Chopin’s music reflects the romantic intensity of his life. Often called the “poet of the piano,” Chopin lived as an exile in Paris, traveling often but unable to return to his native Poland. He was high-strung, charming, melancholy and physically frail—he died at 39 of lung disease.
Born on March 1, 1810 in a village near Warsaw, Frédéric François Chopin was a child prodigy. As a toddler, he played piano duets with his older sister Ludwika. He began formal music training at age six. By age 7, he had written two polonaises (in G minor and B flat major). “Little Chopin” was featured in Warsaw newspapers and feted at aristocratic salons. He gave his first public recital, a piano concerto, in the Radziwill Palace at age 8. When he was 11, Chopin began composition lessons. By age 16 he had published his first piece, a rondo, and began studying at the Warsaw Conservatory.
Chopin was not a member of the aristocracy, although he was raised with the upper class and moved easily in high society—so important for patronage in his time. Chopin’s father Mikolai, a transplanted Frenchman, was a tutor to the family of Count Skarbek and married the Count’s housekeeper. Shortly after Frederick’s birth, Mikolai became a professor of French language and literature at the Warsaw Lyceum. He also ran a boarding house for sons of the upper class. Chopin attended the Lyceum from 1823-26 and spent his summers at aristocratic estates belonging to the parents of his school friends.
The country summers benefited Chopin’s health, which was weak even then. In addition, they exposed him to traditional Polish folk music, which became a life-long influence on his compositions. The teenage Chopin wrote down folk songs, danced in peasant festivities, and played with village musicians. Chopin particularly loved the Polish mazurka dance; he wrote 58 of them.
By 1830, Chopin was ready for a larger stage than Warsaw. He and a friend left for Vienna, with the intent of going on to Italy. However, in Vienna, they learned of the popular uprising in Warsaw against Russian dominance. The friend chose to returned to join the resistance. Chopin stayed on in Vienna for 8 months—uncertain what to do, distracted, but composing and ultimately giving an acclaimed performance of new works that included the sketch of the Scherzo in B minor and the powerful Etudes from op. 10.
Since Italy also was experiencing political unrest, Chopin chose instead to go to Paris. He was quickly accepted among leading musicians; his courtesy, wit and good looks made him popular in Parisian social circles. Chopin’s friends included Liszt, Mendelssohn, Ferdinand Hiller, Berlioz, and Auguste Franchomme.
Like many other artists, Chopin experienced intermittent financial difficulties. His main source of income was giving lessons to the sons and daughters of the aristocracy. Although he was ranked as one of the greatest pianists of his time, in the company of Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Thalberg and Herz. Chopin dreaded performing, which would have brought in more income. He did not have the physical stamina to play at concert hall volume. Crowds intimidated him. His nervous sensibility was such that he preferred small groups. He performed mostly for salons and private patrons, who included the Rothschilds.
Chopin had two significant romantic liaisons. In 1835 he fell in love with Maria Wodzinski, the teenage daughter of family friends. He proposed a year later, but her parents broke off the engagement because Chopin was not a suitable match—his health and lifestyle were too poor. After the breakup, Chopin tied their letters in a bundle and wrote on the top, “My misery.” Several months later, he began his liaison with the novelist George Sand.
Chopin’s love affair with Sand was the stuff of legend, both in his time and today. (There have been three movies and several songs about Chopin and Sand.) Infamous in her time for wearing men’s trousers and smoking cigars in public, Sand was initially devoted to Chopin. She provided a loving home and helped nurse him through his continuing health problems.
They went to Majorca, where Chopin composed several masterpieces but also became much more seriously ill. They spent winters in Paris, where they had mutual friends and were treated like a married couple.
They spent vacations and summers at Sand’s house in Nohant, where they entertained, went on excursions in the countryside and worked together on Sand’s puppet theatre. This was the happiest and most productive period of Chopin’s life. The affair lasted nine years, ending in 1847.
From 1847 on, Chopin’s health deteriorated rapidly. He composed very little in his last years. A former pupil, Jane Stirling, became his companion and persuaded him to go England and Scotland in 1848. The British weather and constant social engagements, including playing for Queen Victoria, seem to have contributed to his decline. In November, 1848 in London, for an audience of Polish émigrés, Chopin gave his last concert.
Back in Paris, Chopin was too ill to resume giving lessons. He continued to decline. In the summer of 1849, his sister Ludwika came from Poland to care for him.
Chopin died on October 17, 1849, in his flat in the Place Vendôme. His funeral was attended by nearly 4000 people. He is buried in Paris’ famous Père Lachaise cemetery, in the company of Abelard, Héloïse and Molière. Ludwika, who was at his bedside when he died, took Chopin’s heart with her back to Warsaw.
Chopin’s heart is entombed within a pillar of Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church. The inscription reads, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”