What would the piano playing world do
without the music of Frederic Chopin?
We can hardly think of the piano without thinking of Chopin, since he
almost exclusively for the universal instrument. His music touches the
heart always rather than the head, the emotional message far outweighs
intellectual meaning. It is vital music—love music, winning the heart
by its tenderness, voicing the highest sentiments by its refinement,
purity, its perfection of detail and finish.
And the man who could compose with such
refinement, with such appealing
eloquence, must have possessed those qualities which shine out in his
music. He must have been gentle, chivalrous, high-thoughted. We cannot
avoid expressing ourselves in our work—in whatever we do.
The father of this beloved composer was
a Frenchman, born in Nancy,
Lorraine, in 1770, the same year Beethoven saw the light in Bonn. He
carefully brought up, well-bred and well-educated. When a friend of his
Warsaw, Poland, in the tobacco and snuff trade, then in high repute
with the nobility, needed help with his book-keeping, he sent for the
seventeen-year-old lad. Thus it happened that Nicholas Chopin came to
Warsaw in 1787. It was a time of unrest, when the nation was struggling
for liberty and independence. The young man applied himself to master
language, and study the character and needs of his adopted country,
he might be well informed. During the period of insecurity in political
affairs, the tobacco factory had to be closed and Nicholas Chopin
for other activity. A few years later we find him in the household of
Countess Skarbek, as a tutor to her son, Frederic. Here he met his
Justina de Krzyzanowska, a young lady of noble but poor family, whom he
married in 1806. She became the mother of his four children, three
and a boy.
The boy Frederic Chopin, was born on
March 1, 1809, in the little
of Zelazowa Wola, belonging to the Countess Skarbek, about twenty-eight
miles from Warsaw. It is probable the family did not remain here long,
the young husband was on the lookout for more profitable employment. He
successful, for on October 1, 1810, he was appointed Professor of
in the newly founded Lyceum in Warsaw. He also soon organized a
school for boys in his own home, which was patronized by the best
families of the country.
Surrounded by refined, cultivated
people, in an atmosphere at once
and intellectual, little Frederic passed a fortunate childhood. He soon
manifested such fondness for music, especially for the piano, that his
parents allowed him to have lessons, his teacher being Adalbert Zywny,
best-known master of the city. It is related that Zywny only taught
his little pupil first principles, for the child's progress was so
extraordinary that before long he had mastered all his teacher could
impart, and at twelve he was left to shape his own musical destiny.
He early gave proofs of his talents.
Before he was eight years old he
played at a large evening company, with such surprising cleverness that
was predicted he would become another Mozart. The next year he was
to take part in a large concert given under distinguished patronage.
boy was a simple, modest child, and played the piano as the bird sings,
with unconscious art. When he returned home after this concert, his
asked: "What did the people like best?" and he answered naïvely:
every one was looking at my collar."
After this, little Frederic became more
than ever the pet of the
aristocracy of Warsaw; his charming manners, his unspoiled nature, his
musical gifts made him welcome in princely homes. He had also begun to
compose; indeed these efforts started soon after he began piano
and before he could handle a pen. His teacher had to write down what
little composer played. Among those early pieces were mazurkas,
valses and the like. At the age of ten he dedicated a march to Grand
Constantine, who had it scored for band and played on parade. He
lessons in composition with Joseph Eisner, a celebrated teacher, who
a life-long adviser and friend.
Up to the age of fifteen, Frederic was
taught at home, in his father's
school. He now entered the Warsaw Lyceum, and proved a good student,
twice carrying off a prize. With this studiousness was joined a gaiety
sprightliness that manifested itself in all sorts of fun and mischief.
He loved to play pranks on his sisters, comrades and others, and had a
fondness for caricature, taking off the peculiarities of those about
with pose and pen. Indeed it was the opinion of a clever member of the
profession, that the lad was born to become a great actor. All the
Chopins had a great fondness for literature and writing; they
tried their hand at poetry, and the production of original one-act
written for birthday fêtes and family parties.
The most important event of Frederic's
fifteenth year was the
of his first composition for piano, a Rondo in C minor. This was soon
followed by a set of Variations, Op. 2, on an air from Mozart's "Don
Giovanni." In these early pieces, written perhaps even before he was
fifteen, we find the first stages of his peculiar style. Even at this
time he was pleased with chords that had the tones spread apart in
harmony. As his hands were small he invented a contrivance which
the fingers as far apart as possible, in order that he might reach the
chords more easily. This he wore even during the night. The contrivance
however, did not result in injury to his hands, as did Schumann's
to strengthen his fourth finger.
