Sue Young Histories

Frederick Chopin 1810 - 1849

September 20, 2008

1810 – 1849 was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic period. He is widely regarded as the greatest Polish composer, and ranks as one of music’s greatest tone poets.

Frederick Chopin was an advocate of homeopathy. In Paris, Chopin consulted homeopaths Jean Jacques Molin and Leon Francois Adolphe Simon. In London Chopin consulted homeopath Henry Victor Malan who was a friend of his ‘Scottish ladies’ (Mrs. Erskine, the wife of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, recommended Henry Victor Malan to Frederic Chopin, who she knew well from Paris, and who was visiting London and Scotland, where they attended seances together).

Chopin came to Britain after an invitation from Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, youngest daughter of John Stirling, Laird of Kippendavie, where he met their Polish born homeopath Adam Lyszczynski who had married and settled in Scotland. Chopin was extremely ill with tuberculosis when he arrived in Scotland, but after homeopathic treatment he was soon well enough to travel and to perform.

Chopin also taught Emma Darwin, the wife of Charles Darwin, to play the piano.

Frederic Chopin was born in ?elazowa Wola in Sochaczew County, some fifty kilometers west of Warsaw, in what was then part of the Duchy of Warsaw.

His father, Miko?aj Chopin, originally a Frenchman from Lorraine, had emigrated to Poland in 1787 at the age of 16, and had served in Poland’s National Guard during the Ko?ciuszko Uprising. The elder Chopin subsequently worked in ?elazowa Wola as a tutor to the aristocracy, which included the Skarbeks (one of whose poorer relations, Justyna Krzy?anowska, he married).

Her brother would become the father of American Union General W?odzimierz Krzy?anowski.

According to family records, the couple’s second child (and only son), christened Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, was born on March 1, 1810. A parish church document found in 1892 gives his birth date as February 22, 1810. Chopin and his mother, however, mentioned repeatedly in letters that he had been born not on February 22, but on March 1.

In October 1810, when the infant was seven months old, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father took a position as French language teacher at a school in the Saxon Palace. The Chopin family lived on the palace grounds.

In 1817 Miko?aj Chopin began work, still teaching French, at the Warsaw Lyceum at Warsaw University’s Kazimierz Palace. The family lived in a spacious second floor apartment in an adjacent building. The son himself would attend the Warsaw Lyceum from 1823 to 1826.

In spite of Miko?aj Chopin’s occupation, Polish spirit, culture, and language pervaded the Chopins’ home, and as a result the son would never—even in Paris—perfectly master the French language. All the family had artistic leanings. Chopin’s father played the flute and violin; Chopin’s mother played piano, and gave lessons to boys in the elite boarding house that the Chopins operated. Thus the boy early became conversant with music in its various forms.

Józef Sikorski, a musician and Chopin’s contemporary, recalls, in his Memoir about Chopin (Wspomnienie Chopina), that as a child Chopin wept with emotion when his mother played the piano. By six, he was already trying to reproduce what he heard or to make up new melodies. He received his earliest piano lessons not from his mother, but from his older sister, Ludwika (in English, “Louise”).

Chopin’s first professional piano tutor, from 1816 to 1822, was the respected, elderly Czech, Wojciech ?ywny. Although the youngster’s skills soon surpassed those of his teacher, Chopin later spoke highly of him. Seven year-old “Little Chopin” began to give public concerts that soon prompted comparison with Mozart as a child, and with Chopin’s contemporary, Ludwig von Beethoven

As a child, Chopin showed an intelligence that was said to absorb everything and make use of everything for its development. He early showed remarkable abilities in observation and sketching, a keen wit and sense of humor, and an uncommon talent for mimicry…

While in his mid-teens, during vacations spent at the Mazowsze village of Szafarnia (where he was a guest of Prince Antoni Radziwi??), Chopin was exposed to folk melodies that he would later transmute into original compositions…

In the autumn of 1826, Chopin began a three year course of studies with the composer Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory, which was affiliated with Warsaw University (hence Chopin is counted among that university’s alumni)…

In 1827, the family moved to lodgings just across the street, in the Krasi?ski Palace at Krakowskie Przedmie?cie 5, in what is now the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Chopin would live there until he left Warsaw in 1830.

