Frédéric Chopin, a world-famous composer, can be defined in a number of ways
in terms of nationality. Some identify him as a Pole, while others claim that he
was essentially French. Because of his artistic work, he is also considered a
citizen of the world. This lack of clarity
and misunderstandings are just as common today as they were in Chopin’s times.
“Glasgow Herald” (29 September 1848) announced Chopin’s concert, calling the
artist: “Mr. Chopin the great French pianist.” These misunderstandings stemmed from the fact that after
the partitions Poland lost its statehood; thus, in the West many could not
understand what it meant to be a Pole in exile and under foreign rule. It seems,
however, that Chopin’s attitude and personal opinion on this matter are most
indicative of his nationality. As Henryk Dobrzycki once wrote, “...he composed
works having features so characteristic of the Polish spirit that even if all
testimony to him should disappear, his works alone would confirm that their
creator must have been no one but a Pole.”
The answer to the question about the artist’s nationality appears to be
crucial not only as a matter of form, but most of all because of the need to
develop a deeper understanding of his works. The influence of native culture on
Chopin’s world view, his concern over the tragic fate of his homeland had a
direct bearing on Chopin’s works. Arthur Hedley describes Chopin’s relationship
with Poland and the Poles in the following way: “There are several reasons why,
for lack of solid facts, writers on Chopin have had to draw on their
imaginations, the most important being that Chopin was a Pole who revealed
himself, as a man, to few save his compatriots; and until the Poles them selves
began to take pride and interest in the achievements of their great countryman a
considerable amount of information relating to his career (particularly his
early days) remained hidden away in his native land to be brought to light only
in recent years.”
A Polish poet, Jaros³aw Iwaszkiewicz divides Frédéric Chopin’s life into two
periods: the years 1810 – 1830 were a happy period spent in Poland, 1830 - 1849
were a time of unrest and upheaval, and of difficult yet incredibly prolific
emigration. The first period of the
composer’s life had a strong influence on Chopin’s personality and left an
impression on his work and compositions till the end of his life. In 1787,
Frédéric’s father, Nicholas Chopin, came to Poland from Lorraine at the age of
seventeen, “cutting all the ties that linked him with his former homeland,”
Iwaszkiewicz writes. Then, he notes, “and till the end of his life, even when
his son lived in Paris, he never got into contact with the family living in
France, and became totally Polonized.”
Adolf Nowaczyñski, a famous Polish writer and columnist, wrote about the
enormous assimilating power of the Polish culture of the time. After all,
Nicholas Chopin was not the only foreigner who blended in with Polish society.
There were plenty of examples even after the partitions of Poland. The universality of Polish culture would
later be demonstrated by Frédéric Chopin’s works. As stated by Henryk
Dobrzycki, Frédéric’s works are “a synthesis of national feelings, provided that
it can be expressed by the art of music.” The fact that these works are admired
throughout the world is a further proof of the universality of the culture to
which this great artist belonged.
A very patriotic family had a profound impact on Frédéric’s personality
development. His mother was Justyna Krzy¿anowska, an ardent Polish patriot from
a poor noble background. Józefa Wodziñska, née Ko¶cielska, sister of Maria
Ko¶cielska, with whom Chopin later fell in love, recounted: “The Chopins’ home
was purely Polish thanks to Mrs. Chopin, née Krzy¿anowska. Nicholas Chopin,
though a Frenchman, spoke very good, grammatically correct Polish. Obviously,
with a French accent which he never lost. Children spoke Polish, and when
Nicholas Chopin talked to his pupils in French, he only chose to do so because
they lived in his house mainly to learn French. Apart from that, their home was
entirely Polish and no one would even think that Frédéric or his sister were
French rather than Polish. It was not at all an issue at the Chopins’ home.
Besides their surname, Nicholas Chopin’s children did not have anything French
in them. As for Frédéric, he was every inch a Polish child. Nothing would hurt
him more than to say that because of his French surname, he had no right to call
himself a Pole. He often complained that it gave many people, especially
foreigners, cause to regard him as a Frenchman.”
