Happy Birthday Frédéric Chopin!

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Frédéric François Chopin (22 February 1810 – 17 October 1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist. Chopin grew up in Warsaw, where he was considered a child prodigy from a young age. He would leave Poland in 1830 to settle in Paris as part of Poland's Great Emigration. Though Chopin did not like to play concerts to large audiences, his work was prized and he is considered to be one of the world's greatest Romantic composers. Chopin suffered from terrible health for all of his life and died from tuberculosis at the age of 39. Chopin wrote most of his work for solo piano, but also wrote two concertos. He made vast innovations to the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu, scherzo and prélude styles. Chopin's sound is best remembered for its light, tender and improvised qualities.

Chopin2Frédéric Chopin was born on February 22nd, 1810 although some records claim that he was born on March 1st of that year. His parents were Nicolas Chopin, a lieutenant turned French teacher from Lorraine who moved to Poland and taught children of the Polish aristocracy. Chopin's mother was Justyna Krzyżanowska, a relation of a family that his father worked with. Chopin was born in the small village of Żelazowa Wola and his family moved to Warsaw when Chopin was a baby.

In October of 1810, Chopin's father accepted an offer to teach at the Warsaw Lyceum. The family lived on the grounds of the palace where the lyceum was located. Both of Chopin's parents were musically oriented, his father playing the flute and his mother the piano. Chopin's older sister Ludwika was his first piano teacher and by age six, Chopin was already trying to recreate songs he had heard or make up new ones. Chopin's first professional teacher was a Czech man named Wojciech Żywny. Chopin quickly outgrew his teacher's skills and began performing at concerts aged seven. At this young age, Chopin composed a Polonaise in G-minor and B-flat minor. The music was said to rival that of the great Polish composers at the time and Chopin dedicated his next Polonaise in A-flat major to his teacher.

Ashkenazy plays Chopin Waltz No.19 in A minor, Op.posth.P2 No.11 (BI 150)

Arthur Rubinstein - Frederic Chopin: Waltz No.2 in A Minor

When Chopin was only eleven years old, he performed in the presence of Alexander I, the Tsar of Russia. He was widely praised for his quick learning abilities, fast development and sense of humor. In the 1820s, Chopin attended the Warsaw Lyceum and Warsaw Conservatory. In 1825 he was called the "best pianist in Warsaw". He began to study with composer Józef Elsner, who taught him about music theory and composition. Elsner claimed that Chopin was a musical genius.

Arthur Rubinstein Chopin Concerto no. 2

Martha Argerich Chopin Piano Concerto

Chopin3In 1829, Polish artist Ambroży Mieroszewski painted portraits of the Chopin family. Chopin was sickly-looking, with pale skin and sunken cheeks. He would have bad health for his whole life and two of his family members died from tuberculosis. Nevertheless, his musical ability was praised and compared to that of Mozart and Bach but Chopin was already composing at the age when Mozart, Bach and Beethoven were still apprentices. Chopin's melodies were inspired by his emotions and as a child he was was said to weep with feeling whenever he heard his mother play piano.

Chopin decided to set out and see more of the world at eighteen. With his friend, Chopin headed to Berlin. There, he attended many concerts and composed a Polonaise for Prince Antoni Radziwił and his daughter. After graduating from school, Chopin made a successful debut in Vienna. He performed several more concerts in Warsaw before heading to Austria in 1830, just before the November Uprising. His friends saw him off, making him take with him a silver cup with soil from his land. Alone in Vienna, Chopin became nostalgic for his homeland. He was furious when the uprising was crushed and expressed his fear and frustration through music, namely in his Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20 and "Revolutionary Étude", in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12. He reached Paris in 1831 and would remain there for many years.

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Chopin's half-note signature

Arthur Rubinstein - Chopin Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 in E flat

Sviatoslav Richter plays Chopin Nocturne E Minor, Op. 72, #1

In 1832, Chopin gave his Paris debut which was well acclaimed and he was introduced to artists, celebrities and families of great wealth. He made a decent living for himself teaching piano and preferred playing in small Salons and friends' living rooms than in great concert halls. Chopin played in a small number of public concerts within a musical scene inhabited by other renowned composers such as Franz Liszt and Ferdinand Hiller.

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Chopin plays piano in Radziwiłł's Berlin salon at Palais Radziwill, 1887

Arthur Rubinstein Plays Chopin, 1950

Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Etudes (Moscow, 1 Oct 1964)

In 1836, Chopin was introduced to French author George Sand. At first, he was repulsed by her essence but later learned that she was infatuated with him. The two were in a relationship by 1838. The couple traveled to Majorca that winter, accompanied by Sand's children and hopes to boost Chopin's bad health. Chopin completed many works during this period. However, the local doctors were not very helpful and his health did not improve. The couple moved in together in Sand's Paris apartment and spent summers in Nohant. In this small French town, Chopin composed his most famous Polonaise: Op. 53, the "Heroic". Over the next few years Chopin's health disintegrated and Sand was forced to look after him. She grew frustrated with her duty as a nurse but tried her best. The two eventually parted ways after a ten year relationship.

Heroic Polonaise Op. 53 by Arthur Rubinstein

Horowitz plays Chopin Mazurka

Chopin6Chopin spent his remaining few years with student Jane Stirling in her castle in Scotland. He performed in a benefit for Polish refugees in London and started writing his will. He dearly longed for his childhood and  family, eventually making the choice to move back to Paris. Chopin's sister and his friends stayed with him and were present for his eventual death on October 17th, 1849. Many notable artists and musicians gathered at his funeral in Paris and Mozart's Requiem was performed by Jeanne-Anais Castellan, Pauline Viardot, Alexis Dupont and Luigi Lablache. George Sand was not present but her daughter and son-in-law made Chopin's death mask and cast of his left hand. Chopin's heart was removed from his body and preserved in alcohol. It would later be buried in a pillar of the Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście. The words "for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," were inscribed above.

Martha Argerich, Mazurka Op 59 No 1, Chopin Competition 1965

Ivo Pogorelich Plays Chopin Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35

The life and work of Chopin was remembered and memorialized in many ways. Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov wrote a symphonic poem for Chopin's centenary. A bronze statue of Chopin was built in Warsaw and the house where his family lived, turned into a museum. A replica of the statue can be found in Hamamatsu, Japan and a bust of Chopin in Buffalo, New York. The International Chopin Piano Competition is held every five years in Warsaw. His music was published in Germany, France and England and his music was celebrated in a BBC documentary in 2010. He is remembered as one of the greatest composers of all time and, as described by Sand, a man who was "more Polish than Poland".

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Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Saturday, 22 February 2014
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