Chopin: The Voice of the Piano
Walker, Alan, American Music Teacher
I would like to begin by making a proposition that I cannot prove, but believe to be true. Within a 50-mile radius of where I am standing, someone somewhere is either playing or listening to Chopin's music. Nor does this proposition depend on my particular location, which happens to be Albuquerque, New Mexico. If I were to move my podium to Vienna, London, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing or even Sydney, Australia, my proposition would remain the same. Whatever the time zone, the sun never sets on Chopin's music. Millions of listeners are held in thrall to it. Radio stations across the world broadcast his compositions. The sale of Chopin CDs holds firm. The "Chopin recital" remains as popular as ever, a permanent in the concert hall. Chopin competitions continue to spring up across the globe. Finally, and most remarkably, Chopin has come to symbolize a nation. He is Poland's best-known son. Is there any other composer of whom similar things could reasonably be said?
Beginnings In Poland
In 1787, a 17-year-old named Nicolas Chopin left his native France and journeyed a thousand miles across Europe to Poland. We cannot speculate about his reasons. Whatever they were, the youth broke completely with his past. In later life he kept from his children all knowledge of their humble French relations. Nicolas Chopin embraced Poland as if it were his native land and Polish as if his native tongue. He generated a powerful sense of patriotism, which was the single most unifying influence in the life of his closely knit family. It was not until he was 35 that he married a Polish woman named Justyna, who was 11 years his junior. There were four children of the marriage--three girls and a boy. The boy, Fryderyk, who was born on March 1, 1810, was destined to become one of the leaders of the romantic movement in music.
As a child, Chopin was precocious. He was writing verse at age 6 and composing music from age 7. His very first composition was a Polonaise in G Minor (1817). But the most remarkable thing about him was his predisposition towards the piano. It is not generally realized that as a pianist Chopin was mostly self-taught. True, the boy took some elementary lessons from Adalbert Zywny, a local Warsaw musician (who was actually a violinist), but they were abandoned by the time that Chopin was 12. His chief studies were with Jozef Eisner--for composition. In piano playing, Chopin was left to find his own way, and he did so with such a natural aptitude that by the time he was 20 years old, he was fully formed as a pianist. (His Twelve Etudes, Op. 10, incidentally, begun when he was just 19 years old, were mostly composed to give himself new technical problems to solve.)
Chopin's parents were well aware of his unusual gifts, and it is to their credit that they exploited him neither for fame nor for money. Nicolas Chopin insisted that his son receive a sound general education, first at home and later at the Warsaw Lyceum. Chopin was supremely fortunate in having Jozef Elsner as his teacher. Elsner was the director of the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, a man in his mid-fifties when Chopin knew him, and a composer of 23 operas, 30 masses and three symphonies. Chopin revered him. Quickly realizing that an academic strait-jacket was no answer to Chopin's gifts, Eisner allowed him the freedom to follow his natural inclinations. "Let him be!" Elsner would say, "He's straying from the beaten track and the ordinary methods, but his is no ordinary talent."
The Warsaw press was full of references to Chopin. They regarded him as a local wonder-boy. Chopin himself was under no such illusions. He still had to prove himself to the outside world. He left Poland when he was 20, intending to tour Europe and return. Within weeks of his departure, however, the Warsaw Insurrection broke out and was crushed by the Russians. Cut off from his native land, Chopin toured Vienna, Prague and Stuttgart. …