The following words about Chopin are drawn almost entirely from the book Chopin, the Man and His Music, by James Huneker including a useful introduction, footnotes and an index by the musical biographer and historian, Herbert Weinstock. This book can be read in its entirety here, by the courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
I will also discuss some of the musical forms Chopin used and offer musical examples of them, by the courtesy of YouTube and other online video and audio sources.
Chopin lived a life of internal passions which his music amply displayed. The writer Gustave Flaubert urged young writers to lead ascetic lives so that they may be violent in their art (see here for the works of Flaubert, via Project Gutenberg). Chopin’s violence was psychic, a travailing and groaning of the spirit; the tragedy was within. Chopin was born near Warsaw of a French father and a Polish mother. He was found to be infected with tuberculosis at age 16, along with his sister Emilia, who died a year later. As a result of the Polish uprising of 1831 against Russia, Chopin went, at age 21 to Munich, Stuttgart and, finally, Paris where he presented a successful concert including his Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7, Number 1. He became acquainted with Franz Liszt and befriended Hector Berlioz and Felix Mendelssohn.
When he was 28 he established a relationship with the Baroness Dudevant, whose formal name was Amandine-Aurore-Lucie Dupin, but we all know her as novelist George Sand. Seven years later, their relationship began to deteriorate, and by age 37 he had broken with her. He lived alone in Paris for the remainder of his life. More about Sand and Chopin after we listen to some of Chopin’s music.
Mazurkas, according to Chopin’s biographer, James Huneker, are “dances of the soul.” Further describing them, he writes: “Coquetries, vanities, fantasies, inclinations, elegies, vague emotions, passions, conquests, struggles upon which the safety or favors of others depend, all meet in this dance.” Here is Chopin’s Mazurka No. 44 in C Major, Op. 67, No. 3.
By contrast, Huneker calls Chopin’s preludes “Moods in Miniature.” The preludes bear the opus number 28 and are dedicated to J.C. Kessler, a composer of well-known piano studies. Robert Schumann wrote of these preludes: “They are most remarkable. He is the boldest, the proudest poetic soul of his time. To be sure these pieces contain some morbid, feverish and repellent traits; but let everyone look in it for something that will enchant him. Philistines, however, must keep away.” Here are a few preludes:
Madame George Sand was Chopin’s companion of about nine years toward the end of his short life. Quoting from James Huneker: “Chopin, a neurotic being, met the polyandrous Sand, a trampler on all the social and ethical conventions, albeit a woman of great gifts; repelled at first, he gave way before the ardent passion she manifested toward him. She was his elder, so could veil the situation with the maternal mask, and she was the stronger intellect, more celebrated — Chopin was but a pianist in the eyes of many — and, so, won by her magnetism the man she desired. George Sand in her love affairs was always the man. She treated Chopin as a child, a toy, used him for literary copy and threw him over after she had wrung out all the emotional possibilities. She dominated Chopin as she had dominated many others, including Franz Liszt, the painter Delacroix and, later, Gustave Flaubert. The pair [Sand and Chopin] spent time together in the island of Majorca (which their affair has made famous), in George’s estate, Nohant, and in Paris.
Now to another musical form used by Chopin, the nocturne, which Chopin’s biographer translates to “Night and its melancholy mysteries… In the nocturnes the shroud is not far away. Chopin wove his [shroud] to the day of his death.”
Quoting again from the biography by Huneker: “Chopin was weak in physique but he had the soul of a lion. Allied to the most exquisite poetic sensibilities there was another nature, fiery, implacable. He loved Poland, he hated her oppressors. There is no doubt he idealized his mother country and the wrongs done to her until the theme grew out of all proportion. It was difficult for some contemporaries to reconcile the delicate, puny fellow they perceived, with the power, splendor and courage of Chopin’s Polonaises. The polonaise originated during the 1500s and was, at first, a measured procession of nobles and their ladies to the sound of music. It is really a march, a processional dance, grave, moderate, flowing. Liszt tells of the capricious life infused into its courtly measure by the Polish aristocracy. It is at once the story of war and love, a vivid pageant of martial splendor, a weaving, cadenced, voluptuous dance, the pursuit of shy, coquettish woman by the fierce warrior.”
When Chopin was 20, he wrote a friend that he had composed a study “in my own manner” and, later, “I have written some studies; in your presence I would play them well.” Thus did the great Polish composer announce an event of supreme interest and importance to the piano-playing world. His biographer calls them “Titanic Experiments.” These studies are now known to us as the “Etudes.”
Finally, some last words from his biographer, Hunaker: “Chopin is the open door to music. Chopin invented many new harmonic devices; he unties the chord that was restrained within the octave leading it into the dangerous but delectable land of extended harmonies. And how he chromaticized the prudish, rigid garden of German harmony, how he moistened it with flashing changeful waters until it grew bold and brilliant with promise.”
Here are a few of his waltzes.
You can access online audio files of Chopin’s music here: The Piano Society