Monthly Archives: June 2014

Chopin’s childhood

Chopin was named after his godfather, Fryderyk Skarbek, an 18 year old pupil of his father’s with connections to his mother’s family. Frédéric was the only son in a family of four children. He had one older sister and two younger sisters. From about six months after Frédéric was born, the family lived in Warsaw. As mentioned last week, they lived in the Saxon Palace where Frédéric’s father taught.

In 1816, at the young age of six, he started to take formal piano lessons with Wojciech Żywny, the same teacher as his older sister, He had most likely already done some piano playing as his mother taught piano and his sister played. At the tender age of seven, he was giving concerts and starting to compose. Frédéric was an occasional playmate for the son of Grand Duke Constantine, the Russian Poland ruler. He played the piano for the Duke at Belweder Palace and did write a march for him. Frédéric’s earliest surviving piece dates to 1821, when he was 11.

From age of 13 to 16, he studied at the Warsaw Lyceum, where his father was a teacher. Frédéric started his formal music studies at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1826. He stayed there until 1829. While pursuing his education from age 13 to 19, he continued to compose. His first published piece was written in 1825 when he would have been only 15. He performed as well during this time. Small concert and salon performances took place the various locations in Warsaw, including a performance for Tsar Alexander I during his visit to Warsaw. That performance resulted in Frédéric being presented with a diamond ring from the Tsar. A pretty nice set of accomplishments all before the age of 20!


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Frédéric François Chopin

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born in 1810 in Poland. A well-known Romantic era composer, he lived a relatively short life, dying at the age of 39 in Paris. Let’s take a look at that life over the next couple of weeks.

His father was Nicolas Chopin. Nicolas was born in the province of Lorraine, France. His father, Francois, was the village administrator of Marainville and a wheelwright, much like Mathias Haydn ( Francois married Marguerite Deflin, a respected teacher. Nicolas studied to become a teacher as well. Through connections of his father, Francois, Nicolas was introduced to Weydlich, an estate administrator for a Polish count. When Weydlich returned to Poland, Nicolas had the chance to go with him and his family. At the age of 16, Nicolas started out on his new life in a new country.

Initially Nicolas worked in a tobacco factory where Weydlich was the supervisor. Most likely he worked in the accounting department and as Weydlich’s personal assistant and probably tutored Weydlich’s children. When the factory closed down 1792, Nicolas had to reconsider his options. While returning to France was a possibility, he chose to stay in Poland. He spent some time with the militia and eventually found himself employed as a tutor with the Laczynski family. Through these connections he met and eventually married Justyna Krzyżanowska – twenty years after coming to Poland.

In 1810, a few months after the birth of Federic, the Chopin family moved to Warsaw to live in the Saxon Palace where Nicolas taught at the Warsaw Lyceum.

Nicolas and Justyna were both musical. Nicolas played the violin and flute and Justyna played and taught the piano. Both Frédéric and his sister, Ludwika, learned to play the piano and did sometimes play duets together. Next week we’ll look at the adventures of Frédéric as he grows up and begins his life of music.

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Final thoughts on Rachmaninov

Artists often experience an extreme of emotions. Amazing performances can bring feelings of great joy. Great disappointments can trigger great despair. And great despair can trigger great moments.

Sergei started with career success at the end of his schooling. He finished at the Conservatory with honours and the final piece he composed there, Aleko, ended up being produced by the Bolshoi Theatre and won him the Great Gold Medal. This was followed by other smaller successes and published pieces that pleased the public. In 1897, his First Symphony (Op. 13, 1896) premiered and was not well received. Compounded with an engagement to Natalia Satina that was not accepted by her parents or the church, 3 years of depression followed. He wrote nothing during this time and eventually started some autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl to help bring him out of his depression. He and Natalia were also finally able to marry – a union that lasted until Sergei death.

There are two moments in particular that I enjoy that came from grief for Rachmaninov. One is Trio élégiaque No. 2. Sergei was deeply saddened when he heard of Tchaikovsky’s death and he wrote this piece right away. The second grief inspired moment comes from the death of Alexander Scriabin in 1915. They had met at the Moscow Conservatory as boys and been good friends since then. When his friend passed away, Sergei went on tour giving piano recitals where he only played Scriabin’s compositions. Both touching ways to honour someone, I think.

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Rachmaninov and Russia’s influence

Sergei’s homeland, Russia, had an impact on his musical life throughout his lifetime. He graduated at the age of 19 from the Moscow Conservatory and embarked upon his career as a composer, pianist, and conductor. He had many successes and some failures as most talented people do. Over the years he established himself as a known figure in the music world of the day. While there were ups and downs, for the most part it was a good life – being paid to do what he loved, socializing with friends and colleagues – one I think most of us could enjoy.

Things changed for him in 1917 with the Russian Revolution. He, his wife, and their two little girls left Russia with very little. As part of the Russian aristocracy, he had lost his estate and his livelihood. They spent a year in Scandinavia before deciding to come to America. He had done a successful tour in 1909 and though he had declined invitations to return and turned down job offers that included the position of conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he felt it might be the best place to start over financially. In late 1918, they came to New York. Sergei continued his career in music, primarily as a pianist, until his death in 1943. He only composed 6 pieces after leaving Russia. The last time he conducted in Russia was in early 1917 and he did not conduct again until 1939 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Much of his time was spent performing in order to support his family and rebuild the life his was accustomed to. This is not to say that he didn’t enjoy his life in America. By all accounts, he did. He had a good life, built upon his talent and skill. He had many friends and helped many of them financially. He did not become a U.S. citizen until 1943, just before his death. It seems that a portion of his heart was always in Russia.

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