Music with Ease > Classical Music > Frederic Chopin
The Poet of the Piano
He came not with an orchestral army, as great geniuses are wont to come. He possesses only a little cohort, but it belongs to him wholly and entirely, even to the last hero.
Frederic Chopin is one of the most romantic figures in musical biography. He was dreamy, tender, womanish, elusive, and (what most excited sympathetic interest in him while alive), he was a consumptive with a bad cough. And just what he was as a man, that he was as a composer. In his works are clearly mirrored his own daintiness and sensitiveness; his own feeling for the romantic and the beautiful and the triste. We see in them something of his modest, retiring nature; something of his ardent patriotism as a Pole; something of his disregard for the plaudits of the public.
Nothing of the sombre, religious earnestness of Bach is there; nothing of the fiery, robust vigour of Handel; nothing of the stately, heroic nobility of Beethoven. It is all like the beauty of the starry heavens, that cast their glitter upon the earth with a radiant yet somewhat chastened joy which speaks of the eternal. To admire Chopins compositions bespeaks a keen appreciation of forms of strange and wondrous loveliness, like the forms of Fairyland. The player who would do him anything like justice must, of course, have executive ability of the very highest order. But Chopin requires much more than this. To play him and not to sympathise with him-not to have something of that spirit of romance that shines out in his compositions -- is to court certain failure; and that is why so many players whose talent is chiefly executive have had to give him up and leave him to the appreciation of the far-seeing few.
Frederic Francis Chopin was born at a village near Warsaw, in Poland, on the 22nd of February 1810. He was an only son, but he had three sisters, one of whom, the youngest, and Chopins favourite, was cut off when only fourteen. For consumption was at work in this little family. Chopins father was of French extraction, but he had thrown in his lot with the Poles long before he fell in love with Justina Krzyzanowska, whom he married in 1806. He was very poor, though gifted with a certain native distinction; a man of education and refinement. To him, therefore, the composer owed some of his essential characteristics, to say nothing of his delicate health. Frederic Chopin was a weakly child from the first. His mother, whom he once called his "only love," used to be continually pleading with him to wrap up carefully. He was, in fact, a constant anxiety to his parents; but he was a quiet and thoughtful boy, with the sweetest of dispositions, if he suffered he seldom complained.
In his early years he showed himself so sensitive to music that his father confided him to the care of one Zwyny, a passionate disciple of the great Bach, who so advanced his pupils progress at the piano that before long he became the wonder of the drawing-rooms of Warsaw. He was only nine when he made his first public appearance and played a concerto. It was characteristic of him that on this occasion he thought more of his personal appearance than of his pianism. His mother had rigged him out to the best advantage; and when, on his return, she asked him what the public liked best, he replied innocently: "Oh, mamma, everybody was looking at my lace collar." His success at this concert, was, however, so marked that his parents felt they must prepare him for music as a profession; and their decision was presently supported by Madame Catalani, the great vocalist, who gave the boy a watch with a flattering inscription in praise of his talent.
The piano was Chopins favourite instrument from the first. He took to it, we might say, as a duck takes to the water. To overcome its technical difficulties he laboured incessantly. He had a curious delight in extended arpeggios, and to render them easy he used a stretching contrivance of his own which he kept between his fingers during the night. He was more fortunate than Schumann, for the experiment evidently served him well. Though he was such a frail, delicate elf of a boy, he never lacked vivacity. The tricks he played on his sisters and his school-fellows were innumerable. He would improvise romances for them too; and he was such a good mimic that some family friends thought he should be an actor.
A piano stood in his room, and often during the night he would get up and start playing, much to the wonder of the maid, who concluded that he must be silly. Of course he began to compose. But he had received no lessons in composition; so his father now sent him to Joseph Elsner, the director of Warsaw Conservatoire, to have him drilled in the theoretical side of his art. Elsner proved just the right man. Most teachers of the period were pedantic old fossils, who pinned their pupils, talented and untalented alike, down to the stereotyped rules, and chillingly checked all attempts at originality. Elsner was not a teacher of that kind. When somebody observed to him that his pupil was not strict in his observance of the rules, Elsner replied: "Leave him alone; he does not follow the common way because his talents are uncommon. He has a method of his own, and his works will reveal an originally hitherto unknown." Discerning prophet! And happy Chopin, to have had such a liberal-minded instructor!
