Chapter One: In a Word, Poland ONE In a Word, Poland
All the contemporary assaults upon society date from the partition of Poland. The partition of Poland is a theorem of which all the present political crimes are corollaries.… When you examine the list of modern treasons, that appears first of all.”
VICTOR HUGO, Les Miserables
One morning in 2010, the official “Year of Chopin,” a young Polish entrepreneur woke up with an idea that was crazy but wonderful: Frédéric Chopin could return from the grave and save the world from itself. As a creator of video games he had all the tools to make it happen, and that day Zbigniew Debicki, known as Zibi to friends, put his team to work. Artists and animators worked with writers and programmers to develop a storyline and graphic landscape. Musicians selected, then remixed, a dozen compositions—polonaises, nocturnes, mazurkas, waltzes, études, songs—into mashups with contemporary formats: reggae, rap, country, rock, and chiptune, a form of synthesized electronic music. The game opens with an animation in black-and-white as Chopin, dressed in tailcoat and cravat, awakens in his grave at Père Lachaise. Moments later the graphics turn to color as the confused composer passes through the cemetery gates into noisy, twenty-first-century Paris, where he is greeted by three Muses. They present him with special artifacts, including his own grand piano (now pocket-size) and a magical horse-drawn carriage that will take him home to Poland. This is the game’s ultimate goal, for while Chopin’s body was buried in Paris, his heart was removed after he died in 1849 and smuggled by his sister across a heavily guarded border into Warsaw, where it was eventually interred in the pillar of a Catholic church.
The title of Zibi’s game is Frederic: The Resurrection of Music
, and its premise is that the world has lost its collective soul, thanks to the greed and creative bankruptcy of modern content creators for whom music is just one bullet point in a marketing strategy designed to craft brand image and sell product. We are all surrounded by this soulless stuff, and only one man can save us. The gamer’s task is to escape the mind-numbing stereotypes of contemporary commercial music; Chopin’s is to finally return to his homeland. Along the way the two of you must engage in a series of musical duels against all manner of opponents, from a Jamaican Rasta man to a New York City gangbanger, until finally you come face-to-face with Mastermind X, the evil worldwide producer who owns every musician and cares only about money and power. The funeral march from Opus 35 appears in a country-western-techno remix when Chopin finds himself in a deserted cowboy town, forced to duel with the local sheriff at high noon.
The game’s interface is a piano keyboard, and during each battle musical notes fly fast and furious toward the gamer, whose job is to hit them with the cursor as they land on the keyboard, thereby gaining points. It’s clear that whoever designed this game was a pianist, because basic keyboard technique—skills I learned once I had mastered scales and arpeggios—serve the player well by netting higher points. The more musical you are, it turns out, the better you will perform against the bad guys. For example: if you hit a flying note in just the right spot on the key, which on a real piano would elicit a highly coveted rich, singing tone, you’ll get a 10 instead of a 7. Artfully sliding your finger from one key to another—a technique scholars cite as one of Chopin’s keyboard innovations—gains even more points. The Help
section includes a tip that will resonate with any musician, reminding us that “the key to success is not faith in your eyes but your ears
.” If I had a dotted quarter note for every time my teacher told me to make better use of my ears at the keyboard, I could write a symphony.…
The gamer’s keyboard in Frederic: The Resurrection of Music
is one of a handful of Chopin video games available today on multiple platforms, from Nintendo to iPhone, but it’s the only one that puts music at the center of play. And it’s not just about melodies and techniques; it’s also ideas
that animate the experience, beginning with Chopin’s painful self-exile from his homeland, a theme that’s introduced in the opening moments back in Père Lachaise. Thinking there were worse (or certainly more predictable) ways of exploring Chopin’s Polish roots, I emailed Zibi to see if he would speak with me. Most of all I wanted to know why, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a young software developer would choose Frédéric Chopin, of all people, as an international superhero. Frederic
is hard to master if you’re over fifteen, but it’s strangely addictive, and because I wanted to find out what happens in the end, I was highly motivated to complete all the duels. Chopin does make it home to Poland, but there’s an interesting twist that Zibi explained to me via Skype from his home in Gdansk. “First,” he promised, “you will fail against Mastermind X in the final duel. Every player does, it’s built into the game.” Your loss creates a sense of doom and unhappiness; meanwhile, Mastermind X revels in triumph, brandishing his contracts. But then the Muses return and tell you that this time
you must play the music that comes from your own heart. Finally, in one last duel, you and Frederic defeat Mastermind X. He gives back the contracts, frees the musicians, and disappears forever. The art of soulful music has been saved, and Chopin is home at last.
