Meet The Composer - Frederic Chopin
Karen: When is your birthday and who started you on piano lessons, and who are your teachers and how come you like music, especially the piano so much.
Chopin: Whew! What a lot of questions to answer so early in the morning, you will have to forgive me if I take a while to get going. I had to play a concert last night for the Warsaw Charitable Society. It was a benefit concert, played at the concert hall of the Society on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, not too far from the Radziwill Palace. I personally like playing in the salons of the elegant rich people of Warsaw more than I like playing in large concert halls. I know that my friend, Franz Liszt has been doing the concert hall circuit since he's been nine years old. But my parents never pushed for me to be doing concert tours all through Europe. They wanted me to play in salons in Poland, and have a bit of a normal life. But I am getting ahead of myself aren't I. So sorry! O.K. I will address your questions in the correct order, I was born, according to my parents, on February 22, 1810.
My older sister Louise, born in 1807, first taught me music, then when I exhausted her teaching, Mom took over. Mom's name is Justine Krzyzanowska, and she has a wonderful singing voice as well as being quite an accomplished pianist herself. My Dad (Nicolas Chopin) is also quite a good musician, knowing how to play the violin as well as being a scholar and patriot of Poland.
My first "formal" piano teacher was Wojciech Zywny. He is deserving of a lot of stuff said about him. First of all, he was about 60 years old when he started teaching me, but he had enough energy for a house full of musically-inclined and creative kids. He was a tall man who wore the most unusual clothes: a long old fashioned green frock coat, with this HUGE red and white checkered handkerchief that was always handing out of the front pocket of the coat. A yellow vest would be under the green jacket (yuck, what terrible color coordination) and in that vest would be the hugest square pencil. Sometimes that pencil would be a metronome or a pretend conductor's baton, sometimes a not so nice way of letting me know if I hit too many wrong notes. He also wore these silly knee-high Hessian riding boots, and this ridiculous looking yellow wig. To make matters worse, he had a huge red nose, it over shadowed the rest of his face, and a goatee. We could usually smell him before we saw him enter a room, because he had the rather bad habit of taking snuff. He reeked of the smell of the stuff, and his clothes were covered with tobacco stains. But in spite of his eccentric appearance, he taught me so much and I will always be in great debt to him for what he taught me. He taught me to love Bach as much as he did and always corrected my inaccuracies, no matter how much I tried to fool him. He also showed me the absolute genius of Mozart. What I loved most about Zywny was that he listened to me talk, shared my secrets, and most importantly shared my ideas for my own compositions. I played many of my own polonaises, mazurkas and marches, which Zywny wrote down with that HUGE square pencil. Mr. Zywny spent all his free time teaching me, and soon became a member of the family, staying for dinner and being included in our holidays, and birthday celebrations. He also gave lessons to my sisters and to the students that lived in our house as boarders.
I guess it is because of my family's love for music and dear Mr. Zywny's love for me and my music, that my love for music grew and grew.
Debra: Where there ever days when you did not want to practice, and how did you get around that?
Chopin: Certainly there were days when I did not want to sit and do my regular piano studies that Mr. Zywny or Mother wanted me to do. After all, I always wanted to spend time with my friends outside, as well as have fun with my sisters inventing funny little plays, and comedies, or just hanging around. I can recall Mother once having me sit at the piano when I didn't want to, and have me create music for a story. It was a wonderful story of Polish soldiers fighting on horseback, rescuing a beautiful lady in distress and then returning to Warsaw as the triumphant heroes of the day. Wow! That was fun, I was able to really have a great time improvising and soon all my friends who were giving me such a rough time about not being outside messing around with them, were inside listening to me play, and they sure liked my musical story. They even started to fall asleep when I played the part where the Polish soldiers were sleeping outside under the stars.
I was very fortunate in being able to understand Mr. Zywny's instructions very easily. Technical problems never were a problem for me. I now realize how lucky I was not to have to spend hours doing exercises; they came rather automatically and naturally for me. I was always happy to work with Mr. Zywny. We would spend hours discussing and playing music and he would listen for hours to my own music, very often spreading paper all over the piano (as well as tobacco from that horrible snuff box) to copy down my melodies.
I do need to tell you of a scary situation that I came across, as you know we had Tzars and such as rulers of Poland ( and lots of people who were not Polish, but who conquered our land). One day the Grand Duke Constantine, who had problems with being depressed a lot, heard about me and I was picked up in this magnificent carriage with the most beautiful horses, and taken to the Bruhl Palace to play for him. I played one of my marches, and he demanded I play it again for him. All of a sudden he jumped up and began to march around the room. I was terrified, and certain that I was going to be hurt, but he was totally happy and overjoyed when he heard my music. So it became a habit, that when he was feeling really down in the dumps or really angry about something, either his wife or he would send the carriage around for me, and off I would go to play for this man. My mother was terrified for good cause. Who would know if the Duke would get angry with me and not like my music anymore, and then what would become of me and my family. Fortunately, that never happened.
