Yesterday, on Japan TV, [NHK news channel] I came across a one hour class on Chopin’s mazurkas, recorded at the Royal Academy of Music. The teacher, an attractive young woman, whose name I did not get, was playing extracts from the mazurkas on a Steinway grand piano. She was an expert pianist, and held the students spellbound with her playing and her commentary and explanations.
And as I had just been thinking about the division of countries, my thoughts turned not just to Chopin and his music, but to the history of Poland, that country so often partitioned. Chopin was born on 4 March 1810, in Żelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father was a French immigrant and his mother, Polish. What was the situation in Warsaw at the time?
By 1795 Poland had ceased to exist after three partitions led to its occupation by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Napoleon, though, brought hope to Poland, promising to revive the nation. After his defeat, by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a new small kindom of Poland was created, out of part of the duchy of Warsaw, with the Russian emperor as the king. Krakow became a city republic, but the rest of Poland was again divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia.
Poland began a movement for independence, but after a brief success, was taken over again by Russia. Independence came again only after World War I.
Chopin moved to Vienna in 1829, and to Paris in 1831, but his heart was with Poland, and his compositions were influenced by the music of Poland. With the revolutions in Europe in 1848, he went to Scotland and England, but returned to Paris, where he died on 17 October 1849, of tuberculosis. In this short life he composed 55 mazurkas, 27 études, 24 preludes, 19 nocturnes, 13 polonaises, 3 piano sonatas and some concertos.
Another later great Polish pianist, Ignace Paderewski, was valued so highly, that he even became the prime minister for a short time in the newly independent Poland!