If the mighty autocratic monarch of the north knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in Chopin’s works, in the simple tunes of his mazurkas, he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are cannons buried in flowers.- Robert Schumann
Collage by Elliott Nguyen
Twenty-year-old Chopin found himself stranded in Paris after a coming-of-age tour gone wrong. Unable to return home due to political unrest in Warsaw, the talented young musician faced the earliest chapter in his professional life without a clear plan for the future. Amid the dizzying swirl of Parisian life, Chopin gathered introductions among the Polish aristocracy, and sensing French sympathy for Poland's plight, he enchanted audiences with distinct Polish forms like the mazurka and polonaise. His boldly original compositions placed Polish culture incontestably within a larger European sphere and were a vital lifeline for expatriate Poles who, like Chopin himself, could never return home.
Henri Lehmann, 1839
Auguste Charpentier, 1833
Young Berlioz, Émile Signol, 1832.
FRANZ LISZT: Chopin’s close friend and occasional rival Franz Liszt was a Hungarian piano virtuoso and composer. Famous not only for his brilliant piano playing but also his good looks, his celebrity resulted in “Lisztomania,” the first instance of “fan-girling” in a tradition that later extended to The Beatles and Justin Bieber. Liszt’s admirers would collect his clothing, broken piano strings and even locks of hair - their hysteria was so extreme that “Lisztomania” was considered an actual contagious medical condition. “Lisztomania” likely originated from the way that Liszt performed - he made solo piano recitals into captivating, dramatic shows, and inspired many of our modern day performance practices. Through Liszt’s social circles, Chopin met the writer George Sand, with whom he would have a hugely famous affair.
GEORGE SAND: George Sand (pseudonymous name for French writer and protofeminist Aurore Dupin) achieved notoriety for her refusal to live within the confines of expected women’s behavior in the nineteenth century. Entertained by scandal, when asked if she had multiple lovers, she replied, “Four lovers are none too many for one with such lively passions as mine.” After leaving her husband in 1831, she wrote for the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro, haunting the streets at night dressed in men's clothing and smoking copious amounts of tobacco. Sand entered Chopin’s life at a party thrown by Liszt’s mistress, the Countess d’Agoult. Even though their affair lasted nine years (1838-1847), Chopin’s poor health caused a rift between the two. While Sand cherished the care taking role, Chopin resented that she was more a nurse than a lover. They severed ties after she used their relationship as fodder for her novel Lucrezia Floriani, in which an actress takes care of a sickly prince. Despite their history together, when Chopin died, Sand did not attend his funeral.
EUGÈNE DELACROIX: Eugène Delacroix, a French painter whose art influenced Impressionism, lived within the same social circles as Chopin and Sand. Although Chopin didn’t seem to show much interest in Delacroix’s art - years after the composer's death, Sand would comment that Chopin "could not understand painting or sculpture at all" - Delacroix cherished his discussions of music with Chopin even though the composer was notoriously hesitant to talk about it. They found another shared interest in clothing, together cultivating an appearance that could really only be described as “dandy” fashion. Just as Chopin insisted on wearing a particular shade of lilac kid gloves from a specific Parisian boutique, Delacroix was extremely particular as to how he rendered clothes in his portraits - unfailingly matched, unquestionably dapper.
HECTOR BERLIOZ: If two composers could be any different, it would be Chopin and Berlioz. Chopin, the reserved child prodigy who avoided performing in public concerts , found an unlikely acquaintance in the passionately wild Frenchman who gave us the Symphonie Fantastique. Though the two composers were not especially close, Chopin did participate in Berlioz’s 1834 benefit concert for the actress Harriet Smithson (who would become Berlioz's wife), stealing the show when his music was praised more than the host’s himself.
Concerto no. 1: Recording by Martha Argerich - Full Concerto Info
Concerto no. 2: Recording by Martha Argerich - Full Concerto Info
CONCERTOS: Chopin wrote just two concertos, both for the piano. Concertos feature an instrument accompanied by an ensemble, usually an orchestra. Both of Chopin’s piano concertos were written and published in 1830 just before the composer left Warsaw for his coming-of-age tour, which began in Vienna. Interestingly, what is now titled the Second Piano Concerto was actually written first! Chopin wrote it before he finished school, and premiered it (in E minor, as soloist in March 1830). It premiered during one of Chopin’s “farewell” concerts in October, the same year he left Poland for his professional debut. These pieces are especially noteworthy because they represent a small collection of music that Chopin did not devote to piano composition alone.
