It was on November 16, 1848 – 172 years ago today – that Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) performed his final concert. It was given at a benefit ball held in London’s Guildhall, staged to raise money for Polish exiles. Chopin, 38-years-old, was desperately ill. And although he lived another 11 months, he was never to perform again.
Frédéric François Chopin (born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin) was a quintessential Romantic figure: a restless man of genius; a forlorn lover who could never settle down; a prodigy whose music and piano playing enchanted his listeners from the time he was an adolescent; someone whose muse demanded that he work in a white heat for days at a time despite his physical frailty and dismal health. He was a consumptive at a time when consumption (that is, tuberculosis) was considered that most “romantic” of illnesses, the “disease of genius”.
Of course, if you actually had tuberculosis, you didn’t consider it “romantic” at all; you were too busy trying not to cough your lungs out and to just freaking breathe. Chopin himself had no patience for the entire Romantic trip and claimed to be disgusted with the artistic precepts and pretentions of Romanticism, which he considered self-indulgent and vulgar. A small, slim, prim man, he had exquisite taste in the finer things, impeccable manners, and lived in grand style. He moved about in aristocratic circles in which his artistry as a composer and pianist was his patent of nobility. According to one observer,
“He could be witty, malicious, suspicious, ill-tempered, charming. There was something feline about Chopin.”
Born in Poland and raised in Warsaw, he settled permanently in Paris in 1831 at the age of 21. He took the city by storm. In 1833, at the age of 23, he wrote his family back home in Poland:
“I have found my way into the very best society. I have my place among ambassadors, princes, ministers. I don’t know by what miracle it has come about, for I have not pushed myself forward. But today all that sort of thing is indispensable to me: those circles are supposed to be the fountainhead of taste. . . I have five lessons to give today. You will imagine I am making a fortune – but my cabriolet [carriage] and white gloves cost more than that, and without them I should not have bon ton (good tone meaning high style).”
Chopin does not exaggerate: he almost instantly became a major artistic player on his arrival in Paris, and remained so through the 1830s and 1840s, at a time when Paris was at its apogee as the cultural capital of Europe. …
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