Frederic Chopin: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

This lesson explores the career of composer, performer, and teacher Frederic Chopin and will focus on a few of his smaller compositions. Despite his short life, discover how Chopin came to be known as 'the poet of the piano'.

Early Life

Frederic Chopin was born in 1810 in Poland. When he died in 1849, part of him was sent back there. The second half of his career was spent in France and most of his body was buried in a Paris cemetery. His short life of 39 years centered around composing, teaching, and performing. Although he lived at a time when many composers were writing large and dramatic works, Chopin is best remembered for smaller numbers known as 'miniatures' or 'character pieces'. He is also remembered for a long affair with an interesting woman who went by the name George Sand.

A child prodigy, Chopin began playing concerts at eight years old and was quickly hailed as the next Mozart. He became an important figure in the musical life of Warsaw by performing, studying at the conservatory, and publishing his own compositions. He went to Vienna in 1829, but had little success there, only managing to arrange two concert performances. When Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, he found an ideal environment with a large Polish community and great artists of the day, such as Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, among other famous authors, musicians and painters. He quickly established himself performing, composing and teaching.

Frederic Chopin
Image of Chopin

Getting Established

Chopin is one of few pianists in history to achieve a legendary prominence on the basis of about 30 public appearances. He usually appeared as a guest on concerts headlined by other performers rather than presenting his own solo recitals. Those concerts were generally offered in intimate salons, not large concert halls. Unlike the dramatic and virtuosic style popularized by Liszt and others, Chopin built his reputation with shorter, quieter music and by teaching selected students.

Although he wrote a few larger compositions and some chamber music, the majority of his output was smaller solo works for the piano called impromptus, etudes, mazurkas, preludes, polonaises, waltzes scherzos and nocturnes. These miniatures are often characterized as introspective, elegant, charming and graceful. Some of his more memorable pieces include the 'Raindrop' Prelude, the 'Grand Valse (Waltz) Brillante', the 'Revolutionary' Etude, the 'Black Key' Etude' and the 'Heroic' Polonaise.

Due to his native heritage, Chopin was partial to the mazurka and the polonaise - both Polish dance forms. The Polonaise in A-flat, op.53 was written in 1842 and later nicknamed the 'Heroic' Polonaise. It is one of his more difficult and yet widely admired compositions. That piece, along with another patriotic sounding work (the 'Revolutionary' Etude) were both part of a Polish radio broadcast when Germany invaded Poland during War War II.

Heroic Polonaise
Chopin Heroic Polonaise

Poet of the Piano

Chopin lived at a time when great improvements were being made to the piano. Manufacturers began producing instruments with an iron harp that allowed for more keys (88 versus 61 previously) and supported the tension for each note to be triple strung. A new design in the key action allowed for quick repetition of individual notes and the introduction of several pedals allowed for certain notes to sound longer or be damped quickly.

These features gave a greater depth of sound, a wider range of dynamics, and allowed for greater expression. New technical and interpretive skills evolved as well, including rubato, where the mood of a piece could be enhanced by expressively stretching and relaxing the tempo. Chopin incorporated these developments into his compositions and performances. His success in doing so led to his being known as 'the poet of the piano'.

Declining Health and George Sand

From about the mid-1830s, Chopin experienced health problems that were eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis. This poor health may be the reason his one proposal of marriage was ignored. In 1836, Chopin also began an affair with George Sand. Her real name was Aurore Dudevant and she was rather unconventional, dressing as a man, smoking cigars and leading a rather promiscuous life. Dudevant was a provocative novelist who published under the man's name she had adopted. Chopin lived with Sand and her two children until 1847.

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