These themes of homelessness, yearning, and redemption through music are among the key threads in the story of Chopin, and since his death have formed the basis of his long, enduring cultural legacy. His music and
his life, Zibi told me, “tell a very hard story about my country,” one that continues to resonate today in powerful ways. What’s unusual about Frederic
the video game is the way the designers chose to represent Chopin: not as the weak, sickly, tragic figure that has become a common trope but as a clever superman with nimble strength, artistic independence, and vanquishing power. “It’s crazy, I know,” Zibi kept saying during our conversation, the idea that Chopin is a musical zombie and my iPad a magical piano. But what better way to bust up the musical and cultural stereotypes of our times than by reanimating old forms and creating unexpected surprises? After all, that’s what Chopin himself did.
The “very hard story” of Poland is often told through music, a tradition that predates Chopin by many centuries. You can experience it for yourself any day in Kraków’s main market square, where, if you hang around for at least an hour, you’ll hear a trumpet call sounding from the top of the fourteenth-century St. Mary’s Basilica. Actually, you’ll hear it four times: a plaintive melody that ends as abruptly as it begins, mid-note. Look up at the tower and you’ll see the bell of a trumpet emerging, first from a window facing west, toward Wawel Castle in honor of Poland’s kings and heroes, and then three more times as the trumpeter makes his way around the points of the compass. Down below, tourists flock with cell phones and wave to the tower. Usually the trumpeter—a member of Kraków’s fire brigade in dress uniform—waves back. The call is made every hour on the hour, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The melody the bugler plays is known as the Hejnal Mariacki
; it consists of just thirty-three notes, but it’s never played through to the end; the final cadence is always cut off in a sharp, unmelodious way. The reason for the broken note dates to a legend from the thirteenth century, when the cupola of St. Mary’s was a watchtower manned around the clock by a guardian with a bugle. Every morning he woke the residents of Kraków with his call; throughout the day he alerted them to the opening and closing of the city’s gates, signaling the arrival of an important visitor, and his job was also to warn the community of fire and foreign invasion. In 1241
an army of Mongol warriors known as “the scourge of God” rode from the steppes of Central Asia into modern-day Poland, where they razed village after village, killing all or most of the inhabitants. Before they reached the gates of Kraków, so the legend goes, the bugler atop St. Mary’s sounded the alert, blowing his horn until an enemy arrow pierced him through the throat and stopped his call mid-note. His warning allowed many of the town burghers to escape without harm, and in tribute to the fallen musician the survivors endowed a city fund to pay a trumpeter full-time.
The first mention of an hourly bugle call comes from the mid-fifteenth century, and the playing of the Hejnal
with the broken note has endured since sometime in the seventeenth. In 1927 Polish Radio began broadcasting the noon call and claims it to be “
the longest running serial broadcast on Earth,” one that sounded through the years of Nazi occupation in World War II, the fall of Communism under the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, and the rise of a new right-wing party, Law and Justice, that assumed power in 2015. It is still, as historian Norman Davies observed, a reminder to millions of listeners “both of the ancient pedigree of Polish culture and of Poland’s exposed location… one of the few active mementoes of Genghis Khan, and
the irruption of his horsemen into the heart of Europe.”
The story of Poland, poignantly and symbolically preserved in the lacerated tune of the Hejnal Mariacki
, is animated by a paradox: the juxtaposition of enlightened ideals against violence, subjugation, and oppression. “
This country,” Davies wrote in his two-volume national history, “seems to be inseparable from the catastrophes and crises on which, paradoxically, it thrives. Poland is permanently on the brink of collapse. But somehow, Poland has never failed to revive… and to flourish.” His observation frames a story of some seven centuries of invasion, occupation, and partition that begins in the thirteenth century when the Golden Horde descended from the east. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Poles were repeatedly attacked by Crimean Tatars and Teutonic knights; the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought the subduing armies of Russia, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire. But in the eighteenth century a fresh threat emerged that would prove far more devastating—and enduring—than any barbarian horde: its own neighbors. In 1772 a troika of new power in Europe set its sights on Poland and carved the country into three parts to be shared among them. Over the next two decades this coalition of Russia, Austria, and Prussia (roughly today’s Germany) executed two further partitions, varying the configuration of borders until finally, in 1795, Poland was literally erased from the map and its name banned from official use. This condition of statelessness lasted for the greater part of its modern history, until 1918, when the establishment of a “New Poland” became one of president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in peace negotiations to end World War I. Then, with a stroke of a pen, the country finally resumed its place on the map of Europe. Davies observes that while other nations—he cites India, America, and Africa—during this period were attacked, occupied, pillaged, or stripped of territorial possessions by foreign entities, the Polish partitions were different and without precedent in modern history. Poland was “
annihilated… in cold blood,” he writes, “the victim of political vivisection—by mutilation, amputation, and in the end total dismemberment.” In 1793 Irish statesman Edmund Burke reflected what many in the capitals of Britain, Europe, and America took to be Poland’s political reality when he said: “
With respect to us, Poland might be… considered a country on the moon.”
There is, however, another side to the story of victimhood that came to be known as “captive Poland,” one that tapped into a larger narrative that had taken hold in the early nineteenth century. Even as it was under constant attack by foreign enemies, as far back as the sixteenth century Poland practiced a kind of liberal humanism that even today seems fragile around the world. The idea of a parliament, an assembly of members drawn from the community, took root there in 1454; a century later, religious freedom was engraved into the Confederation of Warsaw. “
We swear to each other,” the document reads, “that we who differ in matters of religion will keep the peace among ourselves, and neither shed blood on account of differences of Faith, or kinds of church, nor punish one another by confiscation of goods, deprivation of honor, imprisonment, exile.” The nobility elected
its kings in an elaborate ceremony that took place on horseback in a meadow. They retained for themselves the right to control military finances and declarations of war and taxation, and all it took was one member’s vote to overrule any decision made by the king. Baked into the political consciousness of Poland’s “Noble Democracy” was the right of citizens—noble
ones, that is—to resist. It was in Poland in May 1791 that the first constitution in Europe was written and adopted; this is astonishing because at the time its people lived in a fractured country carved up by a “
Satanic Trinity” of foreign autocrats. Even then, stateless and oppressed, the Poles produced a document that poet Czeslaw Milosz called a “landmark [on] the road to a new type of democracy.” It guaranteed freedom of the press, religious tolerance, personal liberty, and, perhaps most important of all, the right of peasants to acquire land. What Milosz describes as Poland’s “
abnormal” history gave rise to an idealistic notion of citizenship and individual freedom—values that put many Poles in sympathy with the French in the years following their revolution. It was precisely those values that posed an unacceptable threat to the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and Romanovs who had claimed Poland’s lands for their collective empires. It was only four years after Poland adopted its unprecedented, progressive, enlightened constitution that the final partition of 1795 wiped the country off the map of Europe. No longer a nation, Davies writes, “
Poland was now an Idea.”
For the generation that followed, which included Chopin and his equally famous compatriot, the poet Adam Mickiewicz, the Romantic ideal of the homeland developed from all this violence and loss. It’s so ingrained in the Polish character that the country’s own national anthem, composed two years after the final partition, begins with the lines “Poland has not yet perished, as long as we live.” This strange, oddly disheartening amalgam of verb tenses suggests that patriotism is a perpetual fight to a death that never quite arrives. For Mickiewicz, these words signify that “
people who have in them what indeed constitutes nationality are able to extend the existence of their nation regardless of the political circumstances of that existence, and may even pursue its re-creation.” What he meant is that even if their country was controlled by foreign invaders, as so often was the case, the idea
of Poland constituted the nation itself in the hearts of its own people, and that idea could live on, no matter what. When a friend of Chopin’s wrote that “
through his music he imparted Poland; he composed Poland,” this is what, I believe, he was expressing: that Chopin’s music manifested the juxtaposition of tragedy and hope that both define and animate the history and spirit of the Polish people. What’s extraordinary is how enduring this legacy turned out to be.
The decisive moment in Chopin’s story, and that of Poland during the first half of the nineteenth century, came in 1830, when he was twenty years old and a spark of independence flew in Warsaw. The year before, Nicholas I of Russia had crowned himself King of Poland, disregarding the national constitution and parliament. The czar’s brother and factotum, Grand Duke Constantine, unleashed his secret police, abolished press freedoms, imposed taxes, closed Vilnius University, and deported Mickiewicz, the country’s most famous poet. The final insult was a Russian scheme to use Poland’s army against the people of France to suppress their July Revolution, which deposed the last Bourbon monarch and put Louis Philippe—the “citizen king”—on the throne. On November 29, 1830, a cadet at the Warsaw officers’ school led a group of co-conspirators in an attack on Constantine’s palace. The grand duke managed to escape (
according to one historian he scurried off in women’s clothing), but the failed rebellion launched six months of unrest and turmoil.
Chopin had left Warsaw three weeks before the November Uprising for a European sojourn of music and adventure, traveling through Dresden, Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich, going to the opera and immersing himself in the local musical life. It being his first long-term trip abroad, a group of friends sent him off with a silver cup filled with earth they had collected in Zelazowa Wola, the small town where Chopin was born, thus allowing him to carry a bit of the beloved homeland away with him on his travels. When the uprising began, Chopin’s friends rushed home to join the fight, but insisted he remain in exile and use his music to give voice to Poland’s struggle. Traveling the Continent, keeping in touch with friends and family through a regular stream of letters, he went to parties, dinners, plays, and operas. Then, as he wrote to a friend, he would return home around midnight, sit down, “
play the piano, have a good cry, read, look at things, have a laugh, get into bed, blow out my candle and always dream about you all.”
The November Uprising lasted less than a year, and in September 1831 the Russians brought the hammer down in Warsaw. From Stuttgart Chopin learned there was hand-to-hand fighting in the streets, including in the cemetery where his younger sister Emilia had been buried after suffering a massive tubercular hemorrhage at age fourteen. Being separated from his family was, for Chopin, a type of death. Only a month after he left home, he described himself as “a corpse” and began using the metaphor of the crypt to convey his melancholia. “
Graves behind me and beneath me, everywhere,” he wrote to a friend; “a gloomy harmony arose within me.” In Stuttgart, his separation anxiety developed into a morbid, fantastical obsession with death. He imagined his family butchered, the woman he loved
in the hands of the Muscovites… “seizing her, strangling her, murdering, killing.” In his notebook Chopin wondered: “is a corpse any worse than I? A corpse… knows nothing of father, mother or sisters… it cannot speak its own language to those around it.” He was voiceless, homeless, and alone, “
beyond ten frontiers” from friends and family, and to make matters worse his passport had expired and there was no safe way back to Poland. Stuttgart was an abyss; “
I pour out my grief on the piano,” he confided to his diary. It was during this time, as he faced his first Christmas alone, that he likely began composing the harrowing B-minor Scherzo op. 20, a work that begins with a piercing cry at the top of the keyboard followed by an anguished growl at the bottom. It then proceeds on a frenzied, anxious journey until suddenly, and surprisingly, the music devolves into a melody known and loved by all Poles, the Christmas carol “Lulajze Jezuniu
” (“Hush Little Jesus”), only to be rudely interrupted again by the tonal lacerations that began the piece. The scherzo concludes with the repetition, nine times in a row, of a single dissonant chord, a piece of musical language that always elicits in me the same tragic pain I experience when King Lear exclaims, over and over, the word Howl!
after discovering the hanged body of Cordelia.
