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World View
prof. Mieczys³aw Ryba 12/01/2010

Frédéric Chopin – Polish composer and patriot

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.”[9]

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,[10] 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.[11]

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.[12]

Frédéric was not only an observer and participant of these extremely important events in the history of Poland.[13] He also enjoyed encounters with both high[14] and folk Polish culture.[15] 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.[16] According to Chopin’s biographers, the cultural community of Warsaw played a major role in the formation of Frédéric’s artistic personality.[17] 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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20] 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.”[21]

 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!”[22] 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.”[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.”[26]

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.[27]

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.”[28] Polonaise A-flat major evokes an image of this traditionally Polish dance.[29] Chopin paints Polish landscapes in Nocturne G minor (in memory of a visit to a friend, Tytus Wojciechowski, in the Lublin land (Lubelszczyzna).[30] 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.”[31] Polish elements are also clearly visible in Chopin’s improvisations. As James Huneker firmly states, “Frédéric was a Pole in his music (...).”[32] 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...”[33] 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.[34] 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.”[35] 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.”[36]

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[37] 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[38]:

„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
A foreign song for you,
Even the clouds are foreign,
So ist at dawn the dew.

No Polish birch keeps vigil
Over your lonely grave,
Nor is there, t whisper prayers,
A fir tree, tall and brave.
There is no weeping willow
To take you 'neath ist wing,
And songs you were once fond of,
For you at night to sing.

It's not our golden daybreak
That greers you, bright and gay,
It's not our native sunshine
That burns for you each day.
Neither do shine in haeven
Our stars for you at night,
Nor does our moon of silver
Shine form you, round and bright.

Your mother did give you
Happiness at her home,
Over the world's far crossroads
She left her sons to roam.
They went abroad, her children,
Though they were loath to part,
Till one, back to his mother
Gave his poor, broken heart”.

(Translated by Adam Harasowski)

Mieczys³aw Ryba
The author is Associate Professor
at the Catholic University of Lublin
Head of Department of Political Systems

Translated by Marta Kubat

[1] cf.: K. Kobylañska, Chopin's biography. Contemporary research and history, in: Studies in Chopin, edited by Dariusz ¯ebrowski (Warsaw, 1973) 116 – 137.

[2] See: William G. Atwood, Fryderyk Chopin. Pianist from Warsaw (New York, 1987) 253.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin (Poznañ, 1949) 8.

[6] J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 9; cf.: J. Huneker, Chopin. Cz³owiek i artysta, trans. Jerzy Bandrowski, (Lwów – Poznañ: Wydawnictwo Polskie, 1922) 4.

[7] A. Nowaczyñski, M³odo¶æ Chopina (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1948), 14 – 17; cf.: H. Dobrzycki. Narodowo¶æ Chopina, 8.

[8]  H. Dobrzycki, Narodowo¶æ Chopina, 17 – 18.

[9] Chopin ¿ywy w swoich listach i oczach wspó³czesnych, eds. A. Czartkowski, Z. Je¿ewska (Warsaw, 1958) 14 – 15.

[10] R. Petzoldt and Eduard Grass, Fryderyk Chopin. Sein Leben in Bildern. Veb Verlag Enzyklopädie (Leipzig, 1963) 21; cf.: J. Huneker, op. cit., 2.

[11] B. E. Sydow, Nieznany list Miko³aja Chopina, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, copy from “Kwartalnik Muzyczny” no 28/1949, 141.

[12] W. and P. Rebberg, Frédéric Chopin. Sein Leben und sein Werk (Zürich, 1949) 8 – 17.

[13]  F. German, Chopin i literaci warszawscy (Kraków, 1960) 11.

[14]  See: Chopin w kraju. Dokumenty i pami±tki, ed. K. Kobylañska (Kraków, 1955); cf.: F. German, Chopin..., 11 – 14.

[15] A. Nowaczyñski, M³odo¶æ Chopina, 45 – 49; cf.: C. Bourniquel, Chopin, éditions du Seuil (Paris, 1960) 17 – 27.

[16]  F. German, Chopin..., 136 – 137.

[17] cf.: F. Hoestick, Chopin. ¯ycie i twórczo¶æ, 69 – 151; T. Fr±czyk, Warszawa m³odo¶ci Chopina (Kraków: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1961) 358 – 383.

[18] 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.

[19]  J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 18.

[20]  J. Huneker, op. cit., 7 – 8.

[21] I. J. Paderewski, Piewca polskiego narodu (1910), in: Kompozytorzy polscy o Fryderyku Chopinie. Antologia, ed. Mieczys³aw Tomaszewski (Kraków, 1980) 97.

[22] F. Chopin, jego ¿ycie i dzie³a pod³ug Karasowkiego, Liszta i innych, ed. A. Aleks (Warsaw: M. Arcta, 1910) 13.

[23]  Chopin ¿ywy..., 198 – 199.

[24]  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.

[25]  J. Huneker, op. cit., 21.

[26]  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 Chopin, 124.

[27]  J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 41; cf.: L. Ostrzyñska, Wspomnienia o F. Chopinie i uczniu jego F. H. Péru (Warsaw: Drukarnia “Reduta”, 1927) 5.

[28]  J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 63; cf.: C. Bourniquel, Chopin, éditions du Seuil, 17 – 27.

[29]  J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 88; cf.: F. Liszt, Fryderyk Szopen, 21.

[30]  J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 67 – 68. On Chopin’s friendship with Tytus Wojciechowski see also: F. d'Eaubonne, La vie de Chopin, 37 – 40.

[31]  J. Iwaszkiewicz, Chopin, 85.

[32]  J. Huneker, op. cit., 17.

[33]  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.

[34]  J. Huneker, op. cit., 2.

[35] 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.

[36] Z. Je¿ewska, Chopin w kraju rodzinnym, 10.

[37] 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.

[38] A. Harasowski, The skein of legends around Chopin, 276 – 277.