1902 Encyclopedia > Frédéric Chopin

Frédéric François Chopin
Polish-French composer

FREDERIC-FRANÇOIS CHOPIN (1810-1849), a celebrated composer and pianist, was born at Zelazowa-Wola, near Warsaw, on February 8, 1810. His family was of French origin, but in spite of this he has became the greatest and the most national exponent of Slavonic or more especially Polish nationality in music. In looking through the list of his composition, teeming with mazurkas, valses, polonaises, and other forms of national dance music, one could hardly suppose that here one of the most melancholy natures had revealed itself. This seeming paradox is solved by the type of Chopin’s nationality, a nationality of which it has justly been said that its very dances are sadness intensified. But notwithstanding this strongly pronounced national type of his compositions, his music is always expressive of his individual feelings and sufferings to a degree rarely met with in the annals of the art. He is indeed the lyrical composer par excellence of the modern school, and the intensity of his expression finds its equal in literature only in the songs of Heinrich Heinem to whom Chopin has been justly compared. A sensation of such high-strung passion cannot be prolonged. Hence we see that the shorter forms of music, the élude, the norturne, besides the national dances already alluded to, are chosen by Chopin in preference. Even where he treats the larger forms of the concerto or the sonata, this concentrated not to say pointed character of Chopin’s style becomes obvious. The more extended dimensions seems to encumber the freedom of his movements. The concerto for pianoforte with accompaniment of the orchestra in E may be instanced. Here the adagio takes the form of a romance, and in the final rondo the rhythm of a Polish dance becomes recognizable while the instrumentation throughout is meager and warning in colour. Chopin is out of his element, and even the beauty of his melodies and harmonies cannot wholly banish the impression of incongruity. Fortunately he himself knew the limits of his power, and with very few exceptions his works belongs to that class of minor compositions of which he was an unrivalled master. Barring a collection of Polish songs, two concertos, and a very small number of concerted pieces of chamber music, almost all his works are written for the pianoforte solo; the symphony, the oratorio, the opera he never attempted.

The outer life of Chopin was exceedingly simple and almost totally wanting in incident of any kind. His first musical education he received from a Polish musician of the name of Ziwma, who is said to have been a passionate admirer of J.S. Bach. He also received a good general education at one of the first colleges of Warsaw, where he was supported by the liberality of Prince Antoine Radziwill, a generous protector of artistic talent and himself well known as the composer of music to Goethe’s Faust and other works. His musical genius opened to Chopin the best circles of Polish society, a society at that time unrivalled in Europe for its ease of intercourse, the beauty and grace of its women, and its liberal appreciation of artistic gifts. These early impressions or refined life were of lasting influence on Chopin’s development both as a man and as an artist. He never was and never wished to be a popular composer; his works are full of the subtlest touches of sentiment, they breathe indeed the perfume of the salon, and it is the sign of highest power in Chopin that his artistic nature could live in, and even derive new vitality from this dangerous atmosphere. While at college he received thorough instruction in the theory of his art from Joseph Elsner’s learned musician and director of the conservatoire at Warsaw. When in 1829 he left his native town for Vienna, where his début as a pianists took place, he was in all respects a perfectly formed and developed artists. This feature again is characteristic of Chopin;s work. There is in his compositions little of that gradual progress which, for instance, in Beethoven necessitates a classification of his works according to different periods. Chopin’s individuality and his style were distinctly pronounced in that first Don Giovanni Fantasia which exited the wondering enthusiasm of Robert Schumann. The same mine of sentiment he worked ever after, but it was one of unbounded wealth. His first appearance in public seems to have been marked by considerable success. A correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, at that time the first organ of music in Germany, writing from Vienna, November 1829, says that "M. Chopin has placed himself in the first rank of pianists," and goes on to speak in enthusiastic terms of "his delicacy of touch, his rare mechanical dexterity, the melancholy tints of his nuances, and the splendid clearness of his phrasing." In 1831 he left Vienna with the intention of visiting London; but on his way to England he reached Paris and settled there for the rest of his life. Here again he soon became the favourite and musical hero or society. His connection with Madame Dudevant, better known by her literary pseudonym of George Sand, is an important feature of Chopin’s life. When in 1837 his health began to fail, George Sand went with him to Majorca, and it was mainly owing to her tender care that the composer recovered is health for a time. The last ten years of his life were a continual struggle with the pulmonary disease to which he succumbed October 17, 1849. The year before his death he visited England, where he was received with enthusiasm by his numerous admirers. A distinguished English amateur thus records his impressions of Chopin’s style of pianoforte-playing compared with those of other masters. "His technical characteristics may be broadly indicated as negation of bravura, absolute perfection of finger-play, and of the legatissimo touch, on which no other pianist has ever so entirely leant, to the exclusion of that high relief and point which the modern German school, after the examples of Liszt and Thalberg, has so effectively developed. It is in these features that we must recognize that Grundvershiedenheit (fundamental difference) which according to Mendelssohn distinguished Chopin’ playing from that of these masters, and in no less degree from the example and teaching of Moscheles…Imagine a delicate man of extreme refinement of mien and manner, sitting at the piano and playing with no sway of the body and scarcely any movement of the arms, depending entirely upon his narrow feminine hands and slender fingers. The wide arpeggios in the left had, maintained in a continuous stream of tone by the strict legato and fine and constant use of the damper-pedal, formed an harmonious substructure for a wonderfully poetic cantabile. His delicate pianissimo, the ever-changing modifications of tone and time (tempo rubato) were of indescribable effect. Even in energetic passages he scarcely ever exceeded an ordinary mezzoforte. His playing as a whole was unique in its kind, and no traditions of it can remain, for there is no school of Chopin the pianist, for the obvious reason that he could never be regarded as a public player, and his best pupils were nearly all amateurs."

A detailed analysis of Chopin’s single works world be impossible. The following is a list of the most important of his compositions:—Two concertos for pianoforte, with orchestra, in E minor (Op. 11) and F minor (Op. 21) respectively; trio for pianoforte and strings, in G minor (Op. 8); three sonatas for pianoforte solo (Op. 4, 35, 58); one for pianoforte and violoncello (Op. 65), G. minor; fifty-two mazurkas, contained in the collections numbered Op. 6, 7, 17, 24, 30, 33, 41, 50, 56, 59, 63, 67, 68 (Nos. 50-52 without number of Op); etudes 9op. 10, 25); nocturnes (op. 9, 15, 27, 32, 37, 48, 55, 62, 72); preludes (Op. 28, 45); polonaises (Op. 3, 22, 26, 40, 44, 53, 61, 71); valses (Op. 18, 34, 42, 64, 69, 70); besides numerous variations, impromptus, and other miscellaneous compositions, also settings of seventeen Polich national songs for one voice, with pianoforte accompaniment. Franz Liszt has written a charming sketch of Chopin’s life and art (F. Chopin, par F. Liszt, Paris, 1851), and a very appreciative though somewhat eccentric analysis of his work appeared anonymously in 1842 (An Essay on the Works of Frederic Chopin, London). A complete and excellent collection of Chopin’s pianoforte works is 6 vols. Has been edited by K. Klindworth. (F. H.)

The above article was written by Francis Hueffer, Ph.D., formerly musical critic of The Times; author of The Troubadours: a History of Provençal Life and Literature in the Middle Ages and Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future; editor of Great Musicians.

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