A POLISH LAD WHO BECAME FAMOUS
Many famous men were born in the year 1809. We are proud to number among
them several of our own countrymen. President Lincoln was born in that
year and also Oliver Wendell Holmes, the genial American poet. That year
gave birth to England's sweet singer, Alfred Tennyson. Two of the
greatest musicians, also, were born in 1809. They were Felix Mendelssohn
and Frederick Chopin.
Frederick Chopin was born in that part of the Russian Empire which is
called Poland. Poland, however, has not always belonged to Russia. At
one time it was one of the largest and strongest kingdoms of Europe. The
Poles governed their own country, had their own language, their own
church, and their own flag. All these were dear to the Polish people;
and when, instead, they had Russian laws and saw Russian flags floating
over them, they were filled with sorrow.
The Poles did not give up their freedom without a bitter struggle.
They have long been famous for their bravery and patriotism. In war the
Polish soldiers fought like heroes. At three different times large parts
of their country were seized by surrounding nations. Still the brave
Poles were happy in the little land that was left, for were they not
free? When even that was lost, they became sad indeed.
Poland was made a part of Russia before Frederick Chopin was born; but
the Polish people were hoping that some day they might gain their
freedom. The children were taught to love their native land. They
learned the songs that their fathers and grandfathers had sung in
battle. They were told stories of the brave deeds of Polish soldiers. So
it is not strange that every boy and girl in all the land wished to do
something toward gaining Poland's freedom.
If you saw some foreign flag instead of the stars and stripes waving
above you, should you not wish to do something to restore our banner to
its place? That is just what Frederick Chopin wished to do for the flag
Poland is a flat country; indeed, the word Poland means plain. Here
and there one finds a hill, and there is one range of hills whose peaks
rise a thousand feet above the plain. If we visited Poland in the
winter, we might find the fields covered with snow for months at a
time. The rivers would be frozen and the forests dark and leafless.
If we visited Poland in the hot summer, we should see many fields of
waving green grain. The wheat, oats, and barley are very pretty as they
sway back and forth in the wind. The fields of flax with their blue
blossoms are far prettier, for they look like a piece of the beautiful
blue sky come down to earth.
In a Polish village not far from Warsaw lived Nicholas Chopin and his
family. Although many years of his life had been spent among the Poles,
he was a Frenchman by birth. His wife was a noble Polish lady, gentle
and tender. In early manhood, Nicholas Chopin had left France to seek
his fortune in Poland. He had served in the war and had been promoted to
the rank of captain. When the wars were over, he became a tutor in a
noble family. He taught a count's children the French language.
Nicholas Chopin and his wife lived in a humble little cottage, and were
very happy. They had four children, three daughters and a son. All of
the Chopin children became famous. Frederick won for himself a
When Frederick was a little fellow, he could not hear music without
crying. When he heard the songs of his country, tears filled his eyes.
As the years passed by, he no longer wept at the sound of music. In
truth, he grew to love it more and more, and chose to spend much time in
its study. He liked the piano more than any other instrument. When he
grew to manhood, his taste did not change, and the piano was still his
favorite. Indeed, most of his compositions are for the piano.
Frederick studied music with two of the best teachers in all Poland. He
began his lessons when very young and learned rapidly. He once said: "No
boy could wish for finer teachers than I had. The most stupid person
could not help learning from them."
Frederick certainly was not stupid, for he was invited to play at a
public concert when he was not yet nine years old. His good mother was
proud that this honor had been shown her boy. She dressed him most
splendidly in the native costume of Poland. Then, kissing him good-by,
she bade him do his best.
At the concert, when the lad stepped out to play, all eyes were fixed
upon him. All through the evening the people watched the beautiful child
and marveled at his skill as a player. The modest little fellow did not
dream that his playing was wonderful. He did not know that the people
were interested in the different compositions that he played. He
thought, in his childish way, that they cared only for his pretty
When he returned home, his mother said, "Well, my son, what did the
people like best?"
"Oh, mother," exclaimed the child, "everybody was looking at my collar."