It must be remembered that it was at the time of partitions when Poland,
having lost independence at the end of the 18th century, attempted to
regain its statehood through various initiatives and uprisings. In 1794, towards
the end of the First Polish Republic, Frédéric’s father became involved in the
anti-Russian Ko¶ciuszko Uprising as a member of the national guard, which was the last attempt to save Polish
independence. More importantly, Nicholas Chopin did not want to serve in the
French revolutionary army, but volunteered for the Polish national guard.
Young Frédéric grew up in the Napoleonic period. The Poles pinned their hopes
of regaining statehood on Napoleon Bonaparte, they fought by his side against
Prussia and Russia. After the fall of Napoleon, the Kingdom of Poland, which
covered a very small area, was created at the Congress of Vienna. It was
dependent on Russia with the Russian tsar as its king. A fairly peaceful life at
the time of Alexander I turned into an ordeal during the reign of Nicholas I.
All this ended in the November Uprising in 1830, when Frédéric Chopin was
already out of Poland.
Frédéric was not only an observer and participant of these extremely
important events in the history of Poland. He also enjoyed encounters with both high and folk Polish culture. It is claimed that possibly in 1829 Chopin met Juliusz
S³owacki in Warsaw. Despite animosities between the artists, many people see a
marked similarity of these two figures.
According to Chopin’s biographers, the cultural community of Warsaw played a
major role in the formation of Frédéric’s artistic personality. The works of another, great Polish Romantic poet, Adam
Mickiewicz had a great influence on Chopin. Chopin’s Ballads were
particularly inspired by Mickiewicz’s Ballads.
According to Iwaszkiewicz, young Frédéric “went to markets and taverns, and
listened to sad songs by serfs – in order to later sing peasants’ unhappy fate
in his mazurkas and songs.” (...) “From his rambles he brought not only the
knowledge of the Polish landscape and Polish music, but also the knowledge of
the people, whom he could vividly and bluntly describe, and what is more,
mimic them in the funniest way in the whole world. Later in his life, his works would reflect a whole
series of motifs connected with the tragic events from the history of Poland as
well as a series of folk motifs. A
great Polish pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, in his speech from 1910 (the
quincentenary of the Battle of Grunwald), emphasised the significance of the
influence of folk culture on Chopin’s music: “Because Chopin beautified,
dignified everything. Deep in the Polish land he discovered the most precious
stones, and made them the most valuable jewels of our treasury. He was probably
the first to raise the Polish peasant to the nobility of the highest rank, the
nobility of beauty. He introduced our boy into a wide world, into a high
society, castle chambers glittering with splendour, he placed him beside a proud
voivode, he placed a rural shepherd boy beside a knight commander, he seated a
disinherited orphan beside a noble lady, he – a poet, magician, a great monarch
of spirit – made all classes equal, not here, on the lowlands of daily life, but
way up high on the highest peaks of emotion.”
Frédéric Chopin went abroad during the anti-Russian November Uprising.
