Born in Poland in 1810, Frédéric Chopin was the son of a French émigré father and a cultured Polish mother. He displayed an early talent for the piano, and in 1826 began his studies at the Polish Conservatory. On leaving in 1829 he made a concert tour, and while he was well-received in Berlin and Vienna, the greatest acclaim came in his native Warsaw where his use of Polish folk melodies and rhythms was particularly appreciated.
Chopin settled permanently in Paris in 1831. He quickly found patrons and became a sought-after performer and teacher in high society, where his good looks and impeccable social graces aided his popularity. Two extremes of piano playing and composition emerged at this time. One, championed by Franz Liszt, celebrated flamboyant showmanship and brilliant technical display. The other, represented by Chopin, had its roots in the private drawing-room. Chopin composed intimate, finely-drawn miniatures which, although requiring a flawless technique and sensitive colouring of the music, were not written to impress but to express sentiments in an intimate and elegant way.
The piano was the supreme Romantic instrument, reshaped, enlarged, and mechanically improved. Chopin exploited the instrument's new potential, devoting his entire composition career to it. He was the master of the miniature, displaying great originality in his harmony, texture and treatment of form. His chromatic harmonies and remote modulations stretched the known harmonic language, and although many of Chopin's works are in a basic ABA form, he varied its treatment immensely, delaying or extending passages, introducing a greater degree of difficulty in the return of a theme, or adding a brilliant Coda.
His smaller-scale works, the études, préludes, nocturnes, waltzes, impromptus and mazurkas were probably written for teaching purposes, particularly the 27 études. These continued a tradition of pieces that used one musical idea to highlight one aspect of piano technique. Chopin transformed the étude from a mere teaching aid to a highly significant musical genre. Chopin's 24 préludes follow JS Bach's example of writing a set of pieces in every major and minor key.
Perhaps the most evocative of Chopin's smaller forms are the nocturnes. Beautiful cantabile melodies are accompanied by delicate, often arpeggiated left hand textures. Chopin was not the inventor of this form: an earlier Irish composer, John Field, first used the term 'nocturne' to describe a similar style of piece, but Chopin made it his own. The use of rubato to create flexibility within the melody is very important to the effective performance of the nocturnes. Chopin described this technique as a pushing forward or holding back of the right hand melody while the left hand always plays in strict time.
The mazurka, the polonaise and the waltz are all dance-forms. The triple-time mazurka, a Polish folkdance, was a favourite of Chopin's and he composed 31 of these works. These peculiarly Polish melodies are characterised by the strong accent on the second or third beat. The polonaise is also a Polish folk-dance, full of brilliance and heroic in spirit. Chopin's 19 waltzes are short, brilliant pieces. One of Chopin's best-known waltzes, the Minute Waltz was so called because, if taken at an extreme tempo, it can be played in one minute flat!
Chopin wrote his larger-scale works such as the scherzos, ballades and sonatas for his salon recitals. The Romantic sonata lost the formal structure which characterized Classical sonatas as composers experimented with the form. Chopin's two piano concertos were criticised for their weak orchestral writing, but contained beautiful piano parts.
In 1836 Chopin began an 11-year liaison, somewhat ambiguous in nature, with the novelist George Sand (real name Aurore Dudevant). She was a mother of two, separated from her husband, with striking looks and a reputation for intelligent, progressive thinking. In 1838 the couple went to the island of Majorca, but the damp conditions worsened Chopin's tuberculosis and they returned to France, staying in Sand's country home every summer until 1846. Sand was undoubtedly a huge inspiration to Chopin. His most deeply felt music comes from his years with her, and he wrote hardly anything after they parted. Without her nursing, Chopin's health quickly deteriorated and his professional life also began to falter. In 1848 his sister began to care for him, until he finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that had dogged him throughout his life in October 1849, at only 39 years of age.
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