Famous Composers: Frederic Chopin
Frederic Chopin was born at the village of Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw; whether the date was 1809 (as some authorities maintain) or 1810 (officially accepted) matters little. What does matter is that his father, although bred in Lorraine (which had close historic ties with Poland), had been a Polish citizen since 1787 and earned a fair living as private tutor to the sons and daughters of the nobility; that his mother, gentle and well educated, was one hundred per cent Polish; that he himself was Polish not only by birth and upbringing but also by outlook and temperament.
A child prodigy, he earned public recognition at the age of eight both as pianist and composer, and his choice of career was never in doubt. After a course of study in Warsaw with Joseph Eisner - an honoured figure in Polish musical history - he presented himself in Vienna where he played his own compositions to appreciative audiences. That was in 1829. A year later he was back there again, purposefully en route for Italy. But Italy, like Poland, was in the throes of political upheaval, and perforce his second visit to Vienna lasted longer than intended. Eventually he abandoned the idea of going south and instead made for Paris, which he reached by way of Munich and Stuttgart in the autumn of 1831.
In Paris Chopin soon established his reputation as a brilliant pianist, a tactful mentor to the young hopefuls of the aristocracy, and an émigré composer with out-of-ordinary ability. Though handicapped by a frail constitution he also undertook several concert tours in Germany and one in Britain; everywhere he went his pale and interesting good looks and charming manners captivated the ladies, but his only serious love affair at the time - with a fellow-Pole, Marie Wodzinska - was terminated by mutual agreement in 1837. The same year, however, saw his first meeting with a remarkable woman who had been christened Aurore Dupin and had married a dull provincial named Casimir Dudevant, by whom she had two children; she is known to posterity by her pseudonym as an authoress, George Sand. Having for a time lived openly with the poet Alfred de Musset, she now took Chopin under her wing and carried him off to spend the winter of 1838-9 in Majorca. As it happened he was in an even poorer state of health than usual and the trip was not an unqualified success, but thereafter he was a constant guest at her country-house at Nohant (Indre), where he could relax in quietude and carry on with his composing; consequently he soon came to regard Nohant as his home. (The chateau and its grounds, today no less gloomy and derelict than most of their kind, adjoin the N 143 twenty miles south of Chateauroux and three miles north of La Chatre.) It is acknowledged by all that George Sand was a generous patroness and Chopin a grateful protege with whom she had much in common; few will agree with the good people who have convinced themselves that this close friendship, which lasted for ten years, depended solely upon a shared enthusiasm for intellectual pursuits. Be that as it may, the permanent cuckoo eventually became a source of embarrassment even in this most unconventional of nests, and the regime finally broke itself on a violent family quarrel in which George Sand sided with her son Maurice (who had always resented the intruder) against Chopin and her daughter Solange (with whom he had remained on cordial terms). Frustrated and depressed, he paid another visit to Britain, where he stayed for seven months and despite the onset of tuberculosis gave four concerts; in the autumn of 1848 he returned to Paris too ill to make any further public appearance, and he died there a year later.
Apart from two concertos, both belonging to his early Warsaw days, all Chopin’s works of any importance were written for piano alone: it will be convenient to refer to them in generic groups, identifying individual pieces by opus numbers. These indicate sequence of publication rather than of composition, but a rough guide would assign ops. 1-22 to the Warsaw-Vienna period of 1825-31, ops. 23-34 to the Paris period of 1832-8, ops. 35-65 to the Nohant period of 1839-47. (Ops- 66-74 are posthumous publications, their composition-dates ranging from 1825 onwards.) It must be stressed that this division of Chopin’s active career into three periods is purely for the sake of easy chronological reference and has little if any stylistic significance. One has heard the view expressed that he ‘was at his best in the polanaises and mazurkas which belonged to Poland, while his later and more popular salon works were tainted with Parisian mannerisms and affectation’. This is nonsense. All the well-known polonaises and at least two-thirds of the mazurkas were composed after Chopin reached Paris, while many of the more popular salon works date from before he ever set foot there - among them the inescapable nocturne in E flat major op. 9 no. 2, the luscious etude in E major op. 10 no. 3 (nowadays incorporated in the ballet Les Sylphides), the big waltz in E flat major op. 18, and the unique slow waltz in A minor published later as op. 34 no. 2. Even in the twenty-four preludes op. 28 - one in every major and minor key and which, taken collectively, may perhaps convey a superficial impression of conventionality - there are fewer signs of Parisian mannerisms and affectation than of Slav influence. (See especially nos. 2, 4, 12, 18 and 22.)
Emphasis on his consistency must not be taken to imply that Chopin the artist stood still, that op. 65 showed no advance on op. 1; nevertheless the progressive development of his powers was largely a matter of technique rather than of style. As befitted an outstanding exponent of lyrical romanticism in music he had an inborn flair for varied melody - graceful, passionate, rhapsodic; to this in due course was added a sense of harmonic colour-contrast beyond contemporary imaginings (glance through the chromatic sequences of the polonaise in C minor op. 40 no. 2) and a growing realization that brilliant pianism should cease to be mere decoration and become welded to the melodic scheme; the leggierissimo passages of the scherzo in C sharp minor op. 39, for example, were an integral part of the whole conception. Furthermore, from about 1835 onwards Chopin tackled larger forms with greater assurance. Admittedly he never completed a wholly satisfying sonata (for even op. 35 in B flat minor, funeral march and all, was thrown off balance by the brevity of its demoniac finale), but he was at his best in the scherzo in B flat minor op. 31, the ballade in A flat major op. 47, the fantasy in F minor op. 49 and the polonaise-fantasy in A flat major op. 61 - all of which are much more massive in scale than their titles would suggest. Nevertheless Frederic Chopin also deserves our heart-felt gratitude for bringing us perfection in miniature (e.g. the preludes op. 28 nos. 7 and 20), as well as for raising the modest mazurka and the ballroom waltz to a level of artistry hitherto undreamt of.
Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.