Everyone loves a troubled genius, and no one was more troubled, or more brilliant, than Frederic Chopin. A child prodigy, Chopin wrote some of the most beautiful music the world has ever seen—but away from his piano, his life was cold and ugly. His delicate concertos make a haunting soundtrack as we dig into this complicated, controversial, miserable virtuoso.
Frederic Chopin Facts
1. He Was Incredibly Frail
From his first moments, Frederic Chopin had to fight for his life. Born a frail, sickly child in the Duchy of Warsaw (now Poland), Chopin's parents fretted over him constantly. They must have prayed their boy's health would improve as he grew older, yet it didn't. The years began to pass and little Frederic remained as feeble as ever. Yet the Chopin family had even more pressing problems.
2. His Family Was Poor
Chopin's parents didn't have it easy. Neither his father Nicolas nor his mother Justyna made nearly enough money to give Frederic and their three daughters much stability. The Chopins eked out a difficult existence in the Polish countryside, but then Nicolas got the opportunity of a lifetime. He landed a job teaching at the Warsaw Lyceum. The entire family moved into the lavish Saxon Palace in the capital at Warsaw—and it was there that Chopin's gifts first showed themselves.
3. They Taught Him Music
Both of Chopin's parents were musicians. His father played the flute and the violin, but young Frederic was far more interested in his mother's instrument: the piano. Justyna gave lessons to all of her children, ensuring the Chopin household always echoed with the sounds of music. However, it didn't take long for Justyna to realize something was different about her only son.
If only she'd known the path she was setting him on.
4. He Was Brilliant
Young Frederic Chopin took to the piano like a fish to water. It very quickly became clear that he would need proper instruction to reach his potential. At just six years old, the family scraped together enough money to hire a professional tutor for the boy and his older sister. The teacher soon realized what Justyna had already known: Frederic Chopin was a musical prodigy.
His abilities would open doors all over Europe—but they couldn't save him from his tragic fate.
5. He Started Young
In typical child prodigy fashion, Chopin started giving his first public concerts when he was seven years old. That same year, he composed his first pieces of music. Word soon got out about this brilliant young boy who played the piano so beautifully. That kind of thing gets you noticed, and it was about to change Chopin's life forever.
6. The Rich And Powerful Wanted Him Around
Chopin was still just a boy when Europe's upper classes came calling. Though just the son of a teacher and a poor housewife, the city's rich and powerful lined up to see the boy genius. Eventually, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich invited Chopin to the Belweder Palace to be his son's playmate and to play music for him.
It seemed as though the hard times were finally at an end for the Chopin family. Of course, that's exactly when tragedy struck.
7. He Suffered A Tragedy
Frederic Chopin wasn't the only person in his family cursed with ill health. His father dealt with respiratory issues for his entire life, and so too did his youngest sister, Emilia. In 1827, Emilia's illness suddenly took a turn for the worse. The family prayed this was just another flare-up—but it wasn't. Emilia Chopin was just 14 years old when she died, a grim precursor to her brother's early demise.
The family reeled, but big changes were in the works, and not even their grief could stop them.
8. He Made Some...Close Friends
One of the ways the Chopin family made ends meet was by running a boarding house for male students at the academy. Four of these young men became extremely close to Frederic, and he remained in contact with them for his entire life. In fact, one of those relationships may have gotten even more intimate than anyone realized...
At least, that's what Chopin's scandalous letters imply.
9. His Letters Were Juicy
Frederic Chopin's controversial relationships always got him into trouble, and he may have started even earlier than anyone realized. His letters to one of his parents' boarders, a man named Tytus Woyciechowski, were shockingly explicit. He wrote of racy dreams and offered kisses and close embraces. Though the exact details of their relationship remain a mystery, Chopin and Woyciechowski remained in contact for the rest of his days.
Either way, Chopin had other romantic entanglements to obsess over.
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10. He Found His First Crush
Genius and obsession go together hand in hand, and Chopin was no different. When he first met Konstancja Gładkowska, a young, beautiful singer, he fell head over heels. Yet a sickly, awkward young man like Frederic Chopin couldn't just come out and tell her, so he pined after her from afar, never once making a move.
If you know anything about his later relationships, you'd consider her lucky...
