Classical Composer Biography: Frederic Chopin
by Betty Fry
As my source of inspiration today, I have chosen Frederic Chopin’s Nocturn in E flat major, Opus 9, No 2, composed when he was barely out of his teens, and is perhaps my favourite. I say ‘perhaps’ advisedy because, as on many occasions, it seems so at the time of playing. It is a lovely piece of music.
‘Nocturne’ means ‘night piece’, or music that is quiet and pensive in mood. The long melody of this piece unfolds into a mood of dreamy contemplation. Towards the end Chopin adds some wonderfully decorative pieces which to me suggests the shimmer of moonlight; and then the piece ends as quietly and serenely as it began.
This patriotic Polish composer was in fact half French and left Poland at the age of 20 never to return.. He composed most of his music in France, where he established his legendary reputation as a virtuoso performer.
The second of four children of French born Nicholas Chopin and his Polish wife Justina, Frederic was born in Warsaw, Poland on the 1st March, 1810, and became a child prodigy. His Polonaise in G was published in 1817, and a year later, at the age of eight, his brilliant piano technique captivated Warsaw’s society audiences.
Wisely his father buttressed this natural talent with a sound education at the Warsaw Lyceum for general studies, and the Warsaw Conservatoire for composition.
But teaching Frederic was not easy. He had a vivacious and determined personality, and much preferred to do his own thing at the keyboard. So that even though the young musician continued to have a variety of music teachers throughout his youth, he was practically self taught.
Frederic continued his music studies at High School, but often gave concerts and was presented with gifts for his performances, including a gold watch and a diamond ring from the Tsar of Russia.
In 1826 after passing his final school exams, Chopin then went to the Conservatory where he received a very comprehensive music education. He graduated with distinction and almost immediately left Warsaw for Vienna where the public was especially impressed with his brilliant performances at the piano.
Chopin gave his fist concert in Paris in February 1832, and from then on he was one of the most well known musical figures in France. He also became one of the most popular and highly paid of piano teachers.
In 1836 Chopin fell in love with a 16 year old pianist called Maria Wodzinska. They became engaged, but Chopin fell desperately ill with a bronchial infection and the marriage plans had to be shelved.
Later that same year Chopin met the novelist George Sand when she asked Liszt to bring Chopin to see her. They did not hit it off immediately but by 1938 they were madly in love.
This extraordinary woman’s real name was Aurore Dudevant, and her choice of a male pseudonym, combined with her numerous affairs with famous men, made her a figure of world wide interest and notoriety. In fact she was almost motherly in her relationship with Chopin, which began in 1938.
That year, in an effort to overcome the tuberculous which probably developed as a result of the bronchial infection he had suffered some months before, Chopin took George Sand and her two children to Majorca to live. But the disease was to plague him for the rest of his life.
Chopin completed most of his celebrated 24 ‘Preludes’ for piano, including the ‘Raindrop’ while staying on the island. This particular prelude, which is yet another of my favourites, reflects his happiness at being with his mistress, but also his melancholy as his illness continued to progress.
The raindrop effect of a softly repeated note adding a sadness to an otherwise tranquil opening melody, presently pervades the music more strongly, and climaxes in an apparent downpour before the initial calm returns.
Chopin became very ill while they were on the island and told of how he was visited by a series of local doctors, recalling that ‘The first said I was dead, the second that I am dying; and the third that I am going to die – but I feel the same as always’.
But fearful of infection, the local people refused to rent him anywhere to live, so he moved with his lover and her children to the deserted monastery of Valldemosa, where the last of his preludes were finished.
Some suggested that the ‘Raindrop’ prelude was given the name because he had been inspired by the sound of raindrops on the monastery roof, but Chopin always denied that this was the case.
However although summer in Majorca was good for his health, winter was not so agreeable, and the couple returned to the comforts of Paris and of George Sand’s country home at Nohant.
For ten years Chopin lived there in elegant seclusion, teaching and composing. But the great romance faded into friendship, and when the Revolution came in 1848 Chopin fled to England.
Though desperately ill he was forced to give public recitals to earn a living, but in 1849 he returned to Paris, where he succumbed to the sickness that had plagued him for so many years.
Now I am listening to Chopin’s prelude in E minor, Opus 28, No.4, which clearly derives from a melancholy train of thought. Its sad slow melody unfolds above the heavy desolate plod of accompanying chords.
For this reason it transcribed easily for organ, and was eminently suitable music for a funeral. As such it was played during his own funeral service in the Madeleine Church, Paris in October 1849, together with music from Mozart’s Requim.
Watching and listening from whatever vantage point his spirit might now have had, this fact alone, apart from the release from his suffering, must have been very pleasing.
But he did have moments of sheer joy when he composed solo piano music for 52 Mazurkas. These are the traditional dances of Poland, and though usually in a medium paced form, Chopin’s Mazurka’s were often much faster.
No other great composer concentrated so exclusively on one instrument as Chopin did on the piano. Moreover, most of his output for the piano was confined to relatively short pieces.
But within these limits, Chopin poured out a steady stream of wonderful inspired music – passionate, stormy, happy, sad, dreamily reflective, and rich in melody. At the same time, his music is always perfectly judged in terms of form and technical style.
Two things shaped the course of music through the Romantic Period of the 19th century. One was the growth of the orchestra. The other the development of the piano into an instrument whose variety of tone set it apart from the harpsichord, and which began to resemble today’s concert grand.
Many composers of the period, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Liszt, regarded the piano as their favourite instrument. But nobody understood it better than Chopin. He could make the piano sound more truly romantic and poetic than anybody else. He also wrote for it more sympathetically than any other composer.
As a man, he may not have been as passionate, as revolutionary, or even as romantic as Hollywood would have us believe. But all these qualities, and more, are to be found in his music, the richest and most influential legacy to be left to the piano repertoire by any one composer in the history of music.