From sheer joy and delight to despair and weakness: peek into the exciting life and work of Frédéric Chopin in these eight little stories.
This shy musical genius was more than meets the eye. The father of Fantasie Impromptu and 27 Etudes quietly created masterpieces that live today, both in concert halls and in the hearts of classical music lovers. A single name – Chopin – and the whole romantic 19th century seems to come back to life.
He was temperamental, often anguished, poetic, and inspired. Leaving Poland, he spent most of his life in exile, where he built his life and reputation, but his journey was far from comfortable. His torment was both physical and emotional and his life was cut short by tuberculosis at the young age of 39. However, Chopin was a lot more than this short description. He had a nuanced personality and his time on this earth was filled with many successes and disappointments, incredible joy, and dark moments. Mordents Magazine even covered how Chopin would behave as a member of a boyband or if he could ever win The International Chopin Competition.
A child prodigy with an intact childhood
Chopin’s father worked as a bookkeeper and this helped him introduce young Chopin to cultured Warsaw society, while his mother acquainted him with music at a young age. By age 6, Chopin was playing the piano and composing tunes. Witnessing his talent, his family soon engaged a private piano tutor whom he quickly surpassed both in technique and imagination. Yet, he had a quiet and peaceful childhood, socializing with classmates and spending his vacations in the countryside.
His extraordinary musical talents were noticed from an early age: at the age of 8, Frédéric was already performing in the beautiful salons of Warsaw, at the age of 15, he composed his Rondo in C minor and received the title of “First pianist of the city” of Warsaw. A child prodigy, indeed, but never forced to perform in public.
A fortunate exile?
On November 2, 1830, Frédéric Chopin left his native Poland for Vienna, with one and only one idea in mind: music. On November 29 of the same year, an uprising broke out in Warsaw: the Polish people rose up against Russian domination. When Chopin first heard of it, his initial idea was to return to Warsaw. But the way back was strewn with pitfalls, and his health was too fragile. Deciding to stay, Chopin sunk into melancholy:
“Sometimes I can only groan, and suffer, and pour out my despair at the piano!”
When he discovered Paris in 1831, he hailed: “the most beautiful of worlds!” and no longer wanted to return to Poland. Chopin took up residence in the French capital, where he found love and success. Many years later, in 1848, he would write:
“I have become as attached [to the French] as if they were my own people.”
In the 19th century, a violinist Niccolò Paganini was the dream of all the theaters and concert halls. With him, everything on stage became extraordinary, a demonstration of excellence. His speed of execution, his sense of improvisation, and his incredible effects dazzled the public.
And the influence of Paganini on the musicians of the 19th century is remarkable: Chopin, but also Liszt, Schumann, Brahms… Many of them took their cue from the violinist-composer. Concerning Chopin, he attended a Paganini concert for the first time in 1829, in Warsaw. Amazed by the virtuosity of the violinist, he launched himself – among other works – into the composition of his famous (and formidable) Etudes …
Hide this audience
While his friend Franz Liszt was having one concert after another, Chopin was leading a quiet existence in Paris. The scene? Delirious spectators? Very little for him: not only did he suffer from terrible stage fright, but he also preferred a smooth and subtle style of playing. To Liszt, his confidant, and friend, he wrote the following:
“I am not fit to give concerts, I am intimidated by the public ”
During his (short) career, Chopin performed a few times in public in Warsaw, Vienna, and then Paris, but the pianist was definitely more at ease in the warmth and intimacy of the salons. “Chopin as a performer and as a composer is an artist apart”, wrote Berlioz in 1833.
“He does not have a point of resemblance to any other musician of my acquaintance.”
Some even believe that Chopin’s early fame was made possible by the famous ‘salons’. In these intimate places, princes, barons, and other aristocrats liked to receive artists. Introduced at a reception of the Rothschild family at the age of 22, Chopin soon became the darling of these selective evenings.
Thanks to the private lessons he gave to women and children from good families, Chopin also led an elegant lifestyle: he had a carriage, took care of his appearance as much as the decoration of his home. His apartment in the Cité Bergère was so well furnished that his friends even called it “Olympus”, in reference to the home of Greek gods.
Everything everything everything… for the piano!
Almost all of the works composed by Frédéric Chopin were for the piano. Why this preference? On the one hand, it was because Chopin asserted his musical independence and that other classical or lyrical genres interested him very little (as a composer). “He violated his genius each time he tried to impose rules, classifications, an order that was not his”, commented Franz Liszt.
Since his first years of study at the Warsaw Conservatory, Chopin only had the piano in mind, and he dedicated his whole life to exploring all the possibilities of this instrument. However, these possibilities were more and more numerous, because the 19th century was also the time of the industrial revolution, of new methods of manufacturing, and it was during the romantic period that the piano took its ‘modern’ form.
George Sand: yes, but she was not the only one
The romantic relationship that united Frédéric Chopin and George Sand between 1838 and 1847 was one of the most famous in the history of music. He was a musician, she was a writer. He was a romantic, inspired individual, while she was known for her provocative spirit, masculine outfits, and the cigarettes she ‘dared’ to smoke in public.
But only a few months before meeting George Sand, Chopin had become engaged to Maria Wodzińska, a childhood friend he met during a trip to Dresden. An engagement that could not be more platonic and romantic, was sadly disapproved of by the girl’s parents. From this failed marriage, Chopin kept a handful of letters and a waltz, his famous Valse in A flat major n°1 opus 69, called Farewell.
Frédéric Chopin suffered from poor health for a long time. His lover George Sand took his care to heart, and in November 1838 she convinced him to spend the winter in the Balearic Islands, on the island of Majorca, with her and her two children. But the Mediterranean climate proved to be uncomfortable for the fragile musician: the humidity was suffocating, the rains torrential.
The composer’s cough was so violent that the local population thought he had a lung disease. “From that moment we became an object of horror and dread for the population “, wrote George Sand. The inhabitants feared the contagion, the doctors predicted the imminent death of the composer, and the family was finally forced to end their stay far from everything and everyone, in an old monastery. Chopin was gradually recovering, and at the beginning of 1839, he was back in France.
It was therefore not in Majorca that Chopin would succumb to the disease but ten years later, in 1849, in Paris. He was 39 years old.