The date was October 30, 1849. A large crowd had gathered outside La Madeleine in Paris, the huge temple-esque structure that dominates the 8th arrondissement in the French capital. Carriages clogged the streets, the throngs desperate to catch a glimpse of the velvet panels that draped the church embroidered with ‘F.C’ in silver.
Entry was by ticket only, but this didn’t stop thousands trying to get a glimpse of the mourned. Poet Théophile Gautier remarked that ‘a shiver of death ran through the congregation’, as musicians, artists, admirers and more paid their respects through tears and calls of love. With the exception of possibly Beethoven, no musician had been given such a splendid funeral. This was a man who was worshipped despite being as private as they came, a man too lazy to keep a diary and whose memory would be appropriated by acquaintances and passers-by.
The Slavs have a rich history of musical virtuosos. The recipient of the glorious funeral described above was one of the most famous, and his name was Fryderyk Chopin. Born in 1810 in Żelazowa Wola, a village 29km west of Warsaw, he is one of the most recognised and admired names of the entire Romantic era. He grew up in Warsaw, and with the encouragement of his French bookkeeping father and Polish mother dove head first into music at an early age.
The youngest of four siblings, the family moved to Warsaw when Freddy was just seven. The Chopin family was generally fairly robust, with both parents living into their 60s despite life expectancy being not so tip top, but young Freddy was very slight of build, and extremely prone to illness. Not to be deterred, by the time he was seven he had already begun composing musical pieces, and it was very clear that he was very good, a huge understatement. Taught by his mother, Fred was an accomplished pianist by the age of six, and already had a piece privately published by the time he was seven. Working solely from his piano, most of his early works were polonaises, which is a composition put together for the benefit of slow dancing Polish couples looking to get down to brass tacks.
His childhood? Well, that is generally considered to be fairly normal, but a closer look reveals something a little less normal. Freddy was obsessed with a diet rich in carbohydrates and as such struggled with dental cavities for most of his life. He also had his issues with respiratory infections, coughs, headaches, swollen neck lymph glands and the rest. Or that was it. Little Chopin was sent off to rest at a health institute with his tuberculosis-ridden sister Emilia, who unfortunately snuffed it before she left her teens, a massive pulmonary haemorrhage doing her in aged 14.
Fred’s first forays into music were heavily influenced by his love of the opera, and particularly the bel canto style. If your Italian is a little ropey, ‘bel canto’ means something along the lines of ‘beautiful singing’, and for our little Polish windbag the voice was the ultimate art form, the most immediate and visceral. There is evidence of him visiting the opera from as young as 10, with the famous Italian singer Angelica Catalani (dead thanks to cholera) giving our boy an engraved watch at that time. Throughout his life Chopin would be fascinated by the human voice, and would eventually go a long way towards merging the worlds of piano and vocal into one artistic form.
After the death of his sister the Chopin family moved into what would later become the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. This is where Freddy lived until he left Warsaw in 1830. Throughout his time in Warsaw he would frequently give recitals in concerts and salons. His first commercially published work was the imaginatively titled ‘Rondo Op. 1’. Indeed, Chopin never gave his compositions thematic titles, opting to identify them only by genre and number.
Chopin was anointed to become the official composer for the Polish National Opera, but he did not feel he was ready for such a position. Instead, he decided to head out on something of a tour of discovery, much like young middle class British kids heading to Cambodia. On November 2, 1830, he left for the west, carrying only a cup filled with Polish soil. He had no clear aim, hoping only to set himself out in the wide world. Vienna was his first port of call, and he was very quickly homesick. Thoughts of returning to Poland swam vigorously through his brain, but four weeks after he had left, a failed revolt in his home nation against the occupying Russian forces put something of a spanner in his works. His travelling buddy chose to head home and fight. Fryderyk Chopin had no idea what to do, so in the autumn of 1831 he moved to Paris. He quickly became comfortable in the French capital, so comfortable in fact that he would never again return to his beloved motherland.
Whilst in Paris, he rarely performed publicly. He composed often, and his unique style of playing made him something of a minor celebrity, but he chose to perform only in the salons where high society and art mixed. In the 1830s and ‘40s Paris was the cultural capital of the Western world, and Chopin keenly threw himself into it. Well, threw himself into it as much as his frail health would allow. He made his money by giving highly sought after piano lessons and selling the odd manuscript. Chopin also wrote a small number of songs, usually as gifts for the ladies of society he was hoping to romance.
I say ‘he made his money’ in a fairly throwaway manner there, but the truth is he made good money and he made it fast. His performances in the salons had carved him out a handy position in Parisian society, and this combined with music’s ascent to the top of the French capital’s artistic world made for extortionate fees being paid for his lessons. Within a year or so he had made enough money to move into one of France’s most stylish districts, and was able to give lessons from his fancy schmancy apartment.