In 1829, Polish portraitist Ambro?y Mieroszewski executed a set of five portraits of Chopin family members (the youngest daughter, Emilia, had died in 1827): Chopin’s parents, his elder sister Ludwika, younger sister Izabela, and, in the first known portrait of him, the composer himself.

In 1913, historian Édouard Ganche would write that this painting of the precocious composer showed “a youth threatened by tuberculosis. His skin is very white, he has a prominent Adam’s apple and sunken cheeks, even his ears show a form characteristic of consumptives.” Chopin’s younger sister Emilia had already died of tuberculosis at the age of fourteen, and their father would succumb to the same disease in 1844.

According to musicologist and Chopin biographer Zdzis?aw Jachimecki, comparison of the juvenile Chopin with any earlier composer is difficult because of the originality of the works that Chopin was composing already in the first half of his life. At a comparable age, Bach, Mozart and Ludwig von Beethoven had still been apprentices, while Chopin was perceived by peers and audiences to be already a master who was pointing the path of the coming age.

Chopin himself never gave thematic titles to his instrumental works, but identified them simply by genre and number. His compositions were, however, often inspired by emotional and sensual experiences in his own life.

One of his first such inspirations was a beautiful young singing student at the Warsaw Conservatory and later a singer at the Warsaw Opera, Konstancja G?adkowska. In letters to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, Chopin indicated which of his works, and even which of their passages, were influenced by his erotic transports. His artist’s soul was also enriched by friendships with such leading lights of Warsaw’s artistic and intellectual world as Maurycy Mochnacki, Józef Bohdan Zaleski and Julian Fontana.

In September of 1828, Chopin struck out for the wider world in the company of family friend, zoologist Feliks Jarocki, who planned to attend a scientific convention in Berlin…

Later that month, in Warsaw, the November Uprising broke out, and Chopin’s friend and traveling companion, Tytus Woyciechowski, returned to Poland to enlist… he grew into an inspired national bard who intuited the past, present and future of his country. Only now, at this distance, did he see all of Poland from the proper perspective, and understand what was great and truly beautiful in her, the tragedy and heroism of her vicissitudes.”

When in September 1831 Chopin learned, while traveling from Vienna to Paris, that the uprising had been crushed, he poured “profanities and blasphemies” in his native Polish language into the pages of a little journal that he kept secret to the end of his life…

Chopin arrived in Paris in late September 1831, still uncertain whether he would settle there for good. With a view to easing his entry into the Parisian musical community, he began taking lessons from the prominent pianist Friedrich Kalkbrenner

However, later that year he was introduced to the wealthy Rothschild banking family, whose patronage opened doors for him to other private salons.

In Paris, Chopin found artists and other distinguished company, as well as opportunities to exercise his talents and achieve celebrity, and before long he was earning a handsome income teaching piano to affluent students from all over Europe.

Chopin formed friendships with Louis Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Vincenzo Bellini, Ferdinand Hiller, Felix Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix, as well as with Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, French writer Alfred de Vigny, and composer Charles Valentin Alkan

His precarious health prevented his touring extensively as a traveling virtuoso, and beyond playing once in Rouen, he seldom ventured out of the capital. His high income from teaching and composing freed him from the strains of concert giving, to which he had an innate repugnance.

In 1835, Chopin went to Carlsbad, where, for the last time in his life, he met with his parents. En route through Saxony on his way back to Paris, he met old friends from Warsaw, the Wodzi?skis. He had met their daughter Maria, now sixteen, in Poland five years earlier, and fell in love with the charming, artistically talented, intelligent young woman.

The following year, in September 1836, upon returning to Dresden after having vacationed with the Wodzi?skis at Marienbad, Chopin proposed marriage to Maria. She accepted, and her mother approved in principle, but Maria’s tender age and Chopin’s tenuous health (in the winter of 1835–36 he had been so ill that word had circulated in Warsaw that he had died) forced an indefinite postponement of the wedding. The engagement remained a secret to the world and never led to the altar. Chopin finally placed the letters from Maria and her mother in a large envelope, on which he wrote the Polish words “Moja bieda” (“My sorrow”)…

After Chopin’s matrimonial plans ended, Polish countess Delfina Potocka appeared episodically in Chopin’s life as muse and romantic interest…

