WHAT would the piano playing world do without the music of Frederic Chopin? We can hardly think of the piano without thinking of Chopin, since he wrote almost exclusively for the universal instrument. His music touches the heart always rather than the head, the emotional message far outweighs the intellectual meaning. It is vital musiclove music, winning the heart by its tenderness, voicing the highest sentiments by its refinement, its purity, its perfection of detail and finish.
And the man who could compose with such refinement, with such appealing eloquence, must have possessed those qualities which shine out in his music. He must have been gentle, chivalrous, high-thoughted. We cannot avoid ex-pressing ourselves in our workin whatever we do.
The father of this beloved composer was a Frenchman, born in Nancy, Lorraine, in 1770, the same year Beethoven saw the light in Bonn. He was carefully brought up, well-bred and well-educated. When a friend of his in Warsaw, Poland, in the tobacco and snuff trade, then in high repute with the nobility, needed help with his bookkeeping, he sent for the seventeen-year-old lad. Thus it happened that Nicholas Chopin came to Warsaw in 1787. It was a time of unrest, when the nation was struggling for liberty and independence. The young man applied himself to master the language, and study the character and needs of his adopted country, that he might be well informed. During the period of insecurity in political affairs, the tobacco factory had to be closed and Nicholas Chopin looked for other activity. A few years later we find him in the household of Countess Skarbek, as a tutor to her son, Frederic. Here he met his bride, Justina de Krzyzanowska, a young lady of noble but poor family, whom he married in 1806. She became the mother of his four children, three girls and a boy.
The boy Frederic Chopin, was born on March 1, 1809, in the little village of Zelazowa Wola, belonging to the Countess Skarbek, about twenty-eight miles from Warsaw It is probable the family did not remain here long, for the young husband was on the lookout for more profitable employment. He was successful, for on October 1, 1810, he was appointed Professor of French in the newly founded Lyceum in Warsaw. He also soon organized a boarding school for boys in his own home, which was patronized by the best Polish families of the country.
Surrounded by refined, cultivated people, in an atmosphere at once moral and intellectual, little Frederic passed’ a fortunate childhood. He soon manifested such fondness for music, especially for the piano, that his parents allowed him to have lessons, his teacher being Adalbert Zywny, the best-known master of the city. It is related that Zywny only taught his little pupil first principles, for the child’s progress was so extraordinary that before long he had mastered all his teacher could impart, and at twelve he was left to shape his own musical destiny.
He early gave proofs of his talents. Before he was eight years old he played at a large evening company, with such surprising cleverness that it -was predicted he would become another Mozart. The next year he was invited to take part in a large concert given under distinguished patronage. The boy was a simple, modest child, and played the piano as the bird sings, with unconscious art. When he returned home after this concert, his mother asked: “What did the people like best?” and he answered naïvely : “Oh, mama, every one was looking at my collar.”
After this, little Frederic became more than ever the pet of the aristocracy of Warsaw; his charming manners, his unspoiled nature, his musical gifts made him welcome in princely homes. He had also begun to compose; indeed these efforts started soon after he began piano lessons, and before he could handle a pen. His teacher had to write down what the little composer played. Among those early pieces were mazurkas, polonaises, valses and the like. At the age of ten he dedicated a march to Grand Duke Constantine, who had it scored for band and played on parade. He started lessons in composition with Joseph Elsner, a celebrated teacher, who became a life-long adviser and friend.
Up to the age of fifteen, Frederic was taught at home, in his father’s school. He now entered the Warsaw Lyceum, and proved a good student, twice carrying off a prize. With this studiousness was joined a gaiety and sprightliness that manifested itself in all sorts of fun and mischief. He loved to play pranks on his sisters, comrades and others, and had a fondness for caricature, taking off the peculiarities of those about him with pose and pen. Indeed it was the opinion of a clever member of the profession, that the lad was born to become a great actor. All the young Chopins had a great fondness for literature and writing; they occasionally tried their hand at poetry, and the production of original one-act plays, written for birthday fetes and family parties.
The most important event of Frederic’s fifteenth year was the publication of his first composition for piano, a Rondo in C minor. This was soon followed by a set of Variations, Op. 2, on an air from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” In these early pieces, written perhaps even be-fore he was fifteen, we find the first stages of his peculiar style. Even at this early time he was pleased with chords that had the tones spread apart in extended harmony. As his hands were small he invented a contrivance which separated the fingers as far apart as possible, in order that he might. reach the new chords more easily. This he wore even during the night. The contrivance however, did not result in injury to his hands, as did Schumann’s efforts to strengthen his fourth finger.
