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Photograph of Fryderyk Chopin taken by Louis-Auguste Bisson (1849). Source: National Library Digital Database, www.polona.pl
Major Polish composer. Born in Żelazowa Wola on the 1/03/1810, died on the 17/10/1849 in Paris.
The beauty of Chopin's music, rare and unique, verges - one is tempted to say - on a miracle. Since this opinion runs somewhat counter to standard ideas about greatness in music, it has often been challenged by asking what sort of a genius would compose (almost) exclusively for the piano, mostly miniatures, dances and poetical fantasias instead of dozens of sonatas, symphonies, operas, oratoria and masses. Such challenges of an ultraconservative nature have survived to this day, as expressed by Arthur Hedley in his post-war book on Chopin.
Hedley writes : "He [Chopin] does not stand at the top of the hierarchy of musicians. Indeed, nobody would claim that. Yet he enjoyed what few have: he is the only one and towering high above in his own, closed domain."
The same line of reason is encountered in "A History of Music" by Józef and Krystyna Chomiński. This two-volume book published a few years ago has no separate chapter on Chopin, although it does have ones on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, let alone Handel and Bach.
Well, if that is the case, the question that springs to mind is: what is wrong with this hierarchy? Yet it suffices to free oneself from the manacles of the old-fashioned classification whereby musical genius was judged against the classical standard of German music of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to see Chopin as one of the topmost composers of all times, well deserving the "highest rung" not only for the captivating charm of his music but also for the special role his music has played in history.
True, Chopin did focus on piano compositions, yet he was the first one who could afford to do so. It was him who transformed the piano into an instrument of unheard of potential, extracting from it a rich and new world of sounds nobody had dreamt of before, and creating within this world a plethora of masterpieces eclipsing many a symphony. While seemingly narrowing the instrumental range, Chopin brought to the fore the component of music that would grow in importance until today, namely the sound. Ever since Chopin, music can hardly be any longer thought of as an abstract construct merely conveyed by the instruments. Music is now organically bound with the real sound matter, its colour, register, the sensual nature of the sound and the way it is produced.
The novel and revealing sound of Chopin's music comes as much from the special approach to the instrument and the brilliant piano technique as from the sound language itself: the Chopin's harmony. It's enough to listen to just a few first strokes of the Etude in E major Opus 10 No. 3 to realise the significance of change that took place in the sense of harmony. Indeed, there is a true gap between the harmonic sound of music by Beethoven and Schubert and that of music by Chopin.
Chopin's chords do not only represent a system of tonal tensions and ideas to accompany the melody, but delight one with their individually coloured sounds. It was Chopin who discovered that alongside its tension-building function, the dissonance may be beautiful by its own virtue and may entice the listener with its uniquely sensual charm. This discovery had wide-ranging consequences: it boosted Debussy's impressionism, its colour and sound driven by the understanding of harmony taken from works by Chopin. It also stimulated more radical changes of the twentieth-century sound language. Chopin compositions feature dissonance which is velvety soft and pleasant to the ear, but also one that is sharp and piercing, such as that in the Prelude in A minor and in a number of Mazurkas, including the first published opuses 6 and 7 (note that extraordinary middle part of the Mazurka in B flat major), the Etude in E minor Opus 25, or the hair-rising culmination before the end of the first and the second Scherzos.
Chopin's opus is, for many reasons, a major step in the history of music and a milestone on its development path. This often extremely buoyant chromatics produced Wagner (Tristan and Isolde). Chopin's unusual modulations and surprising turns of tone in the middle of phrases (to mention, for instance, the introductory part of the Fantasia in F minor) challenge the principles laid down in harmonium textbooks. The new scales Chopin introduced in the Mazurkas and in other works, such as the Etude in F minor Opus 10, Nocturne in G minor Opus 15 and Nocturne in B major Opus 62 abolish the undivided rule of the major-minor system and open up the window to other, broader worlds of sound. Likewise, Chopin seems to have divided the music of the past 300 years into two different parts with regard to expression, phrasing and the structure of a piece of music. Starting from late Romanticism, the art of composing takes a different form, throws itself into a new, turbulent adventure, drills into new layers of extraordinary expression, and this change is most palpable in the works of the one who composed Ballads, Scherzos, Sonata in B flat minor and the Polonaise-Fantasia.
