Understanding Chopin……..

I have always loved classical music. It was hearing Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 in C# minor (more commonly known as the Moonlight Sonata) at the young age of 4 that first made me interested in piano music in particular. During my childhood and teenage years I listened to more of Beethoven’s music and loved it; other composers barely got a look in. Like many people I recognised a lot of classical music pieces but didn’t know the name or the composer of them. I knew Chopin by name but it wasn’t until the movie ‘The Pianist’ was released that I learned to connect his music to his name.

Chopin predominantly wrote for the piano which makes him unique among composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. Chopin composed his music during the Romantic period. During this time the range of the piano was increased and its tonal power improved. As a result the piano became the most popular solo instrument. There is something very freeing about Chopin’s music. No longer confined to the strict phrasing and a consistent tempo that were popular in the Classical period, Chopin was able to express his music exactly how he felt it. Often his inspiration came from Polish folk tunes and these can be found in Polonaises. For me though it is the beauty of the Nocturnes that move me the most. As I’m a miserable so and so, the Nocturnes in the minor keys really touch my heart with their melancholia.

It wasn’t until I read a very long biography about Chopin that I feel I now understand the man behind the music. I’ve decided to share a very brief overview of his life in the hope that anyone reading this will feel the same.

The Life of Chopin 

Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1810 in Żelazowa Wola, Poland. Chopin was a sickly child and is thought to have had many food intolerances. As an adult he reached the height of 5 foot 7 inches but weighed less that 99lbs. His incredible gift for music was evident at a very early age and although he had a couple of piano teachers his prodigious talent for the instrument meant that they were rendered unnecessary. In 1826 he attended a three year course at the Warsaw Conservatory under the composer Józef Elsner. He continued to compose during this time and performed in local salons and concerts. In 1826 Chopin fell very ill for 6 months and later in 1830 a chronic cold led to him having cancel several concerts. It is likely that Chopin already had tuberculosis at this time.

Fryderyk Chopin

In 1830 he left Poland and although he didn’t know it at the time, he would never return. He settled in Paris in late 1831. It is not known exactly when Chopin met the fellow composer Franz Lizst but it is known that he was in attendance at Chopin’s Parisian debut on 26th February 1832 at the Salle Pleyel. Lizst said after the performance that “The most vigorous applause seemed not to suffice to our enthusiasm in the presence of this talented musician, who revealed a new phase of poetic sentiment combined with such happy innovation in the form of his art.” Chopin and Lizst had great respect and admiration for each other but it is known that their was a fierce love-hate relationship between the pair.

Due to Chopin’s delicate health it was often said that Chopin’s piano playing lacked the strength and vigour necessary for concert hall performances. However no one was in any doubt of his virtuosity and unique talent.

From 1842 onwards Chopin’s health deteriorated to the point that he had to spend many hours a day laying in bed and was in a lot of pain for most of the time. His mood would lift when he was able to play the piano but as time went on this became more difficult. A seven month visit to Great Britain 1848 under the care of his friend Jane Stirling where he had to perform to many of his friend’s acquaintances led to a very rapid decline in his health. He returned to Paris in the November of 1848. It was obvious by now that his tuberculosis had entered its terminal phase. In June 1849 his sister Ludwika came to Paris to look after him. Due to not being able to teach or perform he was now penniless. It is known that Jane Stirling supported Chopin during this time with a loan. Only his sister, his physician and a handful of friends remained with Chopin to the end. On 17th October after midnight his physician asked him if he was suffering greatly and Chopin replied ‘No longer’. Fryderyk Chopin died at a couple of minutes to two in the morning.

At Chopin’s request his heart was removed prior to his burial in Paris and was returned home to Poland where it was interred in a pillar at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.

Fryderyk Chopin requested that all of his unpublished manuscripts be collected together and burned. He didn’t want any of his music that he hadn’t completely perfected to be released to the public. Fortunately his sister, Ludwika thought differently. All of his manuscripts were collected into a suitcase and were entrusted to Chopin’s friend Julian Fontana. Chopin’s family gave Julian Fontana permission to publish any music he felt of sufficient quality. Among these pieces were two Nocturnes. The first was the Nocturne in C# minor that features heavily in the film score of ‘The Pianist’. The second was the Nocturne in E minor which, for me is perhaps the most beautiful piece of all. I can only hope to do it justice in the future.