When he was leaving the country on 2 November 1830, he said: “I feel sad. I
think I’m going there to die. How sad must be dying among strangers!” On 9 June 1831, while in Vienna, he
noted: “The papers and posters have already announced my concert to be staged in
two days, and it’s as if there was no such thing, so little do I care. I don’t
listen to the compliments, which seem more and more stupid – (...) I wish I were
dead – and yet I would like to see my parents again. (...) Everything I have
seen abroad so far seems to be old, unbearable and just makes me sigh for home,
for those blessed moments that I didn’t know how to value. What used to
seem great, today seems common; what I used to think common is now incomparable
– extraordinary – too great – too high.” On 8 September 1831, Chopin was in Stuttgart, where he
received the news about the fall of the November Uprising, which ended in Warsaw
being taken by the Russians. Because of this event, he composed Étude C minor,
also called the Revolutionary Étude. As
James Huneker wrote, “his letters bear witness to the anxiety he experienced and
the fear which seized him at the thought of his parents’ fate. He thought
hundreds of times of giving up his artistic dreams, rushing to the country and
fighting for his homeland. He did not do this, and his indecision – it was not
cowardice – worked to everybody’s advantage. Chopin poured his patriotism and
heroic spirit into «Polonaises». This is the only reason we have them and we are
glad that Chopin did not become a target for a Cossack. Incidentally, it is useful to cite a passage from the
memoirs of Frédéric, who suffered great anguish over the tragic lot of his home
country and family. It reads: “My poor father! – My dear old man may be hungry,
maybe he doesn’t have enough to buy bread for my mother. Perhaps my sisters have
succumbed to the ferocity of Muscovite soldiery let loose! Paszkiewicz, some dog
from Mohilov, holds the seat of the first monarchs of Europe?! A Russian, the
king of the world? Oh, Father, what a comfort for your old age! - Mother, poor,
suffering mother, you have outlived your daughter to see a Russian trampling on
her bones, and come to torment you.”
Frédéric Chopin’s later life was constant emigration, he settled in Paris.
Since autumn 1831, he lived in this city among a large number of Polish émigrés.
He himself was not considered as such because he had not participated in the
November Uprising, so to speak, by an accident. However, he joined various
Polish patriotic emigration associations. His earnings were growing, which
allowed him to support the Poles.
As noted before, Chopin’s works created in exile were steeped in images
brought from Poland (one of the most important compositions with a Polish theme
is the elegiac Polonaise). As Iwaszkiewicz wrote, “the memories of the
country, Warsaw, close people, the Polish countryside never faded in Frédéric’s
heart.” Polonaise A-flat major
evokes an image of this traditionally Polish dance. Chopin paints Polish landscapes in Nocturne G minor
(in memory of a visit to a friend, Tytus Wojciechowski, in the Lublin land
(Lubelszczyzna). Polish elements are
present in his mazurkas, etc. “The collection of Chopin’s mazurkas,”
Iwaszkiewicz observes, “is a mine of true masterpieces. In the fifty-odd short
piano works, the Polish musician put all the wealth of his soul, expressed his
closeness with the Polish people, and finally gave all the wealth and
sophistication of his mind, which is why we find in them an abundance of musical
ideas. In his mazurkas there are memories of all his rambles across Poland,
memories of the rural song and dance, which Chopin encountered on dirt roads.” Polish elements are also clearly visible
in Chopin’s improvisations. As James Huneker firmly states, “Frédéric was a Pole
in his music (...).” In one of the
letters to his friend, Tytus Wojciechowski, Chopin writes: “You know how I have
longed to feel our national music, and to some extent have succeeded in feeling
it...” Frédéric’s close relationship
with Poland is best illustrated by the fact that his heart was interred at the
Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. It
is also significant that “according to his wish, when Chopin’s body was laid
into the grave at the cemetery of Père Lachaise, a handful of Polish soil was
strewn onto his coffin, the same soil that he received from his friends twenty
years earlier in a silver goblet at a farewell feast in Warsaw.” On 25 October 1849, a great Polish
Romantic poet, an èmigrè like Chopin, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, wrote in the
“Obituary” (“Nekrolog”) published in “Dziennik Poznañski”: “A Varsovian by
birth, a Pole in his heart, and a citizen of the world by his talent, Frédéric
Chopin has departed this life.”
In our discussion of Frédéric Chopin’s nationality, much has been said about
his patriotic involvement. It should be added, however, that the works of this
great composer had an even greater effect on the Polish culture. In the Polish
cultural life, he has been always regarded as one of the greatest Poles. His
life and works were viewed in this way by other Polish composers as well as poets. We have referred to the
opinions of several Polish writers. It is also worthwhile to quote a poem by a
famous poet, Maria Konopnicka, written in 1909, on the 60th
anniversary of the artist’s death:
„How lonely is your tombstone!