Chopin had been studying with Elsner for some time when his father thought it would be good for him to have a little tour before settling down to the active practice of his profession. Warsaw was a small place after all, and could never afford Frederic the opportunity of becoming acquainted with celebrated artists or of hearing the best performances of the classics. Thus a tour was arranged. Berlin was the first place visited. There the young artist heard a lot of music including Handels Ode on St. Cecilias Day, which he said most nearly approached his idea of the sublime. Remember he was a very young man then. At a public meeting he sat close to Mendelssohn, but was too shy to speak to him. Later, when Mendelssohn made his acquaintance, he bestowed on him he significant name of "Chopinetto."
After Berlin, several places were visited, though their musical interests were not absorbing. In the course of his travels by diligence Chopin landed one day at an inn to find a piano there. It was in tune too (a rare thing for an inn piano), and Chopin had been itching to get at an instrument. He now attacked the keyboard with such enthusiasm (and skill) that soon he had all the travellers and all the people of the inn around him. He played on and on, oblivious of everything and everybody. Presently the driver of the coach came to announce that time was up. "Confound the disturber," roared the innkeeper, who had never heard his piano so played before. "Let the coach wait," said some of the travellers; and Chopin continued his improvisation. When he had exhausted himself, they brought him wine and cakes, and lady admirers "filled the pockets of the carriage with the best eatables that the house contained." Long years after, Chopin would recall this episode with the keenest pleasure. He said that the highest praise bestowed on him by the press was nothing to the homage of the German traveller at the inn, who, in his eagerness to listen, had let his pipe go out.
It was about this time that Chopin met Hummel, one of the older classics of the piano, and himself a virtuoso of front rank. Hummel had been a pupil of Mozart, and was for some time Beethovens rival in love. He had naturally much interest for Chopin, whose style was influenced by him in a mild way. Paganini, the wizard violinist, he heard about the same date, but Paganini was not much in Chopins "line." And then came an important visit to "the beautiful musical Vienna." There he was besieged with requests to play in public -- a thing which evidently surprised him in a city "which can boast of having heard a Haydn, a Mozart, and a Beethoven." But play he did. The best accounts of the performances are given by himself in his letters home. Some, he tells, objected that he played too softly; some, on the other hand, were "quite enthusiastic about the delicacy and elegance of my execution. My manner of playing pleases the ladies." It always did. One Vienna lady was, however, overheard remarking that it was a pity the youth had so little presence. Perhaps she would rather have had a tall, fine, officer-looking man at the piano. Chopin gave a second recital, partly because he was asked, but partly also for the curious reason that people might say in Warsaw: "He gave only one concert in Vienna, so he could not have been much liked." At any rate, Vienna swelled its voice into a full chorus of approval, and Chopin was enraptured. Before he left the city he made the acquaintance of Carl Czerny, whose" exercises" for the piano have tried young fingers for so many generations. Of the parting Chopin meaningly said that Czerny was "warmer than all his compositions." At Prague and at Dresden he met more musical celebrities, but declined to play for fear of forfeiting the renown he had won in Vienna. And so the little tour, the Wanderjahre, ended. Chopin had tasted of the tree of knowledge: Warsaw he could no longer think of as a permanent home.
Before he left it a circumstances very usual with young people occurred: Chopin fell in love. Though he never married, he was often enough in love. Somebody says he could fall in and out of love in an evening; and that a crumpled rose-leaf was sufficient to induce frowns and capricious flights. This is an exaggeration; but undoubtedly Chopin did find, like Sterne, that it "harmonised the soul" to be in love. And perhaps it was good for his music too. Goethes flirtations contributed something to his artistic development; and if Burns had not been so frequently "smitten," we should have been without some of his finest songs.
