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The Life and Works of Frederick Chopin
The Life and Works of Frederick Chopin
The 1830s have been called "the decade of the piano" because during that period the piano and the music written for it played a dominant role in European musical culture. The piano had, of course, already been popular for more than half a century, but by the third decade of the nineteenth century, changes in the instrument and its audience transformed the piano's role in musical life. As the Industrial Revolution hit its stride, piano manufacturers developed methods for building many more pianos than had previously been feasible, and at lower cost. Pianos ceased to be the exclusive province of the wealthy; an expanding middle class could also aspire to own them and make music at home. Thousands of amateur pianists began to take lessons, buy printed music, and attend concerts. Virtuosos like Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Sigismund Thalberg, and Franz Liszt became the first musical superstars, touring Europe and astonishing audiences with music they had composed to display their piano technique.
Frederick Chopin was born in a small village named Zelazowa Wola located in Poland on March 1st, 1810. His passionate love of music showed itself at an early age. There are stories, for instance, of how when his mother and sister played dances on their grand piano he would burst into tears for the sheer beauty of the sounds he heard. Soon he began to explore the keyboard for himself and delighted in experimenting. By the age of seven he had become sufficiently good for his parents to try and find him a teacher. Their choice fell on Adalbert Zywny, a Bohemian composer then aged sixty-one and now remembered solely as Chopin’s first teacher.
Within a few months of beginning his studies with Zywny, Chopin began to play in public, and by the end of 1817, at the age of seven, had already been described by many as ‘Mozart’s successor’. Chopin began to compose around this time, and continued to do so throughout his student years, but only a handful of these works were printed.
In the autumn of 1826, Chopin began studying the theory of music, figured bass, and
composition at the Warsaw High School of Music. Its head was the composer Józef Elsner. Chopin, however, did not attend the piano class. Aware of the exceptional nature of Chopin's talent, Elsner allowed him, in accordance with his personality and temperament, to concentrate on piano music but was unbending as regards theoretical subjects, in particular counterpoint.
Chopin, endowed by nature with magnificent melodic invention, ease of free improvisation, and an inclination towards brilliant effects and perfect harmony, gained in Elsner's school a solid grounding, discipline, and precision of construction, as well as an understanding of the meaning and logic of each note. This was the period of the first extended works such as the Sonata in C minor, Variations, on a theme from Don Juan by Mozart, the Rondo á la Krakowiak, the Fantaisie, and the Trio in G minor. Chopin ended his education at the High School in 1829, and after the third year of his studies Elsner wrote in a report: "Chopin, Fryderyk, third year student, amazing talent, musical genius".
After completing his studies, Chopin planned a longer stay abroad to become acquainted with the musical life of Europe and to win fame. Up to then, he had never left Poland, with the exception of two brief stays in Prussia. In 1826, he had spent a holiday in Bad Reinertz (modern day Duszniki-Zdrój) in Lower Silesia, and two years later he had accompanied his father's friend, Professor Feliks Jarocki, on his journey to Berlin to attend a congress of naturalists. Here, quite unknown to the Prussian public, he concentrated on observing the local musical scene.
Now he pursued bolder plans. In July 1829 he made a short excursion to Vienna in the company of his acquaintances. Wilhelm Würfel, who had been staying there for three years, introduced him to the musical environment, and enabled Chopin to give two performances in the Kärtnertortheater.
He enjoyed his tremendous success with the public, and although the critics censured his performance for its small volume of sound, they acclaimed him as a genius of the piano and praised his compositions. Consequently, the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger printed the Variations on a theme from Mozart (1830), a piece he performed at the Kärtnertortheater. This was the first publication of a Chopin composition abroad, for up to then, his works had only been published in Warsaw.
Upon his return to Warsaw, Chopin, already free from student duties, devoted himself to composition and wrote, among other pieces, two Concertos for piano and orchestra: in F minor and E minor. The first concerto was inspired to a considerable extent by the composer's feelings towards Konstancja Gladkowska, who studied singing at the Conservatory. This was also the period of the first nocturne, etudes, waltzes, mazurkas, and songs to words by Stefan Witwicki. During the last months prior to his planned longer stay abroad, Chopin gave a number of public performances, mainly in the National Theatre in Warsaw where the premiere of both concertos took place.
Originally, his destination was to be Berlin, where Prince Antoni Radziwill, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznan, had invited the artist. Radziwil, who had been appointed by the King of Prussia, was a long-standing admirer of Chopin's talent and who, in the autumn of 1829, was his host in Antonin. Chopin, however, ultimately chose Vienna where he wished to consolidate his earlier success and establish his reputation.
Chopin's reputation as a composer was principally that of a miniaturist who achieved great melodic and harmonic richness within brief and simple musical forms. Once firmly established in Paris, however, Chopin began to experiment with more complex musical structures, most notably in his scherzos, ballades, and polonaises. As titles for independent piano pieces, scherzo (Italian for "joke") and ballade (usually a lyrical vocal work) had no specific meaning for nineteenth-century audiences, so Chopin was free to define these genres himself.
Unlike the other composer-pianists of his time, however, Chopin rarely gave public concerts; his performing was generally confined to the salons of wealthy aristocrats and businessmen. Public awareness of Chopin's music came about primarily through its publication, and the process of shepherding his works into print assumed great importance for him. However, this was not simply a matter of converting his manuscripts into printed form. Chopin felt that many performance details regarding expression were not fixed elements of his music, even though they have a substantial impact on the way it sounds. He was inconsistent about including performing instructions in his manuscripts, and when publishers asked him to supply them at the proof stage, he often changed his mind several times. Some musical changes also appeared first in proofs and were never copied into his manuscripts. Moreover, due to the inconsistencies of contemporary copyright law, nearly all of Chopin's works had to be issued simultaneously by publishers in France, Germany, and England in order to discourage piracy.
Chopin's large-scale works were not among his most popular ones. They were
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