This important role of Chopin in the development of music is, however, secondary to what is inherent in his music, to the greatness of his melodic and harmonic ideas and to his distinctly individual style. The originality of Chopin's poetics, so striking to his contemporaries, was completely novel: never had a composer stood so much apart owing to his individual, personal style. Nowadays we feel the same about Chopin's music, too, recognising it - like none other - from the first couple of sounds and chords. Surveying the history of music, we can make comparisons and look for similarities and relationships between composers ages apart, yet fail to find an analogy for Chopin, for there has been no other composer of a similar personality and an akin sense of beauty. The uniqueness of Chopin's genius elevates him to the very top of the creative output of the European culture, alongside Shakespeare, Dante, Michaelangelo and Rembrandt.
Probably the most important sign of greatness in art, individuality coincides with Chopin's workshop mastery. An outstanding improviser with a rich imagination, Chopin did not rely on these two strengths when composing, but saw to the work's logic and every little detail, thus producing pieces which combined beautiful themes with perfect structures. An achievement worthy of the greatest masters of form, it comes through in all of Chopin's composing, though is probably most striking in the etudes and preludes. The listener is enraptured with the brilliance of Chopin's compositions, yet when you take a closer look and start to play his rich virtuoso phrases slowly, you will notice the musical perfection of the structure, the logic of every note, the weight of every sound step - just like in Bach.
Chopin is also a master of transforming themes and motifs - just like Beethoven, who is widely considered the standard of creativity in the so-called transformations in the main movements of sonatas and symphonies. Chopin's sonatas, including his Cello Sonata, reveal no less inventiveness and mastery, and the transformation in the Allegro part of the Sonata in B flat minor is generally one of the most dramatic and fascinating transformations in all sonatas ever composed. Excellent transformation sections can also be spotted in other works, notably in the Ballads, in particular the Ballad No. 3 in A flat major, as well as in smaller pieces, such as in the polyphonic Mazurka in C sharp minor Opus 50. Alongside the interesting ways of transforming and developing motifs, Chopin handles with gusto the various variants of entire subjects, at times changing completely the sound and the mood of the original melody. In the Ballad in G minor, for instance, both of the key themes recur a few times, each time in a different light and in a surprisingly different form, and never reappear as they originally were.
It is in the Ballads that Chopin invents a strikingly new form, deviating from the classical standard. Chopin's Ballads, with their transformations of subjects, tell a certain emotional narrative known from dramas or poems, though without words. Unlike in a classical reprise, the narrative has no point of return, for the story develops until it reaches the final end. This way the classical idea of architectural symmetry (A B A type) is juxtaposed with the Romantic idea of a poetic "story"; both, however, are grounded in music. Indeed, it is not only Chopin's Ballads which tell musical stories with clear emotional narrative. The same is true of many other of his works, including the Polonaise-Fantasia, Barcarole, Impromptu in F sharp major, Nocturne in D flat major Opus 27 and Nocturne in C minor Opus 48, some Mazurkas with features of poem, and, in whole, his great Sonatas.
The extraordinary variety of feelings and moods and the way they change as music goes is another great characteristic and value of Chopin's music, setting it apart from other music styles. Compared to Chopin, other great composers of the Romantic age, and, even more so, of the earlier periods, seem much more uniform and limited in the use of means of expression. Chopin's variety of feelings opens up a panorama of unimaginable breadth. Phenomenal in this regard is, for instance, the series of 24 Preludes Opus 28, a sophisticated guide on the human soul down to its deepest layers. The variety of moods and emotional states is discernible even in the nocturnes, a genre that would seem to be associated with only one kind of emotion. Indeed, each of Chopin's twenty nocturnes has a different emotional image, let alone the transformations and evolutions.
Chopin's style is generally rich in emotions of all shades, while leaving some space for personal emotions, freedom to interpret and individual choice to focus on a certain feature of a work or phrase. The composer himself not only allowed for subtle variations in performing his works, but delighted in how Liszt interpreted his etudes in a way so different from his own. Naturally, there is a limit to the freedom, for otherwise there is the danger that the work is made shallow, the characteristics determining its value lost, or the pianist completely failing to understand the composer.
