Of all his enduring works, the one that most inspires and moves me is his Étude Op. 10, No. 3, in E major, commonly known as ‘Tristesse’, meaning Sadness.
Chopin himself told his pupil Adolph Gutmann that this was the most beautiful melody he had ever written. Of course, so many of his other compositions for the piano are very moving too. Here is another of my favourites, Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, in E-flat major:
It is not only Chopin’s music that inspires me in my writing, though; I am also fascinated by the composer himself.
Born in 1810 in Warsaw, Chopin was a child prodigy who became a key figure in the Romantic movement. He earned the respect and admiration of his contemporaries for his lyrical compositions, which were beyond compare; he had, writes Charles Rosen in his seminal work The Romantic Generation, a ‘poetic genius … based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation’.
To be without equal – it strikes me that could be quite a lonely position. In fact, Chopin was not a gregarious man; he was very reluctant to play in public, much preferring the more intimate environment of the salon. He was sensitive, as his music so clearly conveys, and valued quiet and solitude.
But no man is an island, and Chopin was famously friends with the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and he had a somewhat turbulent relationship with the French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, whose pen name was George Sand. To earn a living, Chopin gave piano lessons, and one of his pupils, Jane Stirling, a wealthy Scottish lady, would become his manager, of sorts, and supporter. It was Jane who arranged for Chopin to travel to England and Scotland, where he performed for the crème of British society, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It was Jane who paid for Chopin’s accommodation and living costs towards the end of his life; she funded his genius.
Portrait of Chopin, aged 25, painted by his then fiancée Maria Wodzińska; source: http://wydarzenia.o.pl/
‘Soulful’ is the word that springs to mind when I think of Chopin and his work. ‘Put all your soul into it, play the way you feel!’ he advised his pupils. For him, the ‘crowning reward of art’ was simplicity, ‘achievable when you have overcome all difficulties … after one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes’. I remember these words when I write and edit; his wisdom is, I feel, just as relevant to writing words as musical notes.
Chopin died of tuberculosis in an apartment in Paris on 17 October 1849, aged 39. His last words were to a physician who asked him whether he was suffering – ‘no longer,’ he said. His body was laid to rest in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but in accordance with his wishes, his heart was removed before the burial and his sister took it to Poland, where the fierce national Chopin’s heart would eternally belong.
Felix Mendelssohn said of Chopin during his lifetime: ‘There is something fundamentally personal and at the same time so very masterly in his playing that he may be called a really perfect virtuoso.’ To work and work to become a master of one’s craft, and to infuse one’s art with the fundamentally personal – Chopin’s legacy is not only some of the world’s most beautiful musical pieces, but an inspiring example for those who endeavour, like him, to create.