When Nicholas Chopin taught the children of the count, he was not only
their tutor, but their friend. Later, when he set up a school for boys,
he retained the friendship of the nobility. On this account Frederick's
playmates were children of high rank. One of his little friends was
Paul, the son of the grand duke.
Frederick was once invited to the palace to play for the grand duke's
guests. He not only played well, but bore himself as a little gentleman.
For this reason he was often invited to play.
One day the people in the Chopin neighborhood were surprised to see a
fine carriage approaching. It was drawn by four horses, yoked abreast.
The silver mountings on the harness glittered in the sunlight. A boy,
richly clad in velvet, was seated in the carriage. Beside him sat his
The neighbors wondered not a little what brought the duke's carriage to
their street. They were surprised to see it draw up before the house of
Nicholas Chopin. They were still more surprised when they saw the lad,
Frederick, enter the splendid equipage and drive away.
A great musician once gave four concerts in the town hall of Warsaw. She
heard much, while in the city, of the talented boy, Frederick Chopin.
She said, "I should like to see this child and hear him play." A friend
took Frederick to visit the musician. She was so pleased with his gentle
ways and fine playing that she made him a present of a watch. On it were
engraved the words, "Given to Frederick Chopin at the age of ten."
Frederick had no sooner begun music lessons, than he began to compose.
He composed music even before he knew how to use a pen. Often little
melodies ran through his mind, and he wished that he could write them.
He had not yet learned to write, so he asked his teacher to do it for
When he was ten years old, he wrote a march for the grand duke. The duke
was greatly pleased and had it arranged for the band. When the soldiers
drilled or marched on parade, Frederick Chopin's march was often
Although Frederick would have liked to spend all his time at his music,
he was not allowed to do so. He went to school every day. His father
often said to him, "I am glad that you do well in your music; however,
you must not neglect your other studies."
Frederick worked so faithfully in his father's school that, by the time
he was fifteen, he was ready to enter the high school. His favorite
studies were Polish history and literature. He often stood at the head
of his class. Twice, while he was in the high school, he carried off the
Wherever Frederick went, his pleasing manners won him many friends.
Indeed, even in after years, he was so thoughtful of others that he made
few enemies. He often said: "My mother is the best of mothers. I can
never forget the training that she gave me when a lad." If the boy had
not remembered his mother's training so carefully, he would not have
been asked so often to the homes of the great.
He was once invited to spend his holidays with some friends in the
country. Such great fun as he had that summer! There were walks and
drives in the cool, shady forest. There were ponies and prancing horses
to ride. There were birds to watch and flowers to pick. Oh, yes, there
was fun in plenty for the boy!
One day Frederick went into one of the rooms of his father's school. The
master was not there. An assistant was in charge. The boys had become
noisy and would not heed the commands of the teacher. Young Chopin
noticed how unruly the little boys had become. He said, "If you will be
quiet, I will tell you a pretty story."
The boys promised. Frederick took his place at the piano, for he meant
to tell them the story--in words? Oh, no, in music. If you had been
there, the music would have told you just as plainly as words, this
Bold robbers set out from their cave in the hills to plunder a house.
Nearer and nearer they come. At last the house is reached, and they
halt. Noiselessly they place their ladders under the windows. They are
just about to enter, when hark, there is a noise within. For a moment
they stand still in their fright. Then off they run to the cave. There,
where all is so dark and still, they lie down. Soon they fall fast
When Frederick reached the end of the story, he played softly and still
more softly. Looking up, he saw that the children, like the robbers, had
fallen fast asleep.
Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, was once in Warsaw. Frederick Chopin,
who was becoming well known for his compositions, was invited to play
for him. It is said that Alexander was greatly pleased; and in truth he
must have been, for he gave Frederick a diamond ring.
