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Biography note of Fryderyk Chopin

Read a comprehensive biography note of Fryderyk Chopin.

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, a Polish composer and pianist, was born on 1 March 1810 in the village of Żelazowa Wola, near Sochaczew, Poland, to middle class parents who took care to ensure that their children were brought up well and received good education. His mother, Telka Justyna née Krzyżanowska would often sing and play the piano at home. The father, a Polonised Frenchman, Mikołaj Chopin was a tutor to the sons of Count and Countess Skrabek, the owners of Żelazowa Wola, and subsequently, after moving with the family to Warsaw in the autumn of 1810, a French professor at Warsaw Secondary School. Fryderyk had three sisters – an older Ludwika, who also took piano classes, and two younger ones – Izabela and Emilia, who died as a child. In Warsaw, the Chopins lived first at the Saxon Palace, then the Kazimierzowski Palace and finally at the Krasiński Palace.

Fryderyk began his piano lessons at 6 under a private tutor Wojciech Żywny. Since his first public performance during a charity concert at the Radziwiłł Palace in 1818, he would often give concerts in the salons of Warsaw aristocratic families, such as the Czartoryskis, the Radziwiłłs, or the Zamoyskis, as well as in the Grand Duke Constantine’s residence, the Belvedere. He continued his music education studying composition under Józef Elsner and receiving private piano and organ lessons most probably from Wilhelm Wacław Würfel.

In 1823 Chopin started attending Warsaw Secondary School, skipping the first three years and staring in the 4th grade already. During the school year, he also acted as organist at school masses in the Church of the Sisters of the Visitation. He spent his summer holidays at his friends’ estates in the country, in Szafarnia (1824 and 1825) and in Sanniki (1828), where he had a chance to explore traditional local customs and music. His stay in Szafarnia is documented in the famous Kurier Szafarski (Szafarnia Courier). While on holiday, Chopin also visited Duszniki, Toruń, Płock and other villages in the regions of Wielkopolska, Pomerania and Silesia.

Having graduated from the Secondary School in 1826, Fryderyk began studying at Warsaw University’s Central School of Music. The three-year studies under Józef Elsner brought about first important compositions, including pieces for piano and orchestra: Variations in B-flat major Op. 2 on “La ci darem la mano”, Fantasy in A major on Polish Airs Op. 13 and Rondo à la Krakowiak Op. 14. In July 1829 Chopin graduated from the Central School of Music receiving the highest possible grade from Elsner, who wrote “extraordinary talent, a musical genius” in his evaluation form. The same month Fryderyk set off on his first trip Vienna, where he performed twice, also presenting his own compositions, to the acclaim of audiences and critics. On his way back to Warsaw, he visited the Czech state and Germany.

In 1829-1830 Chopin composed Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21, drawing inspiration from his feelings for Konstancja Gładkowska. The concerto was published a few years later with a dedication to Delfina Potocka and first performed publically at the National Theatre on 17 March 1830, preceded by two rehearsals at the Chopins’ drawing room performed with a chamber ensemble. The success of the concerto pushed Chopin to write another one – Concerto in E minor Op. 11already in the same year. The world premiere also took place at the National Theatre, on 11 October 2010, at Fryderyk’s farewell concert before his planned journey to Vienna. Chopin left Warsaw on 2 November. As is turned out he was never to come back again.

He arrived at Europe’s musical capital after three weeks, travelling via Kalisz, Wrocław, Dresden and Prague. In Vienna he learnt about the outbreak of the Polish November Uprising to his great distress. During the eight months of his stay in Vienna he gave very few performances and composed little, yet the few compositions he wrote there are one of his most moving pieces – Nocturnes Op. 9 and 15, Polonaise in E-flat major Op. 22 and sketches to Etude in C minor Op. 10 “Revolutionary”. In 1831 he set out on his way to Paris, travelling via Linz, Salzburg, Munich and Stuttgart, where he learnt about the suppression of the November Uprising. The enormous emotional distress he felt at learning the news is well depicted in his personal notes collected in the “Stuttgart diary”. He reached Paris on 11 September 1831 to spend the rest of his life there.

