A tunesmith whose natural domain was the polonaise, waltz and mazurka? Or a visionary composer of sonatas and ballades, obsessed with form and counterpoint in a way that even Bach would have appreciated? Welcome to the turbulent world of Frederic Chopin.
Chopin’s whole life revolved around the piano. It was the medium through which the Polish genius channelled his most intimate thoughts and feelings. It was his lifelong confidant, emotional safety valve – and the repository for what is arguably the greatest body of music ever conceived for a single instrument. Of the hundreds of works he wrote, from sonatas and concertos to the most terrifyingly compressed miniatures, the piano was pre-eminent.
Almost uniquely for one of the great composers there are no symphonies, operas, string quartets or choral works. Yet, driven by a lifelong quest to “get to the heart of our national music” (or perhaps more accurately, his own creative psyche), Chopin often says more in half a minute than many of his contemporaries could manage in half an hour.
By the time Chopin was six he was already happily writing poetry and extemporising at the piano. A year later he composed a pair of polonaises that opened the floodgates on a whole series of dance-style pieces written during his formative years. Word was soon out that Poland had “Mozart’s successor” in its midst, as was triumphantly confirmed when Chopin made his public debut just short of his eighth birthday playing a virtuoso concerto by the Bohemian note-spinner Adalbert Gyrowetz.
Chopin constantly amazed his tutors at the Warsaw Conservatory. Under the influence of the visiting Irish piano virtuoso John Field he wrote the first of 21 nocturnes – long-phrased, introspective works that would become one of Chopin’s most treasurable genres. However, by now he was hankering after the bright lights of Vienna. Indeed, the two piano concertos he penned between 1829 and 1830 were intended to establish his reputation there once and for all. Overcome by their mastery, Schumann exclaimed: “We may be sure that a genius like Mozart, if he were live today, would write concertos like Chopin’s and not like Mozart’s!”
Chopin left Poland on November 2, 1830, bound for Vienna. No one could have imagined that he would never set foot in his homeland again. The irony was that, having made such extraordinary efforts to establish himself in the musical capital of the world, Chopin was deeply unhappy in Vienna.
“The people here mean nothing to me,” he noted in his diary. “They’re kind, but only from habit, not kindness.”
Despondent and disillusioned, Chopin quit Vienna in July 1831 for Paris, where he found himself welcomed as a celebrity by the frequenters of the city’s fashionable salons. He discovered a keen taste for the luxurious, supporting himself mainly by giving piano lessons to the rich and famous.
The intimacy of Parisian artistic life suited Chopin’s quiet nature to a tee. Driven to paroxysms of blind terror whenever performing in front of a large audience – “I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath, paralysed by its inquisitive stare, silenced by its alien faces” – he retired from the platform in 1832 having made only 30 concert appearances in his entire career.
By the mid-1830s Chopin was on the verge of true greatness. The bonhomie of his early waltzes, the gentle nostalgia of the mazurkas and all-purpose Sturm und Drang of his First Scherzo were now synthesized into a mesmerising stylistic collective. From now on absolutely nothing could be taken for granted. His music might one minute glow in the reflected warmth of human existence, the next stare deep into the abyss in a way that no composer seriously rivalled until the emergence of Mahler half a century later.
Fascinatingly, little of this was particularly evident during the early months of that red-letter year in Chopin’s cruelly short life: 1836. With only the F major Ballade and a handful of mazurkas, preludes and studies to show for his efforts, that October he came into contact with one of the most formidable women of the 19th century: Aurore Dudevant, better known to her adoring public as the novelist George Sand. Her masculinisation went much further than a mere nom de plume, however, as she was also in the habit of wearing men’s clothing, taking snuff and smoking huge cigars.
Meanwhile, Chopin’s music was poised to cut loose from the rather standardised brooding of the Funeral March and daemonic angst of the B flat minor Scherzo. The vital catalyst? None other than George Sand herself. By the early summer of 1838 Sand had only one thought on her mind – jumping into bed with Chopin at the earliest opportunity. It didn’t take her very long by all accounts, for by the August she was able to report to the painter Eugène Delacroix on the “delicious exhaustion of fulfilled love”.
With Chopin’s health causing increasing concern the two resolved to head off to Majorca for the winter. What started out as a light-hearted adventure nearly wrecked Chopin physically and aggravated the tuberculosis that had long dogged him, but creatively he had finally turned the corner.
The music he composed during this visit shows his talent ignited by the flame of incandescent genius. Here the 24 Preludes were completed, microcosms of bewildering stylistic diversification, bitterly painful expressions of the physical turbulence Chopin was suffering both without (unusually, the weather was appalling) and within.
The summer of 1839, as was to become customary, was spent at Sand’s home at Nohant. George proved a devoted carer (at least for a time), while the peace and quiet away from the social whirl of Paris aided Chopin’s recovery. He settled into a pattern of piano lessons and social functions at the homes of the rich and famous. Chopin and Sand remained fairly close, although as the years went by there was a gradual cooling of the waters. By 1845 she was freely “associating” with other men.
Turning in on himself, Chopin’s music became increasingly introspective and daringly experimental. Throughout the expansive F minor Ballade and E major Scherzo, ideas emerge as if part of a stream of musical consciousness rather than obeying precise formal rules.
By now his relationship with George Sand was on the rocks. Things were finally brought to a head the following year when Chopin took the side of George’s daughter, Solange, against her mother in a family feud. Sand was outraged and became convinced that the composer secretly hankered after Solange. She dismissed Chopin first in a vitriolic letter that he later destroyed, and then rather more calmly a week later: “Look after her [Solange] then… I’ve had enough of being a dupe and a victim.”
The affair was over and Chopin was mortified. During the first weeks of 1848 he rallied himself enough to give his last ever Paris recital, a supreme achievement that left him almost unconscious. Only a week later Paris found itself once again embroiled in revolution, so that when Chopin’s pupil Jane Stirling unexpectedly invited him to come to England to give a series of concerts, he needed no persuading.
The effort nearly killed him, yet he sustained an exhausting round of social engagements and recitals between April and November.
“He accomplished enormous difficulties,” the Daily News enthused, “but so smoothly and with such constant delicacy and refinement that the listener is quite unaware of their real magnitude.”
But by now the end was in sight. Returning to Paris, a brief period of remission enabled Chopin to maintain some quality of life during the following spring, but then began a fairly rapid decline despite the unceasing efforts of friends and well-wishers who maintained an almost round-the-clock vigil by his bedside.
He passed away peacefully at 2am on the morning of October 17. He lies buried in the cemetery of Père-Lachaise where his gravestone is covered daily in fresh flowers brought by devoted admirers from around the world.
The key to Chopin’s art remains as elusive as ever, yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of his work is the dichotomy that existed between the apparently effortless lucidity of his music and the agonising that went into its creation. According to Sand, “He would lock himself in his room for whole days, changing a single bar a hundred times. He would work for several weeks on just a single side.”
Perhaps most poignant of all is Chopin’s confession that he literally had to “wrench mazurkas from a heart that is inwardly torn.”
He remains one of music’s most unique and treasurable talents.