Among Schumann’s many able reviews of new music, showing the keenest critical insight, none exhibit a more just appreciation of an original talent than his article on some variations by a young composer who was destined to exert so deep and widespread an influence on piano style and piano composition. Chopin’s romanticism, somewhat affected at first by both Hummel and Field, is one of the most individual developments of the entire period.
Chopin’s Early Life.Frederic Chopin was born at Zelazowa-Wola, near Warsaw, in Poland, on February 22, 1810. His father, who had served in various positions as a teacher, finally established a boarding-school in Warsaw. Chopin showed great sensitiveness towards music at an early age. His first lessons on the piano were given him by a Polish teacher of some celebrity, Adalbert Zwyny. He soon became famous as a pianist, and from the age of nine, played constantly at the houses of the nobility, and was eagerly received by them. In 1824, he entered the Warsaw Lyceum in order to pursue his general studies. About the same time he began lessons in composition with Elsner, who had a high reputation as a teacher. He had already composed pieces for the piano on his own account, and continued with such success that as early as 1825 his Op. 1, a Rondo, was published. In 1827, he left the Lyceum, and gave thereafter all his time to playing and composing. Soon after, he made great strides in composition, and many of his studies and smaller pieces, as well as his two concertos, belong to this period, or were begun then. Early in 1829, Hummel played in Warsaw, and the influence of his piano style is evident in the works of Chopin for some time to come. later in this year, Chopin went to Vienna, where he gave two conzerts, winning instant recognition both as pianist and composer. After his return to Warsaw he continued to compose much.
Chopin’s Manhood.A second visit to Vienna occurred toward the end of 183o. He gave concerts, came into con-tact with many musicians, and even found time to compose; but being dissatisfied with conditions in Vienna, determined to go to Paris. Early in 1831, after giving concerts on the way, he arrived at Paris, which was henceforth to be his home. Here he was soon thrown with many of the leading musicians, his playing caused an immediate sensation, and as at Warsaw, he was welcomed in the most exclusive society. In 1832, he began to acquire fame as a piano teacher, especially of pupils from the aristocracy. From 1833 to 1835, his compositions began to appear, and gained him much approval as a composer. In 1835, he went to Leipzig, where he saw Wieck and his daughter, afterwards Clara Schumann, Mendelssohn and Schumann. In 1837, he met Madame George Sand, the famous writer, whose influence on his life was so great. During this year the first sinister symptoms of ill-health made their appearance. With the idea of benefiting his health, Chopin passed the winter of 1838-39 on the island of Majorca, with Madame Sand and her two children. The climate had a bad effect upon him ; he could compose but little, and the condition of his lungs obliged a return to France. He was so ill as to be obliged to spend several months at Marseilles, recuperating. After a summer at Nohant, Mme. Sand’s country home, he was again at Paris in the fall of 1839. From 1840 to 1848, he lived in Paris, with occasional visits to Nohant in the summer, teaching as much as his health would allow, passing much time in the most aristocratic society. He seldom played in public, and would only play for pupils, or when persuaded by devoted friends to display his extraordinary gifts as a pianist. During these years, however, his health grew more and more precarious.
The Last Years of Chopin. In 1847, the intimacy of Chopin and Madame Sand came to an end, for various causes, but largely because of a character caricatured from Chopin in one of Madame Sand’s novels, and because she was tired of taking care of him. Ill as he was, he went to England, after a farewell concert in Paris, arriving in the spring of 1848. He gave two concerts in London with some success, besides playing at friends’ houses. He went to Scotland at the instance of a pupil, Miss Stirling, gave concerts at Edinburgh and Glasgow, besides one in the interval at Manchester. During this entire tour he suffered greatly from ill-health and exhaustion, and after one more appearance in London, he returned to Paris, exceedingly ill, in January, 1849. He was not able to teach and was obliged to depend upon the generosity of friends; among them his pupil, Miss Stirling. After several months of hopeless struggle to regain his health, he died of consumption on October 17, 1849, surrounded by devoted friends.