Mazurka Op. 63 No. 3: Recording by Arthur Rubinstein - Full Mazurka Info
Mazurka Op. 68 No. 2: Recording by Arthur Rubinstein - Full Mazurka Info
MAZURKAS: Chopin wrote over 50 of these traditional Polish dances during his lifetime. They tend to be in triple meter, with an accented second or third beat. This trademark syncopation distinguishes mazurkas from other dances such as the waltz. Chopin’s highly personal interpretations of the Polish mazurka have been described as national music and confused as representative of authentic Polish folk music. While the term “folk” evokes images of a rural countryside, Chopin grew up in the city of Warsaw and was thus more likely inspired by the urban stylizations of Polish dances than an authentic and autochthonous folk music tradition.
Waltz Op. 69 No. 2 in B minor: Recording by Vladimir Ashkenazy - Full Waltz Info
Waltz Op. 64 No. 2 in C# minor: Recording by Arthur Rubinstein - Full Waltz Info
WALTZES: These pieces in triple meter were originally dances for the ballroom, but Chopin retooled waltzes for the concert hall. There are around twenty published waltzes, including ones published posthumously, but the actual number of waltzes that Chopin composed is more than thirty. One of the most popular waltzes, known as the Minute Waltz (1847), is also known as The Little Dog Waltz. The dog in question may have been Marquis, a puppy who belonged to Chopin’s lover George Sand, and who Chopin mentions in a letter to Sand dated November 25, 1846: “Please thank Marquis for missing me and for sniffing at my door.”
Nocturne Op. 27 No. 2: Recording by Arthur Rubinstein - Full Nocturne Info
Nocturne Op. 48 No. 1: Recording by Maria João Pires - Full Nocturne Info
NOCTURNES: Chopin wrote 21 of these song-like solo piano pieces after having been inspired by Irish composer John Field’s nocturnes. Ironically, Field thought rather poorly of Chopin, describing him as a “sickroom talent.” Some of the most important aspects of the nocturne are the vocal role of the right hand melody, extensive use of “rubato,” or tempo fluctuation, and a lot of sustain pedal, which all combine to create a dream-like atmosphere. The nocturnes made a lasting impact on romantic period piano composition, and this genre was later used by composers like Gabriel Fauré and Alexander Scriabin.
Ballade Op. 38 No. 2: Recording by Evgeny Kissin - Full Ballade Info
Ballade Op. 23 No. 1: Recording by Krystian Zimerman - Full Ballade Info
BALLADES: Although Chopin only wrote four of these pieces, they endure as some of the most dramatic and distinctive pieces in the solo piano repertoire. The ballade as a musical form is Chopin’s invention, but it has been suggested that poet Adam Mickiewicz’s Ballady may have influenced Chopin in writing his ballades. Composers who later adopted the ballade form include Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt.
Polonaise Op. 44: Recording by Janusz Olejniczak - Full Polonaise Info
Polonaise Op. 53: Recording by Vladimir Horowitz - Full Polonaise Info
POLONAISES: The polonaises have the special distinction of not all being written for solo piano - the Introduction and Polonaise brillante (Op. 3) was written for cello and piano, and the Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante is for piano and orchestra. Chopin wrote his first of at least 23 polonaises when he was seven years old, and continued writing them well into his adulthood. However, out of all of the known polonaises, only seven were published in his lifetime. The rest were published after his death or lost. “Polonaise” is the French word for “Polish” and also refers to a type of Polish dance in triple meter. Though it had roots as a peasant dance, it became popular with the nobility by the 19th century.
Prelude Op. 28 No. 15: Recording by Tatiana Shebanova - Full Prelude Info
Prelude Op. 28 No. 20: Recording by Tatiana Shebanova - Full Prelude Info
PRELUDES: Just as J.S. Bach composed a set of Preludes and Fugues for every key, Chopin wrote 24 Preludes, one in each of the 24 major and minor keys. Composed during a disastrous winter sojourn that Chopin shared with George Sand and her children on the Spanish island of Majorca, the preludes of op. 28 are among Chopin's most fascinating creations. Extremely diverse, fleeting and at times bizarre, these miniature works do not serve as preludes to anything in particular. As such they depart radically from the convention of attaching preludes to another musical movement or piece. Upon hearing Chopin's preludes, the composer Robert Schumann wrote, "I would term the preludes strange…they are sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle wings, all disorder and wild confusion."
Etude Op. 10 No. 5: Recording by Murray Perahia - Full Etude Info
Etude Op. 10 No. 12: Recording by Murray Perahia - Full Etude Info
ETUDES: Chopin began composing Etudes during his teens, and wrote a total of 27 over the course of his life. “Étude” means “exercise” in French. Musical compositions so titled by composers like Muzio Clementi and Carl Czerny were practice pieces intended to improve a student’s musicianship. As with other genres such as the Ballades, Nocturnes and Preludes, Chopin defied convention by composing Etudes that remain some of the most challenging works in the piano repertoire.
