Personalities | Fryderyk Francisek (Frédéric François) Chopin | Early Romantic | Classical

(Fri-drikh Fran’-zhek [Fra-da-rek’ Fran-swa’] Sho-pan) 1810–49
Polish composer

Chopin was unique among composers of the highest achievement and influence in that he wrote all his works, with the merest handful of exceptions, for the solo piano.

Leaving Warsaw, which at the time offered only restricted musical possibilities, and living most of his adult life in Paris, he acquired a reputation as a pianist of exceptional poetic expression, despite a career that, unlike those of such contemporaries as Sigismund Thalberg (1820–71) and Liszt, largely avoided public appearances.

Although he was not the founder of any compositional school, his daring and innovative harmony, complete understanding of the piano and its sonorities, development of Polish genres, such as the mazurka and polonaise, as well as ‘narrative’ forms such as the ballade, all had a profound influence on many composers. The contrast between his personal sensitivity and apparent fragility and the expressive drive and ardour of many of his compositions has contributed to a popular image of the composer as a pallid and otherworldly Romantic, an impression intensified by his early death from tuberculosis. Yet, during his 39 years, he wrote a body of music for the piano that defined the technique of the instrument, expanded its expressive world, and has never disappeared from recital programmes.

Early Life in Poland

Chopin was born on 1 March 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father was of French origin, his mother Polish. From an early age, his extraordinary ability on the piano was obvious, and although he had some lessons, he developed his very individual approach to the instrument largely by himself, away from any rigid school or method. At this early stage he also became familiar with Polish folk music, which was to have a profound impact on his mature compositions. Chopin did study composition for a number of years with Józef Elsner during his time at the Warsaw Conservatory. For Elsner, Chopin wrote his first piano sonata (1828), although it became clear that his talent was mainly to express itself in smaller, freer musical forms. The brilliant rondos and variations were written at this time, and would have provided Chopin with impressive concert pieces. The only pieces Chopin wrote for the very public medium of piano and orchestra also date from these years, including his two piano concertos, which he played with great success in Warsaw in 1830. The concertos have sometimes been criticized for the imbalance between the solo part and that of the orchestra, which is certainly subsidiary, but they contain marvellously inventive and expressive piano writing, beautiful melodies and, in the finales, lively Polish folk tunes.


After a tour of Europe taking in Dresden, Prague and Vienna, in September 1831 Chopin arrived in Paris, then the capital of the piano-playing world. The composer gave his first Paris concert early in 1832, and it was not long before he became an important figure in the musical scene. Among the musicians he met were Liszt, Berlioz and...

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