Written by: Vince Chadwick
February 2010, Warsaw
The story so perfectly fits the romantic stereotype of the man, it cries out to be believed. In 1849 Frédéric Chopin lies on his death bed in his Paris apartment. The sickly genius must soon succumb to the tuberculosis which has plagued him throughout his melancholy life, but before death one last request. Chopin orders that after he dies his heart be cut out and returned to the land of his birth for which he has pined since being forced to leave almost twenty years earlier. The only problem is that the country does not exist, instead lying under Russian rule barely worthy of the name, Poland. And so following a large funeral patronised equally by artists like Delacroix and political giants including Poland’s exiled de facto leader, Prince Adam Czartoryski, Chopin’s sister escorts one of her country’s most famous hearts home to Warsaw. However, even as Ludwika Chopin lays the organ to rest in the Church of the Holy Cross on Krakowskie Przedmiéscie, the battles to own both Poland and her brother’s soul have only just begun.
Skip forward to 2010 and both Poland and Europe appear much changed. Abandoned to Stalin by the other Allies following the Second World War, Poland became the moral blight on Western Europe delineating the hem of the Iron Curtain before becoming the first country to move courageously against the Soviets in the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. Poland emerged in 1989 to reclaim an independence which had once appeared lost for good during 123 years of foreign proxy-rule prior to the First World War. Yet independence did not guarantee self-determination in all things. After President Obama decided in September 2009 not to go ahead with his predecessor’s plan to install a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, it was widely seen as a move designed to placate Russia at the expense of those smaller countries who had risked the wrath of the bear in agreeing to the system in the first place. Poland was again reminded of its traditional role as a bargaining chip between larger powers, but never a player in its own right.
Enter Chopin, for at such times requiring national definition (or redefinition) Poland has a long tradition of looking to the composer who helped maintain and nourish the Polish heart, even when it lacked a body. Though in musical terms he has sometimes been portrayed as the ideal balance between the romantic excesses of Liszt and the classicism of his idols Mozart and Bach, in spirit Chopin represents the embodiment of the Romantic era in which he lived. Anglophone-Polophile historian Norman Davies asserts the pre-eminence of the Romantic spirit in the Polish mind, tracing this back to the artists and writers of the early 19th-century who having been denied a coherent territory “turned instead to the exploration of the Spirit, to the evocation of the inner nature of things”. Poles see Chopin as being amongst the leaders of this movement, as biographer Adam Zamoyski writes, “… distilling the essence of the old chivalric ideals on the one hand and reaching into the soul of popular culture on the other to create a new national idiom immediately recognisable to all.”
2010 marks the 200th-anniversary of Chopin’s birth in the small town of Zelazowa Wola 30 miles west of Warsaw and the whole country is determined to celebrate. Posters adorn bus-stops throughout the country, and the gala concert inaugurating “Chopin Year” given by Lang Lang was attended by the President and broadcast live on national television. For Poles, Chopin matters.
As Zamoyski points out, in 1810 Chopin too was born into a society in the throes of reinventing itself. Greater Poland, once an aspiring power in its own right, had been fragmented by three partitions at the end of the 18th-century, leaving the new Polish patriots with the task of creating “a new synthesis of nationhood”. In this the Polish poet Norwid perhaps described Chopin’s contribution best, saying:
In the crystal of his own harmony he gathered the tears of the Polish people strewn over the fields, and placed them as the diamond of beauty in the diadem of humanity.
All of which helps make sense of the comments made by the Minister of Culture, Bogdan Zdrojewski at the inauguration concert last month asserting that Chopin remains one of the finest emissaries of Polish culture, and labelling the 200th-anniversary of his birth “the cultural event of the decade”. The evening’s programme was also telling, with the Concerto in F minor for Piano and Orchestra (Opus 21) at its centre. This was the piece Chopin would play unaccompanied to dazzle audiences across Europe after leaving Poland for good in 1830, and it was the completion of this piece that the Warsaw Courier urged upon Chopin so as to “not delay any longer in confirming our conviction that Poland too can produce great talent”. The feeling in the audience this January was not dissimilar as all hushed to hear the sound of a Polish heart beating vibrantly through a vein which seemed to flow directly from a more glorious time, impervious to the many travails which this nation has been forced to endure since.
In the Polish telling Fryderyk Szopen was a bona fide political refugee, unable to return to Poland following the failed 1831 insurrection which eventually served only to tighten Russian rule. From abroad Chopin ordered his mother to sell the ring given to him by the Tsar, and made a point of never again going the Russian Embassy – though he continued to take on Russian students. Nor later did he integrate as fully into French society as the latter might like to believe. He spoke French only poorly and bemoaning his inability to chat freely in his native Polish. He sought out the many Polish exiles in Paris and organised charity concert events for the Polish cause, once likening himself to the “little drummer boy” for his friends doing the fighting on the streets of Warsaw. He responded enthusiastically when approached to write an opera based on Poland’s plight, though the idea never came to fruition. Then, left only with his music which Schuman described as “cannons hidden among blossoms”, he fought valiantly against the Russians in spirit until, depleted by this and other ailments, this sensitive flower folded prematurely at the age of 39.
