Though he wrote no operas, oratorios or symphonies – nothing, in fact, that did not involve a piano – Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was one of the supreme composers of the 19th century. His life – and death at the age of 39 – is almost the archetypal story of the tragic Romantic artist. His gifts as a pianist and improviser as much as his music brought him fame during his lifetime, but the beauty of his melodies has maintained his popularity ever since. Chopin has a reputation for being an exquisite miniaturist, but he was much more than that: his approach to playing and composing for the piano and his remarkable imagination for keyboard colour and texture – as well as his often startlingly original treatment of harmony and form – left their imprint on piano music well into the next century.
The music you might recognise
Whether it’s the “Minute Waltz”, which for decades has introduced the BBC panel show Just a Minute, or the most popular of all the nocturnes, Op 9 no 2 in E flat, used as the evocative soundtrack for so many TV adverts and dramas, Chopin’s music has been regularly raided for other purposes. The slow movement of the B flat minor Piano Sonata has become one of the best known of all funeral marches. While more or less disguised, his works have provided the basis of many popular songs, from the 1917 vaudeville number I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, which uses the theme from the slow central section of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu Op 66, to Barry Manilow’s Could It Be Magic, taken from the C minor Prelude Op 28 no 20.
Chopin’s music has been used for many ballets, most famously in Les Sylphides, which is danced to orchestrations by Glazunov. And a fictionalised version of Chopin’s life was depicted in the 1945 feature film A Song to Remember, directed by Charles Vidor with Cornel Wilde as the composer, as well as in the rather less memorable 1991 Impromptu, in which Hugh Grant took the lead.
His life ...
Chopin grew up in Warsaw; his mother was Polish, his father a French émigré who had been a tutor to the children of the Polish nobility and taught at the Warsaw Lyceum, which Frédéric (or Fryderyk as he was then) also attended from 1823. He was always a sickly child (though when and where he contracted the tuberculosis that would be the main cause of his early death remains unclear), but he was soon marked out as a musical prodigy; initially taught by his mother, he gave his first concerts at the age of seven in 1817, and wrote his earliest pieces, polonaises that are now lost, the same year. Throughout his education he continued to compose and give concerts, and took his first trip abroad, to Berlin, in 1828; he made his debut in Vienna the following year, shortly after graduating from the Warsaw Conservatory. In 1830, while en route to Italy, he heard of the Polish uprising against Russian rule.
By the autumn of the following year the uprising had been crushed, but by then Chopin was heading for Paris. He had already composed his two piano concertos, which he’d performed in Warsaw in 1830 (the second a few months before the first). These are the first works in which his personal musical voice really begins to show itself, as well as in his first set of mazurkas (Op 6). Also, perhaps as a result of hearing a concert by the great violin virtuoso Paganini, he had begun the Op 10 set of Etudes, which were published in Paris in 1833.
Chopin never returned to Poland, and became a French citizen in 1835, but he always regarded himself as Polish, and apparently spoke French only reluctantly. He asserted his nationalism in his music, too, using Polish folk tunes as themes in many of his works and frequently returning to the country’s dances such as the mazurka and the polonaise. He composed mazurkas throughout his life, more than 60 of them, some of which were only published after his death and others that have been lost; he made the tiny forms particularly personal statements, full of rhythmic and harmonic adventures, while his series of polonaises culminated, in 1846, in one of his greatest achievements, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, which takes the dance form very far from its native roots.
Soon after he settled in Paris, Chopin’s flashy Op 2 Variations on Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” were glowingly reviewed by Robert Schumann – “Hats off gentlemen! A genius!” – and soon after he made his recital debut in the city, which established him in the capital’s musical life. He met leading composers, including Berlioz, Rossini, Cherubini, and especially Liszt, who lived just a few blocks away and would become a close friend; Chopin dedicated his Op 10 Etudes to him.
