“Bach is like an astronomer who, with the help of ciphers, finds the most wonderful stars….Beethoven embraced the universe with the power of his spirit….I do not climb so high. A long time ago I decided that my universe will be the soul and heart of man.” This was the assessment Frédéric Chopin offered of his own place in the pantheon of great Classical composers. It is an assessment that neatly captures the emotional expressiveness not only of his quintessentially Romantic compositions, but of his quintessentially Romantic personality. After fleeing his native Poland amid the political unrest of the 1830s, he spent the rest of his life amid the high society of France. Eighteen months before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 39, he gave his final public performance in his adopted city of Paris on February 16, 1848.
Chopin’s works, composed primarily for solo piano or for piano as primary instrument, are credited with expanding both the technical and the emotional range of the instrument. Among the most important of those works are his Préludes (Op. 28) and Études (Opp. 10 and 25), the latter written as technical teaching exercises that have taken on a life of their own as artistic works. But Chopin’s own virtuoso piano performances are nearly as great a part of his legacy as his compositions. “Listen to Chopin play!” wrote the music periodical Le Ménestral in 1848, “It is like the sighing of a flower, the whisper of the clouds, or the murmur of the stars.”
That same review also referenced what was perhaps Chopin’s most defining personal characteristic: his fragility. To Le Ménestral, Chopin was “the sylph of the piano…attached to this mortal world by the merest touch of a finger and nourished by dreams from on high.” His contemporaries in the world of music were sometimes more direct and less charitable: “He was dying all his life,” said Hector Berlioz shortly after Chopin’s death. (The very specific arrangements Chopin made to have his heart removed and given to his sister prior to his burial certainly suggest that he was, at least, well prepared for his death.) Whatever is made of his personal flair for the dramatic, there can be no denying the emotional weight of his work. As Arthur Rubenstein said of him a century after his final Paris concert, “His music is the universal language of human communication. When I play Chopin I know I speak directly to the hearts of people!”