Though his name is utterly French (pronounced SHOW-pan), his music frequently recalls the dances, tunes, and patriotism of his Polish upbringing. He is called the “poet of the piano” for the lyrical compositions he wrote almost exclusively for the piano. And his “Minute Waltz” remains one of the most challenging pieces of any piano recitalist.
Frederic Chopin was the son of a French emigrant and a Polish mother. His life was relatively short, but it was filled with tumult that often was expressed musically in his compositions. He lived in Poland until 1830, when he moved to Vienna, the center of music in Europe at the time; he moved just days before a political uprising in which the Polish people attempted to gain their independence form the Russian czar. Chopin was so upset by the events of the uprising, it is said that he struggled to concentrate or make plans for the future.
His family faced the hardships of living in a politically unstable region of the world. His sister, Emily, faced the physical difficulties of battling consumption (otherwise known as tuberculosis). She died of this bacterial lung disease in 1827. In addition, Frederic fought tuberculosis for the remainder of his life, frequently moving to different climes in the winter months to minimize the disease’s effects.
Chopin’s life was tempestuous emotionally because he chose to be involved in a nine-year adulterous relationship with Madame Dudevant, better known by her pen name, George Sand. Their relationship produced guilt and frustration in Chopin’s heart. He was troubled by Dudevant’s disrespect for traditional Christian practices and by his own immorality. Dudevant once wrote that Chopin feared hell because their relationship had not been blessed by the Roman Catholic church.
Yet, in the midst of such tumultuous relationships and circumstances, Chopin mastered the poetic qualities the piano can produce. His songs reflect a wide range of styles – mazurkas (a Polish country dance), nocturnes, sonatas, waltzes, and more. One composition was inspired by the sound of raindrops on his window (Prelude in D major); one is like a military march (Polonaise in A major); and one uses the entire keyboard (Third Piano Sonata in B minor).
In mid-October of 1849, Chopin succumbed to the tuberculosis he had so long resisted. He was laid to rest in a cemetery in France, but his sister took his heart to Warsaw to bury it in his homeland. His passionate, emotional nature lives on in his music. You can learn more about his life by reading Opal Wheeler’s Frederic Chopin, Son of Poland, Early Years and Later Years.