Chopins first love was a student at the Warsaw Conservatoire, a certain Constantia Gladowska. Liszt (an authority on women) describes her as "sweet and beautiful"; and Chopin himself, when he got her to sing at one of his recitals, told that she "wore a white dress, and roses in her hair, and was charmingly beautiful." For a long time Chopin sighed in silence. "Six months have passed," he says in a letter, "and I have not yet exchanged a word with her of whom I nightly dream." And yet he admits that she inspired the Waltz (Op. 70) in D flat, as well as the Adagio of the F minor concerto. Chopin, in fact, loved but lacked the courage to speak out. Instead, he put his passion on music paper and played it. He bids somebody else tell Constantia that "so long as my heart beats I shall not cease to adore her; that, "even after death, my ashes shall be strewn beneath her feet."
Alas! the course of this love did not go smoothly. Liszt gushes thus over the affair: "The tempest, which in one of its gusts tore Chopin from his native soil, like a bird dreamy and abstracted, surprised by a storm upon the branches of a foreign tree, sundered the ties of this first love, and robbed the exile of a faithful and devoted wife, as well as disinherited him of a country." The plain English of which is, that Constantia gave her heart to another; that Warsaw, in consequence, became to Chopin quite impossible; and that, in the November of 1830, he left it never to return. Rivers of ink have been spilt over this episode in his early career, but many of the details are obscure. The regrettable thing is that it should have affected Chopins health. Stephen Heller, passing through Warsaw, found him thin and sunken, and told that already the Warsaw people had marked him out for an early death. Concealment of his love had, like a worm i the bud, as Shakespeare says, fed on his pale cheeks.
"I am going out into the wide world," Chopin wrote, just before saying good-bye to his home for ever going out "with the keyboard and a brain full of beautiful music as his only weapons." The parting with his family was sad enough. The father he saw once more in life; the mother he never saw, though she outlived him by ten years. At Wola, a village beyond Warsaw, a romantic incident occurred. His old master Elsner, with all the pupils of the Warsaw Conservatoire, met him, sang a cantara composed for the occasion, and presented him with a silver goblet filled with Polish soil. That same soil was, after a few short years, to be strewn on his coffin in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, at Paris.
It was Paris that Chopin now settled in, though he had no definite idea of his destination when he left Warsaw. As a matter of fact, he made visits to Breslau and Dresden and Vienna and other places before finally deciding for Paris. He was in Vienna when Warsaw rose in revolt against the Russians, and his patriotism prompted a shouldering of arms on behalf of his country. Writing from Vienna, he appeals to a friend: "Shall I go to Paris? Shall I return home? Shall I stay here? Shall I kill myself?" It was just like Chopin to be so undecided. But the Fates had decided for him. In the September of 1831 Warsaw was captured by the Russians; and in October Chopin was in Paris, a youth still under twenty-two, lamenting his countrys downfall, and wondering what had happened to the beloved Constantia. How he felt about Polands fate he has expressed, so far as music can express such feelings, in the magnificent Etude in C minor (Op. 10, No. 12), which has been well described as one of the truest and saddest utterances of despairing patriotism.
But what was Chopin to do in Paris, now that he was there? Well, first of all he had to prove himself as a pianist, and to perfect his technique. Kalkbrenner, whose works nobody plays now, was at that time the leading teacher of the piano in Paris, and to him Chopin went to consult about lessons. Kalkbrenner heard him play, and then said he must study with him for three years. He objected, it seems, to such "unconstitutional effects" as Chopin was in the habit of producing by using his third finger for his thumb, and other equally trifling matters of technique. These old masters found, one suspects, that they could not play Chopin, and so they decried him. Moscheles, another virtuoso of the period, says in one of his letters: "I am a sincere admirer of Chopins originality; he produces the newest and most attractive piano work. But personally I object to his artificial and often forced modulations; my fingers stick and stumble at such passages, and practise them as I will, I never play them fluently." That last remark lets us into the secret, for Moscheles admitted when he heard Chopin himself that what his fingers could not master ceased to offend when Chopins own delicate hands manipulated the keys.