The range of Chopin's thoughts and emotional states seems unbounded. Listeners are easiest captured by his lyrical and melodic side. Indeed, the charm of those floating, lyrical melodies is unique and one of its kind, from the early Concerto in F minor and Nocturne in E flat major Opus 9 to the sophisticated cantilena of the "late" Chopin in the Sonata in B minor or his last Waltz in C sharp minor. However, there are some very different shades to Chopin's lyricism. Of special note is the type of music which is evocative of the specific state of mind bordering on sleep or associated with meditational trance. Novel and bold, this intentionally static and monotonous music contemplating a selected sound or chord, seems to take us to another dimension and state of feeling. Chopin first introduced this expressive effect at the end of the introduction to the Variation on the theme of Mozart Opus 2, and used it later in the beautiful endings of the Nocturne in F sharp major Opus 15, Nocturne in D flat major Opus 27, Nocturne in B major Opus 62, and, most notably, in the Andante Spianato and the Polonaise Grande in E flat major and the Lullaby (Berceuse).
But then Chopin is also - at the extreme end - the raging storms and hurricanes, as in the Ballad in F major, the Etude in C minor Opus 10 ("The Revolutionary Etude"), or in his last etudes: Etude in A minor and Etude in C minor Opus 25 and the Prelude in D minor. He is also the humour, wit, irony and sarcasm audible especially in the early Rondos, the Krakoviak, the Ecossaises, the finales of the two Concertos, the Etude in G flat major Opus 10 and Etude in E flat minor Opus 25, the Prelude in G major and in many of his Mazurkas. Chopin's style is also one of intellectual and deeply philosophical reflection, like in his Prelude in C sharp minor Opus 45 or the great central episode of the third movement of the Sonata in B minor. Equally, Chopin is the emanation of immense energy, vitality and optimism, as evidenced by the finale of the aforementioned Sonata, the Etude in C major, Etude in C sharp minor and Etude in F major Opus 10, and by the Polonaise in A flat major Opus 53.
When talking about the emotions in Chopin's music, one is bound to remember the ones which were born out of the emigree's feelings for Poland and its fate and which are reflected not only in the national style of the Mazurkas and Polonaises, but reach much deeper, too. The strong patriotic feelings expressed by Chopin in his letters and notes are also emblazoned on his music. To recognise and share them is, however, a matter of intuition and sensitivity on the part of the pianist and the listener.
Author: Tadeusz Andrzej Zieliński / "Studio" 1995 nr 5.
In 2010 Poland and the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth with a series of major concerts, screenings and other events across the globe. See more on the Chopin Year at www.chopin2010.pl
Timeline of Chopin's life and major works
Fryderyk (Frédéric) Chopin was born on the 1st of March, 1810, although some historians quote the 22nd of February as his birthdate. He was born in Żelazowa Wola in central Poland to a French-Polish couple. His father, Nicholas, was a Frenchman who came to Poland from Lorraine in 1878. Nicholas Chopin arrived in Poland with Jan Adam Weydlich, the manager of the property of Count Michal Pac at Marainville, the village where Nicolas lived. Fryderyk's mother, Justyna nee Krzyżanowska, was a relative of Countess Ludwika Skarbkowa, owner of the Żelazowa Wola manor. The Chopins settled down in the manor's outhouse, Mikolaj being appointed tutor of the Count's sons. Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was christened in St Roch's Church in the nearby Brochow on the 23rd of April.
On the1st of October Nicholas Chopin begins teaching at a Warsaw Lycee and the Chopin family moves to Warsaw.
Having practised the piano with his mother, Fryderyk now starts to take lessons with Wojciech Żywny.
Composes his first works, Polonaise in B flat major (his father writes the score down) and Polonaise in G minor. The latter gets published by the printing shop of the Visitation of Our Lady Church parish in the New Town district of Warsaw.
Makes his first public appearance, playing Piano Concerto in G minor by the Czech composer Adalbert Gyrowetz at a charity concert.
Stops taking lessons with Wojciech Żywny and starts learning composition with Józef Elsner and the organ with Wilhelm Wuerfl.
