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Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin


The popular image of Fryderyk Chopin as a consumptive invalid does him a disservice. He was a man of paradoxes: a Polish nationalist who lived out his days in exile in France; a musician who hated giving public concerts; a composer whose piano works were replete with the influence of bel canto opera, and whose idols in the early Romantic era were Bach and Mozart. Lavishly melodic yet classically restrained, visionary in imagination yet tautly constructed, his was one of the most individual musical voices of his era.  Born at Żelazowa Wola, in the Duchy of Warsaw, Chopin was son of a Polish mother. His father, Nicolas (or Mikolaj) Chopin was born in France, having moved to Poland in his youth. A strong patriot, Chopin sometimes said that he wished his name could have been Chopinski. His first composition was a Polonaise – the classic Polish slow dance – while his last would be another Polish dance, a Mazurka. Chopin fell in love with a young soprano Konstantja Gladkowska while studying with Jozef Elsner in Warsaw, and regularly attended the Warsaw Opera to hear her sing. It was here, perhaps inadvertently, that he became steeped in the sounds of bel canto. He also began to work on music for piano and orchestra that could become a vehicle for his abilities at the piano: two concertos (the one known as No.2 was in fact written first) as well as a Fantasia on Polish Folksongs, a Krakowiak, and Variations on ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Further studies took him to Vienna, and tours well beyond. When the Polish Uprising took place in November 1830 he was away, and after some soul-searching he resolved not to return to Warsaw. The following year he settled in Paris, where he soon found himself in demand both socially and as a superb teacher, not only to the children of wealthy patrons but also to budding professional musicians and accomplished amateurs. Their accounts of him include first-hand descriptions of his playing and his very particular approach to such matters as rubato, rhythm and beauty of tone. Chopin struck up friendships in both aristocratic and artistic circles, the latter notably with the painter Eugène Delacroix, the composers Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn, and above all the writer George Sand, a divorcée whose real name was Aurore Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant. His liaison with her lasted a decade. Chopin’s ill health, perfectionism, tetchiness and fondness for barbed sarcasm cannot have made him easy to live with. Sand once described him as her ‘third child’ and her portrait of him as Prince Karol in her novel Lucrezia Floriani is often less than complimentary. The pair spent a disastrous winter in Majorca (1838–39), where terrible weather and accommodation, plus the hostility of the locals, worsened Chopin’s health instead of improving it. Still, the experience bore fruit in the form of some of his Preludes op.28, two Polonaises and his Scherzo no.3. Under Sand’s care Chopin’s creativity was free to flower. He wrote some of his finest works during summers at her country estate, Nohant, including his magnificent Sonata no.3 in B minor, his most substantial solo work. There, too, he would improvise for their many guests. Chopin disliked giving public concerts in full-scale halls, but performed constantly in salon soirées for intimate groups of friends and admirers. His skill at improvisation was legendary. Many of his compositions would have started life in such moments of spontaneity at the keyboard. Chopin eventually split with Sand after a family feud over the marriage of her daughter, Solange, to the young sculptor August Clésinger. Sand disapproved, while Chopin took Solange’s side. After the break-up, Chopin’s life was never quite the same. During his two last years, he depended still more on his teaching, though worsening health made this ever harder. A Scottish pupil, Jane Stirling, persuaded him to visit Britain, and in London he gave his last public concert: a special event to raise money for Polish refugees. He died in Paris aged only 39. Chopin left a tremendous impact on piano music, not only among contemporaries such as Liszt and Schumann, but for decades to follow. Like Liszt, Chopin extended the demands placed on performer and instrument alike. Developments in piano manufacture meant that he was able to push the boundaries not just of the instrument’s power, but more importantly to create a wider range of colour, resonance and softness. He rarely sought display for the sake of it. His evocative, intensely imaginative style was a vital influence on such composers as diverse as Fauré, Debussy, Scriabin, Szymanowski and Rachmaninov.

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