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In his homeland: 1810–30.
KORNEL MICHAŁ OWSKI/JIM SAMSON
Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek [Fré dé ric Franç ois]
(b Ż elazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer's the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.
1. In his homeland: 1810–30.
2. New frontiers: 1830–34.
3. The best society: 1834–9.
4. Years of refuge: 1839–45.
5. Twilight: 1845–9.
6. Formative influences.
7. Piano writing.
8. Musical style.
10. Sources and editions.
Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek
In his homeland: 1810–30.
Chopin was the second of four children born to Mikoł aj Chopin and Tekla Justyna Kryż anowska; according to the register of births his birth date was 22 February, but he and others always gave the date as 1 March. His parents met in 1802, when Mikoł aj, a Frenchman from Lorraine, was employed by Countess Justyna Skarbek as a tutor for her son (later to be Chopin's godfather) at her estate in Ż elazowa Wola, some 45 km west of Warsaw. Chopin's mother had been sent to the Skarbeks while still a girl. She was a distant relative and acted as a companion and housekeeper for Countess Justyna. The couple married in 1806 and remained with the Skarbek family until 1810, leaving for Warsaw when Chopin was seven months old. Mikoł aj had secured a post at the recently established Lyceum, housed in the Saxon Palace, and for more than six years the Chopins lived in an apartment in the right wing of the palace. They were a respected family, and reasonably well connected socially, not least because Mikoł aj was shrewd enough to cultivate the right people and to avoid offending those in positions of authority. It was a staunchly middle-class household, committed to a sound education, a well-developed sense of morality and an ethos of self-improvement. All four children benefited from a lively cultural milieu in which literary and musical interests were fostered.
In early childhood Chopin mixed socially with three principal groups of Warsaw society. First there were professional people, academics in particular. In 1817 the Lyceum moved to the Kazimierzowski Palace, next to the newly established University of Warsaw, and the Chopins took rooms in the right annex of the palace, where they mixed constantly with university teachers. Mikoł aj was part of a circle of Warsaw intelligentsia, whose salons had something of the character of literary or scientific gatherings, and it was through these contacts that the young Chopin was able to visit Berlin in 1828, his first glimpse of the world beyond Poland. Secondly there were the middle gentry (szlachta). Many of the Lyceum pupils were from this background, and several of them boarded with the Chopins. Even before he entered the Lyceum in 1823 (he was privately educated until the fourth class), Chopin became friendly with these boys, and several of the friendships were to prove enduring and important. Later, in his teenage years, he spent two summers (1824 and 1825) at the country home of one of the boarders, Dominik Dziewanowski. Much has been made of Chopin's documented contacts with folk music during these youthful visits to Szafarnia. But it is possible to overrate their significance. His contribution to musical nationalism was real and important, but it did not in the end hinge on the recovery of some notionally ‘authentic’ peasant music.
The third group with which Chopin mixed was the small handful of wealthy aristocratic families at the top of the social hierarchy in Poland. Here his passport was his talent, for as a gifted prodigy (a ‘second Mozart’) his fame rapidly spread, and he was much in demand at the salons of the best society. He was even a regular visitor to the Belvedere Palace, home of the notoriously unpopular Viceroy of Poland, Grand Duke Constantin. Aside from such salon performances, he made occasional public appearances, including a performance of a Gyrowetz concerto at the Radziwił ł Palace in February 1818. Already by then he was a published composer. Two polonaises from 1817 have survived, and one of them (in G minor) was lithographed by Canon Izydor Cybulski. The Warsaw press responded with a eulogy: ‘The composer of this Polish dance, a young lad barely eight years old, is … a true musical genius’. Of his other early works, it is worth singling out a Polonaise in A major of 1821, not least because it is the first of Chopin's surviving autographs. It was dedicated to his teacher Wojciech (Adalbert) Ż ywny, one of several Czech musicians then living in Warsaw. Reports on Ż ywny's teaching are somewhat mixed, but at the very least he did Chopin the service of introducing him to Bach and to ‘Viennese’ Classicism. He taught Chopin from 1816 to 1821, at which point he no doubt realized that his most gifted pupil needed to move on.
It is likely that Chopin had private lessons with Jó zef Elsner for several years before entering the High School of Music (lessons were held at the university and the conservatory), of which Elsner was rector, in 1826. We know that Elsner introduced him to a harmony textbook by Karol Antoni Simon in 1823, for instance, and this may have been the trigger for sporadic lessons in music theory. In the same year he began to take organ lessons from Wilhelm Wü rfel, an eminent pianist on Elsner's staff at the High School. Yet in all important respects he was self-taught as a performer. Neither Ż ywny nor Elsner had much to offer on keyboard technique, and it may well be that Chopin's highly individual approach to teaching and playing in later life resulted in part from this unorthodox background. His High School years, on the other hand, gave him a rigorous training in composition, though there is some suggestion that in the later stages of the course Elsner may have allowed him more freedom to follow his own inclinations than was usual for High School students. In any event, his final report, written in July 1829, left no doubt about Chopin's acumen: ‘Chopin F., third year student, exceptional talent, musical genius’.
It was clear at this point that Poland had little further to offer Chopin, and when the Education Ministry turned down an application for funds to study abroad the composer grew increasingly restless in his native city. There were concert series in Warsaw, and regular visits from virtuosos en route to St Petersburg, as well as a tolerable opera repertory at the National Theatre. But in comparison with Europe's cultural capitals, the town had a provincial feel. That was brought home to Chopin when he paid a short visit to Vienna immediately after his graduation from the High School, especially as he managed – more by luck than planning – to secure two well-received public concerts in the Austrian capital. After the first concert, at which he played the Variations op.2, he wrote home that ‘everyone clapped so loudly after each variation that I had difficulty hearing the orchestral tutti’. On his return to Poland he gave numerous salon and concert performances, but the pressure to give a big public concert in Warsaw steadily mounted. In the end he succumbed and gave the F minor Concerto to an audience of 900 people on 17 March 1830. Later in the year (11 October) he followed this with a second concert at which he played the E minor Concerto. The publicity surrounding these concerts, especially the first, was distasteful to Chopin, and may well have strengthened his growing conviction that the conventional path of the public pianist-composer was not for him. On the other hand, alternative career paths were by no means obvious.
This uncertainty about his future was no doubt a principal factor in the depression Chopin suffered during his final year in Warsaw. But he was also troubled by emotional insecurities of a kind that are by no means unusual among 19-year-olds. He decided that he was in love with a young singer Konstancja Gł adkowska, but apparently did little to make her aware of his feelings. Indeed he found it much easier to communicate emotionally with men than with women in these days, and perhaps in later years too. Before his premature death in 1828, Chopin's school friend Jan Biał obł ocki had been his principal confidant. That role was quickly taken over by another friend from the Lyceum years, Tytus Woyciechowski, and it was in letters to Tytus that Chopin poured out his heart over Konstancja. The letters reveal him as emotionally fragile and indecisive, all too ready to lean on his more robust and self-assured friend. Fittingly, it was in the company of Tytus that he finally ventured on a much planned (and often postponed) journey to Vienna on 1 November 1830, though at the time he had no reason to think that it would be his last contact with Poland.
Chopin, Fryderyk Franciszek