In the summer of 1826 Frederick went with his mother and sisters to a
watering place. His father thought the young man had been working too
hard and needed a rest. Sometimes he would wander about for hours,
silent and thoughtful. At such times his friends knew that his mind was
upon his music. Often he sat up till midnight working upon a mazurka or
a waltz. He had a piano in his bedroom. Sometimes, when all the
household were asleep, he would spring from his bed, rush to the piano,
and strike a few chords. If the chords pleased the young composer, he
would turn to his desk and write the notes before he forgot them. His
parents thought that all this study, combined with his school work, was
more than Frederick ought to do. So off he was sent for a long holiday.
While on his vacation, Frederick gave a concert, for which many tickets
were sold. All of the money was given to two children, who had lost
their mother. Frederick's heart had been moved to pity when he heard
their sad story. He rejoiced when he knew that enough money had been
obtained to send the little orphans home.
CHOPIN'S EARLY MANHOOD
It was not until Frederick Chopin graduated from the high school that it
was decided that he should devote all of his time to music. This
decision gave him great joy. He immediately set out with a friend for
Berlin. Of all the music that Chopin heard there, he liked none so well
as Handel's. He met Mendelssohn and many famous musicians during his
At the end of a fortnight he returned to Warsaw, making the trip in a
stagecoach. At an inn in a small town the coach stopped to change
horses. The travelers were told that they must wait an hour. Chopin and
his friend took a stroll about the town. Finding it a dull place they
returned to the inn. The hour had gone by, but still no horses were
harnessed to the coach. No guard, bugle in hand, sat upon the high seat,
ready for the journey.
Entering the inn, Chopin was delighted to find an old piano in one of
the rooms. It did not seem to be a fine instrument, but it proved to be
better than it looked. When Chopin opened it and played a few notes, he
found it to be in good tune. Now that he had found a good piano, he
cared little how long the delay might be. He played on and on, without a
thought of his journey.
One of the travelers, hearing the music, came and stood in the doorway.
One by one the other travelers gathered about the piano. The sweet
sounds charmed the listeners into silence. One old German even let his
beloved pipe go out. The keeper of the inn and his two pretty daughters
joined the group. Chopin, forgetful of time and place, continued to
play, and his audience, silent and full of wonder, continued to listen.
They were suddenly startled by a deep voice, "Gentlemen, the horses are
ready." The innkeeper roared at the intruder, and the passengers cast
angry glances at him. Chopin started from his seat, but was surrounded
by his new friends. They begged him to continue his playing. "But we
have been here some time," said Chopin, "we must depart now."
"Stay and play, noble young artist," cried the innkeeper. "I will
furnish you the fastest horses, if you will stay but a little longer."
They all pressed round, urging Chopin to remain. Seating himself, he
played even more beautifully than before. When the last tones had died
away, the innkeeper exclaimed, "Three cheers for the young Pole." At
this all joined in and the room rang with their lusty shouts.
While Chopin played a last mazurka, the ladies filled the pockets of the
coach with wine and dainties. When at last he rose to go, the innkeeper
seized him in his strong arms and carried him to the coach.
In after years, when Chopin had received the praises of all Europe, he
used to tell the story. He said, "My success in the old inn and the
cheers of those music-loving Germans are dearer to me than any other
praise that I ever received."
A few months after his return to Warsaw, Chopin visited Vienna. His
friends urged him to give a concert, and at last he consented. The
concert, given in the opera house, was a great success. The people of
Vienna were surprised that a youth of nineteen could produce such music.
They never dreamed that so great a musician could come from Poland.
Chopin had been at home but a short time when war broke out in Poland.
He was very eager to join the army, but his parents would not give their
consent. Even if he had gone to the wars, he could never have used a
sword. His hands were too small and delicate for such work.
When Chopin found that he could not fight for his beloved country, he
turned to his music. In a few years he had written scores of
compositions. Few of them have pretty names. He simply called them
waltzes, marches, and mazurkas.
CHOPIN IN PARIS
In 1831 Chopin set out for Paris. He visited a number of cities and gave
many concerts on his way. He was glad to arrive in France, for it was
his father's native country, and he had long wished to visit there. He
had no idea, however, that he should never see Poland again. He little
thought that the remainder of his days would be spent in Paris.
