Biography

Biographical Essay About Chopin By David Dubal
FREDERIC CHOPIN 1810-1849-Poland

He made his debut in 1818, playing a concerto by Gyrowetz. In 1824 he entered the Warsaw Conservatory; the following year saw the publication of his Rondo in C minor, Op.1. He premiered his own F minor and E minor Concerti in Warsaw in March and October of 1830. Late in that same year, he left Poland forever. He lived and performed in Vienna for eight months and in 1831 arrived in Paris, where he played his F minor Concerto and the La’ ci darem Variations early in 1832. After 1835, his appearances as a concert pianist were infrequent. In 1837 he entered into his celebrated liaison with the writer George Sand, which ended in 1846. His main source of income was teaching. He gave his last recital in Paris early in 1848, and later that year arrived in Great Britain. He died in Paris in 1849. At his funeral, which was held at the Madeleine, Mozart’s Requiem was given. He is buried at Pere-Lachaise, where, according to legend, there has never been a day when flowers were not placed on his grave.

Chopin spent most of the first twenty years of his life in Warsaw. The Polish capital was rather provincial; still he was able to hear many of the best artists of the time perform there. Italian opera and singing in general had an indelible effect on him, through the performances of such great singers as Angelica Catalani. Long before Liszt heard Paganini, Chopin was learning from his violinistic feats.

Hummel, too, played in Warsaw, and his tentative Romanticism and richly ornamented keyboard layout ignited Chopin’s precocious genius. Other influences during his adolescence included Spohr’s then strangely exotic chromaticism, Field’s fragrant nocturnes, and the mysteriousness of Weber. Of equal importance were the dance forms of his homeland. From the age of eight, Chopin occupied himself with them, haunted by their rhythms, dreaming of an idealized Poland. The last page of music he wrote was a mazurka.

As a pianist, he was left to develop on his own. Warsaw had no piano teachers of importance, and Chopin’s instruction was given over to a local violinist, Adalbert Zywny. Awestruck by his pupil’s talents, he let Chopin sprout his own unique wings. To his credit, he instilled in him a love for Bach and Mozart, the only masters whom Chopin admired without reservation. There was also the fatherly guidance of his composition teacher Josef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory, who understood him and nourished him without too many strictures. When the twentyone-year-old Chopin arrived in Paris, he was momentarily dazed by the old-fashioned perfection of Kalkbrenner, who tried to convince him to enter upon a three-year course of study with him. Opinions on the matter roared back to him from Warsaw: the pianist Maria Szymanowska screamed, “He is a scoundrel. His real aim is to cramp his genius.” Elsner, too, quickly realized that “they have recognized genius in Frederic and are already frightened that he will outstrip them, so they want to keep their hands on him for threeyears in order to hold back something of that whichnature herself might push forward.”

Indeed, Chopin was a new and freer pianist, freefrom the conventional discipline of stiff bodily action.And his music was entirely new, demanding novel forms ofhand coordination. Schumann was the first to understandthis, ending his review of the Variations on “La cidarem la mano,” Op. 2, with the now-celebrated line:”Hats off, gentlemen. A genius!” Chopin waswell aware of his own originality. At nineteen, heannounced to a friend the creation of his Etudes: “Ihave written a big technical exercise in my own specialmanner.” These would soon be known as hisTwenty-four Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25. When first composed,they offered severe stumbling blocks to older players ofthe day. The German critic Ludwig Rellstab advised,”Those who have distorted fingers may put them rightby practicing these studies; but those who have not,should not play them, at least, not without having asurgeon at hand.” But the Chopin Etudes havecome to rule the world of piano playing, forming anencyclopedic methodology, a summary of Chopin’s enlargedvision of piano technique. They provide the equipment forthe rest of Chopin’s almost invariably difficult music,and give the key to music after Chopin. If only one setof piano etudes were to be preserved, these would be theunanimous choice. They contain all that Clementi, Cramer,Czerny, Berger, Moscheles, Hummel, Steibelt, and otherswere striving for technically, couched in music ofincomparable beauty. They are a challenge for everygeneration of pianists, and few can feel equallycomfortable in all. They are small in form; as eachdevelops a single technical idea, they demand an enormousendurance, while musically they are as exposed as Mozartian writing.

