1810 — 1849
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Frédéric Chopin was one of the leading 19th century composers. His music combines an affinity for beautiful melody-writing, a colourful harmonic sense, a profound understanding of form and virtuosic piano technique. His works represent the essence of the romantic piano and its sheer expressive and technical possibilities. His is one of the most radical and influentially prominent minds of the post-Beethovenian era.
Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810 into a middle class family who saw education and morality as fundamental in life. The family moved in professional, academic and aristocratic social circles and Chopin’s talent at the piano gained him status in the salons at the top tier of Polish society. He was a regular performer both at private gatherings and in public while still a child – he was essentially seen as a second Mozart.
Through his Warsaw-era pieces, we can see the influence of the Viennese Classical composers and Bach, stemming from Chopin’s conservatory training in counterpoint and the practice of sonata form composition. Chopin’s piano concertos are the middle point between classical and post classical styles, which is apparent in the F minor concerto op. 21, which was his first one.
After graduating from high school, he began to find Warsaw rather provincial and took a long-craved venture farther afield, at first on a short two-concert trip to Vienna and then on a lengthy European concert tour. It was on his second trip to Vienna that he became increasingly aware of his ‘Polishness’ in composing and subsequently went on to compose his first nine Mazurkas in which a new distinct genre emerged. In his early Mazurkas, Chopin turned to the rhythmic and modal patterns of the Mazovian plains in central Poland. His contact with folk tunes was not direct, but through the more popular music heard at salons. At a young age, Chopin made this genre his own.
Later on he was also able to re-define the polonaise as something specifically Polish, with a new nationalist aesthetic and less related to the older polonaises of Mozart or Hummel. Chopin’s earliest compositions, especially his polonaises, were among the favourite genre of the 19th century Polish salon. His early polonaises show that he was able to assimilate the standard materials of bravura pianism, essentially an insight into virtuoso figuration, arpeggio-based passage-work, trills and hand crossings and there are seven of them composed in this vain as well as thePolonaise brillante op. 3 for cello and piano. This brilliant style reached one of its peaks with theGrande polonaise brillante op. 22 for piano and orchestra. The final essay in this genre, theVariations brillantes, op.12 on a theme of Hérold was composed in Paris in 1832. In these pieces, we can perceive a young Chopin preparing himself for a career as a musician-composer.
The prospect of going back to Warsaw by this time was no longer viable due to the aftermath of the November Uprising in partitioned Poland against the Russian Empire. Fortunately, in Paris he felt at home from the beginning. There, it seemed, sympathy for the Polish plight was fashionable at the time, unlike in Vienna, where he had been unable to secure concerts for himself. Chopin played his first Paris concert in February 1832, at the Salle Pleyel and his repertoire included his E minor concerto. It resulted in a favourable review by Fétis, leading to admiration by the likes of Lizst and Berlioz. By the end of that year he was in great demand socially, to such an extent that he could charge exorbitant fees for the lessons he gave. By late 1834, he had settled into a routine of teaching, composing and performing, but he started to refuse public appearances, despite their positive critical reception. By 1835, he saw himself as a composer rather than a performer and the critics indeed noted the evidence of a composer of substance.
Four of the familiar genres that Chopin famously used – mazurka, nocturne, étude and waltz – were already in their maturity before Chopin arrived in Paris. Chopin refined the mazurka genre, enriching the salon dance piece with sophistication and complexity. When Irish composer John Field published his nocturnes in 1812, the nocturne was not yet a formal genre and it was Field who initiated that archetype of style. By the 1820s, there was more consistency in the works of composers associated with Field. It is as if Chopin continues this legacy of the nocturne that Field had begun. Chopin’s nocturnes are very well structured and have considerably more emotional profundity than those of Field and many of the nocturnes’ middle sections are characterised by agitated expression and a high level of technical demands, which adds to their dramatic nature.
Chopin died on the 17th of October 1849 in Paris after a long illness. His funeral, held at the Church of Madeleine in Paris, was delayed almost two weeks. Entrance was limited to ticket holders and over 3,000 mourners made their way to Paris to pay their respects, from as far away as London, Berlin and Vienna.