Look at any performing pianist’s discography, and you’re bound to find music by Frederic Chopin. Who was this Romantic-era composer? What influenced him, and how is he remembered today? Let’s find out!
Where was Chopin from?
Frédéric François Chopin (sometimes spelled “Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin”) was born on March 1, 1810, to a French father and Polish mother just outside of Warsaw, Poland. He started his piano studies at age 4 with one of his three sisters; by age 7, he composed his own music and performed in public. After completing his piano and composition studies at the Warsaw Conservatory, he made his international debut in Vienna, Austria. One audience member, the famous composer and teacher Robert Schumann wrote in praise of the 19-year-old Chopin: “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!”
What was he like?
Chopin was a sensitive soul. Those who knew him described him conversely as “an angel” and a “little complainer.” He rarely swore and had the manners of a true gentleman; yet if slighted, he’d sulk for days. As a child, he would weep for joy at the beauty of the music he heard; as an adult, he locked himself away for days on end, obsessing over his compositions.
He also had quite a sense of humor. Delighted by his knack for impressions, some friends thought he should have been an actor. One trick he loved playing on his friends was lulling them nearly to sleep with soft, gentle melodies, only to jolt them awake with a sudden, crashing chord! (Just listen to his Ballade No. 2 in F major for an example!)
This personality certainly comes out in his piano music, which is at times subtle, poetic, and ethereal, and at others grand and virtuosic.
Did Chopin have a love life?
Chopin never married, but he did have a long-term romance with the prolific author Aurore Dupin, better known by her pen name as George Sand. They made a curious couple: the sickly, pale, and delicate composer with the pipe-smoking, trouser-wearing, mountain-climbing author. During their nine-year fling, Chopin wrote some of his most famous piano pieces. Their relationship ended about two years before Chopin’s death in 1849, but the composer kept a lock of her hair (a common practice among romantic partners at the time) all the way to the end of his life.
How did Chopin become famous in his lifetime?
Unlike fellow pianists Clara Wieck Schumann and Franz Liszt, Chopin wasn’t fond of large, public performances. Instead, he grew famous in the salon culture of Paris: private parties, often given by wealthy patrons of the arts, which hosted some of the most famous musicians, writers, and artists of the time. Among his acquaintances were other famous composers from all over Europe, including Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and Gioachino Rossini.
Chopin’s reputation as a performer and composer also made him an in-demand piano teacher. He often taught five to six lessons a day to countesses, baronnesses, princesses, and other wealthy patrons. After his death at the young age of 39, his students went on to champion his work, cataloging, publishing, and preserving it for future generations.
A National Icon
Even today, Poland claims Chopin as a national icon. If you wanted, you could take a whole Chopin-themed trip! Arrive at the Warsaw Chopin Airport and take a bus out to his childhood home in Żelazowa Wola. Then, visit the Chopin Institute in Warsaw, a research center, performance venue, and museum dedicated to the composer’s life and work. If you happen to be there at the right time, you might even catch the International Chopin Piano Competition – the Olympics of piano competitions, held every five years. Winners have included Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, and Krystian Zimerman, all of whom are featured as performers on our Chopin Essentials playlist on Spotify.
Chopin had a deep attachment to his homeland. Much of his music, especially the Waltzes, Mazurkas, and Polonaises were influenced by traditional Polish rhythms and melodies. “Polonaise” is actually the French name for a Polish dance!
Chopin wasn’t the first to draw inspiration from his birthplace, but he certainly pushed the movement forward. Composers after him, including Liszt, Dvorak, and Bartok, would go on to champion their countries’ unique sounds through their compositions.
France also has a major claim on the composer, being his father’s place of origin and the country where Chopin spent most of his adult life. Frederic Chopin is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; it’s said that every day, someone leaves fresh flowers on his grave.
You might have noticed that whenever we mention Chopin’s music, it’s usually his piano works. That’s because the majority of Chopin’s output was for solo piano. He was a pianist at heart, and while he did occasionally write for other instruments and ensembles, it’s his piano works that are most remembered today.
Chopin’s piano music has been described as “pearly, subtle,” with “exquisite delicacy and liquid mellowness.” He had surprisingly small hands, but those fingers were flexible, dextrous, and moved around the piano with enviable ease. Just look at his 24 Etudes (a set of “study” pieces, each dedicated to a particular piano technique): he ranged from close, quick finger work to expansive octaves and chords, all while maintaining a sublime sound.
So what Chopin pieces do people play?
- For students, the Waltz in A minor (Op. Posth.) is a great Chopin starter – a nice mix of heartfelt and showy.
- The melancholy Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4) and Prelude in B minor (Op. 28, No. 6) are fairly easy from a technique standpoint, but a wonderful way to challenge musical skills such as dynamics, phrasing, and hand balance.
From there, move on to his other Waltzes and Preludes, as well as the Nocturnes and Etudes. More advanced players and professionals will tackle his Ballades, the Fantasie-Impromptu, and his Scherzos.
Want to listen to Chopin’s music, but don’t know where to start? We’ve put together a Chopin Essentials playlist on Spotify just for you! All of the pieces we mention in this post are featured, along with a few others we think you’ll enjoy.
- Feeling melancholy, contemplative, or just want something gentle and heartfelt? Try Chopin’s Nocturnes, shorter pieces whose name means “night music.” They’re all lovely, though the Nocturne in E-flat Major (Op. 9, No. 2) is probably one of the most famous.
- Want something exciting that takes you on a journey? His Ballade No. 1 in G Minor is a favorite of performers, as is his flashy Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor.
- In a more somber mood? Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 includes the most well-known Funeral March known to man.
- Or for something lighter, there’s always the “Minute Waltz” in D-flat major (Op. 64, No. 1) – supposedly inspired by his partner’s hyperactive dog!