history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  




by Alexandre Cabrera



At the end of the eighteenth century Poland was passing through one of many tragic periods. In 1772 Prussia, Austria and Russia had taken away some of Poland's lands and, having gained a secure position, these three neighboring powers had no intention of losing ground. Russia was especially aggressive. All attempts by Poland to re-form itself were frustrated. When, in 1793, Russia and Prussia again prepared to divide the spoils, a climax was reached. In the following spring Poland gathered up its full strength for resistance. It continued the struggle for nearly a year but at the end lost almost everything, and its king surrendered


Among those who joined the National Guard during this rising was Nicholas Chopin. Nicholas was born at Nancy and at the age of seventeen had come to Warsaw to take a position as cashier in a tobacco factory. In the National Guard he became a captain. Towards the end of the struggle of 1794 he was on duty with his company at Praga, a suburb of Warsaw. The company was relieved and a few hours later Praga was captured. In the present context this incident is of more than ordinary importance; for twelve years later Nicholas Chopin, who had since become a tutor to the son of a countess, married Justina Krzyzanowska, a lady in waiting in the same household; and four years after the marriage there was born to them their second child, a son whom they call Fryderyk (Maine pg. 7).

Justina was twenty-four when she married. "It was in the evening of February 22, 1810, that she was delivered of her only son. It is said that at that hour music could be heard from her room-the sound of violins played by villagers for a wedding serenade. As Chopin was growing up he was no baby composer, writing scores and extemporizing sonatas and concertos before he had cut his first tooth. But he took to the piano almost as soon as he could walk-as if, in short, it were by natural destiny (Maine pg. 8)." His parents, being sensible people, resolved to do all that was possible to foster his evident talent. Before he was seven years old they decided to place him in the hands of Adalbert Zywny. This worthy man was a Czech, a good teacher and a sound musician. The basis of his teaching was the music of Bach, and this, therefore, was the first important influence in the development of Fryderyk Chopin's mind.


Having decided about his sons future Nicolas Chopin began to realize that some knowledge with the outer world would be advisable as a preliminary to settling down to the practice of his profession even though he was a musician of the Warsaw Conservatory and already had given several concerts in Warsaw. Warsaw was a small place after all-isolated, moreover, from the great centers of artistic and intellectual life-and could hardly be expected to satisfy the longings of a young genius to hear the masterpieces of the classic composers performed by the best artists (Hadden pg. 24).

Chopin visited Berlin, and gave two successful concerts in Vienna while he was a student at the Warsaw Principal Music School (Samson pg. 8). After he finished music school, while at Stuttgart bad news came! Warsaw had been captured by the Russians. To link one of his compositions with that heart-breaking moment is a natural desire of most muscicians. When Chopin heard of the tragedy, his grief led him to the piano where, in an improvising mood, he composed the famous Etude in C minor. "In the extremity of his anguish, Chopin gives reign to imagination and sees the burning of Warsaw, his friends killed or imprisoned, his parents starving, his sister violated by the brutal invaders, his sister Emilja's grave obliterated (Maine pg. 34)." As Maine put it "he hears the clocks in the Stuttgart towers strike the hours of the night, and each is a stroke of death. That he should have been born into such a world of hatred as this!" He is loath to let the nightmare go. He hugs it to himself until, out of self-pity, tears begin to flow. "There are no words for my misery," he ends. "How can I bear this pain (Maine pg. 34)?"


Men of action may be inclined to doubt the value of Chopin's strong love for his country, as when he wrote in his diary, as evidence of his patriotism. In one sense, however, he was destined to give Poland a never-ending contribution, his music! For, through the medium of his music, his country has made a lasting impression upon the world . "At the time when Warsaw was oppressed by Russia's power, there had escaped into Europe a messenger who soon was to proclaim his country's spirit with greater eloquence than ever physical force commanded (Maine pg. 36)."

After 1831, except for brief absences, Chopin lived in Paris, where he became noted as a pianist, teacher, and composer. He formed an intimate relationship in 1837 with the French writer George Sand. In 1838 Chopin began to suffer from tuberculosis and she nursed him in Majorca in the Balearic Islands and in France until continued differences between the two resulted in an alienation in 1847. Thereafter his musical activity was limited to giving several concerts in 1848 in France, Scotland, and England. He died in Paris on October 17, 1849, of tuberculosis.


Nearly all of Chopin's compositions are for piano. Although Chopin left his country, he was deeply loyal to his war-torn homeland; his mazurkas reflect the rhythms and melodic traits of Polish folk music, and his polonaises are marked by a heroic spirit. The Italian opera composer Vincenzo Bellini also influenced his melodies. His ballads, scherzos, and etudes exemplify his large-scale works for solo piano. His music, romantic and sweet in nature, is characterized by exquisite melody of great originality, refined harmony, subtle rhythm, and poetic beauty. Chopin greatly influenced other composers, the Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt, the German composer Richard Wagner, and the French composer Claude Debussy. Chopin's many published compositions include 55 mazurkas, 27 etudes, 24 preludes, 19 nocturnes, 13 polonaises, and 3 piano sonatas. Among his other works are the Concertos in E minor and in F minor, both for piano and orchestra, the cello concerto, and 17 songs.


"As has been well observed, life, in all true reckoning, is counted, not by years but by actions. Chopin's life was brief, but it failed not of its purpose. That he did not die with all his music in him must be our lasting consolation (Hadden pg. 118)." After the service the procession moved to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise where Chopin was buried. But not his heart: that was carried back to Warsaw to rest in the Church of the Holy Cross. According to Hadden, no formal eulogy was spoken at the burial. But for the last gesture Chopin would have been grateful. After his body had been lowered into the grave, somebody threw earth upon the coffin from a silver cup. It was the cup of Polish soil that Elsner and other friends had given him when they accompanied him to Wola to say good-bye.

"A pupil should not be kept too long at the study of one method, or confined to the taste of one nation. What is truly beautiful must not be imitated, but felt, and assimilated with the individual genius. We must not take one man, or one nation, as a model, for these only afford examples more or less imperfect (Kelley pg. 158)."


Works Cited:

Hadden, Cuthbert. Chopin. New York:

E.P. Dutton & Co, 1921.

Kelly, Edgar. Chopin The Composer. New York:

Copper Square Publishers Inc, 1969.

Maine, Basil. Great Lives-Chopin. London:

Duckworth, 1933.

Samson, Jim. The Cambridge Companion To Chopin. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1992.







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