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Frederic Chopin: Frederic Chopin (b.Zelazowa Wola, 1 March 1810; d. Paris, 17 Oct 1849).
Of modest vine-growing background in France, Frederic Chopin's father, Nicholas, went to Poland at sixteen, where after working in a tobacco factory and fighting with the National Guard he became tutor to various aristocratic families including the Skarbeks at Zelazowa Wola, one of whose poorer relations he eventually married before settling in Warsaw as French teacher at the Lyceum. Frederic, second of their four children, was the only boy. From infancy he was acutely susceptible to music, and at seven started piano lessons with Adalbert Zywny, an all-round musician more interested in the classics than the modern virtuoso school. Ordinary lessons were done at home until thirteen, when Frederic Chopin entered the Lyceum. Boys who boarded at the Frederic Chopin household during term sometimes took him back for holidays on their country estates, where he heard Polish folk-music in its natural surroundings, and started to compose mazurkas and polonaises, as well as variations in the fashionable virtuoso style, all of which greatly enhanced his reputation as a Wunderkind when invited to play at Warsaw soirees. At sixteen he entered the newly founded Warsaw Conservatoire to continue composition lessons with its director, the Polish composer, Joseph Eisner who, with his passionate belief in the emergence of a Polish nationalist school allied to profound respect for classical tradition, was an ideal mentor.
Student days past, Frederic Chopin set out in the summer of 1829 to widen his horizons in Vienna. Introductions included one to the publisher, Haslinger, who agreed to publish his 'La ci darem' Variations provided he played them, without fee, at a public concert first. This work and the Krakowiak Rondo were enthusiastically enough received for Frederic Chopin to plan a much longer return visit. But back in Warsaw he fell in love with a singing student, Constantia Gladkowska. Too shy to declare his passion, he merely poured out his heart in music inspired by her and by Italian opera, including nocturnes and the F minor and E minor Piano Concertos, both of which he introduced to Warsaw before eventually tearing himself away in November 1 830. This time the Viennese found him less of a novelty, and he grew disillusioned at their superficiality. So, after a period of acute anguish occasioned by the Polish uprising against the Russians, and his own conflict as to whether to return home to fight (an idea opposed by his family), he decided to make for Paris, eventually arriving at the end of September 1831.
With financial problems now acute, Frederic Chopin first tried to attract attention as a concert pianist. But after two appearances early in 1832 he realised with dismay that his delicate style was not to everyone's liking in this city of leonine virtuosity, and would have embarked on a three-year course of technical study with Kalkbrenner but for ardent protests from his parents and Eisner. The situation was saved by an introduction to the wealthy Rothschild family, after which, with his natural elegance of behaviour and dress, he found himself eagerly sought after both to play at soirees and give lessons in the great houses of Paris. New studies, nocturnes and valses for these occasions followed in quick succession, besides many more nationally inspired mazurkas, polonaises and the G minor Ballade. 1835 brought a visit to Karlsbad for a blissful reunion with his parents, then to Dresden to renew acquaintance with his old Polish friends, the Wodzihskis, during which he and their young daughter, Maria, fell in love - and would have married in the course of the next few years had Maria's parents not refused consent because of Frederic Chopin's frequent ill-health.
Disconsolate for a time, Frederic Chopin was soon in the grips of a more disturbing problem occasioned by his meeting with the notorious, free-living novelist, George Sand, who in the course of 1837 wanted to become his mistress. Dreading gossip in Paris, Frederic Chopin eventually agreed to winter with her and her young son and daughter, under cover of reasons of health, on the island of Majorca. Arriving in November 1838, they were idyllically happy until the weather broke and Frederic Chopin became ill. With tuberculosis suspected, they were ordered out of their rented villa and compelled to stay in a deserted Carthusian monastery up in the mountains at Valldemosa, where cold, damp, malnutrition and general isolation reduced Frederic Chopin to critical weakness. Only an abrupt return to Marseilles and first-class medical care saved his life.