In 1827, Chopin finished his studies at
the Lyceum and determined to
music as his profession. He was now seventeen, of slender figure,
cut features, high forehead, delicate brows above dreamy, soulful eyes.
Though not weak or sickly, as some accounts make out, he was never very
robust; he would far rather lie under beautiful trees in delightful day
dreams, than take long excursions afoot. One of his aversions was
or tobacco in any form; he never used it in his whole life. He was
vivacious, active, hard working at music and reasonably healthy in
youth, but not of a hardy organism. His mother and sisters constantly
cautioned him to wrap up in cold or damp weather, and like an obedient
and good brother, he obeyed.
Young Chopin greatly wished to travel
and see something of the world. A
much longed-for opportunity to visit Berlin came to him the following
year. An old friend of his father's, Dr. Jarocki, Professor in the
University, was invited to attend a Philosophic Congress, presided over
by Alexander von Humboldt, to be held in that city. The good Professor
willing to take his friend's son under his wing, and Frederic was quite
beside himself with joy, for now he believed he could meet some of the
musical celebrities of Berlin, and hear some great music. As to the
his hopes were realized, but he did not meet many musicians, and could
only gaze at them from a distance. It may have been a certain shyness
reticence that stood in the way, for he wrote home about a concert in
Singakademie: "Spontini, Zelter and Felix Mendelssohn were all there,
I spoke to none of these gentlemen, as I did not think it becoming to
introduce myself." Music and things connected with music, music-shops
piano factories, took up most of his time, as he declined to attend the
meetings of the Congress.
"At the time of the Berlin visit,"
writes Niecks, his biographer,
was a lively, well-educated, well-mannered youth, who walked through
pleased with its motley garb, but as yet unconscious of the deeper
the immensities of joy and sadness, of love and hate, which lie beneath
After a stay of two weeks in the
Prussian capital, Professor Jarocki
Frederic started on their return to Poland. During the journey they
obliged to halt an hour for fresh horses. Chopin began to look about
little inn for some sort of amusement to while away the time. He soon
discovered in a corner, an old piano, which proved to be in tune. Of
he lost no time, but sat down and began to improvise on Polish
Soon his fellow passengers of the stage-coach began to drop in one
another; at last came the post master with his wife and pretty
Even when the hour was up and the horses had been put to the chaise,
begged the young musician to go on and on. Although he remonstrated,
it was now time to go, they protested so convincingly that the boy sat
again and resumed his playing. Afterwards wine was brought in and they
drank to the health of the young master. Chopin gave them a mazurka for
farewell, then the tall post master caught him up and carried him out
the coach, and all travelers started away in high spirits.
About the middle of July, 1829, Chopin
with three young friends,
out for Vienna. In those days an artist, in order to make himself and
work known, had to travel about the world and arrange concerts here and
there, introduce himself to prominent people in each place and make
acquainted with his gifts. The present journey had for its object
the city of Beethoven and Schubert and other great masters.
Of course the young musician carried
many letters of introduction, both
publishers and influential persons, for whom he played. Every one told
him he ought to give a concert, that it would be a disgrace to parents,
teachers and to himself not to appear in public. At last Frederic
his hesitation. In a letter home he writes; "I have made up my mind;
tell me I shall create a furore, that I am an artist of the first rank,
worthy of a place beside Moscheles, Herz and Kalbrenner," well-known
musicians of the day. One must forgive the nineteen year old boy, if he
felt a little pride in being classed with these older and more famous
The concert took place in the Imperial
Opera House, just ten days after
arrival, and from all accounts was a great success. Chopin was more
satisfied, he was delighted. Indeed his success was so emphatic that a
second concert was given the following week. In both he played some of
own compositions and improvised as well.
"It goes crescendo with my popularity
here, and this gives me much
pleasure," he wrote home, at the end of the fortnight, and on the eve
starting to return. On the way back the travelers visited Prague,
and Dresden. A couple of days were spent in each, and then the party
arrived safely in Warsaw.
With such an intense nature, friendship
and love were two vital forces
controlling life and action. Chopin was devoted to his friends; he
to them with effusive ardor, incomprehensible to those less sensitive
and romantic. With Titus Woyciechowski he was heart to heart in closest
intimacy, and wrote him the most adoring letters when they chanced to
separated. Titus was less demonstrative, but always remained devoted.
