"Hats Off, Gentlemen – A Genius": Chopin at 200
In 1831, Robert Schumann published his very first review, in the form of an imaginary conversation about a recent composition by Frédéric Chopin. Both Schumann and Chopin were scarcely out of their teens, and neither was yet widely known. Recognizing the exceptional qualities of Chopin’s music, Schumann had one of his fictitious characters introduce it by walking in the door and uttering the unforgettable words, “Hats off, gentlemen—a genius!”
Schumann may have thought that Chopin had suddenly appeared out of nowhere, but in fact the young pianist-composer had already compiled a long and impressive record of achievement in his native Poland. Fryderyk Chopin was born near Warsaw on March 1, 1810. His father was French and his mother Polish. Chopin was a child prodigy; at the age of eight, he was performing in the palaces of the nobility and composing music for publication. Inevitably, he was compared with Mozart. By the time he reached adulthood, he already ranked among his country’s leading musicians. In 1830 he decided to undertake a foreign concert tour, hoping that Western Europe would offer more scope for his talents. Shortly after his departure, a revolution broke out in Poland, but it was eventually suppressed by the Russian army. Chopin never returned home; for a few months he lived in Vienna, Munich, and Stuttgart, and then in 1831 he settled permanently in Paris.
Chopin was an excellent pianist, but ultimately he chose not to pursue the career of a touring virtuoso. Instead, he earned a comfortable living by performing and teaching in the salons of the upper classes. Thanks to his musical genius, his polished manners, and his status as a refugee from an oppressed nation, he was much in demand in Paris, both professionally and socially; he had connections with the nobility as well as many leading musicians, artists, and writers. Foremost among his literary friends was Aurore Dudevant (better known by her pen name George Sand), who became his partner for nine years. In the latter part of his life Chopin suffered from tuberculosis, and he died in 1849, when he was only 39.
By the time of his death, Chopin had already composed a long list of masterpieces for his chosen instrument, the piano. Although he wrote a few concertos and sonatas, he focused primarily on shorter, single-movement works such as etudes, preludes, waltzes, nocturnes, and ballades. Two of his favorite genres, the mazurka and the polonaise, had their origins in his native Poland, and could seem charmingly exotic to western ears. Chopin’s music is distinguished by memorable melodies, daringly original harmonies, and strikingly idiomatic piano writing. Well into the 21st century, his works remain the cornerstone of the piano repertory.
The Gilmore Music Library is proud to display two items in Chopin’s own hand—a manuscript of the F Minor Polonaise (Op. 71, no. 3) and a letter he wrote a few months before his death—as well as a manuscript of his piano exercises in his sister’s hand. Our exhibit also features a variety of other items, such as early published editions, portraits, arrangements (including the Tin Pan Alley hit “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”), and Schumann’s famous review. More than a century and a half after his death, we still doff our hats to the genius of Chopin.
Poster design by Angie Hurlbut