born March 1, 1810; died 1:58 am, October 17, 1849
Frederic Chopin - the Poet of the Piano
"Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars.
Beethoven infuses the universe with the power of his spirit. I do not climb so high.
A long time ago, I decided my universe would be the soul and heart of man."
- Frederic Chopin
Chopin was born of a French father and Polish mother. He lived the second half of his life in Paris, but his heart and soul were always
with Poland. His passion for music showed itself early - even at age 3 he would cry whenever he heard it. His mother, an amateur
pianist, gave him lessons.
His later piano teachers recognized the boy's genius and did not force the conventional methods of
that time upon him. They let him develop according to his unique soul, freeing Chopin to become the great artist that he was.
Robert Schumann described Chopin's music as "cannons buried in flowers."
Prodigy to Teenage Master
Chopin was incredibly gifted at an early age. At age 7 he wrote his first composition and gave his first public recital to
tremendous acclaim. He continued studying piano and composition at the Warsaw Lyceum and gave a succession of concerts that
made him the toast of Warsaw. He wrote many of his great works before his twentith year.
At a comparable age, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven had still been apprentices, while Chopin at age nineteen was already
perceived by peers and audiences to be a Grand Master.
In the autumn of 1826, Chopin began a three-year course of studies at the Warsaw Conservatory under Józef Elsner. Chopin studied
music theory, figured bass, and composition. He was allowed to mature in Elsner's words, "according to the laws of his own nature."
The Fraile Genius
In 1831 Chopin moved to Paris, where he spent his time performing and teaching piano. It was there that he met Amandine Aurore
Lucille Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant, better known by her literary pseudonym, George Sand. The two spent summers at the Baroness' country
home in Nohant, where Chopin composed some of his greatest music.
After their eight-year friendship ended in 1847, Chopin was never the same. He died less than two years later. The cause was
thought to be tuberculosis, although the autopsy stated "cause unknown." His close friends; however, suspected that he had died of a
Chopin's physical strength was limited not only by his delicate physique, but by his battle with tuberculosis. As a result, many who
heard him perform in public auditoriums complained that his tone was almost inaudible. Yet genius that he was, he found a way to handle
and transcend his limitations. He devised a tonal palette scaled down to the softest sound possible, increasing to a mezzo forte
that sounded like a fortissimo by way of contrast.
A word used to describe the playing of Chopin's music is "rubato". It comes from the Italian robare, to rob,
but in music it means "give and take." If you steal a little time here, you give it back. In playing a melodic phrase,
if you go forward in the first two bars, you pull back in the next two so that the freedom you took does not break the rhythmical
The classic feeling comes from the left hand, which Chopin played as evenly as possible. The right hand plays as freely
as the left hand will allow. Every performer uses that freedom differently, and that is the beauty of the "disciplined freedom"
that makes Chopin's music so unique.
In 39 brief years, Chopin composed over 180 works for piano, including three piano sonatas and two concertos.
Chopin's mastery of the piano shows itself in that so many of his works are counted as among the greatest music ever written.
His 24 études - which are technically challenging exercises - are transformed into beautiful music by Chopin's genius.
The ballade, full of dramatic intensity, mainly inspired by Polish epic poems, was a new musical form invented by Chopin. He
converted the scherzo, originally a musical jest, into a work of a completely different nature.
"How is gravity to clothe itself if humor wears such dark veils?" Robert Schumann once observed of Chopin's scherzos.
Chopin transformed the polonaise, a dance that predated him, into works that are centerpieces of the piano repertoire today.
Many later composers freely borrowed melodies from Chopin and these ended up in popular tunes of the twentieth
century - a testament to the genius of the great Chopin.
Freed From Earthly Bonds
Like the man, Chopin's music was a mystery. Nothing like it had ever been heard before, nor has it been since.
His friend Franz Liszt introduced Chopin to friends with words that captured that otherworldly quality,
"I want you to meet a man who comes from another planet."
Chopin was born just as the Romantic Period started - he was one of its initiators. But in his outlook he also harked back
to the Classical Period of Bach, Hyden and Mozart whom he loved. He blended classical restraint with Romantic feeling, detesting
any exaggeration that would turn sentiment into sentimentality.
In a letter written a year before he died, Chopin describes this strange occurrence:
A strange adventure happened to me while I was playing my B-flat Sonata for some English friends. I had played the Allegro and the
Scherzo more or less correctly and I was about to play the March when, suddenly, I saw emerging from the half-open case of my piano those
cursed creatures that had appeared to me on a lugubrious night at the Carthusian monastery. I had to leave for a while in order to recover
myself, and after that I continued playing without saying a word.
Lyrics to a song written by Chopin, "Smutna rzeska" ("Sad River")
River, flowing from the mountains; tell me why your waters are swollen.
Is the snow thawing and flooding your banks?
The snow lies unmelted in the hills, and flowers hold my banks firm.
At my source sits a mother, sorrowful and weeping.
Seven daughters she bore and loved; and seven now lie buried.
In death they know not night nor day; they lie, facing east.
Waiting in pain by their grave, she tells her sorrow to their spirits.
And her unceasing tears flow, swelling my waters to a flood.
To play Chopin's music as he felt it - as we learn from his writings - is to free it of all earthly bonds. As artists, that is our challenge.