Polish composer, Fryderyk Chopin, was born in the year 1810, which was the same year that Robert Schumann was born and a year before Franz Liszt was born. These three musicians constitute the holy trinity of early Romantic pianists. This lecture will cover Chopin, possibly the greatest of the three.
Chopin was born in a rural area twenty miles outside of Warsaw, Poland. He took his first piano lessons from his mother, then he continued on with a local teacher who claimed he’d been a student of Johann Sebastian Bach (Nicholas 2-8).
In these piano lessons, he mainly studied the old-school “Germans”—Bach, Haydn, and Mozart (Nicholas 9). His whole life, Chopin revered this sort of music over anything produced by his Romantic contemporaries.
Musically, Chopin progressed in a Mozart-like fashion; he both performed on piano and published music by the age of eight (Nicholas 9-10).
The January 1818 issue of the Warsaw Review wrote this about Chopin’s accomplishments: “If this boy had been born in Germany or France, his fame would probably by now have spread to all the nations…” (Nicholas 10)
Young Chopin began concertizing in the salons of Warsaw and making contact with various princes, viceroys, and counts (Nicholas 11).
Later, while in college for music, Chopin continued to progress at composition and performance. He even began traveling to Vienna, Austria to play concerts. Vienna was one of the more cultured cities of nineteenth-century Europe, and Chopin earned good reviews there. As a consequence, his notoriety continued to grow (Norton/Grove 161).
After graduating from the Warsaw conservatory, Chopin went to Paris in 1831. He lived there for the rest of his life (Temperley 5 and 11).
Chopin wrote the following in a letter, “Paris is whatever you choose: you can amuse yourself, be bored, laugh, cry, do anything you like, and nobody looks at you, and everyone goes his own Road” (Nicholas 55).
Chopin was excited to be in such a cultured and fashionable city, and he was quite happy to be surrounded by so many talented musicians, artists, and writers (Nicholas 55).
Chopin fit in perfectly with the Parisian artist community, a condition which was due in large part to his character. Nicholas Temperley, writing in the New Grove Early Romantic Masters 1, summarized Chopin’s character as follows:
He possessed exceptional self-confidence, which allowed him to maintain a quiet and modest demeanor in his dealings with others. His early training prepared him well for social intercourse with the upper-class of European society. His appearance was distinguished–he was always correctly and fashionably dressed–and his manner was impeccably polite and reserved (Nicholas 11).
Robert Schumann helped further Chopin’s career by writing a positive review about the Polish pianist’s composition called Variations on La ci darem la mano. Schumann was delighted by the music he was reading and wrote this famous exclamation in The New Journal for Music: “hats off gentlemen–a genius!” Nicholas 57)
Chopin arrived in France in 1831, and he quickly took up with a coterie of “cool kids.”
If I thought that name dropping the Romantic musicians, artists, and politicians that Chopin hung out with would mean anything to you, then I’d mention people such as Franz Liszt, Countess Delfina Potocka, and George Sand. But since these names likely don’t ring any bells, I’ll substitute modern names by analogy: imagine a young musician today moving to New York City and spending a significant amount of his or her social time with Kanye West, Mayor De Blasio, and Louis C.K. That was what it was like for Chopin.
In any case, Chopin’s great skill as a performer and composer preceded him. Schumann’s endorsement helped, but Chopin’s notoriety was largely self-generated. He was that good.
In addition to his piano wizardry and compositional skill, Chopin also possessed an air of dignity and elegance that helped him move about in the upper class of European society (Temperley 11).
One of the more interesting aspects of Chopin’s personal life was his decade-long relationship with a woman named Aurore Dudevant (1804-1876), who was a novelist publishing under the pseudonym of George Sand (Penguin 1181).
Their affair was tumultuous—of the on-again-off-again variety—and it was also of ambiguous content. Historians think their relationship was focused more by Sand’s maternalistic feelings for the frail and sickly Chopin than by feelings of sexual desire. In any case, his relationship with Sand was important to him. Sadly, when it was finally over, Chopin’s health quickly deteriorated and he died a year later from tuberculosis (Norton/Grove 161).
Chopin had a very distinct piano style that was nothing like the pounding triumph and brilliant glory of Beethoven and nothing like the macho bravado and miraculous virtuosity of Franz Liszt.
Instead, Chopin’s piano style possessed a different sort of virtuosity, one marked by a delicate and soft touch.
Perhaps Chopin’s greatest contribution to the piano vernacular was his transfiguration of the technical etude from a student’s chore into a listener’s delight.
An etude is a composition meant to exercise some physically difficult aspect of playing music. Chopin’s etudes did this, but they also possessed an aesthetic value. Especially compared to most etudes, which are usually repetitive nightmares (Norton/Grove 161)
For example Etude No 11, which is commonly referred to as the “Revolutionary Etude, ”possess this dual utility.
Labeled with the following performance suggestion: Allegro con Fuoco, which means fast with fire, the Revolutionary Etude was a virtuoso piece of the first order. It was written in 1831, the year Chopin arrived in Paris, and it was dedicated to his friend and rival Franz Liszt (1811-1886).
The Revolution alluded to in the title was the November Uprising, which was part of the Polish-Russian war of 1830-31. Chopin, who was Polish, was obviously concerned about this war. As a consequence, he heaped emotional depth and heartfelt sentiment into this piano solo. You can tell just by listening that Chopin felt real passion about the subject (“Étude Op. 10, No. 12 (Chopin)” para 1).
Watch pianist Valentina Lisitsa play this piece. Notice how her left hand must execute a passage of mind-numbing difficulty. Just watch her left hand as she plays this piece and let the truth of what she is physically doing sink into your bones. Then focus on the musical sounds. Listen to the otherworldly beauty that such a spectacular left-hand maneuver creates–it’s mesmerizing.
Chopin’s wizardry was indeed delicate. This was true of his life and music. He died young, at the age of thirty-eight, in 1849 of Tuberculosis. George Sand was at his side when he died despite them being broken up. 3,000 people went to his funeral (Norton/Grove 161).
“Étude Op. 10, No. 12 (Chopin)” The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 25 Mar. 2016.
Nicholas, Jeremy. Chopin: His Life and Music. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Mediafusion, 2007.
Norton.Grove. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Ed. Sadie, Stanley. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.
Penguin Encyclopedia. Ed. Crystal, David. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.