Images from “Chopin’s Europe” courtesy Hanna Komarnicki

Fryderyk Chopin composed his Mazurka in A Minor Opus 7 No. 2 in Poland though it was published later, in France. We know this because an early version of it was discovered in the album of his second teacher’s daughter, Emilia Elsner. Listen and watch as Arthur Greene performs it at a Live Chopin Project Outreach Program in Sarasota, Florida. Then learn more about Chopin’s life through a series of short chapters of his annotated mini biography.

MINI BIO PART 1: Half a Life in Poland

Chopin’s life, as his music, is full of ambiguity and unanswerable questions. What a complicated world he was born into! The great Polish Empire had just been cut into pieces and divided among three countries: Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Chopin was from the Russian part. Chopin’s mother Justyna was born into a noble family, but one so poor that she ended up as a housekeeper working for the Skarbek’s, a distantly-related noble family, though in decline.

The Skarbek’s hired Nicholas Chopin, a Frenchman, to tutor their children. Nicholas married Justyna in 1806; and Fryderyk was born 4 years later  (probably) on March 1, 1810. He was affectionately called “Frycek” (pronounced “Fritsk”), and though a child of Polish and French lineage, the French aspect was minimized as Frycek grew up, at least in part reflecting his father’s political conservatism and caution. Nicholas (and by extension, Frycek) adapted himself completely to Polish society. Seven months after our Frycek’s  birth, Nicholas got a good position at the Lyceum in Warsaw, and the Chopin’s left their home and employment in nearby Żelazowa Wola.

Now living in Warsaw and as early as age 7, Chopin was quickly recognized as a child genius, a “Polish Mozart.” Quite remarkably and perhaps fortuitously for the world, neither his first teacher, Wojciech Zywny [pron Voychek Zhivnee] nor his second, Josef Elsner were pianists, and they largely deferred to the singular and revolutionary technique young Frycek developed on his own. Though perhaps not a great piano teacher, Zywny did do something more: He conveyed his love for J. S. Bach and the elegance of Mozart to an eager Chopin.

Chopin wrote two Polonaises at age 7. While each is thoroughly characteristic of works he would have heard by other composers, including Michal Oginski, the compositional command and technical fluency expressed are almost unbelievable for a 7 year old.

Chopin’s musical genius opened all doors in Warsaw — even those of the highest nobility. At age 8, he delighted the Empress-mother of the Tsar of Russia with his playing. Dance parties were de rigeur in Warsaw almost every night, and Chopin was in great demand to improvise waltzes and mazurkas. These improvisations were the seeds of his published works. Mazurkas were for Chopin a musical confessional; his most personal thoughts were expressed in them throughout his life.

Though he didn’t know it when he left Warsaw at age 20, he would never return; nor did he know while seated in the Vienna-bound coach with his friend Tytus, that his country was again on the brink of uprising. When that came, all his passions and patriotism for his nebulous and viewless homeland came to the fore, and became the driving force of his creativity during the second half of his life in greater Europe.