In 1827, Chopin finished his studies at the Lyceum and determined to adopt music as his profession. He was now seventeen, of slender figure, finely cut features, high forehead, delicate brows above dreamy, soulful eyes. Though not weak or sickly, as some accounts make out, he was never very robust ; he would far rather lie under beautiful trees in delightful day dreams, than take long excursions afoot. One of his aversions was smoking or tobacco in any form; he never used it in his whole life. He was vivacious, active, hard working at music and reasonably healthy in early youth, but not of a hardy organism. His mother and sisters constantly cautioned him to wrap up in cold or damp weather, and like an obedient son and good brother, he obeyed.
Young Chopin greatly wished to travel and see something of the world. A much longed-for opportunity to visit Berlin came to him the following year. An old friend of his father’s, Dr. Jarocki, Professor in the Warsaw University, was invited to attend a Philosophic Congress, presided over by Alexander von Humboldt, to be held in that city. The good Professor was willing to take his friend’s son under his wing, and Frederic was quite beside himself with joy, for now he believed he could meet some of the musical celebrities of Berlin, and hear some great music. As to the latter his hopes were realized, but he did not meet many musicians, and could only gaze at them from a distance. It may have been a certain shyness and reticence that stood in the way, for he wrote home about a concert in the Singakademie: “Spontini, Zelter and Felix Mendelssohn were all there, but I spoke to none of these gentlemen, as I did not think it becoming to introduce myself.” Music and things connected with music, music-shops and piano factories, took up most of his time, as he declined to attend the meetings of the Congress.
“At the time of the Berlin visit,” writes Niecks, his biographer, “Chopin was a lively, well-educated, well-mannered youth, who walked through life, pleased with its motley garb, but as yet unconscious of the deeper truths, the immensities of joy and sadness, of love and hate, which lie beneath the surface.”
After a stay of two weeks in the Prussian capital, Professor Jarocki and Frederic started on their return to Poland. During the journey they were obliged to halt an hour for fresh horses. Chopin began to look about the little inn for some sort of amusement to while away the time. He soon discovered in a corner, an old piano, which proved to be in tune. Of course he lost no time, but sat down and began to improvise on Polish melodies. Soon his fellow passengers of the stage-coach began to drop in one after another; at last came the post master with his wife and pretty daughter. Even when the hour was up and the horses had been put to the chaise, they begged the young musician to go on and on. Although he remonstrated, saying it was now time to go, they protested so convincingly that the boy sat down again and resumed his playing. Afterwards wine was brought in and they all drank to the health of the young master. Chopin gave them a mazurka for farewell, then the tall post master caught him up and carried him out to the coach, and all travelers started away in high spirits.
About the middle of July, 1829, Chopin with three young friends, started out for Vienna. In those days an artist, in order to make himself and his work known, had to travel about the world and arrange concerts here and there, introduce himself to prominent people in each place and make them acquainted with his gifts. The present journey had for its object Vienna, the city of Beethoven and Schubert and other great masters.
Of course the young musician carried many letters of introduction, both to publishers and influential persons, for whom he played. Every one told him he ought to give a concert, that it would be a disgrace to parents, teachers and to himself not to appear in public. At last Frederic overcame his hesitation. In a letter home he writes; “I have made up my mind; they tell me I shall create a furore, that I am an artist of the first rank, worthy of a place beside Moscheles, Herz and Kalbrenner,” well-known musicians of the day. One must forgive the nineteen year old boy, if he felt a little pride in being classed with these older and more famous musicians.
The concert took place in the Imperial Opera House, just ten days after his arrival, and from all accounts was a great success. Chopin was more than satisfied, he was delighted. Indeed his success was so emphatic that a second concert was given the following week. In both he played some of his own compositions and improvised as well.
“It goes crescendo with my popularity here, and this gives me much pleasure,” he wrote home, at the end of the fortnight, and on the eve of starting to return. On the way back the travelers visited Prague, Teplitz and Dresden. A couple of days were spent in each, and then the party arrived safely in Warsaw.
With such an intense nature, friendship and love were two vital forces controlling life and action. Chopin was devoted to his friends; he clung to them with effusive ardor, incomprehensible to those less sensitive and romantic. With Titus Woyciechowski he was heart to heart in closest intimacy, and wrote him the most adoring letters when they chanced to be separated. Titus was less demonstrative, but always remained devoted.
