Frederic Chopin propelled the Romantic Era to its fullest heights. Even though his music is some of the most technically demanding ever written for the piano, he is known more for his nuance, his expressive depth and his ability to conjure up the melody of the human voice from the instrument’s keys. For this sublime blend of skill and artistry, he has been called the Poet of the Piano.
Robert Schumann described Chopin’s music as a “cannon buried in flowers,” and in reviewing his musical contemporary in 1831 proclaimed, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” This appreciation has born the test of time; today even the most musically challenged can often recognize the distinct melody of a Chopin composition.
The composer was born in 1810 in the village of Zelazowa Wola, not far from Warsaw. His family was not well off, but they had a strong appreciation for music. Chopin’s mother could hold her own on the piano, and his father played haunting melodies on the violin and flute. Their son’s gift was there from the start; as a baby, Chopin is said to have been moved to tears by his mother’s singing.
Chopin started playing piano at age 5 under the tutelage of his sister, Ludwika, and was a dedicated student. He even slept with wine corks between his fingers because he was told it might help him achieve a wider span on the piano. By the age of 7, he played his first public concert, for a Russian prince. News of the child prodigy spread quickly; his first compositions were published in a Warsaw newspaper, and he was famous outside Poland by the time he was 15.
Chopin’s first teacher was a man named Wojciech Zywny. Later he studied under Josef Elsner, at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music. Elsner introduced Chopin to the classics: John Field’s nocturnes, Bach’s preludes and fugues, and the works of Clementi, Mozart and Beethoven. But Elsner also recognized Chopin’s unique talents and encouraged the young composer to explore his creative sensibilities rather than forcing him to conform to established piano techniques.
At 20, Chopin left Warsaw to perform across Europe. He fell in love with Paris and decided to settle there when Warsaw fell to the Russians in 1831. Though Chopin never returned to his war-torn homeland, patriotic melodies crept into some of his compositions, and many reflect the early influence of Polish folk music.
He wrote almost exclusively for the piano and drew inspiration from the Irish compositions of Field and, most remarkably, from the operas of Vincenzo Bellini. Chopin infused his music with lyricism and traces of Bellini’s bel canto style.
The young composer quickly captivated a circle of Paris’s elite. He chose the city’s smaller salons over the grand concert halls, and he made a living in part by teaching piano to children of the rich.
In 1837, at the age of 27, Chopin fell in love with Aurore Dudevant, the French novelist who wrote under the pseudonym George Sand. Dudevant was a fiery intellectual who had fled an unhappy marriage, and her novels made her a celebrity in the name of women’s freedom and sensuality. The two artists had a stormy relationship, and Chopin’s star power kept the newspapers filled with gossip about their life.
“He would lock himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, pacing back and forth, breaking his pens, repeating or changing one bar a hundred times, writing and erasing as many times, and beginning again the next day with an infinite and desperate perseverance,” wrote Dudevant of her lover. “He sometimes spent six weeks on one page, only in the end to write it exactly as he had sketched at the first draft.”
The two lived together for nine years. Their illustrious friends -- Hugo, Balzac, Liszt, Berlioz, Schumann, Dumas and Delacroix, among others -- shared their artistic and intellectual intensity.
In 1838, Chopin became ill with tuberculosis. Dudevant cared for him in Paris and at her estate in central France. Despite his health, Chopin was musically productive, perhaps in bittersweet appreciation of his fleeting life. He continued to work through his fevers and poured the pain of illness and war into his music.
“After playing Chopin,” said Oscar Wilde in 1891, “I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”
By 1847, Chopin’s relationship with Dudevant had frayed irreparably. Chopin, said to be heartbroken by the breakup, became too sick to work. He died suddenly on October 17, 1849, at the age of 39. Dudevant was scorned after his death, said to have been responsible for a “black love” that eventually killed him.
Chopin’s body was buried at the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Legend has it that not a day goes by without fresh flowers being placed on his grave. And although his body remained in Paris, at Chopin’s own request -- and in testament to the musician’s unwavering loyalty to his homeland -- his heart was dispatched to Poland. It is sealed in a pillar in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. It also lives on in spirit, palpably present in the hundreds of compositions Chopin left to the world.
Sources: Chopin Society; Piano Society; Infoplease; Chopin Foundation; Wikipedia (a free-content encyclopedia that it is written collaboratively by people from around the world).