Passionate, tragic, melancholic and patriotic, the great 19th-century composer Frédéric Chopin dreamed of freedom for his homeland, Poland.
Country of Origin: Poland
Country of Asylum: France
Date of birth: 1 March 1810
Died: 17 October 1849
While fellow Romantic Byron died fighting for Greek independence, Chopin, in exile, wrote music rooted in the Polish spirit. As one of his pupils played his Etude in E Major, he is said to have exclaimed, “Oh! Ma patrie!” in memory of his homeland.
The son of a French émigré and a Polish noblewoman, Chopin had a happy childhood, doted upon by three sisters. He studied music in Warsaw, then made plans to go to Vienna. As early as 1830, the critics noted his use of folk melodies. “Chopin knows what sounds are heard in our fields and woods, he has listened to the song of the Polish village, has made it his own and has united the tunes of his native land in skilful composition and elegant execution,” wrote one critic.
As a student, he and his friends planned an insurrection against the Russians. Chopin’s role was to publicise the cause of Poland abroad, through his music. His father, another ardent Polish patriot, agreed. Chopin left Warsaw for Vienna, and some months later, when fighting broke out, he was advised not to return.
In September 1831, he arrived in Paris. He was soon discovered and welcomed into the drawing rooms of high society and the exiled Polish nobility. Here he found both an appreciation of his genius and a way to financial independence – with eager, aristocratic pupils.
The mazurkas, polonaises and nocturnes, which immortalised the folk music and sounds of Poland, awakened French consciousness to the Polish struggle. But alone in exile, Chopin became introverted and melancholic. He found some solace in his relationship with French female novelist George Sand. But he fell out with her in 1847 and developed tuberculosis.
Nonetheless he made a final concert tour to Britain, where he played for Queen Victoria and met writer Charles Dickens.
Chopin died on October 17, 1849, with Sand’s daughter at his bedside. His body lies in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, marked with the sculpture of a weeping muse with a broken lyre. But his sister, Ludwika, took his heart back to Poland with her, and it was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw.