By Dr. Luis Dias
"I write beautiful music to cover all of the ugliness in the world."
Frédéric Chopin (22 February 1810-17 October 1849).
(Photograph of Chopin the year before his death)
In the back pages of medical journals, one often finds space devoted to speculation: a little medical sleuthing. What was the cause of Beethoven’s deafness? If van Gogh indeed did have schizophrenia, how would modern treatment have influenced his life, and his creativity?
To these questions I would like to add: what if Chopin had access to modern anti-tuberculosis treatment? What masterpieces was the world deprived of when the illness
(called “consumption” at the time) snuffed out his life at the age of barely 39? Would he have written opera, which he loved so much, which his composition teacher Elsner begged him to write, and was the inspiration for his piano writing?
Frédéric François Chopin was born to a French father and Polish mother, (on 22 February 1810 according to parish records, although he often gave 1 March as the date) in the village of Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. He grew up with a fierce love of his adopted homeland (“more Polish than Poland”, as his lover George Sand would later say), although destiny dictated that he spend his life almost equally between Poland and France.
A child prodigy, at age 7 he began piano lessons with Żwyny, who was actually a violinist. He began composing as well; his Polonaises in G minor and B flat major in that year alone. He also began to give public concerts, drawing comparisons with Mozart.
As an adolescent, he was deeply influenced by Polish folk melodies and idioms. He drew inspiration from traditional dance forms like the mazurka, polonaise, and krakowiak. He used them to express empathy with the suffering and oppression of the Polish people over the centuries, and his belief in their freedom.
At the Warsaw Conservatoire, he studied composition with Joseph Elsner, who was quick to spot his precious talent.
In 1827, his Là ci darem variations for piano and orchestra on themes of Don Giovanni elicited the exclamation from Schumann: “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!”
He fell madly in love with a young soprano Constantia Gladkowska, but being of shy disposition, worshipped her from afar. A chance encounter would leave him reeling in a complete daze. Perhaps thanks to her, his interest in opera deepened, and inspired the beautiful melodies of his nocturnes, and the slow movements of his piano concertos.
His adult début as a concert pianist was an acclaimed success, but already he was suffering from stage fright; he writes in his correspondence that public concerts gave him “three days of preliminary torture”. The fact that audiences of his day preferred showmanship to true musicianship did not help.
He left Poland in 1830, barely days before the doomed Polish uprising against the Russians, news of which traumatised him. His diary entries are incoherent and near-suicidal with despair. His Revolutionary study was composed in this time, and reflects these emotions.
(Portrait of Chopin by Eugene Delacroix, part of a larger painting that included George Sand)
After a year in Vienna, Chopin eventually arrived in Paris, where he met the cognoscenti of music, art and literature: Liszt, Berlioz, Rossini, Hiller, Mendelssohn, Bellini, Schumann, Delacroix, Ingres, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Dumas, Lamartine. His Paris début was well received. However criticism of his playing, as being “too delicate, withdrawn” affected his sensitive nature, and he increasingly preferred intimate salon soirées where his friends were the audience, although he made intermittent public appearances, sometimes with Liszt. (That must have been quite a contrast of styles!).
However approval from the influential Rothschild family soon made him the most sought-after piano teacher in Paris.
In 1835, he fell in love again, but by now it was obvious that he was “consumptive”, and the lady’s parents quickly put an end to his intentions. Heartbroken, Chopin tied all their correspondence into a bundle and labelled it “Moja Bieda” (My pain).
A year later Chopin was introduced to Aurore Dupin, alias Mme.Dudevant, better known to us as George Sand. A flamboyant writer of provocative novels, she wore men’s clothes and smoked cigars. So perhaps opposites do attract, as he was the antithesis of her!
An impulsive trip to the island of Majorca in 1838 with the Sands began idyllically enough, but soon turned into a nightmare. The sudden bad weather, the charcoal stove, conspired to worsen Chopin’s fragile condition considerably. The locals turned hostile once word spread about Chopin’s illness. To make matters worse, the cart ride back to the ferry was so bumpy, that he suffered a lung haemorrhage. It seems incredible to think that he embarked upon his epochal 24 préludes in the midst of all this.
By 1846, cracks began to appear in the Chopin-Sand relationship, and the two parted ways, never to see each other again. In 1848, he made a trip to Britain, where he played for Queen Victoria, and made acquaintance with Dickens, Hogarth, and singer Jenny Lind. His poor health, already strained severely by a rash trip with Sand in 1838 to Majorca, worsened considerably in the British Isles. He soon returned to Paris, where his sister Louise nursed him, but it was evident the end was near.
Chopin died on 17 October, 1849. His last wishes were that all “incomplete, imperfect” manuscripts be burned, and that the Mozart requiem be performed at his funeral.
Today Chopin epitomises piano music, and is a household name. This might have surprised him, a musician with virtually no formal piano training being deified as a pedagogue. He is truly a “pianist’s composer”, his output being almost exclusively for the instrument. He makes huge technical demands in his writing, but for a musical purpose. Though he shunned public concerts, the irony is that his music is most performed publicly today. In his path-breaking harmonies, this gentle man blazed the way for composers as diverse as Wagner, Debussy and Schoenberg. “Cannons concealed amid flowers”, is how Schumann described his music.
Chopin’s birth bicentennial is being commemorated through this year by musicians and music lovers worldwide.
(An edited version of this article was published in the Herald, Goa, India on 22, February, 2010)