11. He Was A Big Fish In A Little Pond
As Chopin grew up, he changed—and not for the better. He remained sickly, yet he grew sensitive, narcissistic, obsessive, and nervous. Still, at least he had one thing going for him: He had become one of the most brilliant musicians Europe had ever seen. Though he adored his homeland, Poland simply was not big enough for a man of his genius.
There was only one place for a musician like that to make a name for themselves: Paris.
12. He Made Quite The Entrance
Paris was the undisputed epicenter of European arts and culture at the time. Artists from all over the continent congregated there, and that's where Chopin found himself by 1832. Still awkward and impersonal, he let his music do the talking. He made his sensational debut at the legendary Salle Pleyel, with artists such as Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, and Luigi Cherubini in attendance.
By the time he stopped playing, Frederic Chopin had arrived.
13. He Had His Golden Ticket
Paris introduced Frederic Chopin to a whole new world. Suddenly, he was rubbing elbows with Europe's finest artists. This environment only took his music to new heights, and soon, more than just artists were taking notice. The richest of rich wanted to have geniuses like Chopin around—and that meant very big things for this young Polish prodigy.
14. He Had Wealthy Patrons
Once Chopin was introduced to the unbelievably wealthy Rothschild banking family, his financial problems were over. He played at extravagant, private salons, he published his works, and he was maybe the highest-paid piano teacher in town. But while it seemed like things couldn't be going better for young Frederic Chopin, he also learned that fame and fortune have a dark side.
15. He Wasn't Made For Fame
Despite his abilities, Frederic Chopin just wasn't cut out for celebrity. He loathed playing in public, despite the demand for his music. Crowds made him horribly anxious, and he much preferred playing in small, intimate salons—or even better, playing privately for friends in his own apartment. Chopin should have been living the dream, but instead, he stressed about every little thing, and it made him miserable to be around. Even he knew it.
16. He Knew He Wasn't For Everyone
People were rarely impressed when they met the legendary Frederic Chopin. Though his music delighted, the man himself left a lot to be desired. No one knew that better than Chopin himself, saying, "It is not my fault if I am like a mushroom which seems edible but which poisons you..." If anything, that was putting it lightly...
17. He Played In The Dark
Just how much did Frederic Chopin hate performing? Since he couldn't bear the eyes of the audience boring into the back of his head, he allegedly often demanded all candles be extinguished when he played, leaving everyone in utter darkness. Talk about a diva! But while plenty of people probably rolled their eyes at Chopin's demands, this wasn't just some small quirk.
Deep down, Chopin was an incredibly troubled man...
18. He Had A Low Opinion Of Himself
If you've ever thought that genius makes a person happy, think again. Frederic Chopin was anxious, self-conscious, and vain. He fussed over his delicate outfits obsessively, perhaps as a way to hide his even greater insecurities. Though his music was the talk of the town, his self-esteem was in the gutter. He wrote, "I know I have never been of any use to anyone—and indeed not much use to myself."
Though, in his defense, his disastrous love life definitely didn't help matters.
19. He Fell In Love With A Girl
The first real love of Frederic Chopin's life was a young woman named Maria Wodzinska. Chopin wasn't the only young man who had his eye on her, either: Poets, musicians, and even a young Napoleon III pined after her. But Chopin, a fellow Pole, was closer to her than most—though their first meeting was more disturbing than romantic.
20. He Was Head Over Heels
Frederic Chopin's infatuation with Maria began when she was just 11 years old and he was 20. Her parents were family friends, and he visited them while traveling abroad. Their young daughter grabbed his attention so tightly that he ended up staying with the family for two whole weeks. Eventually, he did return to Paris—but he couldn't get Maria out of his head.
21. He Popped The Question
Don't worry: Chopin waited until Maria was at least a teenager before he proposed. The years since their first meeting hadn't tempered his affection, and in 1836, he visited the family once more to ask for her hand in marriage. Her mother approved—he was one of the most popular musicians in Paris, after all—and Chopin was overjoyed.
That only made what came next hurt even more.
22. She Wasn't Into Him
Evidently, no one asked Maria how she felt about the matter. Chopin went back to Paris walking on air, dreaming of his future with his new wife. Later in the year, he sent her a book of songs he'd written for her. Her reply was...less than ideal. She was cold and formal—not exactly what you hope for when you write beautiful love songs for your bride-to-be.
Her anodyne letter was just an omen of things to come.
23. They Called It Off
In the end, Maria probably would have been forced to marry Chopin whether she liked him or not. Thankfully, her father stepped in. He changed his mind and withdrew his consent for the marriage—probably because Chopin was a sickly, anxious, miserable man. Chopin was heartbroken—and it's not like his other personal relationships were going any better.
24. He Made Friends With Another Genius
Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt were probably the two most brilliant musicians in Europe, so it's fitting that they would become friends. But this friendship was tinged with venom. Though Chopin appreciated Liszt's genius, he could be jealous and spiteful. Chopin's music was unparalleled, yet he couldn't whip a crowd into a frenzy like Liszt.
With a man as touchy as Chopin, a blowout was unavoidable.
25. They Didn't Get Along
With Liszt being the best piano player in the world and Chopin the greatest piano composer, of course they collaborated. Liszt performed one of Chopin's nocturnes in concert. When Chopin heard the music, he lost it. Liszt, ever the showman, added his own flair to the piece, driving the crowd wild with showy, complicated embellishments.
Chopin was not amused.
26. He Demanded An Apology
Maybe Chopin was jealous, maybe he was particular, or, more likely, he was both. Either way, he hated Liszt altering his music, spitting that he should play the music as written or he shouldn't play it at all. He eventually forced Liszt to apologize for his improvisation, driving a wedge into their relationship. But one concert wasn't going to drive them apart. Women definitely would, though.
27. The Ladies Loved Him
Talent can make up for a lot. Though Chopin was, by all accounts, a dreadful guy to be around, few women cared about that once they heard him play. That included Liszt's mistress, Marie d'Agoult. She obsessed over Chopin, much to her partner's fury. But jealousy wasn't the only thing driving their estrangement. Chopin had started up the most scandalous relationship of his life, and Liszt did not approve.
Her name was George, and she'd change Chopin's life forever.
28. His Relationship Got Off On The Wrong Foot
The turbulent affair between Frederic Chopin and George Sand did not begin with love at first sight. When Chopin first laid eyes on the diminutive, dark-haired, cigar-smoking poet, he felt no affection. His remarks that night were characteristically cruel: "What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?" Not exactly a sure-fire pickup line.
He left that night with no further designs on the controversial poet—but George Sand hadn't forgotten about him.
29. She Sought Him Out
If you played the piano like Frederic Chopin, women would put up with a lot. Sand couldn't get Chopin out of her head, and she began asking around to see if he was available. It was common knowledge that he'd been engaged to a woman back in Poland, but no wedding bells were in sight. To Sand's delight, she learned that Chopin's engagement went kaput.
One woman's loss is another's gain—though if Sand had known what was good for her, she'd have turned and run.
30. She Couldn't Believe It
George Sand was no doe-eyed schoolgirl. Six years older than Chopin, she already boasted an impressive list of lovers. Now she was with a frail, irritable, and overall unpleasant young composer. Yet, as we said, Frederic Chopin had an inexplicable effect on the ladies. As Sand put it, "I must say I was confused and amazed at the effect this little creature had on me...if I were a proud person I should be feeling humiliated at having been carried away..."
Still, she jumped into the relationship in earnest. She even upended her entire life for him—though it only made her miserable.
31. They Left Paris
Chopin's health was always questionable, but around this time, it grew even worse. He and Sand decided it would be best to travel south, in hopes a warmer climate would help. The couple, along with Sand's two young children, traveled to Mallorca, hoping for a pleasant sojourn in the sun. At least, that's what they claimed. There might have been a darker reason for their journey.
32. They Fled A Jealous Lover
Remember how we said George Sand had had plenty of lovers? Well, some of them were the jealous type. One man, Felicien Mallefille, heard about her affair with Chopin and began threatening them. Their journey to Mallorca was likely inspired at least partly by fear for what Mallefille might do if they stayed. Oh well, there are far worse places to hide out than Mallorca.
Unfortunately, this dream vacation soon turned into a nightmare.
33. The Locals Ostracized Them
Chopin and Sand's winter in Mallorca got off to a good start—until their secret got out. They gave the impression that they were married, but soon, the deeply-Catholic locals realized the truth. From then on they shunned the couple, and the pair couldn't find a place to stay. The only place that would take them was a former Carthusian monastery.
That's when their little trip took a turn for the worse.