Love for women was destined to play a
large part in the inner life of
Chopin. The first awakening of this feeling came from his admiration of
Constantia Gladowska, a beautiful girl and vocal pupil at the
at Warsaw. Strangely enough he admired the young lady for some time at
distance, and if report be true, never really declared himself to her.
she filled his thoughts by day, and he confessed to dreaming of her
night. When she made her début in opera, he hung on every note
and rejoiced in her success but did not make his feelings known to her.
All this pent-up emotion was confined to his piano, in impassioned
Seeing no suitable field for his genius
in Warsaw and realizing he
leave home and strike out for himself, he yet delayed making the break.
continued putting off the evil day of parting from home and friends,
especially putting a wide distance between himself and the object of
The two years of indecision were
fruitful in producing much piano music
and in completing the beautiful E minor Concerto, which was rehearsed
orchestra and was performed at the third and last concert he ever gave
Warsaw. This concert was arranged for October 11, 1830. Chopin
Constantia Gladowska, whom he had never met, to sing an aria. In the
success of the evening sorrow was forgotten. He wrote to his friend:
Gladowska wore a white gown with roses in her hair and was wondrously
beautiful; she had never sung so well."
After this event, Chopin decided the
time had come for him to depart.
trunk was bought, his clothing ready, pocket-handkerchiefs hemmed; in
nothing remained but the worst of all, the leave-taking. On November I,
1830, Elsner and a number of friends accompanied him to Wola, the first
village beyond Warsaw. There they were met by a group of students from
Conservatory, who sang a cantata, composed by Elsner for the occasion.
there was a banquet. During this last meal together, a silver goblet
with Polish earth was presented to Chopin in the name of them all.
We can imagine the tender leave-takings
after that. "I am convinced,"
he said, "I am saying an eternal farewell to my native country; I have
presentiment I shall never return." And so indeed it proved.
Again to Vienna, by way of Breslau,
Dresden and Prague. In Vienna all
not as rosy as it had been on his first visit. Haslinger was unwilling
to publish more of his compositions, though there were the two
études and many short pieces. The way did not open to give a
He was lonely and unhappy, constantly dreaming of home and the beloved
Constantia. From graphic letters to one of his dearest friends, a few
sentences will reveal his inner life.
"To-day is the first of January (1831).
Oh, how sadly this year begins
me! I love you all above all things. My poor parents! How are my
faring? I could die for you all. Why am I doomed to be here so lonely
forsaken? You can at least open your hearts to each other. Go and see
Although it did not seem advisable to
give concerts in Vienna, yet
made many pleasant acquaintances among the musicians and prominent
and was constantly invited. He had planned to go from Vienna to either
Italy or France. As there were political troubles in the former
decided to start for Paris, stopping on the way at a few places. In
he gave a morning concert, in the hall of the Philharmonie, which won
renown. From Munich he proceeded to Stuttgart, and during a short stay
there, heard the sad news of the taking of Warsaw by the Russians. This
event, it is said, inspired him to compose the C minor Etude, Op. 10,
The Poles and everything Polish were at
that time the rage in Paris.
young Polish master found ready entrance into the highest musical and
literary circles of this most delightful city of the world. All was
romance, fantasy, passion, which fitted with Chopin's sensitive and
romantic temperament. Little wonder that he became inspired by contact
some of the greatest in the world of arts and letters.
There were Victor Hugo. King of the
romanticists, Heine, poet and
De Musset, Flaubert, Zola, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Ary
Scheffer, Mérimée, Gautier, Berlioz, Balzac, Rossini,
Hiller, Nourrit, to mention a few. Liszt was there too, and George
Mendelssohn and Kalkbrenner. Chopin called on the last named, who was
considered the first pianist of the day, and played for him.
remarked he had the style of Cramer and the touch of Field. He proposed
that Chopin should study three years with him, and he would then become
great virtuoso. Of course the young artist might have learned
the mechanical side, but at the risk of injuring the originality and
of his playing. His old friend and teacher Elsner, kept him from doing
The first year in Paris Chopin played at
a number of concerts and
functions, with ever increasing success. But in spite of the artistic
success, his finances ran low, and he began to consider a trip to
Fortunately he met Prince Radziwill on the street at this time, and was
persuaded to play at a Rothschild soirée in the evening. From
it is said, his prospects brightened, and he secured a number of
patrons as pupils. Whether this be true or not, he came to know many
personages. One has only to turn the pages of his music to note how
pieces are dedicated to Princess This and Countess That. This mode of
was reflected in his music, which became more elegant and aristocratic.