At the time of his arrival in the French capital, Frederick Chopin was a
young man of twenty-two. He found life a hard struggle in the great
city. He could not sell his compositions, and few cared to hear him
play. He became discouraged and made up his mind to try his fortunes in
The day before he expected to sail for America, a Polish friend invited
him to spend the evening at the home of a wealthy baron. The homesick
young man accepted the invitation gladly. When asked to play, he charmed
all the company. After his performance, a number of persons came to the
young man to compliment him upon his skill. He was asked by many for
music lessons. His great talent and refined manners made him a general
Soon after he wrote home: "I shall not go to America now, for I am happy
in Paris. I have work in plenty and the best of friends. Among them are
princes and nobles. Many fine musicians have come to me for lessons.
From the praises I receive, I might imagine myself a great artist;
however, no one knows so well as I, that I still have much to learn."
During these years Poland was in great distress. Many Poles who had lost
both home and fortune went to Paris. Chopin showed great kindness to his
needy countrymen. He was glad to do all that he could for them, often
sharing his lodgings with some homeless Pole. He could not fight for his
country, but he did all in his power for the Poles in Paris.
Franz Liszt was one of Chopin's intimate friends. One evening, when
several musicians were together, Liszt played one of Chopin's
compositions. As he played, he changed a few notes here and there. When
he had finished, Chopin said, "I beg you, my dear friend, when you play
my music, to play it as it is written or not at all." "Play it yourself
then," said Liszt, rising from the piano. "With pleasure," answered
Chopin. At that moment the wind put out the light. When they were about
to relight it, Chopin said, "No, the moonlight is enough." His hands
then wandered over the keys, and for more than an hour he played so
beautifully that his listeners were in tears. "You are right, my
friend," said Liszt; "such music as yours ought never to be changed, for
you are a true poet."
A friend once said to the Polish musician, "Chopin, how is it that you
have never composed an opera?"
"Ah, my friend, let me compose nothing but music for the piano. It takes
a much wiser man than I to compose operas."
Chopin had brought many compositions with him when he came to Paris.
After the year 1832 he composed very rapidly. Among the music written at
that time were marches, rondos, and mazurkas. These were the things he
loved to write, but the music composed in Paris was far better than that
written in Warsaw. One of Chopin's most noted works is his Funeral
March. Its tones are sad and mournful but wonderfully beautiful.
In 1835 Frederick Chopin visited Germany. He had heard much of Clara
Wieck's skill as a pianist and wished to know her. He met her in
Leipzig, at her father's home. She played for him a sonata of
Schumann's. When she had finished, those present asked Chopin to play.
At first he refused, but they begged so earnestly that at last he took
his place at the piano. He touched the keys with a wonderful, fairylike
lightness, and the tones which came from the piano were pure and
delicate. As in France, so in Germany, he was everywhere hailed as the
greatest master of the pianoforte.
While Chopin was in Germany, he spent much time with his friend, Robert
Schumann. Together they visited an excellent pianist, at whose home they
spent several hours. Chopin charmed his small audience by his playing.
No sooner had he left than his hostess sent to the music shop and bought
all of Chopin's compositions that could be had.
When Chopin was about thirty years of age, he lost his health. Hoping
that he might improve, he went to an island in the Mediterranean.
Although he seemed better for a short time, he never regained his
The year before his death he visited England and Scotland. He never
liked to play in public, much preferring to play for a few friends, for
a crowd made him timid. However, in London he gave a concert for the
benefit of the distressed Poles.
Frederick Chopin died in the arms of his sister, in Paris, in the autumn
of 1849. As he lay dying, he asked a friend to sing for him. In low,
soft tones she sang a psalm. When the chant was ended, the great
musician passed away.
When Chopin was laid to rest, all of the great musicians of Paris
attended his funeral. His own beautiful Funeral March was played. All
who knew Chopin felt that they had lost a gentle and loving friend.
As a writer of music for the pianoforte, Chopin stands at the head. In
America alone, more of his music is sold each year than was sold during
the whole of his lifetime.