At any rate, three years was too long a time for Chopin to give up to Kalkbrenner. He had his living to make, and he decided to perfect his technique by himself. Meanwhile, he would give Paris a taste of his powers by a public recital. The recital came off in February 1832, and though the audience was small the artistic success was great. Mendelssohn was present and "applauded furiously." Chopin made no money by the concert, but he made a reputation -- a reputation which was further enhanced by a second recital in May. Still, his path was far from being clear. Fame was all very well, but fame would not feed and clothe him. His finances were running low, and his spirits went down with them. "My health," he wrote, "is very bad. I appear, indeed, merry, especially when I am among my fellow-countrymen; but inwardly something torments me -- a gloomy presentiment, unrest, bad dreams, sleeplessness, yearning, indifference to everything, to the desire to live and the desire to die." In this melancholy mood, he conceived the mad idea of emigrating to America. Imagine Chopin, the musical dreamer, in dollar-land! Then a fortunate incident happened which turned the tide in his affairs.
Prince Radziwill took him to a soiree at the Rothsehilds. He was asked to play, as a matter of course, and he played so superbly that he was not only overwhelmed with compliments, but was promised several good-paying pupils on the spot. After that, he speedily came to the front, both in society and as a teacher. Pupils flocked to him; he had invitations from all the grandees; distinguished people called at his rooms; and concert managers struggled for his services. "All the Frenchwomen dote on him," said one. "He is the fashion, and we shall no doubt shortly have gloves à la Chopin." Chopin himself wrote: "I move in the highest circles and I dont know how I got there." Thus was the young Pole launched on his career of popularity in Paris. The popularity never waned, and he had as much teaching as he could get through: up at least to the time of the Revolution, when the Parisians had something else to think of than music lessons.
Chopin would fain have lived quietly, if that had been possible, which it was not. His friends and admirers would not leave him in peace, and would often invade his rooms in a body. The mere fact of his being a Pole brought him irksome and uninvited attentions, for Paris was greatly in sympathy with the Poles at this time. "Vivent les Polonais!" the mob would cry when they identified a prominent Pole on the streets. Chopin was already beginning to show unmistakable signs of the chest trouble which ultimately cut him off, and this made him more than ever an object of tender interest to the fair sex. Of passing fancies he had several, and we need not dwell on them. But one fancy which was more than passing we must dwell on. Chopins connection with Madame Dudevant, the French novelist, better known as "George Sand," was, in some respects, romantic enough. George Sand was already a wife and a mother, living in Paris apart from her husband, when Chopin met her. One would have said there could be no attraction between these two, their tastes and temperaments being so different. We know what Chopin was: dainty, neurotic, tender as a woman, dreamy, slim of frame; a man whose whole appearance made those who saw him think of the convolvuli, which, on the slenderest of stems, balance divinely-coloured chalices of such vaporous tissues that the slightest touch destroys them. Contrast this with George Sand. To begin with, she was not pretty. Liszt speaks of her "masculine countenance." De Musset says she was "brown, pale, and dull complexioned." Others describe her as short and stout, dark and swarthy, "with a thick and unshapely nose of the Hebraic cast, a coarse mouth, and a small chin." Balzac, the novelist, wrote that her dominant characteristics were those of a man; that she was "not to be regarded as a woman." We know that she often wore mens clothes, and as often smoked "enormously thick Trabucco cigars." Chopin was very doubtful about her when first introduced. "What a repellent woman that Sand is!" he remarked to Ferdinand Hiller. "But is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it. " Writing to a friend, he said: "Yesterday I met George Sand. She made a very disagreeable impression on me." Yet this was the woman who, according to most of the biographers, broke Chopins heart and directly caused his early death. As Liszt puts it, she "inspired the frail and delicate Chopin with an intensity of admiration which consumed him, as a wine too spirituous shatters the fragile vase."