34. His Health Took A Nosedive
The whole journey to Mallorca was meant to improve Chopin's ill health. Well, staying in a cold, drafty, barren monastery definitely wasn't ideal for that. Even with the Mediterranean climate, Chopin's condition kept deteriorating. The local doctors could do little for him. As he himself put it, "Three doctors have visited me...The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die."
Not the best prognosis. And, even worse, news of Chopin's condition got out. The consequences were awful.
35. His Landlord Kicked Him Out
One of Chopin's doctors speculated that he had tuberculosis (Spoiler Alert: He almost certainly did). Doctors back in Paris hadn't dared even entertain the idea, because people with TB were generally shunned—and that's exactly what happened in Mallorca. Chopin and Sand's landlord heard the diagnosis and promptly sent them an eviction letter.
He also demanded that all of the furniture in their rooms be burned, and the entire apartment disinfected—all at their expense of course. Mallorca was supposed to be a romantic getaway where Chopin could write and recover. Instead, it was one long bad dream. His relationship with Sand was spiraling—and it wasn't getting better any time soon.
36. They Went Back To France
Whatever Chopin and Sand were looking for, Mallorca clearly wasn't it. Between hostile locals, miserable weather, and Chopin's deteriorating health, they needed a change of scenery. They left to spend the summer at Sand's estate in Nohant, then returned to Paris. Unfortunately, Chopin was even worse off than when he'd left.
37. He Lived In Terrible Pain
Chopin had been in ill-health for his entire life, but the winter in Mallorca brought on a new level of agony. By 1842, he often couldn't get out of bed for days at a time. Between his weakness, fatigue, and coughing fits, Chopin could barely function. But his illness had even darker symptoms as well.
38. He Saw Phantoms
As if his health troubles couldn't seem any direr, Chopin began to experience vivid hallucinations. Phantoms chased him everywhere, grasping at him as he tried desperately to fight them off. Clearly, Frederic Chopin was circling the drain, and it took his relationship with Sand to a new low.
39. He Was More Patient Than Lover
George Sand started as Frederic Chopin's lover, but by the end of their union, she was more like a nurse. As a reflection of this tenor of their relations, she called him her "third child." Chopin needed nearly round-the-clock care, and not even his genius could make Sand put up with it any longer. And it's not like Chopin made it easy on her.
40. He Was Ungrateful
Was Chopin grateful for the care he received? Hardly. He was still as touchy and demanding as ever, and finally, after a series of spiteful letters between them, Sand called it quits. Just like that, a nine-year relationship went up in smoke. Sand couldn't quite believe it, calling their final, angry letters "a strange conclusion to nine years of exclusive friendship."
Sand had finally escaped from the black hole that was Frederic Chopin—but not everyone saw it that way.
41. His Friends Blamed Her
George Sand was, evidently, not a total innocent in this. Chopin's condition had certainly grown worse over his time with her, and his friends didn't think that was a coincidence. One even posited that he might have lived to 80 had he never met her. But he did meet her—and he definitely didn't live to 80. In fact, though he was only in his 30s, his end was already drawing near.
42. His Funds Had Dried Up
Frederic Chopin was still widely respected, but his glory days had definitely begun to wane. Years of unpleasant behavior and rare performances had taken the bloom off the rose. That, coupled with the political instability of the time, put Chopin in dire financial straits. He was running out of options when he got an offer he couldn't refuse.
43. An Admirer Brought Him To Scotland
Though people in Paris knew what kind of man Chopin was, evidently his genius still held weight in the British Isles. A wealthy Scottish heiress named Jane Stirling invited him to come and visit her in Scotland. She had fallen for the mysterious, moody pianist from afar, and she wanted to see the real deal. Boy, was she in for a disappointment.
44. He Wasn't Into It
Jane Stirling clearly wanted a relationship with Chopin, but he shut her down right out of the gate. Maybe if she'd seen the letters he was sending back home, she'd have realized what kind of guy Frederic Chopin was. He wrote his friend, "My Scottish ladies are kind, but such bores." In response to rumors of an affair, he said that he was "closer to the grave than the nuptial bed." In that regard, he was right on the money.
45. He Played One Last Concert
As his body slowly failed him, Chopin made fewer and fewer public appearances. While staying in Scotland, he was in high demand, but it took a cause close to his heart to get him to put on a concert. Even though he hadn't seen his homeland in years, he was still deeply patriotic, so he agreed to perform at a benefit for Polish refugees.
