Frederic Chopin’s Childhood

Frederic Chopin’s Childhood

Gdy polonez chopinowski
tajne struny serca ruszy,
zawsze wtedy mam widzenie
Narodowej polskiej duszy.”

„When the Chopin polonaise
Stirs the secret chords of the heart,
I always envision the national Polish spirit.”

Maria Konopnicka

Fryderyk Chopin
Fryderyk Chopin

There is no doubt that an individual’s future, skills, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses are developed first at home, in the family. The family creates the basis for the nurturing and development of the interests of the child, interests that mature in adulthood. Fortunately, for the sake of art and music, little Frederic Chopin benefited from only good role models in his childhood and was prepared well for his future.

Chopin, was playing the violin. Mikołaj Chopin was born in France, in Lotharingia. He settled in Poland in 1787 and spent the rest of his life there. He raised his children as Poles and became very attached to his new country. In 1806 Mikołaj married Tekla Justyna Krzyżanowska, from an impoverished noble family in Kujawy. Frederic, who was born in 1810 in Żelażowa Wola, had three sisters: Ludwika, Izabela, and Emilia. He was the second oldest. A few months after Frederic’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father took a position as a teacher in the Warsaw Lyceum.

Frederic’s musical abilities appeared very early and were nurtured by those closest to him. Music came to occupy a priviliged place in Chopin’s home.  Pani Tekla loved to play the piano, but…and here again I refer to legends and anecdotes, little Frederic always cried when he saw his mother at the piano. Music from the popular Italian operas of the day and music with ethnic features could often be heard in the Chopin home. Certainly the melodies he heard influenced Chopin’s first efforts in composition.  At a very young age Frederic improvised and repeated the melodies he heard his mother and sister Ludwika play on the piano.

The young Chopin began to take formal piano lessons in 1816 with Wojciech Żywny, a friend of his father. Though Eustache Marylski, a friend of Chopin’s, described Żywny as „one of the most mediocre teachers of music in Warsaw”, the music teacher had an undeniable influence on the future pianist.    Żywny concentrated on introducing Frederic to the works of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Hummel and explaining the principles of their music. He taught Chopin the basics of playing the piano, the way to hold the fingers and place the hands. Recognizing Chopin’s innate technical skill and talent, Żywny did not limit his individuality. Even when he achieved fame, Chopin never forgot about Żywny and his influence, mentioning him several times in his letters.

Frederic’s first successes came very early, already in 1817, when he was barely seven years old. He dedicated the Polonaise in G-minor to Wiktoria Skarbek and composed the Polonaise in B-major. The first public performance of the young pianist was in 1818 in the Radziwiłł palace. The distinguished individuals in attendance stood before him in amazement. The Warsaw press described Chopin as „the miraculous child” and „a second Mozart”. Aleksandra Tańska, the sister of the author Klementyna Hoffmanowa, wrote a short description of the concert in her diary: „The number of people in attendance was sufficient. During the course of the evening young Chopin, an eight-year-old child, played the piano, promising, as some experts claim, to replace Mozart.” The tsaritsa Maria Fiodorowna visited Warsaw on September 20, 1818, and Chopin entertained her with two Polish dances. Wójcicki recalls that when the young Chopin played for Grand Duke Constantine, the governor of Warsaw, Chopin raised his eyes during the playing of the military march. Each time Constantine asked, „What do you see up there? Are you reading notes on the ceiling?” Frederic later received a diamond ring from the tsar and even an offer in Paris to become the composer of the tsarist court. Chopin sold the ring and rejected the offer.

Chopin’s family home was filled with the spirit of art and intellectual investigation; professors from the Lyceum and university, musicians, and writers visited often. Among the guests were the musicians Józef Elsner, Wilhelm Wurfel, and Józef Jawurek. These guests helped to create a remarkable atmosphere for the development of young Frederic’s artistic sensitivity and interests.

From 1823 to 1826 young Chopin studied in the Warsaw Lyceum, where his father worked. During this time he visited several parts of Poland. He spent vacations at the court of Antoni Radziwiłł in Szafarnie and visited friends in distant parts of the country.  From Szafarnie he sent several well known letters – the „Kurier Szafarski” to his parents, a parody of the „Kurier Warszawski” (Warsaw Courier). Also well known is the anecdote that Frederic was once caught drawing a picture of a teacher in school. The image so surprised the teacher that, instead of punishing Chopin for not paying attention during the lesson, he praised him. Maurycy Karasowski also recalls the time when Chopin helped a tutor quiet some disruptive students. He improvised a story and then put them all to sleep with a lullaby, including the tutor. He showed this enchanted scene to his sisters and mother and then woke the sweetly dreaming group with a piercing chord… Many biographers stress that Chopin was a universal genius, because he possessed an unusual literary talent, evident in his correspondence, and, also, talent as an artist and actor. For example, Balzac recalls that Frederic had a real gift for mimicking whomever he liked.

Even as a child Chopin suffered from health problems. His tonsils were a special problem. There were months when he was not able to get out of bed, but when he felt better, he went immediately to the piano. In spite of his absences from school, he was a very good student, and he finished the Warsaw Lyceum as one of the best students.

From 1826 to 1829 Chopin was a student at the Main School of Music, part of the Conservatory connected to the University of Warsaw. He studied harmony and counterpoint there with Professor Józef Elsner.  He was not required to study an instrument as his unusual skills and the character of his playing was already recognized. During this period Chopin became fasinated with folk music. Józef Elsner wrote a report after Chopin’s third year of study: „Frederic Chopin – a special ability, a musical genius”.

Chopin’s childhood ended long ago, crossing into the success of adulthood and the praise of a master, so it is perhaps appropriate to end here with quiet admiration and reflection. A look at his childhood helps to explain much about the pianist. We should also remember that young Frederic was influenced not only by the love of his family and friende but also the fields and willows of the Vistula, its painful history, the songs of the land and the forest, and the love of the Polish people.

The notes came to the windows of the home of the future poet of the piano, spilling out at his feet; he carefully gathered them, like pearls, and shaped them into a unique Polish sensitivity and longing. The opinion of Chopin expressed by one of the French critics is thus justified: „The heart of his nation beat in his breast. We do not know another musician who was more of a patriot than he. He is a Pole significantly more than any Frenchman was a Frenchman, or an Italian Italian, or a German. He is a Pole, nothing other than a Pole, and from this destroyed, murdered Polish countryside came his immortal spirit, his music.”

Compiled by Małgorzata Oleksy
Translated by Sean Martin

Forum, 3/2010