Chopin: The Day the Music Died

Chopin and his much-visited tomb in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery
Chopin and his much-visited tomb in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery

by Ray Setterfield

October 17, 1849 — In the short time allotted to him, the genius Frederic Chopin came to be regarded as one of history’s finest composers and pianists. But behind the accolades came a life of struggle riddled with health problems. Fellow composer Hector Berlioz put it in a nutshell: “He was dying all his life.”

One of music's earliest superstars, Chopin learned to play the piano at the age of six. He gave his first public performance at eight. When he was 11 the Director of the Polish National Opera took him under his wing. His first published work, the Rondo in C Minor, was completed while still at school.

Charles Rosen, the late American concert pianist and prolific writer about music, said of Chopin that his "poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation.”

It was said that in his youth Chopin slept with wooden wedges between his fingers to extend their span. And later, defying convention, he allowed his fingers to cross while playing – an unforgivable sin to many piano teachers.

He was born Frédéryk Franciszek Chopin on March 1, 1810 in Warsaw. His French father was tutor to the children of a Countess, to whom his Polish mother was related. With such connections, he went to live in Paris at the age of 21 and became the darling of salon society.

Not for him the grand concert hall. In the last 18 years of his life he gave only 30 public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon.

Outside music, from 1838 to 1847 he lived with Aurore, Baroness Dudevant – a relative of the King of Poland but better known as the novelist George Sand.

They settled in Sand's country home near Paris and the next seven years proved to be the happiest and most productive period of Chopin's life. He steadily composed a series of masterpieces, including the Sonata in B Minor, the Opus 55 Nocturnes and the Opus 56 Mazurkas.

It was a passionate but troubled relationship. She took a hand in publishing a number of utopian-socialist, anti-clerical, and left-wing republican journals and newspapers. He was indifferent to Sand's radical political pursuits, while she looked on his society friends with disdain.

He ended their relationship with angry correspondence over a book that Sand had written which cast thinly disguised criticism of the composer. Sand said it made “a strange conclusion to nine years of exclusive friendship.” The two would never meet again. 

The following year, 1848, despite being quoted as saying, “I think the English have wooden ears and will never create anything noteworthy in music,” Chopin decided on a UK tour. But after arriving he refused to play with the Philharmonic Society. “The orchestra is rather like their roast beef or their turtle soup,” he said; “excellent, strong, but nothing more.”

Ill during the exhausting tour, Chopin played his final concert at the Guildhall in London, then decided to return to Paris. As if he knew death was only a few weeks away he left a fearful note in his Paris apartment saying: “The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open so I won’t be buried alive.”

A few months earlier he had written to a friend: “We are two old cembalos [harpsichords] on which time and circumstances have played out their wretched trills. The table d’harmonie is perfect, only the strings have snapped and some of the pegs are missing.”

He was buried in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery but his heart was taken to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. About 3,000 mourners attended the funeral where, at Chopin’s written request, Mozart’s Requiem was sung. Sand was not invited.

Published: October 14, 2019

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