Saturday, March 1, 2014

FRYDERYK CHOPIN ~~ 203rd BIRTHDAY!! ~~ March 1, 1810 ~ October 17, 1849

Frédéric François Chopin, christened Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin sometimes written Szopen in Polish (1 March 1810 – 17 October 1849), was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist. He was one of the great masters of Romantic music.

Chopin was born in the village of Żelazowa Wola, in the Duchy of Warsaw, to a French-expatriate father and Polish mother. He was considered a child-prodigy pianist. At age twenty, on 2 November 1830, he left Warsaw for Austria, intending to go on to Italy. The outbreak of the Polish November Uprising 27 days later, and its subsequent suppression by Russia, led to his becoming one of many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration.
In Paris, Chopin made a comfortable living as a composer and piano teacher, while giving few public performances. Though an ardent Polish patriot, in France he used the French versions of his given names, and traveled on a French passport, possibly to avoid having to rely on Imperial Russian documents. After ill-fated romantic involvements with Polish women, from 1837 to 1847 he had a turbulent relationship with the French novelist Aurore Dupin, better known by her pseudonym, George Sand. For the greater part of his life Chopin suffered from poor health; he died in Paris in 1849, aged thirty-nine, of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Chopin's compositions were written primarily for the piano as solo instrument. Though technically demanding, they emphasize nuance and expressive depth rather than sheer virtuosity. Chopin invented musical forms such as the instrumental ballade and was responsible for major innovations in the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu and prélude.

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Warsaw is a little bleak this time of year, as I discovered on a visit to the Polish capital last week. Expeditions that look straightforward on paper may turn arduous. On my first day, I set out for theChopin Museum, which appeared to be a twenty-minute walk from my hotel. The temperature was well below freezing, the wind off the Vistula invasive, the sidewalk glazed with ice. After a few blocks, I felt the need to take refuge, and followed several elderly women into Holy Cross Church, on Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of Warsaw’s main thoroughfares. Sitting in a pew, I looked to my left and saw, on one of the church’s pillars, the legend “HERE RESTS THE HEART OF FREDERICK CHOPIN.” After a moment of confusion, I remembered a story from the Chopin biographies: in his last days, in Paris, the supreme poet of the piano had asked that his heart be brought back to his native land. So while Chopin’s body rests at Père Lachaise, in the company of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, his heart resides at Holy Cross, in the first big pillar on the left. I made a note to look up the story when I got home. The definitive chronicle is by the Polish journalist Andrzej Pettyn. There is also “Chopin’s Heart,” a book by the American physician Steven Lagerberg.
The woman who set the saga in motion was Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Chopin’s eldest sister, who heard and recorded his curious request for dismemberment. She saw to it that the heart was preserved in a hermetically sealed crystal jar filled with an alcoholic liquid, possibly cognac. That vessel was, in turn, encased in an urn made of mahogany and oak. In early 1850, a few months after her brother’s death, Jędrzejewicz smuggled the assemblage into Poland, hiding it under her cloak in order to elude the attentions of Austrian and Russian inspectors. In 1879, it was placed in its present position at Holy Cross. A memorial slab bore a citation of the Book of Matthew: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
As Jędrzejewicz must have anticipated, the erection of a memorial at Holy Cross soon acquired political resonance. For decades, it was the only public monument to Chopin that tsarist authorities permitted in the city, and it drew covert displays of nationalist fervor. When Poland achieved independence, in 1918, the site became an open shrine. “All our past sings in him, all our slavery cries in him, the beating heart of the nation, the great king of sorrows,” the cleric Antoni Szlagowski intoned, in 1926. While Chopin believed strongly in the idea of a Polish nation, such sentiments might have made him uncomfortable; in one of his letters, he dismissed as “nonsense” the idea that Poles would one day be as proud of him as Germans are of Mozart.
During the German occupation of Poland, the heart was nearly lost. Conscious of Chopin’s symbolic power, the Nazis prevented performances of his music and destroyed a statue that had been erected in his honor in 1926. (Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland, later allowed Chopin to be played as long as his name was given as “Schopping.”) During the Warsaw Uprising, battles raged around Holy Cross, and the building suffered heavy damage. In the midst of the fighting, a German priest named Schulze asked his Polish counterparts whether they would let him take the heart into safekeeping. After a discussion, the priests agreed. The urn passed into the hands of Heinz Reinefarth, a high-ranking S.S. officer who professed to be a Chopin admirer. For the remainder of the uprising, the heart was kept at the headquarters of Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the infamously brutal commander of German forces in the region.
Once the uprising had been suppressed, Bach-Zelewski made a show of returning the urn to Polish hands. It was, Andrzej Pettyn proposes, a “gesture aimed at reducing his own fault and present himself to the world in a more favorable light.” A film crew was summoned to record the transfer of the heart to Szlagowski, who had since become the archbishop of Warsaw. At the crucial moment, though, spotlights that had been set up to illuminate the scene malfunctioned, and, as the story goes, Szlagowski muttered thanks to God that the Nazis’ propaganda spectacle had been spoiled. Not surprisingly, this grisly charade failed to erase memories of the mass slaughter of Polish civilians. (Anyone who is reminded here of the plot of “The Pianist” might be interested to know that Halina Szpilman, the widow of Władysław Szpilman, who inspired the Polanski film, is alive and well in Warsaw; I met her at a concert by the Sinfonia Iuventus.)
The priests of Holy Cross took the urn with them to Milanówek, outside of Warsaw. Fearing that the Germans would change their minds, they hid it. For the first time in decades, the container was disassembled and the organ itself glimpsed. It was “incredibly big,” one observer recalled. On October 17, 1945, the ninety-sixth anniversary of Chopin’s death, the heart went back to Holy Cross. White and red flags flew along the route, and masses of people gathered to pay their respects. By the time the car carrying the relic reached Warsaw, Pettyn relates, it was heaped high with flowers.
Chopin’s heart remains an object of fascination and dispute. In 2008, a team of scholars asked for permission to subject it to a DNA analysis, in order to test a theory that Chopin died not of tuberculosis, as was long believed, but of cystic fibrosis. (That might explain the largeness of the heart.) The Polish government refused the request. Indeed, it seems right to let the heart rest in peace for a long while.
In all likelihood, the composer of the “Revolutionary Etude” has no further role to play on the political stage, but he retains a high profile in his native land. When, at the end of my stay, I got into a taxi, the driver asked, “Chopin?” He meant, of course, the airport.
Photograph by Maciej Szczepanczyk.
FEBRUARY 5, 2014


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