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Frederic Chopin’s unique gift to the world of music

Created date

March 2nd, 2018
A painting of Frederic Chopin

A painting of Frederic Chopin

In the realm of great pianists, Frederic Chopin was the definition of genius. Despite his comparatively short-lived career, this virtuoso dazzled audiences and fellow composers with an almost indescribable playing style that defied convention.

Born near Warsaw, Poland, in 1810, Chopin grew up in a musical family. His father Nicolas played flute and violin, and his mother Justyna, the piano.

Early signs

In 1816, Frederic began his formal education at the keyboard under the guidance of Czech pianist Wojciech Zywny. Within a year, seven-year-old Chopin was performing concerts and had already composed two original Polish dance pieces, or polonaises.

Clearly a musical prodigy, he entered the Warsaw Lyceum at just 13, studying piano and organ. Word of the youngster’s talent quickly spread, attracting not only audiences but instrument manufacturers.

The inventors of an organ called the eolomelodicon, for instance, commissioned the music student to demonstrate their product in two concert performances, one of them for Tsar Alexander I.

His growing fame notwithstanding, Chopin continued his education, transferring to the Warsaw Conservatory in 1826. Here, he studied composition, figured bass, and music theory for three years under composer Jozef Elsner.

Around this time, Chopin demonstrated an insatiable appetite for travel and a boundless curiosity about the work of other composers. On several occasions he visited Berlin, where he attended concerts featuring greats such as Felix Mendelssohn.

When at home in Warsaw, he continued his habit of taking in live performances, including a violin recital by Niccolo Paganini. This concert, in particular, inspired his early set of variations, entitled Souvenir de Paganini (1828).

This period marked a transformation for the composer. He was now a professional musician, his work pushing him to explore the expressive capabilities of the piano as an instrument.

Only weeks out of school, Chopin was writing and performing prolifically, almost exclusively for the piano. In August 1828, he made his debut in Vienna with two well-received concerts, followed by performances of his piano concertos in Warsaw.

But it was his move to Paris in 1831 that solidified his place in music history, for it was in the City of Lights that he befriended a number of influential artists, from Hector Berlioz and Ferdinand Hiller to Franz Liszt and Alfred de Vigny.

‘Hats off, gentlemen! A genius’

That same year, Chopin published his Op. 2 Variations, catching the attention of composer Robert Schumann, who, in a review of the piece, wrote: “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius.” How right he was.

Of Chopin’s 1832 debut on the Parisian stage, critic Francois-Joseph Fetis declared, “Here is a young man who...has found complete renewal of piano abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else...”

Indeed, he had a distinctive touch at the keyboard that was difficult for his contemporaries to describe, let alone replicate. Berlioz once remarked how Chopin, when seated at the piano, “created a kind of chromatic embroidery, [the effect of which] is so strange and piquant as to be impossible to describe...

“[V]irtually nobody but Chopin himself can play this music and give it this unusual turn.”

Probably best demonstrated in his haunting nocturnes, Chopin used his own method of fingering to manipulate tone, volume, and resonance. Together, these elements gave his music the emotive quality that made it unique and intimate.

Smaller venues

And to preserve this intimacy, he avoided large concert halls, instead playing for small groups in the parlors and salons of Paris. The support of wealthy families like the Rothschilds elevated his stature amongst the artistic elite.

In addition to regular work teaching piano to Europe’s aristocracy, Chopin’s published compositions earned him a substantial income. Unlike most musicians, concerts were not a financial necessity, and therefore, he rarely gave them.

Unfortunately, the prosperity he enjoyed throughout the decade soon dwindled. Plagued by poor health for much of his life, Chopin had contracted tuberculosis in the early 1840s.

Chronically ill, activity of any kind was a challenge for him. He wrote very little, was unable to teach regularly, and often could not perform on stage.

After a recital in 1842, he lamented that, “I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much.” Save for a few brief trips to London and Scotland, where he intermittently performed and gave lessons, Chopin remained housebound.

By 1848, tuberculosis had ravaged his body. He weighed less than 100 lbs.

Surrounded by a handful of friends and family, he died on October 17, 1849. In a mere 39 years, though, Frederic Chopin had managed to inspire contemporaries and future composers alike, earning himself an indelible place in the world of music.