"Simplicity is the highest achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art."
-- Frédéric Chopin
On March 1, Frédéric François Chopin turns 200, the official birth date the composer always claimed, despite a registry in Poland where his birth was recorded as February 22, 1810. At the distance of two centuries, we can see that Chopin became a composer and pianist of exquisite taste and originality, yet he was also a man of many parts, including some contradictions. Born to a Polish mother, Justyna Krzyzanowska, and a French emigré father, Mikolaj (Nicolas) Chopin, the young Fryderyk Franciszek expressed fervent patriotic emotions for the country of his birth, yet he rejected the parochial and claustrophobic milieu of Warsaw and made his name in Paris. There he gained a reputation as a demanding piano teacher who strictly taught his students to play music one way, while he was a somewhat more liberal performer, changing tempos, dynamics, and phrasing to suit his whims when he played, and often using rubato to shape his phrasing. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he neither idolized Ludwig van Beethoven nor admitted to feeling much of his influence, though he grudgingly permitted his students to play the "Moonlight" Sonata because the opening movement was at least quiet, controlled, and similar in mood to his own nocturnes. As a composer, Chopin had a devoted following and was extolled by no less a critic than Robert Schumann, though his greatness became more widely recognized after his death. Even so, he has been considered by some critics, including pianist Glenn Gould, to be a lightweight among the masters, almost a parlor composer who was overly fond of ornamentation and too shallow to attain true depths of expression. Far from a robust man, and sickly in his final years, due either to consumption (the 19th century term for tuberculosis), or what some now think may have been cystic fibrosis, Chopin nonetheless became something of a legend for his amorous involvements. Innuendos about his private life have flourished, due to affairs both real and imagined, perhaps sensationalized to compete with those of his friend and rival, Franz Liszt, whose extraordinary love-life made Chopin's appear tame by comparison.
The facts of Chopin's life and career are fairly straightforward. He was born in Zelazowa Wola, in the Duchy of Warsaw. A child prodigy, Chopin was tutored by his mother until the age of 6, when he began taking piano instruction outside his home from Józef Elsner. Chopin's skills surpassed his teacher's, and comparisons were made with the childhood geniuses Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Beethoven. After playing recitals across Poland for the nobility and giving a performance for Tsar Alexander I, Chopin entered the Warsaw Lyceum in 1823, and advanced to studies at the University of Warsaw in 1826. By 1832, Chopin had grown uncomfortable with the limited cultural life in Warsaw and moved to Paris, where he established himself as a piano teacher. He made a handsome living from his students, and this enabled him to compose and give performances at his leisure. In 1837, Chopin and French novelist George Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant) began their famous decade-long affair. Chopin settled with Sand and her children in France, steadily composing and teaching, though his output diminished because of his perfectionism and periodic bouts of sickness. By the mid-1840s, his health and his romantic situation with Sand had deteriorated, and even though Chopin was able to visit Great Britain, he returned to Paris desperately ill and died on October 17, 1849. His heart was sent to Warsaw to be placed in a pillar in the Holy Cross Church, and the rest of his remains were interred at Père-Lachaise in Paris, to a band arrangement of the Marche funebre from the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor. Chopin's tomb is one of the most visited in the cemetery, along with the gravesites of Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Edith Piaf, and Jim Morrison.
In the decades following Chopin's death, he was commemorated in numerous monuments around the world, and a politically important, if idealized, statue of him was erected in Warsaw (left). Destroyed by the Nazis but reconstructed after World War II, it is a source of national pride for Poles and a traditional gathering spot for musicians. The International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition was begun in 1927, and among other things named for the composer are the Fryderyk Chopin Music Academy, the Warsaw Frédéric Chopin Airport, and even a small main belt asteroid, 3784 Chopin.
A number of myths have sprung up over the years about Chopin. His death at 39 put him in the select company of such prematurely deceased composers as Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Felix Mendelssohn, and certainly contributed to his Romantic image, in an age where an early death was celebrated almost as a mystical rite of passage to greatness for an artist. Furthermore, the brooding depiction of the composer in Eugène Delacroix's famous portrait (right, detached from a joint image of the composer with George Sand), shows him to be the archetypal moody genius with a far away gaze. Some of the later mythology about Chopin rose from depictions in film, but he was not the unctuous matinee idol portrayed by Cornel Wilde in the 1945 Hollywood film, A Song to Remember. (The piece in the clip is the Polonaise in A flat major, No. 6, Op. 53, "Heroique," performed off-screen by José Iturbi.)