Spends summer holidays at the manor of his schoolmate's family in Szafarnia, a tradional Mazovian village. Gets acquainted with Mazovian and Jewish folklore, and composes Mazurka in A minor, called "The Jew". Chopin would revisit the countryside a few more times, always taking a keen interest in folk music.
Chopin's opus 1, Rondo in C minor, gets published.
Begins a study of composition with Jozef Elsner at Warsaw's School of Music, a division of the University of Warsaw. Three years later, in the final review for the Ministry, Elsner wrote: "Szopen Friderik - special aptitude, musical genius".
While in Vienna, Chopin plays two concerts at the Kärntnerthortheater. The Viennese newspapers write: "Mr Chopin has made our acquaintance as one of the finest pianists, full of gentleness and deepest emotion".
Composes Concerto in F minor op. 21. The Concerto is performed on 17th March during Chopin's first own concert at the National Theatre, with Karol Kurpiński conducting. Maurycy Mochnacki writes: "He is all devoted to the genius of music. He breathes it".
On the 11th of October Chopin plays his farewell concert before leaving Warsaw for Vienna and Paris. He was never again to return to Poland. The programme featured a new work, Piano Concerto in E minor op. 11. The press wrote called it "a work of a genius".
On the 2nd of November Chopin leaves Warsaw, seen off with Jozef Elsner's cantata Born in the Polish Land.
When the November Uprsing breaks out on the 29th of November, Chopin is in Vienna. Friends and relatives discourage him from returning to Poland, and Chopin writes: "Cursed be the moment of my departure".
The November Uprising collapses on the 8th of September. Chopin is in Stuttgart at the time, and it is there and then that the Etude in C minor op. 10 No. 12, (Revolutionary), is composed.
Later that month Chopin arrives in Paris.
At his first concert in Paris, in Salle Pleyel, Chopin plays the Concerto in F minor and Variations on the Aria "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Juan op. 2. The press writes about the "revival of piano music". In July the Variations on a Theme by Mozart were played in Leipzig by Clara Wieck, the famous pianist of the time and wife of Robert Schumann who, when commenting on the piece, said of Chopin: "Hats off, gentlemen, he is a genius."
In January Chopin joins the Polish Literary Society in exile, headed by Duke Adam Czartoryski.
On the 15th of December Chopin, Ferenc Liszt and Ferdinand Hiller play Bach's Concerto for three pianos at the Paris Conservatory. Chopin's performance is commented on enthusiastically by Hector Berlioz.
Chopin refuses to apply for passport at the Russian Embassy in Paris, choosing the status of a political exile. This means he will never see his country again.
On the 26th of April, accompanied by an orchestra, Chopin plays the Introduction and Polonaise Grande in E flat major op. 22 in the hall of the Conservatory. The concert is a tremendous success. In August Chopin meets with his parents in Karlsbad, where they arrived for a spa treatment.
In September in Dresden Chopin proposes to the seventeen-year-old Maria Wodzińska. His proposal is accepted on condition that during the trial year he changes his lifestyle in an effort to improve his health.
In October, at the Paris salon of Liszt's lover the Countess Maria d'Agoult, Chopin first meets George Sand, then thirty-two. Chopin's appraisal: "What an unpleasant woman".
The Wodziński family withdraws from the planned marriage of Chopin and Maria. Chopin writes "My misery" on a packet of Maria's letters.
In May Chopin gets to know George Sand better. In July Eugene Delacroix sketches their portrait. In October they leave for Mallorca, where their love affair blooms, in spite of illness. They will stay there until February of the following year, living, among other places, in the deserted monastery of the Carthusian brothers in Valldemosa. The humid, wintery conditions make Chopin's health deteriorate.
Chopin manages to compose one of his greatest masterpieces, the series of 24 Preludes.
Having left Mallorca, Chopin and George Sand spend the following three months in Marseilles. After a spell in Genoa, they leave for George Sand's property in Nohant in Central France. It is there that Chopin composes Sonata in B flat minor with Funeral March. Chopin studies Johann Sebastian Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier.
In October Chopin returns to Paris, keeping his affair with George Sand secret.
