belt, and his parents enrolled him in the Warsaw Conservatory of Music. After three years there, studying under Polish composer Josef Elsner, Chopin moved on again, thanks to his parents' recognition of his unique mastery and talent. In 1929, he made his debut in Vienna, and over the next few years, played for audiences throughout Poland, Austria and Germany. In 1832, he found a new home in Paris, France.
"The Chopin we know wouldn't have been if not for the superb upbringing of family, the high level of education he received from his insightful teachers, the influence of his friends and the general political and intellectual atmosphere in Poland before he left his home for Paris at the age of 19," Yoder says. "Franz Liszt said, 'the atmosphere in which Chopin saw the light of day and was brought up, like a secure and cozy nest, was filled with a sense of harmony, tranquility, and hard work; those examples of simplicity, piety and delicacy were always the most sweet and dear to him.'"
In addition to Liszt, Chopin became close with other young composers, including Vincenzo Bellini and Felix Mendelssohn, but he soon discovered Parisian audiences weren't always prepared for his more delicate piano stylings since artists like Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven had reigned supreme prior to his debut. But soon, Chopin crossed paths with a wealthy banking family known as the Rothschilds, and new opportunities emerged as they introduced him to Paris' high society as a well-mannered and sensitive recitalist and teacher. It was during this point in his career that Chopin penned some of his most famous piano works including the "Ballade in G Minor," the "Fantaisie-Impromptu," "Nocturne of Op. 9" and "Nocturne of Op. 15," the "Scherzo in B-flat Minor, Op. 31" and the "Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35."
"Chopin's music was based on a classical tradition of composition and he always pledged his allegiance to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others," Yoder says. "Often (as with his scherzos and sonatas), he adopted classical forms and poured into them a new spirit. His understanding of the fluidity of tempo in rubato, his sensitivity to the beauty of the sound in cantabile, his revolutionary approach to a technique based on naturalness and flexibility, and his aesthetics based on the honesty of sharing deep feelings characterizes his unique style and makes him a pioneer of new pianistic idiom."
A quick and general breakdown of Chopin's varying genres: He composed ballades (single-movement piano pieces), sonatas (solo pieces usually written in three or four movements), mazurkas (Polish folk pieces), waltzes (dance music in triple meter, often written in 3/4 time), nocturnes (composition inspired by the night), études (short compositions to demonstrate the skill of a player), scherzos (light, playful compositions), and many, many more styles.
"My favorite pieces by Chopin (and most likely his as well) are the mazurkas," Yoder says. "He wrote two concertos, four ballades, twenty-four etudes, but fifty-seven mazurkas. They were written by him throughout his life as a sort of diary. The mazurkas composed in Poland show direct influence of Polish folk music while the latest ones are more a recollection of it, but all of them result from his intimate connection with his source of his emotions — his family and friends as well as the country of his origin."
Chopin's Romantic Life
As his musical career thrived, Chopin's romantic life had some twists and turns. He was involved with Constantia Gladkowska in Warsaw and later became engaged to Maria Wodzińska in Dresden, but broke off the relationship before they married. However, in 1836, he met novelist Aurore Dudevant, famously known by her pseudonym, George Sand. Two years later, Chopin accompanied Sand and her children to the island of Majorca, but the vacation took a turn when the musician became ill. The group moved to Marseille where doctors diagnosed Chopin with tuberculosis.
After three months, Chopin made a full recovery, and he and Sand planned their return to Paris. But first, they spent the summer of 1839 at Sand's country house. They returned to the home every summer over the next seven years, a period that many say was "the happiest and most productive of Chopin's life." During his time in the country, Chopin composed some of his greatest masterpieces.
However, by the mid-1940s, Chopin and Sand's relationship fell apart, and his health declined again. Following their breakup, he toured the British Isles, and the fast-paced schedule appeared to take a toll on him and his behavior became "erratic," possibly due to an undiagnosed form of epilepsy. He made his last public appearance on Nov. 16, 1848, and returned to Paris, where he died at age 39 on Oct. 17, 1849.
"Chopin did not live just for his own pleasure or fame, but to the end of his difficult and sickness-ridden life he strived to communicate the unique language of his romantic soul to others," Yoder says. "Chopin well understood his calling as a composer. He understood that even his sickness could help him better express the depth of emotion in his pieces."
Chopin's body was buried at Père Lachaise cemetery, but his heart was interred at a Warsaw church, near his birthplace. There is still a fair amount of mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death, but in his short life, Chopin made a lasting mark on the world of arts and culture, and his legacy continues to be celebrated by musicians and audiences alike.
If you are unfamiliar with the music of Chopin and would like somewhere to start, this performance by Vadim Chaimovich of his Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 is a good place to begin: