1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chopin, Frederic François
CHOPIN, FREDERIC FRANÇOIS (1810–1849), Polish musical composer and pianist, was born at Zelazowa-Wola, near Warsaw, on the 22nd of February 1810 (not the 1st of March 1809). His father, of French origin, born at Nancy in 1770, had married a Polish lady, Justine Krzyzanowska. Frederic was their third child. His first musical education he received from Adalbert Ziwny, a Czech musician, who is said to have been a passionate admirer of J. S. Bach. He also received a good general education at one of the first colleges of Warsaw, where he was supported by Prince Antoine Radziwill, a generous protector of artistic talent and himself well known as the composer of music to Goethe’s Faust and other works. His musical genius opened to Chopin the best circles of Polish society, at that time unrivalled in Europe for its ease of intercourse, the beauty and grace of its women, and its liberal appreciation of artistic gifts. These early impressions were of lasting influence on Chopin’s development. While at college he received thorough instruction in the theory of his art from Joseph Elsner, a learned musician and director of the conservatoire at Warsaw. When in 1829 he left his native town for Vienna, where his début as a pianist took place, he was in all respects a perfectly formed and developed artist. There is in his compositions little of that gradual progress which, for instance, in Beethoven necessitates a classification of his works according to different periods. Chopin’s individuality and his style were distinctly pronounced in that set of variations on “La ci darem” which excited the wondering enthusiasm of Robert Schumann. In 1831 he left Vienna with the intention of visiting London; but on his way to England he reached Paris and settled there for the rest of his life. Here again he soon became the favourite and musical hero of society. His connexion with Madame Dudevant, better known by her literary pseudonym of George Sand (q.v.), is an important feature of Chopin’s life. When in 1839 his health began to fail, George Sand went with him to Majorca, and it was mainly owing to her tender care that the composer recovered his health for a time. Chopin declared that the destruction of his relations with Madame Dudevant in 1847 broke up his life. The association of these two artists has provoked a whole literature on the nature of their relations, of which the novelist’s Un Hiver à Majorque was the beginning. The last ten years of Chopin’s life were a continual struggle with the pulmonary disease to which he succumbed in Paris on the 17th of October 1849. The year before his death he visited England, where he was received with enthusiasm by his numerous admirers. Chopin died in the arms of his sister, who hastened from Poland to his death-bed. He was buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise. A small monument was erected to the memory of the composer at Wasswan in 1880. Portraits and medallions of Chopin were executed by Ary Scheffer and Eugène Delacroix, and by the sculptors Bary and Clésinger.
A distinguished English amateur thus records his impressions of Chopin’s style of pianoforte-playing compared with those of other masters. “His technical characteristics may be broadly indicated as negation of bravura, absolute perfection of finger-play, and of the legatissimo touch, on which no other pianist has ever so entirely leant, to the exclusion of that high relief and point which the modern German school, after the examples of Liszt and Thalberg, has so effectively developed. It is in these feature that we must recognize that Grundverschiedenheit (fundamental difference) which according to Mendelssohn distinguished Chopin’s playing from that of these masters, and in no less degree from the example and teaching of Moscheles.... Imagine a delicate man of extreme refinement of mien and manner, sitting at the piano and playing with no sway of the body and scarcely any movement of the arms, depending entirely upon his narrow feminine hands and slender fingers. The wide arpeggios in the left hand, maintained in a continuous stream of tone by the strict legato and fine and constant use of the damper-pedal, formed an harmonious substructure for a wonderfully poetic cantabile. His delicate pianissimo, the ever-changing modifications of tone and time (tempo rubato) were of indescribable effect. Even in energetic passages he scarcely ever exceeded an ordinary mezzoforte. His playing as a whole was unique in its kind, and no traditions of it can remain, for there is no school of Chopin the pianist, for the obvious reason that he could never be regarded as a public player, and his best pupils were nearly all amateurs.”