Chopin encouraged his students to play with total delicacy, using their fingers as brushes as opposed to hammers, to stroke the keys as though one was stroking a cat as opposed to playing them like a percussion instrument until the fingers start to bleed (cheers Bukowski). Most of his students were young ladies, but up until 1836 there isn’t a huge amount of evidence suggesting any sort of active love life. There are rumours of relationships here and there, but nothing truly substantial.
In truth, the love life of Chopin was defined by one increasingly turbulent relationship with the French author, George Sand (pseudonym of Amantine Dupin). He hated her on first meeting, after which he famously remarked; ‘Is this well a woman? I happen to doubt it!’
Sand was a fiery character. One of the first open and openly aggressive feminist thinkers and writers, she was a free spirit, and a very public person. Sand dressed in mens clothes, was politically radical and smoked cigars in public. The shame, the shame! On first glance, Sand and Chopin would make a strange couple. Him, the melancholy and sombre private artist, Her, the opinionated extrovert. It is perhaps no surprise that their nearly 10 year relationship would be as tumultuous as it was passionate. Her fans see Chopin as a millstone around the wildly creative writers neck. Many Chopin followers blame her for his early death.
The truth is unknown, but many independent experts feel that without the care Sand gave to the vulnerable and often ill Chopin, he may have died even younger. Amantine loved him dearly, and it took a good two years before she was successful in seducing him.
The couple famously spent a winter in Majorca in 1838, in the hope that better weather would provide the unwell Chopin some respite. The then-isolated island also represented an opportunity to escape the madness of celebrity life in Paris. It was in Majorca however that Chopin contracted tuberculosis, and his health would quickly spiral downhill from there on. The local folk on the island were worried about catching that regrettable disease, so Chopin, Sand and her two daughters were forced to spend the rest of their nights in a deserted monastery.
Three of the most famous doctors on the island came to see Chopin. The first said he was already dead, the second he was dying and the third simply said that he shall die. With this dreary forecast in mind they headed back to Paris, where Sand would become his carer. This would prove to be one of his most productive times musically, but his health was becoming more and more precarious. Again, the opinion of Sand as Chopin deteriorated is divided, with many believing that she had poisoned his entire being. He was wildly in love with her throughout, but her love for him changed over time. Within two years of their split, Fryderyk Chopin would be dead.
Sand did create conditions for Chopin that encouraged creativity and productivity, and also introduced him to one of his most cherished creative friends. Pauline Viardot was a talented pianist in her own right, but her greatest attribute (when it came to Chopin anyway) was her innate ability to cheer the miserable chap up, to renew his creative spirit. The two collaborated on a number of pieces, although Chopin’s creative desires were dwindling by the day.
Chopin’s tumultuous relationship with Sand came to an end in 1847 when he took the side of her daughter in an argument. One year later his life was turned upside down once again, as France descended into political revolutionary madness once more. The King and the aristocracy swanned off to Britain, and Fryderyk Chopin had no real choice but to follow his clients further west.
He headed to Britain in 1848, where he embarked on a brief tour at the behest of a Scottish lady who financed the entire thing. Chopin also gave a presentation to Queen Victoria at that time, his position as one of Europe’s most cherished musicians all but assured at this point. Chopin also had time for one last close relationship, as during his stay in London ol’ Freddy got closer and closer to the Swedish superstar Jenny Lind. Lind was one of the biggest stars of the day, so big in fact that her face was used to market chocolates. Chopin was pretty depressed and jaded at the time, so she must have been remarkable due to her ability to excite our grumpy Pole. Chopin saw something of a kindred spirit in Lind, feeling that she was imbuing her performances with the feel of her homeland much the same as he was with his work and Poland.
Chopin’s final public performance would come at the Guildhall in London, on November 16 1848, in a concert for Polish refugees. He performed from an off room for about an hour, and quite frankly nobody paid him the slightest attention. It was an extremely underwhelming public end for this most cherished of pianists, and he left London to return to Paris. He knew his time was almost up, and the month prior he had written his will whilst in Edinburgh. In it, he requested that his body be opened up after his death and for his heart to be sent to Warsaw. A year later at 2am on October 17, Fryderyk Chopin died at the age of 39. His death certificate cited tuberculosis as the cause of death.
Fryderyk Chopin is regarded as one of the most inspiring composers of all time, and his legacy has only grown over the years. Over 250 of his works have survived, and continue to invigorate young pianists worldwide. Chopin was an untouchable in his time, a unique musician who didn’t need to give endless concerts to prove himself. This private and introverted kid inserted a previously missing human element to the piano, a voice that echoed through his instrument. Not bad for a frail little Polish boy.
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