Chopin’s Personality.Chopin was extremely refined and delicate by nature. He was fastidious about the color and fit of his clothes, the furnishing and arrangement of his rooms, and other details of every-day life. He was always extremely fond of society and moved in the highest circles. As a rule, he was averse to seeing much of musicians, in spite of his friendship with Liszt, Hiller, Berlioz and Schumann. As a young man he was fond of dancing, acting and practical jokes ; though sensitive, he was well and strong, and able to endure rough stage-journeys. He was a capital mimic all his life, and a witty companion who pleased by his gentle irony or sarcasm. He was extremely reserved in spite of his sociability, his intimate friends (either Polish or favorite pupils) even quarrelled as to which knew him best. He was genuinely confidential only in his music. Chopin was exceedingly patriotic; he was always ready to appear in concert in behalf of Polish refugees, he corresponded untiringly with his Polish friends, and gave many proofs of his devotion to Poland, which he never forgot in spite of years of absence.
Chopin as Pianist.Chopin was a pianist of extraordinary distinction, in spite of the preeminence of Liszt. His technic, founded in the school of Clementi and Cramer, with great attention to Bach, was influenced to some extent by Hummel and Field, but later became highly original, and expressive of great individuality. Although he possessed great brilliancy, the most prominent trait in his playing was its all-pervading and inexhaustible fund of poetry. It had nothing harsh, unmelodious or ungraceful. His sense of rhythm was unusually piquant, and one of its features was the skilful use of tempo rubato, a slight variance from strict time without disturbing it fundamentally. In later life, Chopin became disinclined to appear in public, his performances were limited to the drawing-rooms of aristocratic friends, where he would play or improvise for hours. He was never a robust pianist at his strongest, and the trans-parent delicacy of his playing during his last years was almost incredible.
Chopin’s Compositions. Chopin’s music constitutes the true revelation of himself. His life, not full of action, was, however, rich in emotion and sentiment of great variety and subtlety. Its mainsprings were his patriotic love of Poland and everything connected with it, and the poetic impressionability of his temperament, which were all transferred to his music. Although Chopin composed a number of works in which he uses the orchestra, some chamber-music, and a set of Polish songs, he was first and last a composer for the piano. In addition to the works -referred to, he wrote three sonatas, four ballades, four scherzos, ten polonaises, fourteen waltzes, twenty-eight studies, ffty-five mazurkas, twenty-five preludes, seventeen nocturnes, three impromptus and a fantasie-impromptu, three rondos,, be-sides a superb fantasy, a concert allegro, a barcarolle, a because, a tarantelle, a bolero, a rondo for two pianos, and a few trifles.
Of his two concertos, the second published (although the first composed) is the finer. It is riper and more poetic, the slow movement reaches a high point of lyric style, and the treatment of form throughout the concerto is less awkward. Chopin is not at home in the sonata form, the concertos are interesting in spite of, rather than on account of, their treatment of form. The piano sonatas, Op. 35 and 58, have faults of structure, and occasional incoherence, but they are so full of poetry, romantic melody and dramatic mood that one almost overlooks their technical shortcomings.
Chopin Most Successful in Free Forms.The most representative works of Chopin are those in which he adopts no conventional form, but follows his own instinct entirely. Thus, in his ballades, scherzos, and especially in the fantasy, Op. 49, one finds freedom of invention and variety of treatment combined with logical development and real coherence. The ballads are dramatic poems in which sentiment and virtuosity are happily united. The scherzos are original conceptions quite distinct from the accepted type; they have bold outlines, variety of mood and demand virtuosity in their ,performance. The fantasy is instructive in its logical structure, there is no sign of the constraint of the sonatas, and its contents are both dramatic on a large scale and lyric by contrast. The impromptus are shorter pieces of a lyric nature, although the element of virtuosity is not lacking. The nocturnes are lyric pieces of simple form but intimate style. Their general plan was at first copied from Field, but the imitator went so far ahead of his model as almost to eclipse it. Some of them portray idyllic moods, others are sentimental or even dramatic in their outlines. The studies, Op. 10 and 25, epitomize in a remarkable way Chopin’s technical innovations, and piano style. They are brilliant, poetic and highly dramatic by turns, and in their contents are the most musical studies composed up to their time.