In looking through the list of his compositions, teeming with mazurkas, valses, polonaises, and other forms of national dance music, one could hardly suppose that here one of the most melancholy natures has revealed itself. This seeming paradox is solved by the type of Chopin’s nationality, of which it has justly been said that its very dances are sadness intensified. But notwithstanding this strongly pronounced national type of his compositions, his music is always expressive of his individual feelings and sufferings to a degree rarely met with in the annals of the art. He is indeed the lyrical composer par excellence of the modern school, and the intensity of his expression finds its equal in literature only in the songs of Heinrich Heine, to whom Chopin has been justly compared. A sensation of such high-strung passion cannot be prolonged. Hence we see that the shorter forms of music, the étude, the nocturne, besides the national dances already alluded to, are chosen by Chopin in preference. Even when he treats the larger forms of the concerto or the sonata this concentrated, not to say pointed, character of Chopin’s style becomes obvious. The more extended dimensions seem to encumber the freedom of his movements. The concerto for pianoforte with accompaniment of the orchestra in E may be instanced. Here the adagio takes the form of a romance, and in the final rondo the rhythm of a Polish dance becomes recognizable while the instrumentation throughout is meagre and wanting in colour. Chopin is out of his element, and even the beauty of his melodies and harmonies cannot wholly banish the impression of incongruity. Fortunately he himself knew the limits of his power, and with very few exceptions his works belong to that class of minor compositions of which he was an unrivalled master. Barring a collection of Polish songs, two concertos, and a very small number of concerted pieces of chamber music, almost all his works are written for the pianoforte solo; the symphony, the oratorio, the opera, he never attempted.
Chopin’s works group themselves firstly into the period from Op. 1 to 22, which includes nearly all his attempts at large or classical forms, e.g. the works with orchestra, Op. 2 (variations on La ci darem), Opp. 11 and 14 (concertos), Op. 13 (Polish fantasia), Op. 14 (Krakowiak, a concerto-rondo in mazurka-rhythm), and Op. 22 (Andante spianato and Polonaise), besides the solo rondos Opp. 1, 5, 16, and the variations Op. 12 and the essays in chamber music Opp. 3, 8, 65. Meanwhile, however, the mature lyric style of his second period already began with Op. 6 (4 mazurkas), and though it is not confined to small forms, the larger mature works (beginning with the ballade Op. 23 and excepting only the sonata Op. 58 and the Allegro de Concert Op. 46) are as independent of tradition as the smallest. It is well to sift the posthumous works from those published under Chopin’s direction, for the last three mazurkas are the only things he did not keep back as misrepresenting him. On these principles his mature works are summed up in the 42 mazurkas (Opp. 6, 7, 17, 24, 30, 33, 41, 50, 56, 59, 63, and the beautiful contribution to the collection Notre temps); 7 polonaises (Opp. 26, 40, 53, 61); 24 preludes (in all the major and minor keys) Op. 28, and the single larger prelude Op. 45; 27 études (12 in Op. 10, 12 in Op. 25, and 3 written for the Méthode des méthodes); 18 nocturnes (Opp. 9, 15, 27, 32, 37, 48, 55, 62); 4 ballades, in forms of Chopin’s own invention (Opp. 23, 38, 47, 52); 4 scherzos (Opp. 20, 31, 39, 54); 8 waltzes (Opp. 18, 34, 42, 64); and several pieces of various description, notably the great fantasia Op. 49 and the impromptus Opp. 29, 36, 51.
The posthumous works number 35 pieces, besides a small volume of songs a few of which are of great interest.
Franz Liszt wrote a charming sketch of Chopin’s life and art (F. Chopin, par F. Liszt, Paris, 1851), and a very appreciative though somewhat eccentric analysis of his work appeared anonymously in 1842 (An Essay on the Works of Frédéric Chopin, London). The standard biography is the English work of Professor F. Niecks (Novello, 1888). See also W. H. Hadow, Studies in Modern Music, second series (1908). The editions of Chopin’s works by his pupil Mikuli and by Klindworth are full of valuable elucidation as to methods of performance, but unfortunately they do not distinguish the commentary from the text. The critical edition published by Breitkopf and Härtel, with all its mistakes, is absolutely necessary for students who wish to know what Chopin wished to put into the hands of players of independent judgment.