This Afternoon's Featured Composer FREDERIC CHOPIN (1810-1849)
By Lawrence Budmen
Few composers' influence was so decisive that they changed music history. Frederic Chopin was definitely one of them. It would be difficult to imagine keyboard music, as we know it, without Chopin. Beneath the subtlety and delicacy of his piano writing, Chopin was a bold innovator. Within a simple texture of accompanied melody, Chopin brought surprising variety - often in highly expressive inner voices. His harmony (through excursions into chromaticism) explored dissonance as a musical effect. It would be hard to imagine the piano works of Grieg, Albeniz, Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninoff without Chopin's creative innovations. Despite writing a few works for cello, voice, and orchestral forces, Chopin regarded the piano as supreme. George Sand commented, "Chopin created a revolution in the language of music but with only one instrument." (Despite the repeated criticism of his orchestration in his two piano concertos and three shorter works for piano and orchestra, there is much elegance, delicacy and beauty in Chopin's orchestral writing.)
The son of a French émigré father and Polish mother, Chopin was born in Warsaw in March, 1810. Early studies with Zywny and Eisner emphasized Bach and the Vienesse classics. He studied at Warsaw's Conservatory from 1826-1829 and gave his first major concerts in Warsaw and Vienna in 1829-30. A combination of musical ambitions and concern over continuing political repression in his native Poland led him to move to Paris in 1831. With the active promotion of Pleyel, Liszt, and Schumann, he quickly became the musical darling of Parisian society - the hero of the 19th century Parisian salon. With his handsome appearance, romantic attachments, and stage persona, he was the celebrity equivalent of a movie star in 19th century Paris.
Among his many romantic relationships, his affair with the writer George Sand (aka Aurore Dudevant) from 1839-47 coincided with his most productive creative period. His great polonaises, scherzos, ballades, and sonatas were a fertile synthesis of high Romanticism and strongly felt Polish nationalism. His music displayed his awesome gifts as a pianist but also served as a fountainhead of melodic inspiration. A remarkably inventive improviser, Chopin often composed while performing. He often found it difficult to commit his musical ideas to paper; yet Chopin was a rigorous formalist. For all his passionate, stormy musical instincts, Chopin remained strongly dedicated to Classical formalism. He deeply appreciated the elegance of Mozart's piano writing and considered his work to be an extension of those principles. Following the break up of his relationship with Sand, Chopin's health rapidly deteriorated. (He had suffered from tuberculosis.) He made a lengthy visit to Britain in 1848. He passed away on October 17, 1849 in Paris. No less than 3,000 people attended his funeral at Madeleine.
In many ways Chopin was the 19th century's poet of the piano. Inspired melodies, subtlety, restraint, and exquisite delicacy are to be found in virtually all of his music. Composing as an exile in Paris, his mazurkas and polonaises, while strongly reflecting the composer's nationalistic roots, were not meant for the dance (although Jerome Robbins and countless others have choreographed them). These works combine dance rhythms with drama and pianistic brilliance - the hallmarks of Chopin's keyboard writing. Like Bach in an earlier century, he turned the elegant music of small social gatherings into the new "art music" of the concert platform. Chopin's larger scale works are the essence of 19th century Romantic music - stormy, emotional, and intense. Quintessential Chopin - poet, Romanticist, pianistic visionary!