“Chopin was the only political pianist. He incarnated Poland, he set Poland to music!”- Wilhelm von Lenz, student of Chopin
Fryderyk after hours postcard, Agata Dudek, 2010
Chopin's parents, Justyna and Mikołaj
Translation: Chopin is a Varsovian ('From Warsaw'), Michał Kasprzyk, 2010
Portrait of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand, Eugène Delacroix, 1838. Unfinished, later cut in two and sold as separate pieces.
200-Year Anniversary of Chopin, Poster, 2010
Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs 1829, Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887
Fryderyk come back!, Iza Koniarz, 2010
March 1, 1810
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin is born, the second child of four. His father, Mikołaj, a sixteen-year-old Frenchman who moves to Warsaw in 1787 in search of employment opportunities, will never return to France for fear of being conscripted into the army in the aftermath of the French Revolution. While employed as a French teacher to Count Fryderyk Skarbek's children, Mikolaj meets Justyna Krzyżanowska, who also works for the Skarbeks. He and Justyna remain married for 38 years.
The Skarbeks fall into debt and Mikołaj Chopin moves his family to Warsaw after finding a job teaching French and literature at the Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk is surrounded by music early on in his life -- Mikołaj plays the flute and violin, and Justyna plays the piano. Even though Mikołaj teaches French, he considers himself a Pole through and through, and insists on using Polish in the Chopin household.
Young Fryderyk gets piano lessons from his first teacher, Wojciech Żywny. In 1817, Chopin composes his first pieces at the age of seven: two polonaises, in B-flat Major and G Minor. In 1821, his Polonaise in A-flat Major is dedicated to Żywny as a name-date gift. That same year, Żywny insists that Chopin find a new teacher, when his student surpasses his own abilities.
Chopin begins a three year course of instruction at Warsaw Conservatory, studying under Józef Elsner. He begins to compose and perform in earnest. After completing his studies in 1829, the same year that both piano concertos are composed, Chopin embarks on a European tour that begins in Vienna.
The Polish uprising in Warsaw against Russian Imperial forces occupying the capital compels Chopin’s dear friend and travel companion, Tytus Woyciechowski, to return to Poland to enlist. By October 1831, overwhelmed by the sheer number of Russian troops, Polish combatants surrender and once again Polish territory is declared a part of Russia. During autumn of 1831, Chopin travels alone from Vienna to Paris, deeply nostalgic for his homeland and frustrated by the failure of the November 1830 Uprising. He will never return to Poland.
Chopin’s life in Paris as a composer and performer begins. He calls on introductions to prominent exiled Polish aristocratic families, who in turn introduce him to the French aristocracy. In their salons his intimate piano playing has an ideal venue. He prefers playing among such private gatherings to giving public concerts. As he becomes well known among Parisian social circles, Chopin becomes financially independent through teaching piano and publishing compositions, and no longer needs to perform as often publicly. During his lifetime, Chopin would perform only some thirty public concerts.
Chopin becomes acquainted with the composers Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Ferdinand Hiller, among others, during his time in Paris. During a trip to Düsseldorf, Germany, he meets Felix Mendelssohn, and in Leipzig, he meets Clara and Robert Schumann, who have high regards for him as a musician. In 1836, Chopin proposes to Maria Wodzínska, a young Polish woman who studied composition with John Field. Her mother, Countess Theresa Wodzínska, approves of the marriage based on Chopin’s fame and popularity, but her father, the Count Wincenty, finds Chopin’s poor health to be troublesome. The same year, Chopin meets Aurore Dupin, penname George Sand. Although they are not immediately attracted to each other, by the end of June 1838 they begin a romantic relationship.
November 8, 1838
Sand and Chopin, along with her children, attempt to vacation on the Spanish island of Majorca, but they fail to find hospitable accommodations when the Catholic villagers find out that they are not married and additionally fear contagion from Chopin. The composer's poor health is exacerbated by unusually bad weather, forcing them to leave earlier than planned, in February 1839. Sand and Chopin choose not to live together permanently; in 1842, they move to adjacent buildings in the Square d’Orléans in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.
1842 - 1849
Chopin’s health is in decline. As his compositional output shrinks and he teaches less, he struggles financially. After Sand and Chopin break ties in 1847, they never see each other again. His last concert takes place in London’s Guildhall on November 16, 1848, for the benefit of Polish refugees of the political revolutions.
October 17, 1849
Chopin passes away in the early morning. He has requested his body to be opened after death, to ensure that he is not buried alive and so that his heart may be removed and returned to Warsaw. (Its relic rests in the Holy Cross Church located on Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares.) His cause of death is determined to be tuberculosis, though today there is some speculation that he may have died from cystic fibrosis, a disease not yet discovered in 1849. Chopin's funeral takes place in Paris two weeks later, on October 30. More than 3,000 people attend the service at the Church of the Madeleine and follow his funeral procession to the Père Lachaise Cemetery. He lays buried there in the company of Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, and Jim Morrison.