His father was a musician who had served various members of the Prussian royal Hohenzollern family as concert master and had been a director of the Paris Opera Chorus. Frédéric was born in a stagecoach on the road to Berlin. The boy showed early musical talent, leading his father to enroll him in the Paris Conservatoire at age 12. He advanced rapidly in piano under the tutelage of Louis Adam and studied harmony with Charles-Simon Catel. He won first prizes in both subjects in 1801; however, he was mesmerized by the rising figure of Napoleon Bonaparte on the French scene and dreamed of somehow becoming an officer and marching to glory in the future Emperor's Grand Army.
His father alertly removed Frédéric from Paris, taking him to Vienna where he met Haydn (who seems to have talked some sense into him and gave him advice for a musical career), probably studied with Albrechtsberger, and met Clementi. On the way back to Paris, he gave concerts in the main German cities on the way, getting a taste of public adulation. For some reason, Kalkbrenner did not make a strong impression as a pianist in Paris. In 1806, his father died and Kalkbrenner retired to a country cottage with a mistress.
After Napoleon was ousted, Kalkbrenner moved to England in 1814, living there for ten years and establishing a reputation as one of the greatest pianists. He was able to amass a comfortable fortune on his playing and composing. In 1823, he made a huge sensation with his Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 61, which spread his fame as a player and composer across Europe. In the same year, he made his first return to the Continent and found himself enjoying great successes in Berlin and Vienna.
He and other virtuosi were popularizing the newer keyboard instrument, the pianoforte, particularly in the latest London models that featured numerous mechanical and structural improvements. He wisely invested in the Pleyel piano manufacturing firm.
At the end of 1824, he moved back to Paris, settling there for good. He married an ex-general's daughter, Marie d'Estaing, and they had one son. During the next decade, he reigned supreme over all pianists in Paris and was among the top draws on concert platforms all over Europe. He was given orders and decorations by crowned heads just about everywhere he went and was highly in demand as a piano teacher. He also became a great teacher's teacher, establishing a formal institute for finishing the training of young piano teachers. He published useful methods and a "hand-guide" to piano playing, as he called it.
The good nature of Frédéric Chopin averted what could have become a serious rivalry: When the Polish pianist/composer arrived in Paris in 1831, Kalkbrenner seriously suggested that Chopin take a course in his training school. Chopin did not take offense and the two became fast friends. Chopin, however, heralded the arrival of a new generation of pianists that also included Liszt and Thalberg, who were closer to the public fancy as it shifted in the last half of the decade of the 1830s. Moreover, Kalkbrenner began to suffer from gout and nervous conditions. He virtually withdrew from the concert stage by 1840, but remained active as a teacher and composer until he fell to a cholera epidemic in 1849. His music is dramatic, with not much beneath the surface. His left-hand writing is well-developed and foreshadows Liszt's use of it, while his octaves and figurations also had an influence on Chopin. Virtuoso effects abound and the musical line is often heavily ornamented. Practically all his music features piano and includes a large number of concerted pieces. While the music did not strike listeners then or now as possessing any great originality, it is revived today, usually with pleasing results.