Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin – the most outstanding Polish composer and pianist, born in the village of Żelazowa Wola in the district of Sochaczew. The composer and his family held his date of birth to be 1 March 1810, yet the certificate of baptism signed in the parish church of Brochów is dated 22 February. That discrepancy has still not been entirely resolved, although today it is the date celebrated by Chopin and his family that is more often used.
Fryderyk Chopin entered the world in a manor house belonging to Count and Countess Skarbek, where his father, Mikołaj (Nicolas) Chopin (1771–1844), a Polonised Frenchman who came to Poland at the age of sixteen, was working as a tutor. Mikołaj Chopin assimilated with his new homeland to such an extent that in 1794 he took part in the Kościuszko Uprising (probably in defence of Warsaw) and never left Poland. He worked mainly in education, teaching the scions of noble houses: one of his pupils was Maria Łączyńska, later famed as Madame Walewska.
In 1806, Mikołaj Chopin married Tekla Justyna Krzyżanowska (1782–1861). Born a year later was Ludwika, married name Jędrzejewicz (1807–1855). Fryderyk was the Chopins’ second child. He also had two younger sisters: Izabela, married name Barcińska (1811–1881), and Emilia (1812–1827), who died young. Six months after Fryderyk’s birth, the Chopin family moved to Warsaw, where Mikołaj took up a post at the Warsaw Lyceum. The Chopins moved into the Saxon Palace.
Childhood. Fryderyk came into contact with music at a very early age. In the subject literature, it is frequently mentioned that his mother played the piano and sang, and his father is known to have played the flute and the violin. His elder sister Ludwika also showed musical talent from a young age and learned to play the piano. The atmosphere in the family home was warm and hearty. It was the home – diligently run by his parents, in accordance with the best models from the Polish aristocracy – that would remain for Chopin a symbol of peace, security and love, a kind of lost arcadia, which the composer would cherish throughout his adult life.
Chopin’s first contact with the piano probably came at home during his early childhood. He first tried playing by himself under the guidance of Ludwika, and at the age of six he began regular lessons with a private music teacher, the Czech immigrant Wojciech Żywny (Cz. Vojtěch Živný; 1756–1842). Żywny soon realised that his young pupil was remarkably gifted and devoted himself to introducing him to the world of the great masters, mainly Bach and Mozart, closely observing his progress in pianism and free improvisation. The first compositions were not long in coming: polonaises, marches and variations. Initially written with his father’s help, they almost immediately brought him a reputation as a child prodigy. In 1818, the Pamiętnik Warszawski noted: ‘a true musical genius: not only does he play the most difficult pieces on the pianoforte, with the greatest ease and exceptional taste, but he is also the composer of several dances and variations, by which musical experts are constantly amazed.’
That was a watershed in little Freddie’s life. Over subsequent years, he gave countless guest performances in the drawing-rooms of the Warsaw aristocracy, including the homes of the Czartoryski, Radziwiłł and Zamoyski families and the milieu of the Russian tsar’s viceroy in Poland, Duke Constantine. His musical talent developed incredibly quickly. In 1822, Wojciech Żywny told the Chopins, as a faithful friend, that he could not develop his pupil’s skills any further. Fryderyk began taking less regular private lessons with the most outstanding teachers in Warsaw: composition with Józef Elsner and probably piano and organ with the influential virtuoso Wilhelm Würfel.
The next few years were spent learning and giving numerous performances. Praised for his proficiency and for the expression in his interpretations, unheard of in such a young pianist, he also began cultivating the difficult art of improvisation, both privately, among his close friends, and in aristocratic salons. Yet Chopin’s education was not confined to music alone. In 1823, he entered year IV at the Warsaw Lyceum, where he gained an all-round education. He regularly spent the summer holidays on the country estates of his close friends, where he absorbed, with the passion of a folklore scholar, the customs, the rituals and especially the music of the common folk. A particularly strong impression was made on the young composer by his summer sojourns in Szafarnia in 1824 and 1825. His first holiday there, the more picturesque of the two, was documented in a spontaneous journal addressed to his parents: the ‘Szafarnia Courier’ (its title parodying the ‘Warsaw Courier’). Further trips, somewhat more serious, to Szafarnia, Duszniki and Toruń, and then to Gdańsk, Płock and other parts of Greater Poland, Pomerania and Silesia, enabled the teenage Chopin to acquaint himself with the treasures of Polish culture and with Polish ‘folk’ music, which he would remember for the rest of his life. During the school year, he was the school organist at the Church of the Nuns of the Visitation, thanks to which he became familiar with the repertoire of organ music and Polish church song.