Chopin and the Piano


"Hats off, gentleman -- a genius!" So raved Robert Schumann when he first encountered the music of a shy young man from Poland named Frederic Chopin. And who could resist the sweep and gracefulness of all those memorable works for piano? Unlike other composers of the day, Chopin showed no interest in the more fashionable world of opera and orchestra -- instead focusing solely on piano pieces that mixed moonstruck melodies with fiery virtuosity. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample his unforgettable music as we trace the short life of a true romantic with glorious gifts.


No other composer has been so closely linked with one instrument than Frederick Chopin was -- and always will be -- with the piano. Born in 1810 in a small town not far from Warsaw, Chopin was the son of a French-born accountant (hence his un-Polish sounding name). Young Frederic -- Fryderyk, in the original spelling -- studied a little piano with his Polish mother, but soon moved up to serious studies with professional teachers. As his talent and technique grew, it became obvious that Chopin would have to leave his humble hometown and head to the Big City to make his mark -- never to return to his native land. Unlike great musicians such as Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, he found Vienna less than welcoming. Continuing west, he settled in the music-crazy city of Paris, where such keyboard giants as Franz Liszt ruled the roost. Still in his early 20s, physically frail and painfully shy, Chopin found success there, preferring the intimacy of salon recitals to the grand setting of the concert hall -- where the flamboyant Liszt triumphed. At first hoping to join the world of all those super-popular virtuosos, Chopin introduced himself to Paris with a pair of ambitious piano concertos. But it was the subtle beauty and invention of his solo keyboard works that captured the imagination of Parisian music-lovers. One of them, a woman named Aurore Dudevant, became his paramour and friend for the better part of a decade. The eccentric novelist, who adopted the pen name George Sand to conceal her gender, traveled through Western Europe with Chopin, including a cold winter on the Spanish island of Majorca, where his tubercular condition was exacerbated. Ill health would plague him most of his life, even during warm-weather stays with Dudevant at her home at Nohant in the center of France. Through it all, he never stopped composing and performing, supplementing his income with teaching. His rocky relationship with Dudevant ended badly in 1847, largely through the strong disapproval of her adult children. But there was unhappiness elsewhere in the composer's life. Though music had served as a comfortable refuge from Europe's volatile political climate, Chopin was swept up in the growing tide of revolution. His heart ached for his Polish countrymen, who fought bravely against the Russian army, but surrendered to their invaders, inspiring Chopin to honor his homeland with national dances such as the Mazurka and Polonaise. Even Paris was not immune to revolutionary fervor: The unstable political scene there in 1848 forced him to leave the country for a tour of England and Scotland. He returned the next year, severely weakened and unable to work. Though he died on October 17, 1849, his music and his contributions to our understanding of the keyboard will live on forever. Bringing a gentle touch, he reminded future pianists (and composers!) of the instrument's expressiveness and color possibilities. Understated melodies, inspired by Italian opera, were created with the human voice in mind. Juxtaposing moments of reflection with violent, full-blooded outbursts stretched the boundaries of composing for the piano. His life was tragically cut short -- as was so common among sensitive artists of the day -- but his music remains as inescapable as the 88-key instrument that he loved so well.

Exploration Questions

  • Besides Liszt, who were some of the other stars of the piano in Chopin's day? What was their approach to the instrument?
  • What did contemporary critics have to say about Chopin's playing and his compositions?
  • What sort of a person was "George Sand," and what was Chopin's first impression of her?

Reflective Questions

  • Which style of Chopin's music do you prefer: his virtuosic explosions or those quiet, intimate melodies?
  • Why do you think so many young 19th-Century artists, poets and musicians died young?
  • If you could choose only one Chopin piece, which would it be?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Zamoyski, Adam. Chopin: Prince of the Romantics. HarperCollins. 2011. 356 pages. Here is a highly readable, thoroughly researched biography by an author who hails from Chopin's Poland.
    Click here to order
  • Atwood, William G. The Parisian Worlds of Frederic Chopin. Yale University Press. 1999. 400 pages. As its title suggests this book focuses on Chopin's years in Paris, focusing not only on the fascinating people who became part of his life, but on the unhealthy conditions of the city back then (Atwood is a physician).