It would take a long time to tell the story in full. It must suffice to say that George Sand, falling in love with her hero, pretended to the world that she was only looking after him in a motherly way; nursing him through the winter, when his malady was most troublesome, and relieving him from the worries of business and household affairs, against which his artistic nature rebelled. She carried him off, contrary to medical advice to an island in the Mediterranean, where he was nearly brought to deaths door, and where the fatigue of tending him became so much more pronounced than the pleasure of flirting, that her attachment began to wane. Back in Paris, she complained more and more of the tiresomeness of her self-imposed task; and in the end there was a complete rupture, after eight years of what she called "maternal devotion." Unfortunately the love had burnt itself out on one side only: to the very last Chopin would have died for this woman who had been the unworthy object of one of the most consuming passions which nineteenth-century romance gave birth to. "All the cords that bound me to life are broken," he would pensively remark.
After the separation, the grief and agitation of his mind, combined with his physical weakness, brought him almost to the gates of death. But he got a little better for a time, and when the Revolution broke out, in 1848 , he was able to start for England, where he hoped to make some much-needed money. Still, he was in a wretched state of health. People were positively pained to see him. At Lord Falmouths he "came into the room bent double, and with a distressing cough. He looked like a revived corpse." At Broadwoods piano saloons he had to be carried upstairs, being unequal to the exertion. For all this, when he sat down to the instrument he played, as we are told, "with extraordinary strength and animation." He gave some public recitals, and played at Court after being presented to the Queen.
He went to Scotland for recitals in Edinburgh and Glasgow (he played in Manchester too), but the climate was too severe for him, and the kindly-meaning people gave him no rest. In one letter he writes: "I have played at a concert in Glasgow before all the haute volée. To-day I feel very much depressed -- oh, this fog! Although the window at which I am writing commands the most splendid view in Scotland, I can see nothing except when the sun breaks momentarily through the mist. I feel weaker and weaker, and cannot compose, not from want of inclination, but from physical causes; and besides, I am in a different place every week. But what am I to do? I must at least lay by something for the winter." Pathetic it is to think of this "revived corpse" dragging himself about to play for a fee that any of the great recital pianists nowadays would scorn. At Glasgow and at Manchester Chopin was paid just £60.
Tired, ill, distracted, hopeless about the future, he was soon on his way to Paris, resolved that he would appear no more in public. Alas! it was needless resolve. The seeds of consumption had lain too long in his frail frame, and in a few months he was stretched on the bed from which he was never more to rise. As his last hour approached he asked the Countess Potocka to sing something. Mastering her emotion, she sang Stradella's Hymn to the Virgin. "Oh, how beautiful! My God, how beautiful! Again! again!" exclaimed the dying composer. Evening closed in, and the next morning, feeling a little better, he asked the last Sacrament and confessed to a Polish priest. To those around him he gave his blessings, and with one sigh closed his eyes on the world. Many a tear was shed when his death became known, for he was beloved by a wide circle of friends. According to an old custom, he was laid in the grave in the clothes he wore at his recitals, and over his coffin was emptied the goblet of Polish earth which he had brought with him from that parting scene outside Warsaw. Thus passed away, at the early age of thirty-nine, the greatest creative musician that Poland has ever given to the world. He was laid to rest in Père Lachaise. Near by is the splendid mausoleum of Rossini, inscribed in gold letters with the simple name of the composer. Higher up is the musicians corner, where lie Cherubini, Hérold, and Boieldieu. Chopin has a white marble statue bearing the inscription: "Frederic Chopin. Erected by his Friends." He sleeps, but his works will live for ever.