Love for women was destined to play a large part in the inner life of Chopin. The first awakening of this feeling came from his admiration of Constantia Gladowska, a beautiful girl and vocal pupil at the Conservatory at Warsaw. Strangely enough he admired the young lady for some time at a distance, and if report be true, ever really declared himself to her. But she filled his thoughts by day, and he confessed to dreaming of her each night. When she made her début in opera, he hung on every note she sang and rejoiced in her success but did not make his feelings known to her. All this pent up emotion was confined to his piano, in impassioned improvisations.
Seeing no suitable field for his genius in Warsaw and realizing he ought to leave home and strike out for himself, he yet delayed making the break. He continued putting off the evil day of parting from home and friends, and especially putting a wide distance between himself and the object of his adoration, Constantia.
The two years of indecision were fruitful in producing much piano music and in completing the beautiful E minor Concerto, which was rehearsed with orchestra and was performed at the third and last concert he ever gave in Warsaw. This concert was arranged for October 11, 1830. Chopin requested Constantia Gladowska, whom he had never met, to sing an aria. In the success of the evening sorrow was forgotten. He wrote to his friend: “Miss Gladowska wore a white gown with roses in her hair and was wondrously beautiful; she had never sung so well.”
After this event, Chopin, decided the time had come for him to depart. His trunk was bought, his clothing ready, pocket-handkerchiefs hemmed; in fact nothing remained but the worst of all, the leave-taking. On November 1, 1830, Elsner and a number of friends accompanied him to Wola, the first village beyond Warsaw. There they were met by a group of students from the Conservatory, who sang a cantata, composed by Elsner for the occasion. Then there was a banquet. During this last meal together, a silver goblet filled with Polish earth was presented to Chopin in the name of them all.
We can imagine the tender leave-takings after that. “I am convinced,” he said, “I am saying an eternal farewell to my native country; I have a presentiment I shall never return.” And so indeed it proved.
Again to Vienna, by way of Breslau, Dresden and Prague. In Vienna all was not as rosy as it had been on his first visit. Haslinger was unwilling to publish more of his compositions, though there were the two concertos, etudes and many short pieces. The way did not open to give a concert. He was lonely and unhappy, constantly dreaming of home and the beloved Constantia. From graphic letters to one of his dearest friends, a few sentences will reveal his inner life.
“Today is the first of January (1831). Oh, how sadly this year begins for me! I love you all above all things. My poor parents! How are my friends faring?: I could die for you all. Why am I doomed to be here so lonely and forsaken? You can at least open your hearts to each other. Go and see my parentsandConstantia.”
Although it did not seem advisable to give concerts in Vienna, yet Chopin made many pleasant acquaintances among the musicians and prominent people, and was constantly invited. He had planned to go from Vienna to either Italy or France. As there were political troubles in the former country, he decided to start for Paris, stopping on the way at a few places. In Munich he gave a morning concert, in the hall of the Philharmonic, which won him renown. From Munich he proceeded to Stuttgart, and during a short stay there, heard the sad news of the taking of Warsaw by the Russians. This event, it is said, inspired him to compose the C minor Etude, Op. 10, No. 12.
The Poles and everything Polish were at that time the rage in Paris. The young Polish master found ready entrance into the highest musical and literary circles of this most delightful city of the world. All was romance, fantasy, passion, which fitted with Chopin’s sensitive and romantic temperament. Little wonder that he became inspired by contact with some of the greatest in the world of arts and letters.
There were Victor Hugo, King of the romanticists, Heine, poet and novelist; De Musset, Flaubert, Zola, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Baudelaire, Ary Scheffer, Merimée, Gautier, Berlioz, Balzac, Rossini, Meyerbeer, Hiller, Nourrit, to mention a few. Liszt was there too, and George Sand, Mendelssohn and Kalkbrenner. Chopin called on the last named, who was considered the first pianist of the day, and played for him. Kalkbrenner remarked he had the style of Cramer and the touch of Field. He proposed that Chopin should study three years with him, and he would then become a great virtuoso. Of course the young artist might have learned something on the mechanical, side, but at the risk of injuring the originality and style of his playing. His old friend and teacher Elsner, kept him from doing this.
The first year in Paris Chopin played at a number of concerts and functions, with ever increasing success. But in spite of the artistic success, his finances ran low, and he began to consider a trip to America. Fortunately he met Prince Radziwill on the street at this time, and was persuaded to play at a Rothschild soiree in the evening. From this moment, it is said, his prospects brightened, and he secured a number of wealthy patrons as pupils. Whether this be true or not, he came to know many titled personages. One has only to turn the pages of his music to note how many pieces are dedicated to
Princess This and Countess That. This mode of life was reflected in his music, which became more elegant and aristocratic.