This early work contains Chopin’s musical signature: a collision of worlds fueled by the polar opposites of mood, tempo, melody, and emotional shadowing he would later deploy with such power in the funeral march of Opus 35. During this period he experimented in many genres, taking, for example, the mazurka, a lively, traditional Polish national dance, and reimagining it with startling rhythms and chromatically induced inner conflict. Leonard Bernstein loved these pieces, especially the op. 17, no. 4 Mazurka in A minor, because Chopin put him in “
a bliss of ambiguities.” In études, short practice pieces traditionally designed to explore different aspects of performance technique, Chopin experimented with tones, harmonies, and syncopations that would, a century later, become standard features of modern jazz. He also took a salon genre, the nocturne, and repurposed it. An early example is the otherworldly op. 15, no. 3 in G minor, composed in the early years of the 1830s. It begins in one style, that of another Polish folk dance, the kujawiak, and then, after passing through a dark, sometimes jagged melody, he pauses, almost like a novelist reaching a chapter break, and changes the voice of the piece entirely, moving into a chorale, a form of plainchant one might hear in a church service. Then, before sending it off to his publisher, he slapped onto this strange-sounding work the label “Nocturne,” a brand-new genre pioneered by an English composer, John Field, which Chopin undertook to reinvent in his own voice and style.
These were startling creations, works that threw listeners into an unfamiliar musical landscape.
For scholar Jim Samson it was this sojourn, far from home and with news trickling in week by week of the worsening situation in Poland, that saw Chopin’s now unmistakable tone journey from a post-Classical to a Romantic idiom. Responding to the turmoil at home, he “renovated” the old forms, mixing styles and bending genres, using a new kind of musical language to disrupt a listener’s expectations and tell a different kind of story. Exiled from his homeland, wandering through Europe trying to decide where to settle, Chopin began developing the voice that would come to define his music deep into the future. He arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1831, just weeks after the uprising had been brutally put down, and virtually overnight became the poetic embodiment of “captive Poland.” It would be just a few years later when the story of the failed revolution and Chopin’s poignant separation from family and friends crept into his writing and, without his planning it, formed the basis of what would become his most famous composition. For not only is a love of homeland deeply embedded in the funeral march; it’s where it all started.
The earliest clue in the composition story of Opus 35 turns up in an unlikely place: an auction house on Madison Avenue in New York City. It was a Tuesday in March 1969 when the Parke-Bernet Galleries held a sale of “
Important Autographs and Manuscripts” that was noteworthy for its scope and variety: rare original documents spanning three centuries, authored by notable figures in politics, science, and the arts. Just a partial list includes Alexander Hamilton, Napoleon Bonaparte, Clarence Darrow, Henry David Thoreau, Queen Victoria, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, John James Audubon, the abolitionist John Brown, items from twenty-three American presidents (including a letter from Thomas Jefferson stating “I am out of wine”), and a handwritten manuscript by John Steinbeck. Also included was a musical fragment in the hand of Frédéric Chopin, a manuscript consisting of just eight measures with no title except the notation Lento cantabile
: an instruction to the performer to play slowly, in a singing style. (The word comes from the Italian verb cantare
, to sing.) It’s the melody of the Trio
, the major-key lullaby that breaks up the two statements of the minor-key march—the music that so startled me when I first heard it in the Polish Consulate. This is the sweet, nocturne-like tune that invites you to forget, at least for a moment, the heavy, violent dirge that precedes and follows it.