What followed must have been one of the most depressing concerts in history.
46. His Audience Couldn't Care Less
Chopin must have regretted agreeing to the show almost instantly. He was no longer the star he was in his youth, and the attendees couldn't care less about his piano playing. They were far more interested in dancing and socializing than listening to the frail figure playing music in the corner. In fact, they might have actively ignored him—because he was truly a grim sight.
47. He Was Grotesquely Frail
By his final concert, Chopin had wasted away to under 99 pounds. His skeletal figure at the piano must have given the night a chilling atmosphere, and by the time he finished, he could barely stand. The effort of playing—for people who weren't even interested—had taken his last strength from him. He barely held on through the journey back to Paris, but he didn't have much time left.
48. He Wanted Music
The few people Chopin had not yet alienated remained by his side as he lay on his deathbed, slowly fading. At one point, he tearfully asked for some music, yet when his friends began to play his Sonata in G Minor, his jagged coughs interrupted them. Everyone knew that his end had come, but he was still in for four days of agony.
49. He Spoke His Last Words
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Frederic Chopin's misery was at an end. Shortly after midnight on October 17, 1849, he grew still. His doctor asked him if he was suffering, and he breathed his heartbreaking final words: "No longer." At 39 years old, Frederic Chopin was no more. Thousands showed up to pay their respects at his funeral. Despite his ups and downs, he was still indisputably one of the most brilliant musicians the world had ever seen.
But the dirty details of his personal life continue to mar his legacy.
50. His Pupil Was Not Impressed
Chopin made most of his money by teaching, since he absolutely despised performing. That's how he met a young pianist named Zofia Rozengardt. Zofia traveled to Paris specifically to study under Chopin, one of Europe's greatest musicians. She must have been so excited—but she had no clue what she was in for. She later wrote an account of her time with this "weird and incomprehensible man," and she does not paint a pretty picture.
51. She Pulled No Punches
Zofia had to admit that Chopin was brilliant, witty, and talented—but the compliments ended there. "You cannot imagine a person who can be colder." She detailed his wild rages, his petulant tantrums, his cruel teaching methods, and his unending arguments with George Sand. Sure, Chopin was a genius, but no genius was worth putting up with that.
But don't take Zofia's word for it—there are lots of people who would tell you that Frederic Chopin was bad news.
52. Rumors About Him Spread Early
Remember how Chopin almost married a 16-year-old way back in the day? Whatever happened to that? While Maria Wodzinska's family claimed that they cut off the engagement because of his bad health, there's also a much darker theory. In case you hadn't noticed, Chopin had a way with the ladies, and news of his womanizing in Paris had gotten back to his teenage fiancee's parents.
They decided that Frederic Chopin could never give their daughter a happy life, and they were definitely right about that. Still, Chopin had wanted to marry Maria—and his reaction to her ending their relationship was a touch...dramatic.
53. He Had A Flair For The Dramatic
Did all of Chopin's troubles with love begin with that first failed engagement? Who can say, but here's what we do know: Chopin took the breakup badly. He allegedly put all the letters he’d received from the Wodzinski family into a single package, which he labeled “My sorrow.” But that's not the only relationship of his that ended badly.
How did things really go down between Frederic Chopin and George Sand? Well, in typical Chopin style, he does not come out looking good...
54. He Got Too Close To Sand's Daughter
Towards the end of their relationship, Sand's two children had grown up—and Chopin was growing perhaps a little too close to Sand's 17-year-old daughter, Solange. He always took the girl's side against her mother's in arguments, and Sand noticed. Finally, the tension between them exploded, and Sand accused Chopin of being in love with the girl. Hey, it wouldn't be the first time he fell for a teenager.
55. Modern Science Has An Explanation For His Behavior
When reading back on Chopin's life, his crippling sickness is the one throughline. It could also certainly explain his intolerable character. But what was really wrong with him? Though chronic tuberculosis was certainly a factor, modern scientists believe there was something more than that. Remember the vivid hallucinations and wild mood swings?
A modern study on Chopin's life suggests that he might have suffered from undiagnosed temporal lobe epilepsy. Today, he might have gotten treatment, and who knows what this prodigy's life might have looked like—but he wasn't so lucky.