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Classical Composers A-Z: Frederick Chopin

Peter Wintersgill outlines the life of Frederick Chopin, who was already composing significant works for the piano when he was ten years old.

Born
22nd February, 1810, in Zelakowa, near Warsaw

Father
Nicolas, French, teacher of French in Polish schools.

Mother
Justyana, Polish

Family
An older sister Ludwika, two younger sisters Isabella and Emilia.

Childhood
He showed early interest and ability in music, starting the piano and composing about the age of seven. Composed the Polonaise in G minor and a march for the Russian Grand Duke Constantine aged 10. Had lessons from Joseph Eisner, Director of the Warsaw Conservatoire from the age of 12. At fifteen wrote the Rondo in C minor and was presented with a diamond ring by the Tzar.

Adolescence
At seventeen he wrote the Rondo a la Mazur. At nineteen he gave recitals in Berlin and Vienna, met the pianist-composer Hummel and the violinist Paganini. At twenty he wrote the Rondo, his two piano concertos, no. 2 (written first) in F minor, no. 1 in E minor. He played no. 2 at his first public concert in Warsaw in 1830.

In the same year he fell in love with a young singer Konstanja Gladkowska. He left Poland and travelled to Dresden, Prague and Vienna. On hearing that Warsaw had been taken by the Russians, he left for Paris, arriving there in September 1831, where he was to spend the rest of his life. In 1828 he wrote the Fantasy on Polish Airs and the Rondo a la Krakowiak.

Adult Life
He met other musicians in Paris, e.g. Liszt, Berlioz and Mendelssohn. He was influenced in his music by Hummel and John Field, the Irish composer of Nocturnes, whom he soundly beat at his own game. He also wrote Polish dances, e.g. Polonaises and Mazurkas. Schumann, whom he also met, admired his music very much, writing of him in his journal "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!" However Chopin didn't admire Schumann's music and so could not return the compliment!

He met many Polish aristocrats in Paris and was soon at home in high society. He again fell in love, with a Polish girl, Marya Zodzinska, but the affair did not last long.

He was introduced by Liszt to the notorious woman novelist George Sand (real name Aurore Dudevant), who had two children, an absentee husband and wore trousers and smoked cigars. She was very managing and very possessive and soon possessed Chopin. The following year, 1838, they went to Majorca for the winter, hoping it would improve Chopin's health.

However it was so cold and damp in Majorca that his health grew worse rather than better. There is some doubt about the actual cause of this - see a later chapter, Composition and Decomposition. Before leaving some three months later, in February 1839, he managed to finish several compositions, e.g. the C minor scherzo and Bb minor sonata.


Eventually he made the mistake of interfering in a family quarrel over the daughter and the whole relationship, which had lasted ten years, came to an end. He went to London in 1848 and embarked on a concert tour of Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. While there he was invited to stay with Lord Torphicen, the brother-in-law of Jane Stirling, a pupil of his who was looking after him.

When he returned to London his health was
worse than ever, the tour must have taxed his reserves of strength and he was glad to get back to Paris. In his present state he was unable to play at concerts, or even compose and he got very short of money. Fortunately his friends rallied round, including Jane Stirling, who had hopes of marrying him, vainly as it turned out.

He had a brief remission and was able to write two mazurkas, which were published posthumously. Eventually his sister Ludwiga came to look after him. He went rapidly down hill and died on 17th October, 1849, aged 39.
At his funeral two weeks later, Mozart's Requiem was played at his own request.

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