Nick: What do you do for fun. I mean, what do you do when you are not at the piano?
Chopin: Thanks for the question. I am glad that you asked it. As I had mentioned before, my friend Franz Liszt was performing all over Europe at the age of nine and to be honest, he has openly talked about having missed a lot of fun things about being a kid. Let me tell you, there was no way my parents were going to parade me around the world; they made sure that I did my studies as well as have fun.
My sister, Emily and I formed this club called the "Society for Literary Diversion." We had a riot with this. We would write plays, comedies, all sorts of things, and then present them to our family and friends. My other sisters, Isabelle and Louise also got into these plays, acting, making costumes, props., etc. I was the comic and mimic in these plays. I could imitate the way people talk, walk, sit, etc., and usually did such a good job that the audience would be howling with laughter while I was doing my theatrical antics. If I did not go into music, I am certain that I would have made the acting theater my life and love.
I also love to play outside with my friends, and run around the grounds. I am kind of fragile and have to be careful about catching colds too often, but after I would play for the Grand Duke I would often go to the park with Paul and his sister the Countess Alexandrine to play and have fun.
Sometimes I would get into a bit of trouble for the cartoons (caricatures) that I liked to draw of people. They were not always the most flattering, but were done for fun and a laugh. Needless to say, many adults did not appreciate my sense of humor, which I am told at times can be pretty nasty. Oops.
Madame Skarbek was my Dad's boss and my Mom's distant cousin, she lived in the country and we were invited there to spend a summer, after we had moved to Warsaw. It was great to spend time there; it was quite beautiful country, and in the evenings, Madame Skarbek would have the piano carried outside so that I could play outside and look at the stars while I played my own music and music that Mr. Zywny taught me to love - Bach, Mozart, and the operas of Rossini and Weber. These were wonderful times. I always remember these small lovely private recitals under my Poland's night time sky.
Tara and Amy: What are your favorite songs that you like to listen to?
Chopin: I love listening to the mazurkas and polonaises of my country. When we lived on Madame Skarbek's estate in the country and when we would visit her, we would hear the music and songs sung by people going to work in the fields. We could also hear the music played at weddings and holidays of my people in Poland. The music in the countryside was a delightful refreshing sparkle of life for my ears. I will remember it always.
Jason: So how did your parents meet in the first place. Isn't the name Chopin more French than it is Polish?
Chopin: My Dad was a Frenchman who joined in the revolutionary uprising in Poland in 1794, when Kosciuszko and his peasant army with sickles and scythes successfully stood up to Catherine of Russia's army with cannon and full arms. After that he never went back to France and called Poland home. Dad was an army officer for a while, but then decided to become a tutor instead, because tutors in French were very much in demand in the larger cities of Poland. The Poles wanted to resist Russian takeover in every way possible and learning Western European ways of culture and language was a way of further resisting the Russian attempt to take over every aspect of the Poles lives. In 1802 my Dad was the tutor to the Skarbek family at their home in Zelazowa Wola, not too far from Warsaw. My Mom was a distant cousin of the Countess Skarbek and helped run the estate. Dad stayed on as tutor for a long time, and the two of them would play music with mom during the long winter evenings when everyone would gather together from the neighborhood to spend time at the Skarbek's listening to music and talking.
When my parents were married, in 1806, they settled into a wing of the Skarbek house. As we already discussed, I was born Feb. 22, 1810 and shortly after that my parents moved to Warsaw where Dad had the job of Professor of French at the Warsaw Lyceum and at the Military School. In our house in Warsaw, we also had room and board for students at the Lyceum. What an opportunity for these kids, they had the chance to be taken care of well by Mother and also if needed, get extra tutoring sessions with Father - not to mention the opportunity to study piano and music with Mr. Zywny if they wanted. Our house in Warsaw became known throughout the city for a place where people could gather on Thursdays for music and dancing while others gathered in the study for whist (a card game like bridge) and conversation.
Melody: Bottom line, do you like piano and music?
Chopin: Love it. It's not always easy to love it but without it I don't know how we could all live. Thanks for the interview and thanks for letting me share some of the stories of my life as a child in Poland.
If you liked this talk with Chopin, be sure to check out the other cool Meet the Composer interviews
I made this on: 9/3/97
Newest stuff added: 01/30/15