Those who have read thus far will already know Chopin the man. He was, let it be repeated, exactly like his compositions. Pauer says truly that he never in his life wrote a bar of music that contained a vulgar idea. And there was nothing vulgar about himself. That same sense of refinement and delicacy that we experience in listening to a sympathetic rendering of his best works is just what every one who met him seems to have found to be his characteristics as a man. He liked having fine, neat clothes; he liked flowers always in his rooms; he disliked smoking. These are details upon which we may found. Nobody knew him better than George Sand, and her description is therefore worth quoting. She says:
Gentle, sensitive, and very lovely, he united the charm of adolescence with the suavity of a more mature age; through the want of muscular development he retained a peculiar beauty, and exceptional physiognomy, which, if we may venture so to speak, belonged to neither age nor sex. It was like the ideal creations with which the poetry of the Middle Ages adorned the Christian temples. The delicacy of his constitution rendered him interesting in the eyes of women. The full yet grateful cultivation of his mind, the sweet and captivating originality of his conversation, gained for him the attention of the most enlightened men, whilst those less highly cultivated liked him for the exquisite courtesy of his manners.
To this may be added the picture drawn of him by Liszt, who knew him well, and did much to help him forward in his early public career: "His blue eyes were more spirituals than dreamy; his bland smile never writhed into bitterness. The transparent delicacy of his complexion pleased the eye; his fair hair was soft and silky; his nose slightly aquiline; his bearing so distinguished, and his manners stamped with such high breeding, that involuntarily he was always treated like a prince. His gestures were many and graceful; the tones of his voice veiled, often stifled. His stature was low, his limbs were slight."
These quotations not only help us to understand the nature of the man: they show us also how intimate is the connection between what may be called the external Chopin and the internal as exhibited in his works.
As a player Chopin was always heard to best advantage in a small room or building, and he knew this so well that he had a life-long aversion to appearing in large concert halls. His touch, to say nothing of the style of his music, was too delicate for anything but a small and select company, who could appreciate the poetical refinement of what Liszt called his "cabinet pictures." "I am not suited for concert-giving," he once said to Liszt. "I feel timid in presence of the public; their breath stifles me; their curious gaze paralyses me." When asked if he studied much before giving a concert, he would reply: "It is a dreadful time for me; I do not like public life, but it is part of my profession." Schumann said that Chopin knew the piano as no one else did. Some called him the Ariel of the piano; some said his playing reminded them of the warbling of linnets. George Sand had a pet name for him, and it was "Velvet Fingers." Such was Chopin the man and the player.
About Chopin the composer, as seen in his works, a whole book might be written, and indeed more than one book has been written. His compositions are absolutely unique of their kind, for Chopin is the poet of the piano par excellence, and has had neither imitators nor rivals. His finest works are to be found in the smallest forms, such as the Nocturne, the Mazurka, the Ballade, and the Study. They are all so thoroughly tinged with the native sentiment that they seem to be suggested by thoughts of that country of his which has presented so many different phases of character, like every other country struggling for its freedom. His originality is very remarkable; he not only invented new chords and modes of treatment, but also new forms. He was fond of blending the major and minor keys -- that is, he applied unreservedly to pieces written in major keys chords belonging of right to the minor keys, and vice versa; and the amalgamation offered to him many new and surprising harmonic effects. The Impromptu, the Ballade, and the Valse de Salon are all his creations. In his eighteen Nocturnes he gives us music of great charm, and of a nobility of feeling rarely met with. His twenty-four grand Studies are standard works, of great beauty and lasting value, and have not been surpassed.
But why labour a point which every musical amateur recognises? Rubinstein said finely, and with finality: "The piano bard, the piano rhapsodist, the piano mind, the piano soul is Chopin. Tragic, romantic, lyric, heroic, dramatic, fantastic, soulful, sweet, dreamy, brilliant, grand, simple: all possible expressions are found in his compositions, and all are sung by him upon his instrument." This is the sum and substance of Frederic Chopin. He lived his life, gave what was in him, and died with a name destined, like the name of Mary Stuart, to exert over unborn generations a witchery and a charm unique in the history of his art.