The enthusiasts of Chopin’s noble-sounding music perfectly know this village. There is a birthplace of famous Polish composer whose music 167 years after his death still invokes emotions among listeners all over the world. The birth house of Frédéric Francois Chopin is a kind of mecca to all his admirers.
Last Wednesday we were driving a car to Żelazowa Wola, the mecca I am writing about. When we were leaving Warsaw, our home town, it was sunny and weather app showed this would be the only one rainless day that week. And unlike all forecasts rain caught us on highway, heavy rain and sky became overcast. We were upset since we were going to take pictures of the estate, a popular place of interest and all those clouds above didn`t seem to disappear soon. I recalled a field trip I was on as a young student, when we were travelling to see where our music genius was born. We treated all those school expeditions as boring experience but also as a chance to leave even more boring lessons behind. Now my son was travelling with me. It was midweek but he was on a sick leave however not so ill not to take a trip with me. When we got to Żelazowa Wola it became suddenly bright, rain started fading out and clouds broke. It was amazing. We could take photos and we also got bonus. There is free admission on Wednesdays.
The Poles used to call Chopin by Polish name: Fryderyk, we also recognize him as Polish. He was born in our country, he moved to Paris when he was 21 but for someone who died at the age of 39 Polish period of Chopin`s life was quite long. And his mother was Polish. Do you need more arguments to see one of the most famous artists was Polish by birth and heart?
The member of the late 19th/early 20th century modernist movement Young Poland Karol Szymanowski wrote “The ‘Polish character’ of Chopin’s work is unquestionable; not because he also wrote polonaises and mazurkas, which forms were often stuffed with alien ideological and literary contents from the outside. As an artist he looked for forms that stood apart from the literary-dramatic character of music which was a feature of Romanticism, as a Pole he reflected in his work the very essence of the tragic break in the history of the people and instinctively aspired to give the deepest expression of his nation. For he understood that he could invest his music with the most enduring and truly Polish qualities only by liberating art from the confines of dramatic and historical contents. This attitude toward the question of “national music” – an inspired solution to his art – was the reason why Chopin’s works have come to be understood everywhere outside of Poland. Therein lies the strange riddle of his eternal vigour”.
We were strolling in the park and listening to Chopin`s music. Sun was shining, it was drizzling as if we were at Hawaiian seaside having light tropical rain, we could hear very soft tunes and experienced rainbow. Do you need anything else to feel happiness in yourself?
French father insisted on the use of the Polish language in the household
Chopin`s date of birth is unclear. The parish baptismal record gives his birthday as February 22nd, 1810 however, the composer and his family used the birth date March 1st, which is now generally accepted as the correct date.
His Father, Nicholas, was a French émigré who was working as a bookkeeper when he met and married Tekla Justyna Krzyżanowska. Soon after Frédéric was born.
The future composer grew up in a middle-class family. The estate where he was born and where we eventually got to belonged to Count Skarbek where Fryderyk`s father was a tutor and mother was a poor relative of the Count, who gave them assistance. The Chopins actually lived in an annexe right next to the main house. When Fryderyk was seven months old, the family moved to Warsaw permanently.
Nicolas was devoted to his adopted homeland, and insisted on the use of the Polish language in the household.
Although Fryderyk Chopin lived in Żelazowa Wola for seven months the birthplace of renown worldwide as one of the leading musicians of his era became a “must-see” spot.
Enchanted audience and poetically expressive perfomances
His father’s employment exposed young Chopin to cultured Warsaw society, and his mother introduced him to music at an early age. By the age of 6, young Chopin was able to play piano and compose tunes. Recognizing his talent, his family engaged professional musician Wojciech Żywny for lessons and soon pupil surpassed teacher in both technique and imagination.
By 1818 Chopin was performing in exquisite salons and creating his own compositions, including the Polonaise in G Minor. By 1826 he had composed several piano pieces in different styles and his parents enrolled him at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, where he studied for three years in conducting under Polish composer, music teacher and theoretician Józef Elsner. Elsner was one of the first composers in Poland to weave elements of folk music into his works. And that was what Chopin adopted in his later works.
However, sensing he needed a broader musical experience, Chopin was eventually sent to Vienna, where he made his performance debut in 1829. Audience was enchanted with his highly technical yet poetically expressive performances. Over the next few years, Chopin performed in Poland, Germany, Austria and Paris, where he settled in 1832. There he quickly established relationships with other young composers, among them Franz Liszt, Vincenzo Bellini and Felix Mendelssohn.
Europe was Chopin’s world
Although in moments of anguish he seriously considered the possibility of emigrating to America, he remained in Paris for the rest of his life. Chopin’s art had its origins in Polish musical traditions but its roots went deeper, to the works of Europe’s greatest masters of past eras. He admired the genius of Bach and Mozart, appreciated and idolized the monumental works of Beethoven and Handel. In his teens Chopin developed a fascination for the virtuoso style called brillant, which reigned supreme in European piano playing at that time. The performances in Warsaw of the phenomenal Italian violinist Niccolò Paganini enchanted Chopin and inspired him to write his first etude cycle, which turned out to be a musical masterpiece. Also Chopin’s famous legato, a singing style of playing, had its roots in the Italian opera style of bel canto.
