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Fryderyk Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, 46 kilometres west of Warsaw, in what was then the Duchy of Warsaw, a Polish state established by Napoleon. The parish baptismal record gives his birthday as 22 February 1810, and cites his given names in the Latin form Fridericus Franciscus (in Polish, he was Fryderyk Franciszek). However, the composer and his family used the birthdate 1 March, which is now generally accepted as the correct date.

 

Fryderyk’s father, Nicolas Chopin, was a Frenchman from Lorraine who had emigrated to Poland in 1787 at the age of sixteen. Nicolas tutored children of the Polish aristocracy, and in 1806 married Justyna Krzyżanowska, a poor relative of the Skarbeks, one of the families for whom he worked.

 

Fryderyk was baptized on Easter Sunday, 23 April 1810, in the same church where his parents had married, in Brochów. His eighteen-year-old godfather, for whom he was named, was Fryderyk Skarbek, a pupil of Nicolas Chopin. Fryderyk was the couple’s second child and only son; he had an elder sister, Ludwika (1807–55), and two younger sisters, Izabela (1811–81) and Emilia (1812–27). Nicolas was devoted to his adopted homeland, and insisted on the use of the Polish language in the household.

 

In October 1810, six months after Fryderyk’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw, where his father acquired a post teaching French at the Warsaw Lyceum, then housed in the Saxon Palace. Fryderyk lived with his family in the Palace grounds. The father played the flute and violin; the mother played the piano and gave lessons to boys in the boarding house that the Chopins kept. Chopin was of slight build, and even in early childhood was prone to illnesses.

Fryderyk may have had some piano instruction from his mother, but his first professional music tutor, from 1816 to 1821, was the Czech pianist Wojciech Żywny. His elder sister Ludwika also took lessons from Żywny, and occasionally played duets with her brother. It quickly became apparent that he was a child prodigy. By the age of seven Fryderyk had begun giving public concerts, and in 1817 he composed two polonaises, in G minor and B-flat major. His next work, a polonaise in A-flat major of 1821, dedicated to Żywny, is his earliest surviving musical manuscript.

 

In 1817 the Saxon Palace was requisitioned by Warsaw’s Russian governor for military use, and the Warsaw Lyceum was reestablished in the Kazimierz Palace (today the rectorate of Warsaw University). Fryderyk and his family moved to a building, which still survives, adjacent to the Kazimierz Palace. During this period, Fryderyk was sometimes invited to the Belweder Palace as playmate to the son of the ruler of Russian Poland, Grand Duke Constantine; he played the piano for the Duke and composed a march for him. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, in his dramatic eclogue, “Nasze Przebiegi” (“Our Discourses”, 1818), attested to “little Chopin’s” popularity.

 

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