In the French capital he resided at nine consecutive addresses. Directly after arriving to the city, he moved into a fifth-floor apartment at 27, Boulevard Poissonière, then moved to 4, rue Cité Bergère, and next lived at Chaussée d’Antin, rue Tronchet, Square d’Orléans, Grande rue Chaillot and finally 12, Place Vendôme. Chopin’s first months is Paris were extremely difficult – without any sustainable income or established acquaintances, he struggled to organise his public performances. His first public appearance in Paris took place at Salle Playel only on 26 February 1832. Apart from other pieces, he played two of his own compositions: Concerto in F minor Op. 21 and Variations Op. 2. The concert proved a great success, bringing Chopin to the spotlight of Paris’ artistic world. He befriended such remarkable figures as Honoré de Balzac, Vincenzo Bellini, Hector Berlioz, Eugène Delacroix, Auguste Franchomme, Heinrich Heine, Ferdinand Hiller, Ferenc Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn, became a regular guest in the most significant salons and made contacts with eminent Polish émigrés, including Adam Mickiewicz, Duke Adam Czartoryski and Delfina Potocka. In 1833 he became member of the Polish Literary Society, which he supported financially and under whose auspices he co-organised different charity events. Apart from countless private performances, Chopin gave twelve public concerts in Paris. In 1838 and 1841 he performed at king Louis Philippe’s court in Tuileries. In 1832 he started working as private piano reacher, with his first students including Countess Pauline Platerówna, Natalia and Ludmiła Komarówna, Delfina Potocka’s younger sisters, and later Lady Élise Peruzzi. In his free time he liked best to listen to operas, especially the bel canto pieces staged at  Théâtre-Italien. His artistic successes were coupled with private ones. In 1835 he managed to met his parents in Karlsbad, while a year later he proposed to Maria Wodzińska and was accepted. The marriage did not take place, however, for reasons that remain unknown. A couple of months later he ultimately closed this chapter of his life labelling his correspondence with Maria as “my misery”. Up until 1837 Chopin did not compose much in Paris, mostly because the active social life he led. He did manage to complete some important pieces, however, including Etude Op. 25 and Scherzo in B-flat minor Op. 31.

In October 1836 Chopin met Aurora Dudevent, known under her artistic pseudonym as George Sand. The acquaintance with the French author, 6 years his senior, grew closer over the next two years leading the couple to set off together on a trip to Mallorca at the turn of 1836 and 1836. On one hand, happy in the relationship, but on the other hand suffering from his disease, which worsened in the humid climate of the island, Chopin was at the time working on his most precious pieces – Preludes Op. 28, Polonaises Op. 40, Ballade in F major Op. 38, Scherzo in C-sharp minor Op. 39 and Mazurkas Op. 41. He completed the compositions in the summer of 1839 during his first stay in Nohant, George Sand’s estate near La Châtre, where the couple settled after coming back from Mallorca, via Barcelona, Marseille and Genoa. It was there that he also wrote Impromptu in F-sharp major Op. 36 and Sonata in B-flat minor Op. 35 Over the next six years, Chopin divided his time between Paris and Nohant, where he spent his summers. In the capital he tutored, gave concerts and took an active part in the city’s artistic life. When in the country, he took rest, spent time with his friends (Eugène Delacroix among others) and wrote music. In Nohant he composed pieces such as Ballade in A-flat major Op. 47, Nocturnes Op. 48, Fantasy in F minor Op. 49, Ballade in F minor Op. 52, Polonaise in A-flat major Op. 53, Scherzo in E major Pp. 54, Nocturnes Op. 55, Mazurkas Op. 56, Berceuse in D-flat Op. 57, Sonata in B minor Op. 58, Barcarolle in F-sharp major Op. 60, Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major Op. 61 and Nocturnes Op. 62, along with his last composition with an opus number – Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65. Assisted by Julian Fontana, Chopin was also actively involved in his compositions’ publication. His last stay at Nohant was filled with a conflict between George Sand and her children. In the end, the composer left the estate, while his taking young Solange’s side against her mother put a definite end to his 8-year relationship with the writer. Since then they met only once more, by accident, on 4 March 1848.

Having returned to Paris in November 1846, Chopin began rebuilding his life without George Sand – he was giving lessons, became a regular guests of Duke and Duchess Czartoryski at Hôtel Lambert, and was spending time with his friends. Yet, he was composing little and on 16 February 1848 he gave his last public performance in Paris, at Salle Pleyel. That year, encouraged by his student, Jane Stirling, he travelled across the Channel to Great Britain, where he spent seven months from 20 April to 23 November. The trip was of business nature – he was giving lessons and concerts in aristocratic salons and public venues. While in Britain his health deteriorated considerably and his symptoms grew more severe. On 16 November 1848 Chopin gave the last concert in his life at London’s Guildhall playing for Polish émigrés. Having returned to Paris, the composer began a course of intensive treatment under the care of most prominent doctors. Despite his weak health, he tried to write, yet had to quit teaching and would see his friends only sporadically. In the summer of 1849 Chopin’s sister Ludwika arrived in Paris to take care of her brother. He died on 17 October 1849 at 2 a.m. The funeral service was performed at Madeleine Church on 30 October 1849. The Mass featured Preludes in E minor and B-flat minor, and, in line with the composer’s wish, Mozart’s Requiem. During the burial at Père-Lachaise cemetery the Funeral March from Sonata in B-flat minor was played. At the beginning of January 1850, the composer’s heart was brought to Warsaw by his sister Ludwika. It now rests in the Holy Cross Church.


By Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska