The New International Encyclopædia/Chopin, Frédéric François

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The New International Encyclopædia
Chopin, Frédéric François
Edition of 1905. Written by Gustav KobbéSee also Frédéric Chopin on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CHOPIN, shṓ'păN', Frédéric François (1809-49). The greatest modern master of pianoforte composition. He was born at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, Poland, March 1, 1809. The son of refined parents, his musical education began as soon as his predilection for music manifested itself. Adalbert Zwyny was his piano-teacher, and later he had lessons in composition from Joseph Elsner. When not quite nine years old he played in public a concerto by Gyrowetz. Boy-like, he thought more of his new collar than of the impression made by his playing. “Everybody was looking at it,” was his remark to his mother. The father was a professor in the Warsaw gymnasium, and the family in comfortable circumstances. From the aristocratic social entourage of his younger years Chopin inherited the liking for fashionable society which was one of his characteristics. A delicate boy, he seems nevertheless to have enjoyed a jest, and he had a talent for mimicry which convinced his friends of later years (Liszt, George Sand, and Balzac among them) that he could have succeeded as an actor. He greatly admired Paganini, who visited Warsaw in 1829.

In August, 1829, he gave two concerts in Vienna. “My manner of playing greatly pleased the ladies,” he wrote home. His first concert in Warsaw was given in March, 1830, and was followed by a second, the net receipts from both being $600, by no means an inconsiderable sum for a young pianist in those days. He had a love romance with Constantia Gladowska, a vocal pupil at the Warsaw conservatory, who, however, married a merchant. While giving concerts in Munich, in September, 1831, he heard of the Russian occupation of Warsaw. As a result he settled, in October of the same year, in Paris, which was his home for the remaining eighteen years of his life.

He had composed, but not published, several of his “Etudes,” among them the great C minor, Op. 10, No. 12, sometimes called the ‘Revolutionary,’ because inspired by his wrath at the fall of Warsaw before the Russians; his first sonata; and his “F minor Concerto.” The “Adagio” (said to be Constantia Gladowska set to music) and the “Rondo” had been publicly played by him. (It may be said, in passing, that the dates of publication of Chopin's works are misleading as to the years of composition, Most of them were composed much earlier.) During his life in Paris he was surrounded by men of genius and women at least of talent, among them Liszt, Heine, Berlioz. Mérimée, Meyerbeer, Balzac, Dumas, De Musset, Ary Scheffer (who painted his portrait, destroyed in Warsaw by Russian soldiers, in September, 1863) and George Sand. He made frequent public appearances as a pianist. His “E minor Concerto” he played in February, 1832. Mendelssohn was among those who applauded him. Kalkbrenner was eager to have Chopin study with him — on the mechanical side. Chopin by letter consulted his former teacher, Elsner, who wisely counseled against it, for fear it might impair his originality. Great delicacy and a singing quality of tone seem to have been the characteristics of his playing. His own virile pieces, as some of the “Polonaises,” “Ballades,” “Scherzos,” and “Etudes,” probably were beyond his physical powers. “Young man,” he is reported to have said to a budding virtuoso who apologized to Chopin for having broken a string while playing the famous “Polonaise Militaire,” “if I could play that ‘Polonaise’ as it should be interpreted, there would not be a string left in the piano.” Dr. William Mason, in his Memories of a Musical Life, repeats an anecdote related to him by Dreyschock and illustrating Chopin's delicacy of touch. Dreyschock and Thalberg had just left one of Chopin's concerts. After proceeding a short distance Thalberg suddenly began to shout at the top of his voice. Asked by Dreyschock what was the matter, he replied: "I have been listening to nothing but piano; I want a little forte."

The familiar anecdote that Liszt and Chopin changed seats at the piano while the lights were turned down, and that the listeners could not distinguish between their playing, is apocryphal. Not so, however, the story of the coolness between Chopin and Meyerbeer, and its cause. It resulted from Meyerbeer's claiming that the charming little “Mazurka,” Op. 33, No. 3 (in C), was really in two-quarter instead of in three-quarter time. “Give it to me for a ballet and I will prove it to you in my next opera,” were Meyerbeer's parting words to Chopin. The incident is related by De Lenz, who, in his Great Piano Virtuosos of Our Time, has given charming glimpses of Chopin as a virtuoso and as a teacher.