In 1836, at a party hosted by Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, the mistress of friend and fellow composer Franz Liszt, Chopin met French author and feminist Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin, the Baroness Dudevant, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand… By the summer of 1838, Chopin’s and George Sand’s involvement was an open secret…

A notable episode in their time together was a turbulent and miserable winter on Majorca (8 November 1838 to 13 February 1839), where the four (including her two children) had gone in the hope of improving Chopin’s deteriorating health. They had difficulty finding accommodations and ended up lodging in a scenic but stark and cold former Carthusian monastery in Valldemossa…

On 3 December he complained about his bad health and the incompetence of the doctors in Majorca: “I have been sick as a dog during these past two weeks. Three doctors have visited me. The first said I was going to die; the second said I was breathing my last; and the third said I was already dead”…

During that winter, the bad weather had such a serious effect on Chopin’s health and chronic lung disease that, in order to save his life, the entire party were compelled to leave the island. The beloved French piano became an obstacle to a hasty escape. Nevertheless George Sand managed to sell it to a French couple (the Canuts), whose heirs are the custodians of Chopin’s legacy on Majorca and of the Chopin cell room museum in Valldemossa.

The party of four went first to Barcelona, then to Marseille, where they stayed for a few months to recover. In May of 1839, they headed to George Sand’s estate at Nohant for the summer. In autumn they returned to Paris, where initially they lived apart; Chopin soon left his apartment at 5 rue Tronchet to move into George Sand’s house at 16 rue Pigalle. The four lived together from October 1839 to November 1842 at this address, while spending most summers until 1846 at Nohant. In 1842, they moved to 80 rue Taitbout in the square d’Orléans, living in adjacent buildings.

During the summers at Nohant, particularly 1839 through 1843, Chopin found quiet but productive days during which he composed many works…

As the composer’s illness progressed, George Sand gradually became less of a lover and more of a nurse to Chopin…

In 1845, even as a further deterioration occurred in Chopin’s health, a serious problem emerged in his relations with George Sand

In 1847 he did not visit Nohant. Mutual friends attempted to reconcile them, but the composer was unyielding. That year, 1847, brought to an end, without any dramatics or formalities, the relations between George Sand and Chopin that had lasted ten years, from 1837…

In February 1848 he gave his last Paris concert. In April he left for London, where he performed at several concerts and at numerous receptions in great houses. Toward the end of the summer he went to Scotland, staying at the castle of his great admirer Jane Stirling and her sister, Mrs. Erskine. Miss Stirling proposed marriage to him; but Chopin, sensing that he was not long for this world, set greater store by his freedom than by the prospect of living on the generosity of a wife.

In late October 1848 in Edinburgh, at the home of a Polish physician, Adam Lyszczynski, Chopin wrote out his last will and testament—“a kind of disposition to be made of my stuff in the future, if I should drop dead somewhere,” he wrote his friend Wojciech Grzyma?a.

In his thoughts he was now constantly with his mother and sisters, and conjured up for himself scenes of his native land by playing his adaptations of its folk music on cool Scottish evenings at Miss Stirling’s castle.

Chopin made his last public appearance on a concert platform at London’s Guildhall on November 16, 1848, when, in a final patriotic gesture, he played for the benefit of Polish refugees. Then at the end of the month he returned to Paris.

Chopin passed the winter in unremitting illness, but in spite of it he continued seeing friends and visited the ailing Adam Mickiewicz, soothing the Polish poet’s nerves with his playing. He no longer had the strength to give lessons, but he was still keen to compose. He lacked money for the most essential expenses and for his physicians. He had to sell off his more valuable furnishings and belongings.

Feeling ever more poorly, Chopin desired to have one of his family with him. In June 1849 his sister Ludwika J?drzejewicz, who had given him his first piano lessons, agreed to come to Paris. He had lately taken up residence in a very beautiful, sunny apartment at Place Vendôme 12. It was there, in the small hours of October 17, 1849, that Chopin died…

In 2008 a controversy arose over whether Chopin died of tuberculosis and not cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease whose complete clinical spectrum was not recognized until the 1930s, decades after his death. The Polish government declined to allow scientists to remove Chopin’s heart from its repository for DNA testing.

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