At the other end of the composer’s spectrum of interest was folk music, both Polish and European. As written above, it might be adopted from Józef Elsner, Chopin’s teacher. Fryderyk`s works, especially those based on dance forms, are widely known to convey his poetic interpretation of Polish popular music. Yet the “official” part of Chopin’s music also includes the Bolero, the Barcarolle and the Tarantella, which pieces show a similar source although with roots in Spain and Italy. Apart from his “official” output, we find evidence of Chopin being open and responsive to the original creativity of the people of both town and country. One is the composer’s mention of a Wallachian lullaby he had heard somewhere, and others are his written accounts of nocturnal music-making in the streets of Palma and of singing in the villages around Nohant, of the Spanish song evenings performed by Pauline Viardot and the evenings of Swedish songs sung softly by Jenny Lind.
Chopin in Paris
While in Paris, Chopin found his gentle style didn’t always enthrall the larger concert audience, who had been exposed to the works of Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven. A complete fortuitous introduction to the Rothschild family opened new doors and gave him new possibilities. Chopin soon found employment in the great parlors of Paris as both recitalist and teacher. His increased income allowed him to live well and compose such pieces as Nocturnes of Opp. 9 and 15, the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31 and the Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35.
The composer was open to the enormous wealth of experiences offered by the surrounding world. In Paris, the capital of that world, Chopin rubbed shoulders with outstanding representatives of various nations. He lived through the emergence and clashing of the various trends which influenced historical developments in France and elsewhere. He admired the works of the doyens of literature, he was a keen opera- and theatre-goer and mixed well in society. Chopin took a detached view of the political and social scene and summed up current developments wittily and accurately. Paris was like a mirror reflecting life in the Europe of his days but Chopin also had many opportunities to have a close look at that life during his foreign travels, because, despite his poor health and frequent complaints about the inconvenience of long journeys, he travelled a lot in his short life.
The biggest love story of the Romantic era broken by death disease
Though Chopin had had youthful love affairs and was at one time engaged, none of his relationships lasted more than a year. In 1838 he began a love affair with French novelist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, AKA, George Sand. The couple spent a harsh winter on the island of Majorca, south of France, where Chopin became ill. In March 1839, Sand realized that Chopin needed medical attention and took him to Marseille, where he was diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis).
After a period of recuperation in Marseille, in May 1839 Chopin and Sand settled south of Paris in Nohant, Sand’s country house. The next seven years proved to be the happiest and most productive period of Chopin’s life. He steadily composed a series of masterpieces, including the Sonata in B Minor, the Opus 55 Nocturnes and the Opus 56 Mazurkas. The growing demand for his new works and his greater understanding of the publishing business also brought increased income and provided Chopin an elegant lifestyle.
In the fifty years after the composer’s death many eulogies were uttered and written about him. His works were published and played across Europe. In the early 20th century famous Polish pianist, composer and politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski took his music to the western hemisphere, thus beginning its triumphant march through the continents. Soon afterwards the most celebrated pianists went all over the globe to give concerts. Record companies were quick to move in, recording the finest performances on discs and releasing them in great numbers. The International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw deserves a mention, too. During its impressive history it has discovered and promoted many excellent Chopin performers, and as a regular event, it attracted more and more participants from a growing number of countries. In the 20th century thousands of publishers revived Chopin’s work and countless biographies were published in many, even most unexpected languages. The Chopin myth inspired literary works, paintings, films and plays. Posthumously he is loved by millions of people all over the world. And his surname, his works, his music, his genius are the best Poland`s showcase abroad. The great composer`s popularity has made The Birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin and Park in Żelazowa Wola been visited continuously for decades by his music admirers from all around the world.
The idea of creating a Chopin museum in Żelazowa Wola arose in the late 19th century, but it was only implemented in the 1930s. At that time, the Chopin annexe was thoroughly renovated and a columned porch was added, lending the building the character of a noble manor house. At the same time, work began on arranging the interiors. The inauguration of the new museum was prevented by the outbreak of war, in 1939. The museum was not officially opened until 1949, on the centenary of Fryderyk Chopin’s death.
The first display was produced in the spirit of a Polish manor house. The second was prepared in 2010 for the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth. That was marked by simplicity and a sparing style. Many exhibits were removed, and a narrative (audio guide) leading the visitor around the memorial park and the interior of the house became a crucial element of the display. That narrative was based on the results of source research into the history of Chopin’s birthplace, which was carried out on a wide scale prior to Chopin Year (2010).
Fryderyk Chopin died October 17th, 1849. The last will of famous composer was to take his heart posthumously to Warsaw. His sister Ludwika did it and now it rests at the Church of the Holy Cross (Kościół św. Krzyża). When you are at the church, you can visit Ostrogski Palace which is nearby and where is The Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw.
When we were leaving the park we were passed by a group of grammar school pupils. Their teacher was telling them about Fryderyk Chopin, of course and I brought back on my mind this forgotten image of me standing there as a little girl listening to a teacher or rather to my peers. And I had one thought: we are lucky we live so close to the birthplace of one of the leading musicians of his era and still renown worldwide one. The Japanese who love Chopin`s music have to travel thousand miles to touch his ground and that makes them always happy. I might have this thought because I am grown up and eventually can appreciate what is really important in the world and life. If you can also do this, I think you should take a trip and go there. It`s worth visiting.
See you here!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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