NPR Online

Frédéric Chopin
with Jan Swafford and Misha Dichter

Although Frédéric Chopin was revered by his contemporaries as "the next Mozart" and "one of the glories of the Polish nation," in public he was a shy man who dreaded performing in front of crowds. With his delicate, almost feminine features and fragile health, Chopin tended to withdraw from social situations, preferring the privacy and intimacy of the salon over the elevation of the concert stage. Today, it is astounding to realize that Chopin's reputation as a performer rests on about thirty public concerts given during his lifetime. This edition of Milestones of the Millennium celebrates the music of Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin, who died 150 years ago, on October 17, 1849.

Chopin was born in 1810 into a musical family. Early on he was recognized as a child prodigy, writing poetry at the age of six, composing music at the age of seven and performing publicly as a soloist in a concerto at the age of eight. As Chopin matured musically, his teachers found that his creativity blossomed the more he was left to his own devices. He was largely self-taught as a pianist and was ingenious in developing new means of pianistic expression. According to commentator Jan Swafford, "He seems to have discovered, for the first time, the natural voice of his instrument."

In 1830, Chopin left his native Poland and traveled throughout Europe with the hope of broadening his musical horizons. In September, 1831, the Russian army took occupation of Warsaw. Because of this political upheaval, Chopin was never able to return to his homeland, which very likely contributed to his chronic melancholy. Chopin ended up settling in Paris, then the artistic and intellectual capital of Europe, where he made friends with many of the city's most notable figures including Hector Berlioz, Victor Hugo and Heinrich Heine. One of Chopin's closest friends was virtuoso pianist and showman Franz Liszt, whose fearlessness as a performer Chopin admired greatly.

Nearly all of Chopin's works are for solo piano, most being genre pieces such as the waltz, étude and nocturne. Polish dances, such as the mazurka and the polonaise, also figure greatly in Chopin's output. In the hands of Chopin, the étude was elevated from a simple, didactic piece to a noble artistic creation suitable for the concert stage. Chopin's etudes are indeed "concert studies," combining rigorous technical demands with the composer's own unique gift for musical expression.

Today, the music of Chopin is a staple in the diet of all serious piano students. With so many pianists playing the music of Chopin, it can be a challenge for the performer to keep the music fresh. Pianist Misha Dichter solves this problem simply by avoiding certain pieces. He relates, "A good deal of Chopin I have simply stayed away from since Juilliard days." Still, because of Chopin's prolific output, Dichter finds plenty of infrequently-performed pieces that display the composer's remarkable compositional gifts and his sensitivity to the piano.

Chopin's music, marked by its delicious chromaticism, kaleidoscopic harmonic motion and poetic sensibility, exudes a unique attraction for listeners. As Jan Swafford describes, Chopin's music is as "voluptuously gorgeous as a hothouse orchid."

Hear excerpts of our feature on Frédéric Chopin, including commentary by Jan Swafford, from the Milestones of the Millenium series. (This audio segment requires the free RealPlayer 5.0 or higher. Portions of the music have been edited from this online version. You can also listen with a 14.4 connection)

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