During the season of 1838 and 1834, Chopin continued to make his way as composer, pianist and teacher. A letter to friends in Poland, says: “Frederic looks well and strong; he turns the heads of all the French women, and makes the men jealous. He is now the fashion.”
In the spring of 1834 Chopin had been persuaded by Ferdinand Hiller to accompany him to Aix-la-Chapelle, to attend the Lower Rhine Music Festival. Before they started Chopin found he had not the money to go, as it had been spent or given to some needy countryman. Hiller did not like to go alone, and asked if his friend could think of no way out of the dilemma. At last Chopin took the manuscript of the E flat Valse, Op. 18, went with it to Pleyel the publisher, and returned with five hundred francs. They could now go and enjoy the trip they had planned.
In July, 1835, Chopin met his parents at Carlsbad, where his father had been sent by the Warsaw physicians to take the cure. The young musician, now famous, had not seen his parents in nearly five years, and the reunion must have been a happy one. From here he went to Dresden and Leipsic, meeting Schumann and Mendelssohn. Schumann admired the young Pole greatly and. wrote much about him in his musical magazine. Mendelssohn considered him a “really perfect virtuoso, whose piano playing was both original and masterly,” but he was not sure whether his compositions were right or wrong. Chopin also stopped in Heidelberg on the way to Paris, visiting the father of his pupil Adolph Gutman. He must have been back in Paris about the middle of October, for the papers mention that “M. Chopin, one of the most eminent pianists of our epoch, has just made a tour of Germany, which has been for him a real ovation. Everywhere his admirable talent obtained the most flattering reception and excited much enthusiasm.”
The story of Chopin’s attraction for Marie Wodzinski and his reported engagement to her, is soon told. During his visit in Dresden, after leaving his parents in Carlsbad, he saw much of his old friends, Count Wodzinski and his family. The daughter, Marie, aged nineteen, was tall and slender, not beautiful but charming, with soft dark hair and soulful eyes. Chopin spent all his evenings at their home and saw much of Marie. The last evening the girl gave him a rose, and he composed a valse for her.
The next summer the two met again at Marienbad, and resumed their walks, talks and music. She drew his portrait, and one day Chopin proposed She assured him she would al-ways remain his friend, but her family would never consent to their marriage. So that brief romance was over.
An attachment of a different sort was that with Mme. Dudevant, known in literature as George Sand. Books have been written about this remarkable woman. The family at Nohant where she had spent her childhood, where her two children, Maurice and Solange, lived, and where her husband sometimes came, became distasteful to her; she wanted to see life. Paris offered it. Although possessing ample means, she arranged to spend six months in Paris each year, and live on two hundred and fifty francs a month. She came in 1831. Her ménage was of the simplest three small rooms, with meals from a near-by restaurant at two francs; she did the washing her-self. Woman’s attire was too expensive, so, as she had worn man’s attire when riding and hunting at Nohant, she saw nothing shocking in wearing it in Paris.
Her literary student life, as she called it, now began. She went about the streets at all times, in all weathers; went to garrets, studios, clubs, theaters, coffee-houses, everywhere but the salons. The romance of society-life as it was lived in the French capital, were the studies she ardently pursued. From these studies of life grew the several novels she produced during the years that followed.
It is said that Chopin met Mme. Sand at a musical matinée, given by the Marquis of C, where the aristocracy of genius, wealth and beauty had assembled. Chopin had gone to the piano and was absorbed in an improvisation, when lifting his eyes from the keys he encountered the fiery glances of a lady standing near. Perhaps the truer account, of their first meeting is that given by Chopin’s pupil Gutman. Mme. Sand, who had the faculty of subjugating every man of genius she came in contact with, asked Liszt repeatedly to introduce her.
One morning, early in the year 1837, Liszt called on his brother artist and found him in good spirits over some new compositions. He wished to play them to some friends, so it was arranged that a party of them should come to his rooms that evening. Liszt came with his special friend, Mme.d’Agoult and George Sand. Afterwards these meetings were frequently repeated. Liszt poetically describes one such evening, in his “Life of Chopin.”
The fastidious musician was not at first attracted to the rather masculine-looking woman, addicted to smoking, who was short, stout, with large nose, coarse mouth and small chin. She had wonderful eyes, though, and her manners were both quiet and fascinating.
Her influence over Chopin began almost at once; they were soon seen together everywhere. Sand liked to master a reserved, artistic nature such as that of the Polish musician. She was not herself musical, but appreciated all forms of art.