Chopin was one of the most original harmonists inhistory, creating an exquisite chromaticgarden. “Chopin’schromaticism,” wrote Gerald Abraham,”marks a stage of the greatest importance in theevolution of the harmonic language. . . . “. He wasthe first composer seriously to undermine the solidsystem of diatonic tonalism created by the Vienneseclassical masters and the contemporaries in othercountries.” As a creator of ornamental fioritura, heis without equal in the nineteenth century. Chopindisplayed an almost inexhaustible resource in discoveringpianistic formations that are uniquely suited to theinstrument. To transcribe Chopin or to change the mediumin any way destroys the music’s evocative power, morethan with any other composer. It was born for the piano.Chopin extended the scope of the left hand to such adegree that it constitutes a miracle of imagination.Finally the entire range of the instrument was availablefor exploration. Just compare a Mozartian Alberti bass ora Field nocturne with a late Chopin nocturne. WithChopin, the impossible was achieved-singing upon thepiano. The instrument was suddenly capable of iridescentand shimmering tone, where the pedal counts for all. Itwas widely noted how Chopin’s feet were in constantmotion. He was probably the first pianist to consistentlyuse half and quarter pedaling. Never had music beencapable of such fluidity, such palpitation, suchatmospheric effect.

Hearing Chopin play the A-flat Etude Op. 25, No.1,Schumann imagined “an Aeolian harp that hadall the scales, and these were intermingled by the handof the artist into all sorts of fantastic embellishments.It was rather an undulation brought out more loudly hereand there with the pedal, all gorgeously entangled in theharmony.”

Chopin’s influence, pianistically and harmonically,spans two centuries, from Liszt to Scriabin andRachmaninoff, to Debussy, Granados, and Szymanowski. Hismazurkas and polonaises let loose the flood tide ofethnicity in music, which is having an impact even today.This delicate, ethereal being created, in the words ofGeorge Sand, “a revolution in the language of musicand with only one instrument.”

Chopin was consumptive, becoming more frail year byyear. He scaled down his playing as a result, developingdozens of gradations of soft sounds. How he envied Liszthis power. Naturally he had a horror of large halls, andlate in life he begged his friend, the Irish pianistGeorge Osborne, not to attend a recital he had to give inScotland. “My playmg,” he told him, “willbe lost in such a large room, and my compositions will beineffective.” Nevertheless, his pupil GeorgesMathias attested, “What power! Yes, what power, butit lasted a few bars; and what exaltation andinspiration! The man’s whole BODY vibrated.”

His technique was flawless, and he always caused greatexcitement with the evenness of his scales and thecareful manipulation of his legato. The pianist-writerWilhelm von Lenz noticed him “changing his fingerson a key as often as an organ player.”

The chief characteristic of Chopin’s playing washis highly personal and wayward use of tempo rubato. InChopin’s view of this device, “the left hand is theconductor; it must not waver or lose ground; do with theright hand what you will and can.” (Liszt’sdescription of the much-discussed tempo rubato is morepictorial: “Do you see those trees? The wind playsin the leaves, life unfolds and develops beneath them,but the tree remains.”) When Meyerbeer insisted thatChopin played his own mazurka in 4/4 time instead of 3/4,Chopin was furious and hotly denied it. Yet when histrusted friend Charles Halle’ pointed it out to him, thePole slyly called the rhythmic aberration a nationaltrait. Berlioz, too, said that Chopin simply could notplay in time. In truth, however, the freedom of hisplaying and his music was not fully understood. TheClassicist Ignaz Moscheles, whose playing Chopin called”frightfully Baroque,” could not understandChopin’s music until he heard him play it. Moscheles thenconfessed, “The harsh modulations which strike medisagreeably when I am playing his compositions no longershock me, because he glides over them in a fairylike waywith his delicate fingers.

Chopin’s piano music remains the most frequentlyplayed in history. He is one of the few universalmasters, and has never suffered an eclipse. Almost everynote he wrote is in the permanent repertoire. ArthurRubinstein confirmed: “When the first notes ofChopin sound through the concert hall, there is a happysign of recognition. All over the world men and womenknow his music. They love it; they are moved by it. Yetit is not Romantic music in the Byronic sense. It doesnot tell stories or paint pictures. It is expressive andpersonal, but still a pure art.”

Anton Rubinstein called him “the Piano Bard, thePiano Rhapsodist, the Piano Mind, and the PianoSoul,” declaring that “whether the spiritof the instrument breathed upon him, I do not know . . .but all possible expressions are found in hiscompositions, and are all sung by him upon thisinstrument.” The world rightly knows Chopin as”the poet of the piano.” Indeed, theinstrument’s very prestige would be in jeopardy withouthis contribution.