Welcome to the inaugural installment of the new Sunday Arts series, which I previewed in a recent post. It seemed appropriate to me to devote the first post in this series to my favorite composer, Frédéric Chopin, and to my favorite of all of Chopin’s compositions, his Polonaise in A-Flat Major (Opus 53), written in 1842. It is a great piece of music, and it is also a piece of music with a distinctive connection to the composer’s personal history.
Chopin’s father, Nicolas Chopin, was born in France, but spent almost his entire adult life in Poland. (Indeed, as a young man, Nicolas adopted the Polish version of his given name, Mikołaj, by which he was known the rest of his life.) Chopin himself, on the other hand, was born in Poland, but spent almost his entire adult life in France. Chopin is even buried in Paris, at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Chopin’s heart, however, is not in the grave in Paris. His heart is buried in Warsaw. Indeed, it could be said — figuratively speaking, of course — that throughout his life, even during his many years in France, his heart never left Poland.
Chopin is one of the great composers of the Romantic period. There are those whisperers, though, who question whether Chopin belongs in the top ranks of classical music composers. After all, Chopin wrote no symphonies or operas. He wrote no oratorios or masses. The vast majority of his music was written for solo piano, in a variety of intricate, specialized forms, such as the étude, scherzo, ballade, sonata, and mazurka. He has been derided as a “salon composer” of “charming miniatures.”
The specialized aspect of his work has, as the late University of Chicago musicologist Charles Rosen put it in his book The Classical Style, drawn disparaging comments about Chopin’s “deficiencies with large forms.” Rosen himself refutes this criticism, observing that “The greater the composer, the larger the terms of his control over the significance of his ideas, even when the range of his conception is deliberately narrowed; this is why Chopin must be considered in the company of the greatest in spite of the limitations of genre and medium that he imposed on himself.”
Rosen’s assessment of Chopin’s music is couched in academic terms. The assessment of the German writer and critic Heinrich Heine was more straightforward. Heine was, in the 1830s, living in Paris after being banished from Germany and slowly dying of the syphilis that would eventually kill him. Heine is known for his often arch and sarcastic tone. (His two-sentence put-down of another Parisian pianist who was highly regarded at the time cannot be improved: “He has been dead for years. Also, he recently married.”) Heine’s words about Chopin stand in sharp contrast to his harsh criticism of Paris’s other pianists and composers. He called Chopin the “Raphael of the piano,” adding that “Chopin is the great and genial poet of sweet sound, who should only be named with Mozart, Beethoven, or Rossini.”
There are several musical genres of which Chopin must be considered one of the masters. For example, one genre his music dominates is the nocturne, a musical form first introduced by the Irish composer and contemporary of Chopin, John Field. Chopin came to be known as the “most formidable exponent” of the form, a development that caused considerable tension between Chopin and Field, as Field viewed Chopin as something of a usurper. On the other hand, as Alan Walker wrote in his recent biography of Chopin, A Life and Times: Fryderyk Chopin, “nothing can take away form Chopin the fact that he infused Field’s invention with his own genius, transforming the nocturne into one of the major genres of the Romantic era.”
Another genre of which Chopin was the master was the polonaise. A polonaise is a dance of Polish origin, with distinctive rhythms. It is often referred to as the Polish national dance. As a reflection of the nostalgia and longing he felt for his home country, Chopin made the form his own. His first published work, written when he was only eight years old, was a polonaise.
Among the most famous of all of his works is his Polonaise in A-Flat Major, about which Walker wrote in his Chopin biography, “Of all of his works, this is the one in which the flame of patriotism burns most brightly,” adding that “A later generation bestowed on it the subtitle ‘the Heroic,’ for pageantry and heraldry are imprinted on every page.” It may well be this composition that Robert Schumann had in mind when he described Chopin’s music as “cannons buried in flowers.”
The A-Flat Major Polonaise clearly demonstrates how deeply Chopin’s heart remained in Poland throughout the time he was in France. Which brings me to the present resting place of Chopin’s heart.
Chopin died of tuberculosis, after a lifetime of illness, in Paris, in October 1849. Among those with him when he died was his sister Ludwika. It is believed that during his final illness he asked his sister to return his heart to Warsaw. Sometime in 1850, she managed to transport Chopin’s heart to Poland, reportedly hiding the container holding the heart — according to legend, a jar of cognac — in her skirt. Poland was at the time occupied by Tsarist troops and considered by the Russians to be part of their empire, while Chopin was regarded in Poland as a nationalist hero; his sister hid the heart to avoid possible confiscation by the Russian authorities.
Chopin’s heart was buried in a pillar in the Holy Cross Church (Kosciol Swietego Krzyza) in Warsaw. As Walker recounts in the Chopin biography, during World War II, and with much of Warsaw facing destruction in retaliation for September Rising of 1944, the heart was taken for safe keeping by a music- loving German officer. (The officer was in fact the German officer who was responsible for the city’s destruction).
As part of the national solemnities when the heart was returned to the Holy Cross Church in October 1945, the music that was performed included the A-Flat Major Polonaise, a fitting tribute to a man whose heart was always in Poland.
If you have never heard the A-Flat Major Polonaise, I hope you will now take a few minutes and listen to it. It is both one of the most stirring and most textured pieces of music you will ever hear. Even if you are familiar with the piece, I encourage you to take a few minutes and listen to it again now. As Walker observes, “The A-flat Major Polonaise fulfills one of the basic requirements by which a masterpiece may be defined: it cannot be consumed through use. Each time it is played it invites further repetition. Here, if anywhere it is possible to say Vox populi, vox Dei.”
I have linked below to a video of a performance of the piece by Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, which I selected to accompany this post after a long search on YouTube trying to find the performance that I think best captures the spirit of the piece. (Cho was the winner of the 2015 International Chopin Piano Competition.)