Even so, it's important to show that Romantic legend-building continues in our own time, though with a darker, less rosy, viewpoint. Here is the English language trailer for the 2002 Polish film, Chopin: Pragnienie milosci (Chopin: Desire to Love), loosely based on the relationship of Chopin and Sand. (The music is the Etude in C minor, Op. 10/12, "Revolutionary," pianist unidentified.)
These fanciful depictions, along with some modern conjecture about Chopin's secret love-life and possible bisexuality, have distracted from the essential truth about the artist. Chopin was indebted to the Classical tradition of Mozart, and in his dedication to craft and eloquence in expression, even in his folk-inspired pieces, he distanced himself from his Romantic peers, most of whom he regarded as tub-thumping noise-makers. He eschewed programmatic descriptions or stories of what his music was supposedly about, and routinely chose abstract titles for his pieces. Lest the pathetic image of Sand's "beloved little corpse" persist, Chopin was a serious and intelligent artist with a firm grasp on reality; he was far more industrious and devoted to his music than any film has shown, and wasn't really the passionate playboy or the insipid invalid handed down to posterity. In some ways, he anticipated a modern sensibility in his rejection of high-flown emotions, acceptance of music for its own sake, and abiding interest in the use of folk music as a source of inspiration. As each era finds a different meaning in Chopin's life, perhaps it is time that he is understood on his own terms.
In the end, what matters most of all to musicians and listeners is the music, which has proved to be enormously popular and influential, inspiring not only pianists and composers in the classical realm, but even crossing over into modern popular music. The works of Chopin's contemporaries, Liszt, Schumann, and Johannes Brahms show clear signs that his melodic shapes, subtle harmonies, and other stylistic innovations had been fully absorbed into the musical mainstream, and it is difficult to imagine how the keyboard works of Alexander Scriabin and Sergey Rachmaninov could have existed without Chopin's powerful influence. Because his music has been borrowed for standards, from "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" to "Could It Be Magic," popular music has felt Chopin's touch as well, though to a lesser extent.
The greater part of Chopin's oeuvre consists of short piano pieces, such as etudes, waltzes, nocturnes, preludes, mazurkas, and polonaises (the last two forms springing from his Polish heritage), though he composed two piano concertos, three piano sonatas, and a cello sonata which is his best known contribution to the field of chamber music. Posthumously, Chopin was even made into a ballet composer, through Mikhail Fokine's production of Les Sylphides, where the piano music was arranged by Alexander Glazunov, Anatol Lyadov, Sergei Taneyev, Alexander Tcherepnin, and Igor Stravinsky into a series of tableaux without a narrative.
This birthday salute to the great Polish composer wouldn't be complete without a few excerpts of his beloved compositions. While these are among the most popular and recognizable examples (note especially the last three samples below, which inspired the songs,"Til the End of Time," "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," and "Could It Be Magic"), the list is far from exhaustive, and even though these are among the most admired performances, be sure to try others.
Christian Zacharias, piano - Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
1. Allegro maestoso
2. Romanze. Larghetto
3. Rondo. Vivace
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
3. Allegro vivace
Janina Fialkowska, piano - Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21
(arranged for piano and string quartet)
3. Allegro vivace
Garrick Ohlsson, piano - Andante spianato and Grande polonaise for piano and orchestra, Op. 22
1. Andante spianato
2. Grande polonaise
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano - Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35
1. Grave - Doppio movimento
3. Marche funebre. Lento
4. Finale. Presto
Igor Tchetuev, piano - Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
1. Allegro maestoso
2. Scherzo. Molto vivace
4. Finale. Presto non tanto
Jacqueline du Pré, cello - Sonata for cello and piano in G minor, Op. 65
1. Allegro moderato
2. Scherzo. Allegro con brio
4. Finale. Allegro
Artur Rubinstein, piano - Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9/2
Dinu Lipatti, piano - Waltz No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64/1, "Minute"
Tamás Vásáry, piano - Mazurka No. 5 in B flat major, Op. 7/1
Sviatoslav Richter, piano - Etude No. 17 in E minor, Op. 25/5
Ronan O'Hora, piano - Polonaise in A major No. 3, Op. 40, "Military"
Maurizio Pollini, piano - Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47
Martha Argerich, piano - Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39
Nikolai Demidenko, piano - Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54
Maria-João Pires, piano - Mazurka No. 49 in F minor, Op. 68
Idil Biret, piano - Polonaise in A flat major, No. 6, Op. 53, "Héroique"
(inspired the song, "Til the End of Time")
Philippe Entremont, piano - Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66
(inspired the song, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows")
Rudolf Serkin, piano - Prelude No. 20 in C minor, Op. 28/20
(inspired the song, "Could It Be Magic")