The 18 years that Chopin was to spend in Paris coincided with the reign of France’s last king, Louis-Philippe, which was brought to an end by the revolution of 1848. The city prospered during those years – the railway arrived, enabling people from the provinces to visit the capital to shop in its boutiques and arcades – and while the poorer areas became ever more overcrowded, the middle class grew in wealth and importance. Chopin was soon earning a good living, too, publishing his own music and giving piano lessons. Generally he avoided appearing in public concerts – hardly playing more than 30 in his entire adult life – preferring instead to play at the private salons that were a feature of Parisian high society in the early 19th century, where his programmes mixed his own works with extended improvisations.
In 1836 he became engaged to the 16-year-old Maria Wodzińska, whom he had first met in Poland when she was 11, and it was on one of his journeys to visit Maria and her family that he stopped off in Leipzig and met Schumann for the first time; on a second visit he presented him with the score of his G minor Ballade.
Early in 1837, though, Maria’s mother wrote to Chopin putting an end to her daughter’s engagement, perhaps because she had heard rumours that he was already involved with the novelist George Sand (real name Aurore Dupin), six years older than him, whom he had met the previous year. Chopin and Sand’s relationship began in 1838, and they spent the winter of 1838-39 together in Mallorca, hoping that the climate would be good for Chopin’s failing health. Though the couple generally had a miserable time there and Chopin’s health did not improve, he was able to compose, completing the Op 24 Preludes, and beginning work on the F major Ballade Op 38 and the C sharp minor Scherzo Op 39, among other pieces.
Over the next nine years, winters were spent in Paris (where the couple maintained separate apartments) and summers at Sand’s estate at Nohant in central France, where their visitors included the novelists Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert, the mezzo soprano Pauline Viardot and the painter Delacroix, who painted a portrait of Chopin and Sand together; though the picture was sawn in two after the artist’s death, it remains the best surviving image of the composer. In the 1840s Chopin sat for at least a couple of daguerreotypes, the early form of photograph that became so popular in France at that time, but those were lost during the second world war. Another daguerreotype, made in 1847 and rediscovered in 2016, is claimed to be of the composer.
Chopin’s relationship with Sand was always a turbulent one, and he eventually ended it in 1848; they never met again. But their early years together were perhaps the most creative period in Chopin’s career, though as his health got worse his productivity diminished. In 1844 he completed just one work, the B minor Piano Sonata Op 58, and his popularity as a virtuoso and as a teacher was beginning to wane too; the manual on piano technique he always intended to write was never finished. In 1848 he took refuge from the Paris Revolution in Britain, where he gave recitals and played at grand houses in England and Scotland, including his last ever public concert, at the Guildhall in the City of London in aid of Polish refugees. He died in Paris the following year.
Why his music still matters
With the exception of the piano concerto, to which he never returned after the two he composed in his teens, Chopin transformed every musical form that he explored. His 24 Preludes may have been modelled on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but each piece expresses a single musical idea in an intensely concentrated nugget of lyricism, while the fierce seriousness of his four Scherzos goes far beyond the range of the symphonic scherzo movements of his time.
And though Chopin did not invent the nocturne – the form was inherited from the Irish composer John Field – his 21 examples took it to unprecedented expressive heights, with weightless, floating melodic lines modelled on the vocal style of bel canto opera composers such as Bellini. But his works never relied upon extra-musical associations to intensify their effect; even the Ballades, a form that Chopin invented as a purely instrumental genre, generate their dramatic power through their musical architecture.
Piano music was never the same again after Chopin, and in the 50 years after his death, few composers who wrote for the instrument were immune to his influence, while it was carried into the next century by composers such as Scriabin and Rachmaninov in Russia, and Debussy and Fauré in France.
Any list of Chopin’s foremost interpreters on disc is effectively a list of the great pianists of the last century. But the name of Arthur Rubinstein became almost synonymous with Chopin playing in the mid-20th century, while the handful of recordings by Dinu Lipatti reveal a very special talent that was never entirely fulfilled. Sviatoslav Richter was typically selective in what he chose to perform, but what is on record is magnificent, while the generation of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich, followed by Krystian Zimerman, Murray Perahia and Maria João Pires, has been a particularly gifted one as far as Chopin interpretation is concerned.