During the season of 1833 and 1834,
Chopin continued to make his way
as composer, pianist and teacher. A letter to friends in Poland, says:
"Frederic looks well and strong; he turns the heads of all the French
women, and makes the men jealous. He is now the fashion."
In the spring of 1834 Chopin had been
persuaded by Ferdinand Hiller to
accompany him to Aix-la-Chapelle, to attend the Lower Rhine Music
Before they started Chopin found he had not the money to go, as it had
spent or given to some needy countryman. Hiller did not like to go
and asked if his friend could think of no way out of the dilemma. At
Chopin took the manuscript of the E flat Valse, Op. 18, went with it to
Pleyel the publisher, and returned with five hundred francs. They could
go and enjoy the trip they had planned.
In July, 1835, Chopin met his parents at
Carlsbad, where his father had
been sent by the Warsaw physicians to take the cure. The young
now famous, had not seen his parents in nearly five years, and the
must have been a happy one. From here he went to Dresden and Leipsic,
meeting Schumann and Mendelssohn. Schumann admired the young Pole
and wrote much about him in his musical magazine. Mendelssohn
him a "really perfect virtuoso, whose piano playing was both original
and masterly," but he was not sure whether his compositions were right
wrong. Chopin also stopped in Heidelberg on the way to Paris, visiting
father of his pupil Adolph Gutman. He must have been back in Paris
the middle of October, for the papers mention that "M. Chopin, one of
most eminent pianists of our epoch, has just made a tour of Germany,
has been for him a real ovation. Everywhere his admirable talent
the most flattering reception and excited much enthusiasm."
The story of Chopin's attraction for
Marie Wodzinski and his reported
engagement to her, is soon told. During his visit in Dresden, after
his parents in Carlsbad, he saw much of his old friends, Count
and his family. The daughter, Marie, aged nineteen, was tall and
not beautiful but charming, with soft dark hair and soulful eyes.
spent all his evenings at their home and saw much of Marie. The last
evening the girl gave him a rose, and he composed a valse for her.
The next summer the two met again at
Marienbad, and resumed their
talks and music. She drew his portrait, and one day Chopin proposed.
assured him she would always remain his friend, but her family would
consent to their marriage. So that brief romance was over.
An attachment of a different sort was
that with Mme. Dudevant, known in
literature as George Sand. Books have been written about this
woman. The family at Nohant where she had spent her childhood, where
two children, Maurice and Solange, lived, and where her husband
came, became distasteful to her; she wanted to see life. Paris offered
Although possessing ample means, she arranged to spend six months in
each year, and live on two hundred and fifty francs a month. She came
1831. Her ménage was of the simplest—three small rooms,
from a near-by restaurant at two francs; she did the washing herself.
Woman's attire was too expensive, so, as she had worn man's attire when
riding and hunting at Nohant, she saw nothing shocking in wearing it in
Her literary student life, as she called
it, now began. She went about
streets at all times, in all weathers; went to garrets, studios, clubs,
theaters, coffee-houses, everywhere but the salons. The romance
society-life as it was lived in the French capital, were the studies
ardently pursued. From these studies of life grew the several novels
produced during the years that followed.
It is said that Chopin met Mme. Sand at
a musical matinée, given
Marquis of C, where the aristocracy of genius, wealth and beauty
had assembled. Chopin had gone to the piano and was absorbed in an
improvisation, when lifting his eyes from the keys he encountered the
glances of a lady standing near. Perhaps the truer account of their
meeting is that given by Chopin's pupil Gutman. Mme. Sand, who had the
faculty of subjugating every man of genius she came in contact with,
Liszt repeatedly to introduce her.
One morning, early in the year 1837,
Liszt called on his brother artist
and found him in good spirits over some new compositions. He wished to
them to some friends, so it was arranged that a party of them should
come to his rooms that evening. Liszt came with his special friend,
Mme. d'Agoult and George Sand. Afterwards these meetings were
repeated. Liszt poetically describes one such evening, in his "Life of
The fastidious musician was not at first
attracted to the rather
masculine-looking woman, addicted to smoking, who was short, stout,
large nose, coarse mouth and small chin. She had wonderful eyes,
and her manners were both quiet and fascinating.
Her influence over Chopin began almost
at once; they were soon seen
together everywhere. Sand liked to master a reserved, artistic nature
such as that of the Polish musician. She was not herself musical, but
appreciated all forms of art.