On foreign soil it lies”
How sad it is
to rest there,
Not under your own skies.
A foreign wind is singing
foreign song for you,
Even the clouds are foreign,
So ist at dawn the
No Polish birch keeps vigil
Over your lonely grave,
Nor is there, t
A fir tree, tall and brave.
There is no weeping
To take you 'neath ist wing,
And songs you were once fond
For you at night to sing.
It's not our golden daybreak
That greers you, bright and gay,
our native sunshine
That burns for you each day.
Neither do shine in
Our stars for you at night,
Nor does our moon of silver
form you, round and bright.
Your mother did give you
Happiness at her home,
Over the world's far
She left her sons to roam.
They went abroad, her
Though they were loath to part,
Till one, back to his
Gave his poor, broken heart”.
(Translated by Adam Harasowski)
The author is Associate Professor
the Catholic University of Lublin
Head of Department of Political Systems
Translated by Marta Kubat
 cf.: K. Kobylañska, Chopin's
biography. Contemporary research and history, in: Studies in Chopin, edited by
Dariusz ¯ebrowski (Warsaw, 1973) 116 – 137.
 See: William G. Atwood, Fryderyk
Chopin. Pianist from Warsaw (New York, 1987) 253.
 H. Dobrzycki, Narodowo¶æ Chopina.
(Warsaw: Piotr Laskauer i S-ka, 1908) 3; cf.: Z. Je¿ewska, Chopin w kraju
rodzinnym (Warsaw: PTTK „Kraj”, 1985) 7.
 A. Hedley, Chopin (London, 1947), 2.
The deep relationship between Chopin and Polish culture is also mentioned by one
of the most famous biographers of the artist, Ferdynand Hoestick. F. Hoestick,
Chopin. ¯ycie i twórczo¶æ (vol. 1). Warszawa 1810 – 1831 (Kraków, 1967) 29.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin (Poznañ, 1949)
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 9; cf.: J.
Huneker, Chopin. Cz³owiek i artysta, trans. Jerzy Bandrowski, (Lwów – Poznañ:
Wydawnictwo Polskie, 1922) 4.
 A. Nowaczyñski, M³odo¶æ Chopina
(Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1948), 14 – 17; cf.: H. Dobrzycki. Narodowo¶æ Chopina,
 H. Dobrzycki, Narodowo¶æ
Chopina, 17 – 18.
 Chopin ¿ywy w swoich listach i oczach
wspó³czesnych, eds. A. Czartkowski, Z. Je¿ewska (Warsaw, 1958) 14 – 15.
 R. Petzoldt and Eduard Grass,
Fryderyk Chopin. Sein Leben in Bildern. Veb Verlag Enzyklopädie (Leipzig, 1963)
21; cf.: J. Huneker, op. cit., 2.
 B. E. Sydow, Nieznany list Miko³aja
Chopina, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, copy from “Kwartalnik Muzyczny” no
 W. and P. Rebberg, Frédéric Chopin.
Sein Leben und sein Werk (Zürich, 1949) 8 – 17.
 F. German, Chopin i literaci
warszawscy (Kraków, 1960) 11.
 See: Chopin w kraju.
Dokumenty i pami±tki, ed. K. Kobylañska (Kraków, 1955); cf.: F. German,
Chopin..., 11 – 14.
 A. Nowaczyñski, M³odo¶æ Chopina, 45
– 49; cf.: C. Bourniquel, Chopin, éditions du Seuil (Paris, 1960) 17 – 27.
 F. German, Chopin..., 136 –
 cf.: F. Hoestick, Chopin. ¯ycie i
twórczo¶æ, 69 – 151; T. Fr±czyk, Warszawa m³odo¶ci Chopina (Kraków: Polskie
Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1961) 358 – 383.
