The son of French émigré father (a schoolteacher working in Poland) and a cultured Polish mother, he grew up in Warsaw, taking childhood music lessons (in Bach and the Viennese Classics) from Wojciech Zywny and Jósef Elsner before entering the Conservatory (1826-9). By this time he had performed in local salons and composed several rondos, polonaises and mazurkas. Public and critical acclaim increased during the years 1829-30 when he gave concerts in Vienna and Warsaw, but his despair over the political repression in Poland, coupled with his musical ambitions, led him to move to Paris in 1831. There, with practical help from Kalkbrenner and Pleyel, praise from Liszt, Fétis and Schumann and introductions into the highest society, he quickly established himself as a private teacher and salon performer, his legendary artist's image being enhanced by frail health (he had tuberculosis), attractive looks, sensitive playing, a courteous manner and the piquancy attaching to self-exile. Of his several romantic affairs, the most talked about was that with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) though whether he was truly drawn to women must remain in doubt. Between 1838 and 1847 their relationship, with a strong element of the maternal on her side, coincided with one of his most productive creative periods. He gave few public concerts, though his playing was much praised, and he published much of his best music simultaneously in Paris, London and Leipzig. The breach with Sand was followed by a rapid deterioration in his health and a long visit to Britain (1848). His funeral at the Madeleine was attended by nearly 3000 people.
No great composer has devoted himself as exclusively to the piano as Chopin. By all accounts an inspired improviser, he composed while playing, writing down his thoughts only with difficulty. But he was no mere dreamer - his development can be seen as an ever more sophisticated improvisation on the classical principle of departure and return. For the concert-giving years 1828-32 he wrote brilliant virtuoso pieces (e.g. rondos) and music for piano and orchestra; the teaching side of his career is represented by the studies, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, impromptus and mazurkas, polished pieces of moderate difficulty. The large-scale works - the later polonaises, scherzos, ballades, sonatas, the Barcarolle and the dramatic Polonaise-fantaisie - he wrote for himself and a small circle of admirers. Apart from the national feeling in the Polish dances, and possibly some narrative background to the ballades, he intended notably few references to literary, pictorial or autobiographical ideas.
Chopin is admired above all for his great originality in exploiting the piano. While his own playing style was famous for its subtlety and restraint, its exquisite delicacy in contrast with the spectacular feats of pianism then reigning in Paris, most of his works have a simple texture of accompanied melody. From this he derived endless variety, using wide-compass broken chords, the sustaining pedal and a combination of highly expressive melodies, some in inner voices. Similarly, though most of his works are basically ternary in form, they show great resource in the way the return is varied, delayed, foreshortened or extended, often with a brilliant coda added.
Chopin's harmony however was conspicuously innovative. Through melodic clashes, ambiguous chords, delayed or surprising cadences, remote or sliding modulations (sometimes many in quick succession), unresolved dominant 7ths and occasionally excursions into pure chromaticism or modality, he pushed the accepted procedures of dissonance and key info previously unexplored territory. This profound influence can be traced alike in the music of Liszt, Wagner, Fauré, Debussy, Grieg, Albéniz, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and many others.
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