All of which would be fine were it not for the murmurs coming from France, reminding Poles that Chopin chose to spend the second half of his life away from his native home. In 1831 upon hearing of the fall of Warsaw to the Russians Chopin wrote in his diary that he wished “the cruellest tortures fall on the heads of the French, who would not come to our aid”, before just days later setting course for Paris. When he could easily have availed himself of the Tsar’s amnesty extended to all those who did not play a leading role in the insurrection, he did not – unlike most émigrés his income was better furnished in ‘exile’ in Paris surrounded by wealthy patrons. His father, the French are fond of reminding Poles, was born in France, and in the summer months the composer’s grave, in a beautiful part of Père la-Chaise cemetery in Paris, is swamped with tourists who doubtless return home to recount stories of having seen the great French composer. Even the famous story of the heart being returned to Warsaw is slightly tainted by the knowledge that this may have been only an afterthought once the organ was removed to counter the common fear in those days of being buried alive.
Chopin’s letters reveal a still more complex account. Spoilt and bored amidst an aspiring middle-class family in Warsaw, Chopin appears desperate to leave but unable to make a decision with a lack of self-sufficiency which would also later typify his dependent relationship with the erratic George Sand. It was initially to Vienna that Chopin departed in the hope of finding his star in the city of Mozart and Beethoven, only to be shut out by Austrian neuroses about émigré Poles following the insurrection. Eventually, despite having lived in France for almost all of his adult life, Chopin never considered himself a Frenchman, yet came to love Paris for the cultural and artistic hub it provided.
The music itself quietens this debate. Chopin once wrote in a letter to his father that he wished he could express himself with musical phrases in place of words and it seems clear that the composer’s true genius lay in projecting emotions onto a musical plane. What those emotions were may remain controversial as long as fine new pianists are inspired to take up and interpret his works, but for Chopin everything was mixed together. According to Zamoyski, Chopin united “home, country, family, friends, love and youth” in all his compositions, each marked by an abiding melancholy and frustrated longing. And for all the attempts to lay claim to his affections it seemed Chopin himself sought out only those of the listener, once writing to a friend, “music has its own language and its own purpose, and one has to learn to reach the depths of the listeners soul”. For Chopin his music was the revolution, just not the one craved for by his more politically minded friends. And yet Chopin’s was to prove the more enduring.
This is not to say that Chopin did not pay a price for placing music above politics, especially amongst his fellow Poles. Adam Mickiewicz – author of Pan Tadeusz, the epic poetical play and key political tract to come out of the 19th-century – who was in Paris at the same time, derided Chopin as a mere salon musician for his lack of manifest political will. Yet in September 1939 as the Nazis closed in on Warsaw, Polish Radio played Chopin to tell the world that the capital was still in Polish hands. His music was later banned by the Nazis but when Hitler ordered General Erich von dem Bach to raze Warsaw during the 1944 Uprising, the music-lover – and war criminal – ensured that the heart sent from Paris over a hundred years earlier was spared.
Attempts to own Chopin are doomed to fail because for him music was an end in itself, capable of containing endless emotion, including sometimes conflicting ones. Lang Lang said as much prior to his performance this January with the Warsaw Philharmonic:
You learn something, and you think that you have the feeling, that you have the pulse; but then after you learn another piece of Chopin you learn that there is actually a mazurka in the concerto, there is actually a nocturne in the concerto … you feel that there are so many new elements … the concerto is like another big world…
Such fecundity highlights the folly of the attempts by some French critics to assign the more brutish, Slavic elements to Chopin’s Polish roots, while claiming the more serene, esoteric side to his time spent in Paris salons. For instance, Gilles Bencimon of Radio France Internationale said recently of Chopin in an interview on Polish Radio that everything he composed in the second half of his life was attributable to the influence of French culture:
There is the Slavic element to his music which one hears immediately, and then also a typically French side with lots of elegance, lots of charm and truly a very precise style, extremely refined, which is also a mark of what one generally considers to be French culture.
Meanwhile, Poles must despair – wishing that this music above all, be allowed to resist partition.
The final question is why this all should matter now? The answer is that 200 years after his birth Chopin matters more to Poland than to France. It is a stark contrast that such a sensitive, uncertain and afflicted heart as Chopin’s should come to symbolise the national character of a country as inured to hardship as Poland. How many countries would dare mix wariness and fortitude in their National Anthem as the Poles do in their marching song, sung by Polish legions fighting under Napoleon: “Poland has not perished yet, so long as we still live, that which foreign force has seized, we at sword point shall retrieve…”. This at first seems an overly bleak note for a national hymn until one comes to appreciate its greatest quality. It is true.
Yet it is the apolitical-political émigré-cum-salon musician who has come to truly sing for the Polish heart. As Adam Zamoyski concludes, “far from embellishing folklore and historical imagery, Chopin created a musical idiom that transcended music, an idiom that in many ways actually helped to condition and mould the nation itself. That is why he is so central to the national narrative: along with the poets and artists, he helped compose it.”