Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1810 at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father Nicolas Chopin was French by birth but had moved to Poland to work as an accounting clerk, later serving as tutor to the Laczynski family and thereafter to the family of Count Skarbek, one of whose poorer relatives he married. His subsequent career led him to the Warsaw Lyceum as a respected teacher of French, and it was there that his only son, Fryderyk, godson of Count Skarbek, whose Christian name he took, passed his childhood.
Chopin showed an early talent for music. He learned the piano from his mother and later with the eccentric Adalbert Zywny, a violinist of Bohemian origin, and as fiercely Polish as Chopin's father. His later training in music was with Jozef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at first as a private pupil and then as a student of that institution.
In the 1820s Chopin had already begun to win for himself a considerable local reputation, but Warsaw offered relatively limited opportunities. In 1830 he set out for Vienna, a city where he had aroused interest on a visit in the previous year and where he now hoped to make a more lasting impression. The time, however, was ill-suited to his purpose. Vienna was not short of pianists, and Thalberg, in particular, had out-played the rest of the field. During the months he spent there Chopin attracted little attention, and resolved to move to Paris.
The greater part of Chopin's professional career was to be spent in France, and particularly in Paris, where he established himself as a fashionable teacher and as a performer in the houses of the rich. His playing in the concert hall was of a style less likely to please than that of the more flamboyant Liszt or than the technical virtuosity of Kalkbrenner or Thalberg. It was in the more refined ambience of the fashionable salon that his genius as a composer and as a performer, with its intimacy, elegance and delicacy of nuance, found its place.
Chopin could not but admire the ability of Liszt, while not sharing his taste in music. His own background had been severely classical, based on the music of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and by these standards Beethoven, the object of adulation for Liszt and his circle, seemed on occasion uncouth, by comparison with the classical restraint of Mozart's pupil Hummel. At the same time he held reservations about the Bohemian way of life that Liszt followed, although he himself was to become involved in a liaison with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), which lasted for some ten years, coming to an end two years before his death, while Liszt's more dramatic association with another married woman, a less successful blue-stocking, the Comtesse d'Agoult, forced his withdrawal from Paris society. Both women were to take literary revenge on their paramours.
Paris was to provide Chopin with a substantial enough income as a teacher, and there was a ready market for his compositions, however reluctant he might be to commit them to paper. The country retreat of George Sand at Nohant provided a change of air that was certainly healthier for him than that of Mallorca, where, in 1838, the couple spent a disastrous winter that intensified the weakness of Chopin's lungs, already affected by the tuberculosis from which he was to die.
In 1848 political disturbances in Paris made teaching impossible, and Chopin left the city for a tour of England and Scotland. By this time his health had deteriorated considerably. At the end of the year he returned to Paris, now too weak to play or to teach and dependent on the generosity of others for subsistence. He died there on 17th October, 1849.
The greater part of Chopin's music was written for his own instrument, the piano. At first it seemed that works for piano and orchestra would be a necessary part of his stock-in-trade, but the position he found for himself in Paris enabled him to write principally for the piano alone, in a characteristic idiom that derives some inspiration from contemporary Italian opera, much from the music of Poland, and still more from his own adventurous approach to harmony and his own sheer technical ability as a player.
Of the forms that Chopin used, the romantic Impromptu offered a particular freedom, with its suggestion of music dashed off in some fine, careless rapture. His Fantaisie-Impromptu was written in 1835, but published posthumously. It was followed by three further works under the same generic title.
The Mazurka, a Polish dance, provided Chopin with a basic rhythmic pattern, his first attempt made in childhood at the age of ten and his last in the year of his death. The form became one with which he was particularly closely associated, an expression of his patriotism.
Writers had started to show an interest in the traditional ballad with the publication by Bishop Percy of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which first appeared in the 1760s. The work of Sir Walter Scott as a collector and as a poet added to the enthusiasm. In Germany further interest was shown, with the publication of translations of ballads and the creation of new ones, first by B�rger and then by Goethe and Schiller. This literary form, reflected in ballad settings by Schubert, Loewe and others, led Chopin to a purely instrumental form, based, it has been suggested, on poems by Mickiewicz, contemporary ballads of Polish patriotic purport. The first of Chopin's four Ballades implies a narrative content, opening with the words of the story-teller and proceeding to events of greater excitement.
Chopin completed his collection of Preludes in 1839, when he published a set of 24, using all major and minor keys. A number of the Preludes were written during his winter in Mallorca with George Sand and her two children. They had arrived on the island in November, their appearance arousing some suspicions in the minds of local people. Deterioration in the weather aggravated the weakness of Chopin's health and doctors diagnosed tuberculosis. Forced to leave their lodgings and to pay for their fumigation, the party moved to rooms in the deserted monastery at Valldemosa, where George Sand continued to nurse him, in spite of considerable local hostility towards this woman who smoked cigars, the two long-haired boys and a girl who dressed as a man. It was with some relief that they left Mallorca in February, happy to return to France. It was in these circumstances, graphically described by George Sand in her Hiver � Majorque, that the Preludes were completed and revised, before being despatched to Camille Pleyel for publication, each one a musical vignette.
The second of Chopin's three sonatas includes, as a slow movement, his famous Funeral March, written in 1837, while the second of his four scherzos, the Scherzo in B flat minor, was written in the same key and same year. Originally a musical joke, with Beethoven a relatively jocular symphonic movement that replaced the traditional minuet as a bridge between a slow movement and a final symphonic rondo, the scherzo, for Chopin, became an extended and independent composition, here passionate in its content. His single Berceuse, completed in 1844, makes much more than might be expected from the lullaby of the title.
The Polish dance, the Polonaise, found its way from village to ball-room and thence abroad. In Paris in 1830 Poland was in the news, with the attempted rising against Russia and its suppression, and things Polish enjoyed considerable popularity, a fact from which Chopin benefited on his arrival in the city. As with other relatively trivial dance forms, he was able to raise the Polonaise to a new level, imparting a degree of complexity and a degree of feeling that had not always been present in the work of his elders in Warsaw. Chopin's first attempts at the form were at the age of seven and his last in 1846, three years before his death, and there is a clear element of patriotism about the two Polonaises included in the present collection, the Military and the Heroic.