An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Fryderyk Chopin

Posted on July 29, 2014


‘Beethoven embraced the universe with the power of his spirit. A long time ago I decided that my universe will be the soul and heart of man’ 

The Slavs have a rich history of musical virtuosos. The most famous of these are Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Poland’s contribution, Fryderyk Chopin. Born in 1810 in Zelazowa 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 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. Young Chopin was very slight of build, and extremely prone to illness. By the time he was seven, he had already begun composing musical pieces, and it was very clear that something special was building. Working solely from his piano, most of his early works were Polonaises, which is a slow composition put together for the benefit of slow dancing Polish couples. Romantic indeed. He attended Warsaw lyceum, and it was during a summer in Szafarnia that he first encountered Polish folk music.

After the death of his sister when he was 17, the Chopin family moved into what would later become the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. This is where Freddy would live until he left Warsaw in 1830. Throughout his time in Warsaw he would frequently give recitals in concerts and salons. His first commerically 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.

On November 2nd 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. By the autumn of 1831 he would move to Paris, where he would quickly become comfortable. Comfortable enough to never return to Poland. Whilst in Paris, he rarely performed publicly. So little so in fact, that in his later years he would only give a single annual performance in the 300 seater Salle Pleyel. He would compose frequently however, and almost all of his work was solely for piano. It was his frail health that stopped him from performing more, and from travelling abroad. He made his money by giving highly sought after piano lessons and selling the odd manuscript.

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 aggressive feminist thinkers and writers, she was a free spirit, a very public person. 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 showed for the vulnerable and often ill Chopin, he may have died even younger.

The couple famously spent a winter in Majorca in 1838, in the hope that better weather would provide the unwell Chopin some respite. It was in Majorca however that he contracted tuberculosis, and his health would quickly spiral downhill from there on. They headed back to Paris, where Sand would essentially 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 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.

He headed to Britain in 1848 for a brief tour at the behest of a Scottish lady, who financed the entire thing. His final public performance would come at the Guildhall in London, on November 16th 1848, in a concert for Polish refugees. 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, because Slavs. A year later, at the age of 39, he was dead. 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 time. Over 230 of his works have survived, and continue to invigorate young pianists worldwide. Not bad for a frail little Polish boy.