In 1838 Mme. Sand’s son Maurice became ill, and she proposed a trip to Majorca. Chopin went with the party and fell ill himself. There were many discomforts during their travels, due to bad weather and other inconveniences.
Chopin’s health now began to be a source of anxiety to his friends. He had to be very careful, gave fewer lessons during the season, and spent his vacations at Nohant. He played rarely in public, though there were two public concerts in 1841 and ’42 at Pleyel’s rooms. From 1843 to 1847 he lived quietly and his life was apparently happy. He was fond of the Sand children, and amused himself with them when at Nohant.
But the breach, which had started some years before, between Mme. Sand and Chopin, widened as time passed, and they parted in 1847. It was the inevitable, of course. Chopin never had much to say about it ; Sand said more, while the students asserted she had killed their beloved master. Probably it all helped to undermine the master’s feeble health. His father passed away in 1844, his sister also, of pulmonary trouble ; he was lonely and ill himself. He gave his last concert in Paris, February 16, 1848. Though weak he played beautifully. Some one said he fainted in the artist’s room. The loss of Sand, even though he had long wearied of her, was the last drop.
To secure rest and change, he undertook a trip to London, for the second and last time, arriving April 21, 1848. He played at different great houses and gave two matinees, at the homes of Adelaide Kemble and Lord Falmouth, June 23, and July 7. These were attended by many titled personages. Viardot Garcia sang. The composer was thin, pale, and played with “wasted fingers,” but the money helped replenish his depleted purse.
Chopin visited Scotland in August of the same year, and stayed with his pupil Miss Jane Stirling, to whom he dedicated the two Nocturnes, Op. 55. He played in Manchester, August 28; his playing was rather weak, but retained all its elegance, finish and grace. He was encored for his familiar Mazurka, Op. 7, No. 1, and repeated it with quite different nuances. One survivor of this audience remarked subsequently in a letter to a friend : “My emotion was so great I was compelled to retire to recover myself. I have heard all the celebrated stars of the musical firmament, but never has one left such an impression on my mind.”
Chopin returned to London in November, and left England in January 1849. His purse was very low and his lodgings in the Rue
Chaillot, Paris, were represented as costing half their value, the balance being paid by a Russian Countess, who was touched by his need. The generous hearted Miss Stirling raised 25,000 francs for the composer, so his last days were cheered by every comfort. He passed away October 17, 1849, and every writer agrees it was a serene passing. His face was beautiful and young, in the flower-covered casket, says Liszt, for friends filled his rooms with blossoms. He was buried from the Madeleine, October thirtieth. The B flat minor Funeral March, orchestrated by Reber, was given, and during the service Lefebure Wely played on the organ the E and B minor Preludes. His grave in Pere La-chaise is sought out by many travelers who admire his great art. It is difficult to find the tomb in that crowded White City, but no doubt all music lovers seek to. bring away at least a leafas did the writerfrom the earthly resting place of the most ideal pianist and composer who ever lived.
Chopin was preeminently a composer for the piano. With the exception of the Trio, Op. 8 and a book of Polish songs, everything he wrote was for his favorite instrument. There are seventy-one opus numbers in the list, but often whole sets of pieces are contained in one opus number, as is the case with the Etudes, of which there are twelve in Op. 10, and the same in Op. 25.
These Etudes take up every phase of piano technic; each one has a definite aim, yet each is a beautiful finished work as music. They have been edited and re-edited by the greatest masters.
The twenty-four Preludes were composed be-fore the trip to Majorca, though they were perfected and polished while there. Written early in his career, they have a youthful vigor not often found in later works. “Much in miniature are these Preludes of the Polish poet,” says Huneker.
There are four Impromptus and four Ballades, also four Scherzos. In them the composer is free, fascinating, often bold and daring. The great Fantaisie, Op. 49, is an epic poem, much as the Barcarolle is a poem of love. The two Sonatas, not to mention an early effort in this form, are among the modern classics, which are bound to appear on the programs of every great pianist of the present, and doubtless of the future. The two Concertos are cherished by virtuosi and audience alike, and never fail to make an instant and lasting appeal.
And think of the eleven Polonaises, those courtly dances, the most characteristic and national of his works; the fourteen Valses, beloved of every young piano student the world over ; the eighteen Nocturnes, of starry night music; the entrancing Mazurkas, fifty-two in number. One marvels, in merely glancing over the list, that the composer, who lived such a super-sensitive hectic life, whose days were so occupied with lesson giving, ever had the time to create such a mass of music, or the energy to write it.
When one considers the amount of it, the beauty, originality and glory of it, one must acknowledge Frederic Chopin as one of the greatest piano geniuses of all time.