Fryderyk Chopin was born at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, in
1810. His father, Nicolas Chopin, was French by birth, but bad been taken to
Poland in 1787, at the age of sixteen, working first as a clerk in a tobacco
factory, before taking part in the Polish rising against the foreign domination
of the country as an officer in the National Guard. After the failure of this
attempt, he was able to earn his living as a French tutor in various private
families, and in 1806 he married a poor relation of his then employer, Count
Chopin was to inherit from his father a fierce sense of loyalty to Poland, a
feeling that be fostered largely in self-imposed exile, since the greater part
of his career was to be spent in Paris. His early education, however, was in
Warsaw, where his father had become a teacher at a newly established school.
He was able to develop his already precocious musical abilities with piano lessons
from the eccentric Adalbert Zwyny, a violinist from Bohemia, who shared Nicolas
Chopin's enthusiasm for Poland and was able to inculcate in his pupil a sound
respect for the great composers of the eighteenth century. Chopin later took
lessons from the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, Jozef Eisner, and entered
the Conservatory as a student in 1826. By then he had already developed his
own individual style as a pianist and had written, during the previous ten years,
a number of pieces for the piano.
Warsaw offered a restricted environment for musical achievement,
although Chopin was able to hear Hummel there in 1828 and the violinist Paganini
in the following year. He had already acquired a considerable local reputation
when in 1830 he set out for Vienna, where he was to pass the winter with very
little to show for it. An earlier visit to Vienna had aroused interest, but
this second visit, undertaken with a more serious purpose, produced nothing,
and the following summer he set out for Paris, where he was to spend much of
the rest of his life.
Chopin's attitude to Paris was at first ambivalent. As a provincial
he found much to shock him, while, at the same time, there was much to impress
him in the splendour of the city and in the diversity of music there. He was
to create a special place for himself as a teacher to some of the most distinguished
families and as a performer in more intimate social gatherings than the theatres
and concert-halls where his cruder contemporary Franz Liszt could excel.
By 1837 Chopin had embarked on a liaison with the writer George
Sand, Aurore Dupin, the estranged wife of Baron Dudevant, generally spending
the summer at her country estate at Nohant. The winter of 1838 was spent with
her in Mallorca, where an attempt to battle against a high wind seriously affected
his lungs, already weakened by tuberculosis. Thereafter Chopin's relationship
with George Sand took a more conventional course, until the jealousies and rivalry
of her two children led to a final quarrel in 1847. George Sand and Chopin were
never to be reconciled, and he died in Paris in 1849, his health having deteriorated
considerably during the course of a visit to England and Scotland the year before,
when Paris was undergoing revolution.
As a composer Chopin's achievement was remarkable. He perfected
his own idiomatic style of performance, in which technical problems seemed not
to exist, a style of delicate nuance and elegance. His music, suited to his
manner of playing, showed considerable originality in its exploration of harmony
and in its expansion of existing forms and creation of new ones, opening a world
that later composers were to continue to develop.
The Etudes that form Opus 10 were written between 1829 and 1832 and published
in the following year with a dedication to Franz Liszt. They combine a serious
technical purpose with music, making them very much more than mere pianistic
exercises. The third, fourth and seventh of the set were written after Chopin's
move to Paris, and the twelfth, the so-called Revolutionary Etude, is popularly
supposed to represent the composer's turbulent feelings when the news of the
1831 rising in Warsaw against Russia reached him in Stuttgart, during his journey
to Paris. There is no reason to accept the story, and the Etude was probably
written a year earlier.
The first two Etudes, in C major and A minor, were written
in the autumn of 1830, the former a study in extended arpeggios and the fatter
allowing the right hand to cope with chords and a legato chromatic upper part.
This is followed, in the published version, by the E major and C sharp minor
Etudes, completed in August, 1832, the first a serene contrast to the second.
It is probable that the G flat major and E flat minor Etudes
were written in the summer of 1830. The first confines the right hand to the
black keys of the piano, and the second presents a darker picture, in sombre
chromatic colours. They are followed by an Etude in C major, written in Paris
in the spring of 1832, a study involving the repetition of single notes with
the thumb and first finger.
The next four Etudes, in F major, F minor, A flat and E flat,
come from the late autumn of 1829, the brilliance of the first a contrast to
the drama of the second, followed by a study in cross-rhythms and a study in
arpeggiated chords. The last of the set, in C minor, brings its own well known
drama, its technical difficulty lying in the combination of a right-hand melody
in octaves against the busy movement of the left hand.
The Etudes published in 1837 as Opus 25 were written during
the preceding five years and dedicated to the Countess Marie d'Agoult, the mistress
of Liszt and a writer, under the pseudonym of Daniel Stern. The first, known
as the Aeolian Harp because of its gentle arpeggios, was written in September,
1836, and is followed by an F minor study in cross-rhythms from the previous
January and a third Etude in F major from the same year, dealing with problems
The fourth, fifth and sixth Etudes, in A minor, E minor and G sharp minor, were
written between 1832 and 1834. The first of these might suggest Paganini, while
the second offers figuration that was to assume importance in the Romantic virtuoso
piano repertoire, with the G sharp minor Etude a study in right-hand thirds.
The seventh Etude, in C sharp minor, was written in 1836, a
lyrical respite, and is followed by Etudes in D flat, G flat and B minor, written
between 1832 and 1834, studies in sixths, in divided octaves and in octaves
respectively. The G flat Etude is known to many as the Butterfly, while the
eleventh Etude, in A minor, written in 1834, has earned the title The Winter
Wind. The set ends with a C minor Etude in arpeggios, an echo of the opening
of Opus 10.