Despite everything, he nevertheless managed to complete his Twenty-four Preludes on Majorca, besides composing the dramatic Scherzo in C sharp minor and tragic Polonaise in C minor. The traumatic winter also left its mark on his Sonata in B flat minor (for which he unearthed an earlier funeral march as slow movement) written during the summer of 1839 at George Sand's country house at Nohant. By the autumn he was well enough to return to Paris, proclaiming his return in one or two recitals. But, hypersensitive as ever, it was not long before he decided only to play at private soirees, including one performance at the Tuileries Palace for King Louis-Phillippe. Now able to command high fees as well as a private carriage to fetch and return him, he also resumed teaching again, with flexibility of the wrist, unconventional fingering if it aided agility, and beautiful cantabile as high priorities in his method. Though well known throughout Paris, he took absolutely no part in 'establishment' musical life. Living close to George Sand, though in a separate apartment for appearance's sake, he preferred the company of cultivated friends from all walks of artistic life, not least those of the Polish Literary Society, with whom he could dine, or visit the theatre or opera, as the mood took him. Every summer he would escape with George Sand to Nohant, where in country peace he devoted himself to composition with an ever-growing desire to strengthen his formal grasp and widenhis harmonic vocabulary. The Fantaisie in F minor, the Barcarolle, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, the Sonata in B minor, and the last two Ballades in A flat and F minor all grew from these Nohant retreats. But the idyll was not to last. Like Prince Karol in George Sand's thinly disguised autobiographical novel, Lucrezia Floriani, Frederic Chopin grew increasingly possessive and moody as her own physical desire waned. With her resentful son and turbulent daughter taking sides in an already faction-ridden household, tension reached breaking-point during 1847. From then on Frederic Chopin and George Sand went their separate ways, too proud to speak the healing words for which both secretly longed.
When revolution broke out in Paris early in 1848, Frederic Chopin was glad enough to come to London at the invitation of a fond Scottish pupil of forty-four. But despite elegant apartments and immediate acclaim in the highest artistic and aristocratic circles, he was neither happy nor strong enough to make a determined new start. The same was true in the autumn when Jane Stirling, increasingly embarrassing him with a love he could not reciprocate, took him to Scotland to the stately homes of her various relations, in the hope that, as at Nohant, he might work. But, though forcing himself to give a few fund-raising recitals, he was totally unable to compose. As he wrote to an old friend: 'You and I are a couple of old cembalos on which time and circumstances have played out their miserable trills ... In clumsy hands we cannot give forth new sounds and we stifle within ourselves those things which no one will ever draw from us, and all for lack of a repairer.' Wholly exhausted, he returned to Paris in November 1848. Barely eleven months later he was dead. At his funeral on the 30th October 1849, at the Madeleine, Mozart's Requiem was sung, as he had requested; his body was then taken to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.
Except for 17 Polish songs, a piano trio plus a 'cello sonata and a few miniatures for 'cello, Frederic Chopin devoted his whole life to enriching the keyboard repertory. Even early sets of variations and other juvenilia written before leaving Poland have a poetic delicacy and aristocratic finesse of style distinguishing them from the bravura products of the day he used as models. Though sensuous beauty of sound remained a constant ideal, not least in exquisitely embellished Italianate bel canto melody, his harmonic idiom grew increasingly chromatic and exploratory over the years. Within his own architecturally limited orbit, he also matured to a remarkable degree as a craftsman, hiding seams and developing his themes into longer and more continuous arguments, as notably in the last two, freely self-generating ballades. While a subjective romantic to the core, he abhorred overt story-telling. Like Bach and Mozart, whose formal perfection he so much admired, he dissolved every motivating emotion into pure music. Much as he disappointed Eisner by never essaying large-scale nationalist opera, no Pole in history has given more potent voice to racial aspiration. Without a trace of self-conscious, virtuoso flamboyance, he also opened up a whole new world of magical sonority at the keyboard itself. His genius lay in transforming the miniature into great art.
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