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Frédéric Chopin



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Frédéric Chopin was one of the most eminent composers of piano music, a man whose genius enlarged the technical range and the musical expression of the instrument through a remarkable body of work. Chopin was born on Mar. 1, 1810, in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, Poland. His father was French, and his mother Polish. He was a precocious child, and he demonstrated a talent for the piano at a very early age. Although he was given piano lessons from the age of six, he seems to have been largely self-taught, a fact that may account for the inventiveness his compositions display: he had little notion of what was "not allowed."

Chopin began composing while still a child, and a number of his early works survive. He gave his first public concert in 1818. He studied music theory with Jozef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, and, after brilliant debuts in Warsaw and Vienna in 1830, he left Warsaw permanently--the Polish insurrection initially prevented his return--and by 1831 had settled in Paris.

Chopin was welcomed onto the French cultural scene. Robert Schumann had already acclaimed his variations on "La ci darem" (from Mozart's Don Giovanni) with the words "Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!" Schumann later called him "the boldest and proudest poetic spirit of the time." A concert in 1832 made his name in the fashionable world, and he was soon established as the teacher of a number of wealthy and well-born pupils. He gave yearly concerts of his own music and frequently performed in the fashionable Parisian salons, where he was renowned for his subtle and refined playing.

Aside from several songs, some pieces for cello and piano, and his few works for piano and orchestra, Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano and its sonorities. His renditions of his work always included considerable rubato, a flexibility of tempo that is essential for the proper interpretation of his music.

Chopin's shorter works can be divided into two groups: stylized dances and free lyrical forms. Among the dancelike compositions are the mazurkas, which are based on Polish dances in 3/4 time. Important among the smaller lyrical forms are the preludes (1836-39; 1845) and two books of etudes (1829- 32; 1832-36), a genre that Chopin raised from the level of a technical exercise to a work of musical merit.

Among the longer forms the polonaises--aristocratic dances that Chopin filled with the spirit of his native Poland--nocturnes, and ballades deserve special mention. Chopin's nocturnes range from melodious salon pieces to deeply pessimistic compositions. The ballades consist of aptly juxtaposed sections that make up a musical whole.

Of Chopin's large-scale works, the two piano concertos (F minor and E minor) are early compositions; his mature piano sonatas (in B-flat minor, which contains the well-known funeral march, and in B minor) show many structural and harmonic ingenuities. His F Minor Fantasy was one of the works that influenced Liszt's new concepts of musical form. Chopin's style includes delicate passage work and subtle melodic ornamentation. His harmonic innovations also influenced Wagner and Scriabin.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.