In 1838 Mme. Sand's son Maurice became
ill, and she proposed a trip to
Majorca. Chopin went with the party and fell ill himself. There were
many discomforts during their travels, due to bad weather and other
Chopin's health now began to be a source
of anxiety to his friends. He
to be very careful, gave fewer lessons during the season, and spent his
vacations at Nohant. He played rarely in public, though there were two
public concerts in 1841 and '42 at Pleyel's rooms. From 1843 to 1847 he
lived quietly and his life was apparently happy. He was fond of the
children, and amused himself with them when at Nohant.
But the breach, which had started some
years before, between Mme. Sand
and Chopin, widened as time passed, and they parted in 1847. It was the
inevitable, of course. Chopin never had much to say about it; Sand said
more, while the students asserted she had killed their beloved master.
Probably it all helped to undermine the master's feeble health. His
passed away in 1844, his sister also, of pulmonary trouble; he was
and ill himself. He gave his last concert in Paris, February 16, 1848.
Though weak he played beautifully. Some one said he fainted in the
room. The loss of Sand, even though he had long wearied of her was the
To secure rest and change, he undertook
a trip to London, for the
and last time, arriving April 21, 1848. He played at different great
and gave two matinées, at the homes of Adelaide Kemble and Lord
June 23, and July 7. These were attended by many titled personages.
Garcia sang. The composer was thin, pale, and played with "wasted
but the money helped replenish his depleted purse.
Chopin visited Scotland in August of the
same year, and stayed with his
pupil Miss Jane Stirling, to whom he dedicated the two Nocturnes, Op.
55. He played in Manchester, August 28; his playing was rather weak,
but retained all its elegance, finish and grace. He was encored for his
familiar Mazurka, Op. 7, No. 1, and repeated it with quite different
nuances. One survivor of this audience remarked subsequently in a
to a friend: "My emotion was so great I was compelled to retire to
myself. I have heard all the celebrated stars of the musical firmament,
never has one left such an impression on my mind."
Chopin returned to London in November,
and left England in January
His purse was very low and his lodgings in the Rue Chaillot, Paris,
represented as costing half their value, the balance being paid by a
Russian Countess, who was touched by his need. The generous hearted
Stirling raised 25,000 francs for the composer, so his last days were
cheered by every comfort. He passed away October 17, 1849, and every
agrees it was a serene passing. His face was beautiful and young, in
the flower-covered casket, says Liszt, for friends filled his rooms
blossoms. He was buried from the Madeleine, October thirtieth. The B
minor Funeral March, orchestrated by Reber, was given, and during the
service Lefebure Wely played on the organ the E and B minor Preludes.
grave in Père Lachaise is sought out by many travelers who
admire his great
art. It is difficult to find the tomb in that crowded White City, but
no doubt all music lovers seek to bring away at least a leaf—as did
the writer—from the earthly resting place of the most ideal pianist and
composer who ever lived.
Chopin was preeminently a composer for
the piano. With the exception of
the Trio, Op. 8 and a book of Polish songs, everything he wrote was for
favorite instrument. There are seventy-one opus numbers in the list,
often whole sets of pieces are contained in one opus number, as is the
with the Études, of which there are twelve in Op. 10, and the
Op. 25. These Études take up every phase of piano technic; each
a definite aim, yet each is a beautiful finished work as music. They
been edited and re-edited by the greatest masters.
The twenty-four Preludes were composed
before the trip to Majorca,
they were perfected and polished while there. Written early in his
they have a youthful vigor not often found in later works. "Much in
miniature are these Preludes of the Polish poet," says Huneker.
There are four Impromptus and four
Ballades, also four Scherzos. In
them the composer is free, fascinating, often bold and daring. The
Fantaisie, Op. 49, is an epic poem, much as the Barcarolle is a poem of
love. The two Sonatas, not to mention an early effort in this form, are
among the modern classics, which are bound to appear on the programs of
every great pianist of the present, and doubtless of the future. The
Concertos are cherished by virtuosi and audience alike, and never fail
make an instant and lasting appeal.
And think of the eleven Polonaises,
those courtly dances, the most
characteristic and national of his works; the fourteen Valses, beloved
every young piano student the world over; the eighteen Nocturnes, of
night music; the entrancing Mazurkas, fifty-two in number. One marvels,
in merely glancing over the list, that the composer, who lived such a
super-sensitive hectic life, whose days were so occupied with lesson
giving, ever had the time to create such a mass of music, or the energy
When one considers the amount of it, the
beauty, originality and glory
of it, one must acknowledge Frederic Chopin as one of the greatest
geniuses of all time.