Happy Birthday Frederic Chopin!

Happy Birthday Frederic Chopin

Happy Birthday Chopin!

The Polish composer Frederic Chopin was born on this day in 1810. He was a highly accomplished pianist of the Romantic period, and composed mostly for solo piano.

He was the second child to his parents Nicolas and Justyna. At 6 months old, his family moved to Warsaw, where his father acquired a post teaching French in the grounds of the Saxon Palace. Nicolas played the flute and violin, while Frederic’s mother played the piano, giving lessons to the children who resided in the boarding house that the Chopins kept.

Chopin may have had some piano lessons from his mother at an early age, but his first professional music tutor was a Czech pianist called Wojciech Zywny. It was quickly apparent that Chopin was a child prodigy. By the age of 7, he was giving public concerts, and in 1817 he composed two polonaises.

From 1823 to 1826, Chopin attended the Warsaw Lyceum where he received organ lessons. In the autumn of 1826 he began a three-year course studying music theory, figured bass and composition. He continued to compose and perform. In May 1825 he performed his own improvisation on an instrument known as an “aeolomelodicon” (a combination of piano and mechanical organ). This concert was such a success that it led to an invitation to perform before Tsar Alexander I of Russia, who was visiting Warsaw. The Tsar presented Chopin with a diamond ring.

In early 1829 Chopin met the singer Konstancja Gladkowska and developed an intense affection for her. After Chopin’s farewell concert in Warsaw in October 1830, the two exchanged rings and two weeks later she wrote in his album some affectionate lines bidding him farewell. After he left Warsaw, the two did not see each other, or speak to one another, again.

While still a student, Chopin visited Berlin in September 1828. Here, he attended concerts by Felix Mendelssohn among others. The following year, Chopin heard Niccolo Paganini play the violin, and he composed a set of variations named Souvenir de Paganini. It is thought that it was the experience of hearing Paganini play which encouraged Chopin to explore the full capabilities of his own instrument, the piano.

In 1831 Chopin found himself in Paris. Here, he encountered many artists and distinguished figures. He would become acquainted with – among others – Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Friedrich Kalkbrenner. The latter introduced him to the piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel. This was the beginning of a long and close association between the composer and Pleyel’s instruments.

In December 1831 he received his first major endorsement from a contemporary, when Robert Schumann reviewed his music by saying “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” By the end of the following year, Chopin was sufficiently established among the Parisian musical elite and had earned the respect of most of his peers. He began earning a healthy income from publishing his works and from teaching piano to wealthy students from all over Europe. This freed him from having to perform in public concerts, which he disliked.

Chopin and fellow composer Franz Liszt became friends in the 1830s. For many years they lived close to each other in Paris. They performed together on seven occasions betweem 1833 and 1841. Although the two displayed great respect and admitation for each other, it has been said that their friendship had some qualities of a love-hate relationship. It is believed that Chopin was jealous of Liszt’s virtuosity on the piano. In 1843, Chopin expressed annoyance when Liszt performed one of his nocturnes with numerous intricate embellishments. Chopin remarked that he should “play the music as written or not play it at all.” After this, the two men had little to do with each other.

Even as a child, Chopin had been sickly and prone to illness. From 1842 onwards, he began to show signs of serious illness. Modern research has suggested that – in addition to any other illnesses – he may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.

As Chopin’s health deteriorated, so did his musical output. In 1844 he wrote only one piece, the Op. 58 sonata. His public popularity as a virtuoso began to wane, as did the number of his piano students. This caused him to struggle financially. He left Paris for London in April 1848 and took up residence at Dover Street. At his first engagement in England the audience included Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Prince Albert was a keen musician himself, and was reported to have moved closer to the piano so as to view Chopin’s technique.

Chopin made his last public appearance on a concert platform at London’s Guildhall on 16th November 1848 when he played for the benefit of Polish refugees. By this time he was very seriously ill, weighing under 99lb and his doctors were aware that he was terminally ill. He returned to Paris in November. The following year at his Parisian home, surrounded by a handful of his closest friends and his sister, he died on 17th October. He was just 39 years old. His official cause of death was given as tuberculosis.

His funeral was held in Paris on 30th October. Entrance was restricted to ticket-holders, as many people were expected to attend. Over 3,000 people arrived from all over Europe, without invitation.

Over 230 of Chopin’s works survive today. All his known works involve the piano, and only a few range beyond solo piano. Chopin was educated in the tradition of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Clementi – he used Clementi’s piano method with his students. He cited Bach and Mozart as the two most important composers in shaping his musical outlook. He was the first to write ballades, and established a new genre with his own set of free-standing preludes. Some of his well-known pieces have aquired descriptive titles (such as the Revolutionary Etude), but except for his Funeral March, Chopin never named an instrumental work beyond genre and number.

On his deathbed, Chopin expressed a wish that all his unpublished manuscripts be destroyed. But at the request of his mother and sister, 23 unpublished piano pieces were selected and grouped into eight further opus numbers, and were published in 1855.

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