During the summer and early autumn of 1835 Chopin was in Germany. He met his father at Karlsbad, and in Dresden fell in love with and became engaged to Marie Wodzinski, whose brothers had been his schoolmates. Chopin thought of giving up Paris and settling near Warsaw after his marriage. But Marie's father objected to the engagement on the ground of Chopin's lack of means, and it was broken in 1837. In July of that year he made a trip to England of only eleven days, but this sufficed to develop the germs of consumption latent in his constitution. (This disease was in the family. A sister died of it, and his father succumbed to combined chest and heart trouble.)

Chopin met George Sand in 1837. The liaison which resulted between them, and which she deftly turned into ‘copy’ in Lucrezia Floriani and Histoire de ma vie, seems to have begun to weary the ‘polyandrous Sand’ in 1844, and the final break occurred in 1847. Sand's descriptions of Chopin and his playing are of little value, because of their exaggerated note and rubbishy sentimentalism. She tells, for instance, of being delayed, while in Majorca, by a storm. On returning to her house she found Chopin at the piano. Terror-stricken by her absence in the storm, and dreading the danger to which she might be exposed, he had composed the tragic sixth prelude in B minor. Unfortunately for this pretty story, many of the preludes, this among them, were composed before Chopin went to Majorca. After his breach with Sand he wrote: “I have never cursed any one; but now I am so weary of life that I am near cursing Lucrezia. But she suffers, too, and more because she grows older in wickedness.”

Chopin paid a second visit to England in April, 1848. He played with success. In January, 1849, he returned to Paris to die. He had so often been at death's door that, to quote Heller, when the news of his death came it was doubted. Kind women soothed his last days. Jane Stirling, a Scotch woman who had been his pupil and was in love with him (the two “Nocturnes,” Op. 55, are dedicated to her), sent him 25,000 francs, for he was poor. His sister Louise, and his ‘sisterly friend,’ the Countess Delphine Potocka, were with him to the end. “She told me I would die in no arms but hers,” he said, two days before he died, referring to Sand. His last utterance was “Plus,” in answer to a question if he suffered. He died on October 17, and was buried in Père Lachaise, between Cherubini and Bellini.

Chopin is the emancipator of the pianoforte from the thraldom of the orchestral style of composition. He thought pianistically, and not orchestrally. Every tone color, every effect of which the instrument is capable, he divined. He placed pianoforte music definitely upon an independent basis. This is the reason why, although practically he composed only for the pianoforte, and almost wholly within smaller forms, he ranks among the great composers.

“I cannot create a new school, because I do not even know the old,” he once said. But this very absence of conservative prejudice made him the leader of modern romanticism. An admirer of Bach and Mozart, he brought a marvelous insight into the laws of harmony, and a love of orderliness, as concerns form, to his work. He was one of the most adventurous of harmonists, reveling in chromatics and in other new and exquisite effects. Through his greatness and permanence he may be called the originator of the ‘single-piece’ composition, as distinguished from the suite or sonata. A Pole, his music is tinged with melancholy for his country's misfortunes. The “Mazurkas,” which are among his most exquisite works, are flowers scattered over the grave of Poland. The “Nocturnes,” developed from Field and marvelously enriched, are more personal and therefore sad in expression. Of the “Valses,” graceful, vivacious, tender, Schumann said “the dancers should be countesses;” of the “Polonaises,” they are “cannon buried in flowers;” of Chopin as a melodist, “he leans over Germany into Italy” — all concise and apt characterizations. In his comment on the “Valses,” however, Schumann doubtless excepted the one that Chopin wrote after watching Sand's dog chasing its tail. Among his most beautiful compositions are the “Preludes.”

Chopin's own delicate playing led to a style of Chopin interpretation in which the effeminate in his work was cultivated at the expense of the virile. The latter is found in the F minor “Fantaisie,” and in plenty among the “Polonaises,” the “Ballades,” the “Scherzos,” and the “Etudes.” No modern pianist can afford to ignore this virile side of Chopin's work. He composed two concertos, not ranked among his greatest productions, yet which would be sadly missed; “Impromptus;” a very few pieces of chamber music; and songs.

Consult: Huneker, Chopin: The Man and His Music (New York, 1900), the standard life of Chopin, both as regards his personality and his work; Finck, Chopin, and Other Musical Essays (London, 1889); Karasowski, Frédéric Chopin, from the German by Emily Hill (London, 1879); Niecks, Chopin as Man and Musician (London, 1889); Liszt, Life of Chopin, translated by Cook (London, 1877).