After the Partitions of Poland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Warsaw was occupied by Imperial Russia. In 1829, the new Russian Czar, Nicolas I, outlawed the Polish Constitution, and arrested the members of the Polish Sejm (parliament) leaving no pretenses of any self-rule in Congress Poland (established after Napoleon’s defeat at the Congress of Vienna in 1815). Later that year, Nicolas outlawed Polish culture and the Polish language. When Polish culture was forbidden, gifted Polish pianist Frederick Chopin left Warsaw for Paris. Enroute he visited his friend Franz Liszt in Stuttgart.
Both Liszt and Chopin taught piano to the petty aristocracies of the German States. They did so through the use of “etudes” or short compositions meant to teach technique. Until then, etudes were rote and painful pieces meant strictly as lessons. But the early industrial revolution updated the piano in the form of precision casting, high quality piano wire, and a metal frame to sustain a more powerful and broader sound. Chopin started writing etudes for this new modern piano. Like Beethoven and Mozart before him, Chopin was incapable of composing something uninteresting, and the etudes of his unfinished Opus 10 were celebrated as masterpieces in their own right.
In November 1831 Nicolas began forced conversions of the Roman Catholic Polish population to Eastern Orthodoxy. Warsaw revolted. The revolution was only put down after a massed and sustained bombardment that flattened the city, followed by an assault by several large Russian armies.
Shortly thereafter, Chopin learned of the uprising and subsequent massacre, and he was furious and distraught. As his father was a prominent revolutionary, he couldn’t return. So he got drunk with Liszt and continued on as before. He still had one more etude to compose for his Opus 10, and it involved a lesson on the sweeping use of the left hand while playing notes in rapid succession.
On 17 December 1831, Frederic Chopin published what would become one the most popular piano pieces in history, Etude no 12, Opus 10 in C minor, “On the Bombardment of Warsaw”, or more simply, “Revolutionary”.