Audiences had one complaint about Frederic Chopin: He was too quiet. His piano playing failed to fill a concert hall, and his restrained compositions got lost in big spaces.
Of course, low volume was all of piece with Chopin’s personality. In an era dominated by such over-large composers as Liszt and Berlioz, Chopin stood out for his restraint. He lacked the ego to organize massive, self-promoting tours; he lacked the charisma to inspire fans to hysterical devotion; he lacked the audacity to make himself a celebrity.
But whatever Chopin lacked in arrogance he more than made up for in talent. Few people heard Chopin play, and fewer heard him play to best advantage, but those who did were swept away by his delicate, evocative style. Chopin serves as a counterweight to the romantic tendency towards bigger and bolder music: His compositions are intimate, personal, quiet—thus proving that genius doesn’t have to be loud to get noticed.
The concerts Chopin did play were awesome music events and very well received by the media of the day. Another virtuoso would have followed up such successes with more of the same. Not Chopin. Putting together concerts was a headache, and Chopin preferred not to bother. He ended up performing in public fewer than thirty times.
Even when he planned to perform, he was often too sick to go on stage. All through the 1830s, the composer endured bouts of “bronchitis” and “influenza” that left him coughing and weak. Chopin clung to the belief that he had a weak constitution—a more reassuring self-diagnosis than a fatal case of tuberculosis. Without income from concerts, he struggled to make a living from music sales and piano lessons. Sheet music netted composers a pittance, and no one ever got rich giving lessons, so he barely scraped by.
Chopin would have probably loved the internet. He could get his music out to the world without schlepping around from venue to venue. He could indulge his introverted nature by remotely offering sheet music and even online lessons.
Today Chopin’s entrancing, delicate works are an indelible part of the standard repertoire, and his music has never gone out of favor. Chopin’s life is a proof positive that you don’t need a big personality to make a lasting imprint for the ages.
Adapted from, The Secret Lives of Great Composers by Elizabeth Lunday (2009, Quirk Books).