2010 is the Year of Chopin, and I promised myself to write about him before it ends. Chopin is known for making the Polish traditional and folk music his trademark, for which he’s considered the most Polish out of Polish composers.
His father, Nicolas Chopin, was born in the Duchy of Lorraine to a family that advanced from peasant ancestry to petty burghers. Nicolas’s father was a wheelwright, working on the property of Michał Jan Pac, a Polish nobleman. Lorraine used to be the domain of Poland’s ex king Stanisław Leszczyński, where he was followed by many other Poles. In 1781, sixteen year old Nicolas travelled to Poland with Adam Weydlich, a manager of Pac’s property, and remained in his adopted homeland until his death. In Poland, he used the name Mikołaj. At first he worked in a tobacco factory, but after the Second Partition of Poland it was closed. In 1794, Mikołaj joined the Warsaw militia to help the Kościuszko Insurrection. He was wounded after a year of fighting, an event that coincided with the end of the Insurrection and the Third Partition of Poland.
With time he completely polonized, and became a tutor and school teacher. His first pupils were the children of the Łączyński family. Incidentally, one of them, better known as Maria Walewska, later became Napoleon’s mistress. Mikołaj spent several years tutoring the children of Countess Skarbek, where he met his future wife.
Tekla Justyna Krzyżanowska came from an old but impoverished noble family. As the Polish nobility was an extremely large group, many families were poor, and both men and women had to work. Thus, although of unequal birth, both Mikołaj and Justyna worked for the same patroness. Most likely she was the family’s steward.
Fryderyk Chopin was born 200 years ago in Żelazowa Wola, in a house given to the Chopins on the Skarbeks’ property. Palladianism reached Poland yet in the 16th century, and the house is very typical for the 17th century countryside architecture. Such houses were inhabited by poorer nobles all over the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Both Chopin’s parents played instruments, and a legend has it that his father played the fiddle when Chopin was born. His mother, as well as his elder sister, were pianists.
At that time it was yet customary to translate one’s name. Chopin was baptised as Fridericus Franciscus Choppen in Latin. Countess Skarbek became his godmother at the home christening, but was replaced by her son during the official church ceremony. The Countess was Protestant, while her son was Catholic.
The Chopins were a loving family, and Chopin was close with his three sisters: Ludwika, Izabela and Emilia. Although Fryderyk was the family genius, all the children were talented . It was Ludwika (Chopin’s closest confidante) who first taught Chopin to play the piano and convinced her parents to hire a professional tutor for the little boy. Later, the sisters also published a popular book for children.
As much as Chopin’s birthplace links him to the countryside, in fact Chopin lived there only for several months as a little baby. His parents soon moved to Warsaw, where he spent the greater part of his life, visiting countryside only during summers, when he was invited to the country houses of his richer friends.
In Warsaw his father worked as a secondary school teacher, and the Chopins ran a prominent boarding house for noble high school students. They changed their apartments as the school moved from place to place. Since 1810 they lived in the Saxon Palace (not rebuilt after WWII). Between 1817 and 1827 they had an apartment in the Kazimierzowski Palace where they held a popular salon on Thursdays. Several years before Chopin’s departure they moved to the Czapski Palace, today part of the Academy of Arts.
Chopin was very witty, had a great sense of humour, and excelled in satirical texts written for his parents, caricatures of his teachers drawn during lessons, and an uncommon talent for mimicry. It’s thought that his other talents were as prominent as his music skills. However, since his earliest years he had been considered child prodigy, and it’s his music genius that teachers sought to develop.
Although shy among strangers, Chopin’s reserve disappeared when among friends. He was generally liked by other students and many of the boys left in his parents’ charge remained his lifetime friends. He was equally liked by girls, with whom he willingly played as a boy.
Chopin was kochliwy as we say in Polish, meaning that he was in love often. His feelings were usually passionate and short lived, but there were several women more important than others, among them two to whom he proposed marriage: Konstancja Gładkowska and Maria Wodzińska, the former was a fellow student in the Conservatory.
Chopin was lucky to have good teachers. Both Wojciech Żywny, a tutor hired by his parents, and Józef Elsner, Chopin’s teacher at the Conservatory, rather observed than attempted to influence or constrain Chopin’s talent. At the Conservatory, Chopin had individual courses of playing the piano and composition.
His first works were published when he was still studying. He also became a school organist, accompanying the Sunday mass. The Chuch of St . Joseph of the Visitationists is one of very few buildings in Warsaw that survived the war considerably little damaged. The organs Chopin used to play are still there. You can see other Chopin places in Warsaw here.
During his summers spent in the countryside Chopin attended village parties, watched peasants dance and play. He also played with Jewish musicians, of whom he wrote to his parents that they were so impressed by him playing their music they wanted to hire him for weddings.
Chopin insisted that the irregularities present in folk music could be properly expressed in stylistic compositions. He introduced rubato to many of his works. He wasn’t the first to use Polish dances: mazurkas and polonaises, but he was first to establish ballade as a genre. His ballades were inspired by Adam Mickiewicz’s poems published as Ballades and Romances. He also wrote songs to poems written by several Polish romantics.
In Chopin’s music one can hear direct quotes from other Polish works, which is what makes Poles so sentimental about it. We’re transported to the sounds of our youth and family home. One of such borrowings is a popular carol.
It’s said that Poland has the largest collection of carols and pastorals. The canon comprises of 600 pieces. First carols reached the country from Italy in the 14th century, and they were slow songs. The Protestant Reformation added to the number, when Protestants from all over Europe sought refuge in Poland and translated their native language carols to Polish. The number still grew throughout the Catholic Counter-Reformation, when the Jesuits sought ways to attract believers via music and theatricals. Many carols have been written to the melody of Polish dances. There are polonaises, mazurkas, krakowiaks and others.
The Enlightenment didn’t produce many new carols, but established the canon by rejecting those that were too Rococo or otherwise not all time classics. New carols were written throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, during both World Wars, in concentration camps and communist prisons. Some are political in their message.
This 17th century carol remains one of the most popular. Lulajże Jezuniu (Sleep Little Jesus) is a lullaby. It’s loved for its haunting melody. The words are simple, ones that every mother might sing to her child.
Lullaby, Jesus, O cease from crying
Here on Thy Mother’s warm breast softly lying
Lullaby, Jesus, O sleep now my treasure,
Mother is watching with love none can measure
Translation by George K. Evans from The International Book of Christmas Carols
Grażyna Brodzińska’s fairly traditional rendition in the Cracow Philharmonic:
I also found a rendition by the three great Italian tenors: Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti. Dormi o Bambino in Polish and Italian, which you can watch directly on YouTube.
This carol appears in the middle of Chopin’s Scherzo Nr 1 Op. 20 in b-minor.