Together with George Sand, Chopin attends Adam Mickiewicz's lectures at College de France.
Summer in Nohant. Chopin will spend all his summers there until 1846.
Chopin's concert at Salle Pleyel gets enthusiastic reviews: "Chopin has reached his top form".
Meets his sister Ludwika and her husband in Paris, and spends time with them in Nohant.
First major misunderstandings emerge with George Sand and her son Maurice in Nohant.
In February Chopin and George Sand attend a Polish exile community ball at the royal Czartoryski mansion.
The last summer spent in Nohant, punctuated with violent conflicts. Chopin composes Nocturnes op. 62 and Mazurkas op. 63.
In George Sand's violent quarrel with daughter Solange, Chopin sides with the daughter.
On the 16th of February Chopin plays his last concert in Paris, in Salle Pleyel, to enthusiastic reviews.
The 4th of February is Chopin's last meeting with George Sand.
From April to November stays in England and Scotland, playing concerts and giving lessons.
On the 16th of November in London plays publicly for the last time.
Composes his last finished works: Waltz in A minor and Mazurka in G minor.
Sketches his last unfinished work, Mazurka in F minor.
On the 22nd of June, after two hemorrhages, Chopin is diagnosed with tuberculosis in its last stage.
On the 9th of August Chopin's sister Ludwika arrives in Paris with husband and daughter.
On the 15th of October Delfina Potocka sings for Chopin. The composers receives the last sacrament and asks for his heart to be buried in Poland.
On the 17th of October, at 2 a.m., Chopin dies.
On the18th of October, after a post-mortem, Chopin's embalmed corpse is laid in the crypt of St Magdalene's.
On the 30th of October a burial ceremony takes place at St Magdalene's, followed by burial at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Sister Ludwika takes Chopin's heart to Poland, where it is placed inside a pillar of the Holy Cross Church at Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. In 1880 an epitath sculpted by Leandro Marconi is unveiled in the church.
Also see: Chopin's "Piano Concertos"
For solo piano:Chamber works:For piano and orchestra:Songs:Timeline source: Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, March 2002.
- Allegro de concerto in A major op. 46 (1841)
- Ballads in G minor op. 23 (1835), F major op. 38 (1839), A flat major op. 47 (1841), F minor op. 52 (1842)
- Barcarolle in F sharp major op. 60 (1846)
- Berceuse (Lullaby) in D flat major op. 57 (1844)
- Bolero in C major op. 19 (before 1834)
- 3 Ecossaises op. 72 (1830)
- Etudes op. 10 (1829-32), op. 25 (before 1837), 3 Nouvelles Etudes (1839)
- Fantasy in F minor op. 49 (1841)
- Impromptus in A flat major op. 29 (before1837), F sharp major op. 36 (1839), G flat major op. 51 (1842), Fantasy Impromptu in C sharp minor op. 66 (ca. 1834)
- Mazurkas (1825-49)
- Nocturnes (1828-46)
- Polonaises (1817-42)
- 24 Preludes op. 28 (1831-39)
- Preludium Cis-moll op. 45 (1841)
- Rondos (1825-34)
- Scherzos in B flat minor op. 20 (1831-34), B minor op. 31 (1835-37), C sharp minor op. 39 (1839), E major op. 54 (1842)
- Sonatas in C minor op. 4 (1827/28), B minor op. 35 (1839), B flat minor op. 58 (1844)
- Tarantella in A flat major op. 43 (1841)
- Waltzes (1829-49)
- Variations (1824-38)
- Grand duo Concertant for piano and cello (1832/33)
- Introduction and Polonaise in C major op. 3 for piano and cello (1830)
- Sonata in G minor op. 65 for piano and cello (1846/47)
- Trio in G minor op. 8 for piano, violin and cello (1829)
- Andante Spianato and Polonaise in E flat major op. 22 (1830-36)
- Fantasy on Polish Themes in A major op. 13 (ca. 1829)
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor op. 11 (1830)
- Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor op. 21 (1829/30)
- Rondo a La Krakowiak in F major op. 14 (1828)
- Variations in B flat major op. 2 on Aria "La ci darem la mano" from Mozart's opera Don Juan (1827/28)
- 19 Songs op. 74 (1829-47)