Frederic Chopin was born near Warsaw, Poland, of a French father and a Polish mother. He was a precocious child but largely self-taught in music, receiving most of his formal training during his high school years at the Warsaw Conservatory. In 1829 he toured Germany and Italy as a pianist. On a second tour, which took him to France in 1831, he found Parisian life and society so congenial that he settled there for most of the remainder of his life. His extraordinary playing and personal charm won him many admirers among the aristocracy and in artistic circles. Among his artist friends was the novelist George Sand, the pen name of the novelist Aurore Dudevant, with whom he began a liaison in 1838. After their separation in 1847, tuberculosis, from which he had been suffering for many years, weakened his already frail constitution. He died in Paris.
Chopin’s compositions are almost exclusively for the piano. Of the three major keyboard instruments (piano, harpsichord, organ), the piano is the most familiar and widely used today,and also the most recent. Its complete name is pianoforte, Italian for soft-loud, reflecting the fact that varying the pressure with which the keys are depressed directly influences the force of the hammers that strike the strings and thereby gives the player control over the volume of sound. The piano was invented in Italy in the early 18th century but did not attract serious attention from composers and performers until the time of Haydn and Mozart. At this early period it was a comparatively small, light-framed instrument of delicate tone. By the time of Chopin, at the height of the romantic period, its pitch and dynamic ranges had been expanded to essentially those of the modern piano.
During the 19th century, public concerts largely replaced aristocratic patronage as a major source of income for performers. Audiences of the time expected to be dazzled by the virtuosity of performers they went to hear and many of Chopin’s works are technically very challenging. But despite his popularity and success as a concert artist, Chopin soon retired almost totally from public appearances, preferring to play for small groups of friends and admirers. As he observed about himself, “I am not the right person to give concerts. The public intimidates me. I feel asphyxiated by the breath of the people in the audience, paralyzed by their stares and dumb before that sea of unknown faces.” Indeed, much of his music seems unsuited to a large concert hall setting. Contemporary observers refer to Chopin as a “tone poet” and typically stress the delicacy and sensitivity of both his music and his style of playing it. He was particularly known for his use of rubato, slight pushing forward and pulling back in tempo for expressive purposes. Even his flashiest, most virtuosic works, such as the concertos and etudes, require the performer to balance technical prowess with nuances of tempo, dynamics, and tone color.