 F. Liszt, Fryderyk Szopen, trans.
F. Faleñski (Warsaw: Ksiêgarnia Gebethner i Wolf, 1873) 7 – 8. I. Be³za,
Fryderyk F. Chopin, trans. J. Ilnicka (Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX, 1980)
333 – 334; A. Harasowski, The skein of legends around Chopin (Glasgow 1967) 263;
cf.: F. Hoestick, Chopin. ¯ycie i twórczo¶æ, 386 – 387.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin,
 J. Huneker, op. cit., 7 –
 I. J. Paderewski, Piewca polskiego
narodu (1910), in: Kompozytorzy polscy o Fryderyku Chopinie. Antologia, ed.
Mieczys³aw Tomaszewski (Kraków, 1980) 97.
 F. Chopin, jego ¿ycie i dzie³a
pod³ug Karasowkiego, Liszta i innych, ed. A. Aleks (Warsaw: M. Arcta, 1910)
 Chopin ¿ywy..., 198 –
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 30;
cf.: J. Huneker, op. cit., 23. F. d'Eaubonne describes the attitude and works of
the artist in the following way: „Sous le coup de la douleur et de la révolte,
il se jette au piano, improvise comme s'il se tanchait les neines. Musique
suvage, furieuse, haletante et déchirée! Ce sera ce chef-d'œuvre: l'Etude en
ut mineur dite la Révolution”. F. d'Eaubonne, La vie de Chopin
(Paris, 1964) 53.
 J. Huneker, op. cit., 21.
 Chopin ¿ywy ...,
203. Walter and Paula Rebberg recount the story as follows: “Die Botschaft von
dem völligen Zusammenbruch des polnischen Freiheitskampfes mußte diesen zart
besaiteten und in seiner Abgeschossenheit veranlagungsgemäß den wildesten
Vorstelungen und Befürchtungen preisgegebenen Patrioten und liebenden Sohn,
Bruder und Freund aufs schwerste treffen. Wie einer, der am Rande der
Verzweiflung steht und keinen Ausweg mehr sieht, malte er sich in diesen Zeilen
die schreklisten der Möglichkeiten aus, haderte mit dem Schicksal, erflehte
Gottes Rache gegen die siegreichen Unterdrücker und zürnte den Franzosen, weil
sie das befreundete Polen im Stich gelassen”. W. and P. Rebberg, Frédéric
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 41;
cf.: L. Ostrzyñska, Wspomnienia o F. Chopinie i uczniu jego F. H. Péru (Warsaw:
Drukarnia “Reduta”, 1927) 5.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 63;
cf.: C. Bourniquel, Chopin, éditions du Seuil, 17 – 27.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 88;
cf.: F. Liszt, Fryderyk Szopen, 21.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 67 –
68. On Chopin’s friendship with Tytus Wojciechowski see also: F. d'Eaubonne, La
vie de Chopin, 37 – 40.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin,
 J. Huneker, op. cit., 17.
 J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 66.
On another occasion Chopin said to his friend: Because I’m happy especially
among my folks, I call Poles my folks (…). ibid., 70.
 J. Huneker, op. cit., 2.
 Fryderyk Chopin, jego ¿ycie i
dzie³a pod³ug Karasowkiego, Liszta i innych, op. cit., 35. Henryk Dobrzycki
claims that before Chopin died, he wanted to be buried in Poland. H. Dobrzycki,
Narodowo¶æ Chopina, 3.
 Z. Je¿ewska, Chopin w kraju
 K. Szymanowski, Fryderyk Chopin
(Warszawa: Biblioteka Polska, 1925); A. Harasowski, The skein of legends around
Chopin (Glasgow, 1967) 278 – 282. Ignacy Jan Paderewski wrote the following
about Chopin’s works: “It is a common belief that art is cosmopolitan. Just like
many popular beliefs, this one is also a preconception. Only what is created by
the human mind, only science can cross the borders of the home country. Art
(...), like everything that comes from the depths of the human soul, that arises
from a combination of emotion and mind (...) must bear a national stamp.” I. J.
Paderewski, Piewca polskiego narodu, 91.
 A. Harasowski, The skein of legends
around Chopin, 276 – 277.