National Spirit in Chopin’s Music.Chopin, the. patriot, was devoted to the dances and Folk-melodies of his own country. He was thoroughly national as a composer ; hence in some respects his mazurkas and polonaises are the most characteristic of his compositions. The mazurkas with their vital rhythms and novel harmonies, contain much poetry of mood and variety of expression within small lim its. The polonaise, as treated by Chopin, was less a dance form, and more an independent form with characteristic rhythms. The polonaises, Op. 44 and 53, are virtually patriotic poems. The preludes are sketches of varying size ; some are genuine lyrics; some frankly technical in their object ; others have a distinct touch of the dramatic. Some of th- waltzes suggest the salon, but in others Chopin has individualized the type until it has risen above its origin. Among the single pieces, the Concert Allegro is large in dimensions, very interesting technically and musically. The Barcarolle, in nocturne-form on a larger scale, is almost heroic in its outlines, and a superb example of his mature st le. An-other piece equally deserving of distinction is the erceuse, an’ingenious series of variations on a persistent b. s. The Tarantelle and Bolero are merely fascinating salo pieces.
Of the youthful works with orchestra, the vari. tions on a theme from Mozart’s “Don Juan” are more in eresting from the novelty of their piano styles than as vas iations; the Fantasie on Polish themes attracts attention c ~iefly on account of its Folk-song character, while the “Kra owiak” rondo is remarkable for its spirited national-dance hythms. The orchestral accompaniments to these pieces are not significant; in fact, Chopin’s use of the orchestra as his weakest point. The Polish songs are unequal, an at best add little to his fame. Liszt, however, has transcrised six, of which two are frequently heard in concert, while S ambati has arranged one.
Originality and Freshness of Invention.The mo t extra-ordinary trait of Chopin as a composer is that, in pite of the limitations imposed by repeating the same fo m over and over again, he is almost inexhaustible in variet of ex-pression. As the poet of lyric mood he accompli hed al-most as much as Schumann for the development of the short piece, while in his longer pieces of dramati mood and large contours he has shown that the sonata- orm is not the only structure by which to convey heroic se timent. Ilis was the most subtle originality, the most personal style which stamped itself indelibly on nearly every composition. He immeasurably broadened the technical treatment of the piano, not only as a virtuoso, but in the direction of variety of expression, delicate accentuation and exquisite tone. Among romantic composers he has done more for the advancement of piano style than anyone except Liszt. In spite of the latter’s gigantic achievement, the value of Chopin’s contribution is still unimpaired. From the point of view of expression, Chopin is more individual even than Schumann, but the honors as the most important composer for the piano during the Romantic period must be divided between them. Chopin’s influence has been immense not only on the composers and pianists of France and Germany but also markedly among living composers in Russia. Chopin is the preeminent poet of the piano.
Representative Compositions.The following list for the student contains the works and pieces most thoroughly characteristic of his genius: The sonatas, Op. 35 and 38; the scherzos, Op. 20, 31 and 39; the ballades, Op. 23, 38, 47 and 52; the polonaises, Op. 22, 26, 40, 44 and 53; the waltzes, Op. 18, Op. 34, Nos. I and 2 ; Op. 42, Op. 64, Nos.
1, 2, and Op. 69, No. I ; the studies, Op. Io, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 and 12; Op. 25, Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, I I and 12; the mazurkas, Op. 6, Nos. 1, 2; Op. 7, Nos. 1,
2, 3; Op. 17,. Nos. 2, 3, 4; Op. 24, Nos. 1, 3, 4; Op. 30, Nos. 2, 4; Op. 33, Nos. 1, 3, 4; Op. 41, Nos. 1, 2; Op. 56, No. 2 ; Op. 59, Nos. 2 and 3; Op. 63, No. 3 ; Op. 68, No. 2; the nocturnes, Op. 9, Op. 15, Nos, 2, 3; Op. 27, Op. 37, Op. 48, No. I ; Op. 55, Op. 62, No. 1 ; the preludes, Op. 28, Nos. I, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, II, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20; 2I, 23 and 24; the prelude, Op. 1.5; the impromptus, Op. 29, Op. 35, Op. 51, and the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66; the Fantaisie, Op. 49 ; the Tarentelle, Op. 43 ; the Berceuse, Op. 57 ; the Barcarolle, Op. 60, and the Concert Allegro, Op. 46.
Grove’s and Riemann’s Dictionaries.Article on Chopin.
Finck.Chopin and Other Musical Essays.
Hadow. Studies in Modern Music. (Chapter on Chopin.)
Huneker.Chopin: The Man and His Music.