Chopin began taking piano lessons at the age of 6. By ten he was performing for audiences. He was a gifted child who grew up to be one of the most celebrated composers of the 19th Century.
Chopin was a virtuoso and great improviser who composed while playing. Despite his short life (he died at age 39) his creative output was remarkable. He published 159 works including 58 mazuraks, 27 etudes, 26 preludes, 21 nocturnes, 18 waltzes, 18 polonaises, 4 sonatas, 2 concertos, and a variety of songs, ballades, rondos and scherzos. An additional 70 compositions went unpublished during his lifetime.
His compositional work was almost exclusively for the piano. The piano in Chopin's time had undergone significant technical advancement such as the development of the double-escapement action that allowed the performer to generate rapid repeated notes. His romantic style is characterized by the unique use of melody, harmony and dissonance and the ability to create new ways of forming chords.
Chopin was born into a middleclass Polish family at a time when Poland was undergoing substantial political unrest, especially with regard to its domination by Russia. Chopin is recognized as a Polish nationalist and his use of Polish folk music in his compositions is always noted. Commentators have noted how his political beliefs found their way into his work. For example John Bell Young in liner notes for a recording of Chopin's Piano Concerto in E Minor comments that the finale is in the form of a Polish national dance which represented "for many an indictment of Russia's cruel indifference to a culture at least as ancient as its own." The composer Robert Schumann wrote that Chopin's works "are like cannons hidden beneath flowers."
However Chopin did not actively take part in Poland's struggle for liberation. On October 11, 1830 he gave a farewell concert in the Warsaw National Theater where he performed the Concerto in E Minor. Afterwards, on November 2 he left Poland and soon settled in Paris where he spent most of the rest of his life.
He was a small man, perhaps as small as 5' 5" but certainly not taller then 5' 8" and apparently he never weighed more then 100 lbs. He was pale with hazel eyes and from most descriptions his physical appearance suggested frailty. Indeed Chopin spent much of his life battling illness; specifically he had problems with his lungs which caused breathing difficulties. He eventually died of pulmonary tuberculosis.
As to his personality there are conflicting reports. Some descriptions suggest he was a dreamy romantic with a quiet and pleasant but somewhat remote disposition. Other commentaries indicate, perhaps more typical of a brilliant prodigy, that he was self-centered, snobbish, competitive and prone to temper tantrums. Madame Juste Olivier an acquaintance wrote of Chopin that he was a "man of intelligence and talent, charming...but heart I don't think he has." (Madame Juste Olivier).
Chopin's love life is also a matter of some speculation. As an adolescent he developed a crush for Constanza Gladowska but she may not have been aware of it until after the fact. In September 1836 he became engaged to a former student, Maria Wodzinska, who was 17 at the time. The engagement was terminated a year later by Maria's family primarily because of Chopin's ill health. At the conclusion of his aborted relationship with Maria Chopin bundled up the correspondence he had carried on with her parents and labeled the package "My Sorrow."
Soon after the end of his affair with Wodzinska, Chopin began his much-discussed and controversial affair with the French writer George Sand (nee Aurore Dudevant) who at 35 was six years older than Chopin. His most productive period coincides with this relationship. The affair lasted 10 years and the particulars of the romance between the strong-willed feminist-oriented Sand and the more introverted retiring Chopin are frequently debated. Franz Lizst, who in some measure brought the two together, wrote that the relationship between Chopin and Sand involved diametrically opposed personalities "which seemed to have been mutually drawn to each other by a sudden and superficial attraction, for the sake of repulsing each other later on with all the force of inexpressible sorrow and boredom."
In her book about Sand, Rene Doumic reprints a letter Sand wrote in 1847 near the end of the affair. It appears that Sand had stopped the physical aspect of the relationship:
For seven years I have lived with him as a virgin. If any woman on earth could inspire him with absolute confidence, I am certainly that woman, but he has never understood. I know, too, that many people accuse me of having worn him out with my violent sensuality, and others accuse me of having driven him to despair by my freaks. I believe you know how much truth there is in all this. He himself complains to me that I am killing him by the privations I insist upon, and I feel certain that I should kill him by acting otherwise.
A picture of Sand's view of her love affair with Chopin can be gleaned from the her novel Lucrezia Floriani (c.1846) which startled Paris society since it is a tale about her relationship with the famous composer who is represented by the character of Prince Karol. Chopin's friends blamed Sand for his rapid decline after the end of the affair.
In fact, two years after the end of his affair with Sand, Chopin died. Some three thousand people attended his funeral in Paris. According to his wishes his heart was removed from his body and transported by his sister Ludwika to Poland where it was entombed in a pillar at the Holy Cross church in Waresaw. And so despite the fact that he spent most of his life in France, as a darling of the bourgeoisie that reigned during the July Monarchy, the great virtuoso composer's heart returned and will always remain in his native Poland.
From our vantage point Chopin remains what he was in his own day: A brilliant and eccentric composer more comfortable in the universe of his own sensitive imagination then in the world of everybody else's reality. He is an exemplary symbol of the 19th Century Romantic Movement that put the poetic expression of the emotional heart ahead of the rational mind. And his music and the details of the life that spawned that music continue to reveal this.