Little is known about the Parke-Bernet fragment, which immediately disappeared into private hands after being
acquired at the auction for $1,500, but the best guess of scholars is that Chopin inscribed the music into someone’s autograph album. These were popular in the nineteenth century: large, blank books bound in leather that friends (and the occasional celebrity) would “autograph” with a poem, drawing, musical sketch, or personal greeting. Some of these albums apparently had pages with music staves that made it easy to dash off short compositions, and Chopin was known to have inscribed his music into the albums of friends and admirers. Once, for fellow composer Ignaz Moscheles, he wrote out eight measures from the celebrated refrain of the 17th Prelude from op. 28, popularly known as “Castle Clock” for the
low A flat that is intoned eleven times in a row, like a tolling bell. There’s something touching in this gesture: one great musician copying a famous lick for another. In the case of the Lento cantabile
fragment there’s an intriguing clue about Chopin’s intentions, and reason to believe he attached great sentimental value to that lovely, portentous melody. It’s right there in the date near his signature, November 27: the eve of the 1838 November Uprising in Warsaw six years earlier. Lento cantabile
No one knows who the recipient of the Trio
fragment was, but given the anniversary it seems likely it was a fellow Pole living in exile in Paris, part of “the Great Migration” from postrevolutionary Poland. What’s poignant about the discovery of the fragment is it suggests that the roots of Chopin’s funeral march—one of the saddest pieces of music ever written—were put down in the soil of patriotism and hope, not death and loss. He built the minor-key march around this beautiful, major-key melody; it was the seed from which the larger composition grew. Yet all this is lost in the austere ceremonies and pop culture vignettes where the march is so frequently evoked and riffed on, because when we hear those iconic bass chords tolling a new death—be it of Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, or Sylvester the Cat—we are hearing only the half of it, the part Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein famously described as “
night winds sweeping over churchyard graves.” Outside of the concert hall where the entire work—both statements of the funeral march bracketing the Trio
—is played as written, most of us never knew there was another, juxtaposing reality embedded in Chopin’s contemplation of death. Like so much about the story of the man himself, his most famous melody became a stereotype of sorrow, tragedy, illness, and death, abrogated in the public sphere so it could serve a heroic purpose that, as we’ll see, Chopin never intended for it.
Love of country may have been inscribed into the original melody of the Trio
, but there was another ache in Chopin’s heart at the time he composed these lines: rejection by his sweetheart, Maria Wodzinska. She was seventeen when he (then twenty-six) proposed marriage, after they had spent much of the summer of 1836 together. By this time Chopin was a famous musician, but rumors of his ill health had circulated widely. Maria’s mother, the Countess Teresa, seems to have been torn between these two realities. Frédéric’s celebrity was attractive to her for many reasons, not the least of which was his access to more
celebrities. In 1835 she wrote to him: “
Forgive me, dear Mr. Fryderyk, if I ask you to obtain for me a collection of the autographs of the famous people among whom (quite rightly!) you live: Poles, Frenchmen, Germans, etc.—it’s all the same to me—even a bearded Jew, such as we see at home, provided that he is worthy of it. I shall be immensely grateful.” Whether Chopin complied is unknown, but in the end Maria’s parents settled on a slow form of torture for the poor man. Nervous about their daughter’s future happiness, they sat on his marriage proposal and prevented Maria from replying. Chopin, trying to make the best of it, joked in a letter to a friend that Maria’s father, after all, considered him just “a street musician.” He returned to Paris to wait, but the silence was agonizing. The following summer, with still no reply to his proposal, he made a trip to London, hoping a change of scenery would ease his mind. In salons he kept a low profile, going around town under cover as “Mr. Fritz,” but the moment he sat down at a piano everyone knew who it was. Just before his return to Paris in July 1837 he had his answer: Maria declined. Chopin gathered together all her letters, placed them in an envelope, scrawled across it “My Sorrow,” and secreted the package in his apartment, where it was discovered after his death. It was just a few months after he received Maria’s breezy, final epistle (“
Goodbye, remember us”) that Chopin, recovering from a broken heart and with the anniversary of Poland’s political upheaval in mind, copied out the melody for the Trio
The literature about Maria Wodzinska is thin, and it’s hard to get a real sense of her. She was not without talent, both as an amateur pianist and artist (she painted one of the surviving and most evocative portraits of Chopin), but history has not been kind to her. Her own niece described Maria as having had a “
passive nature,” being without “energy and independence… and easy to influence.” Édouard Ganche, an early twentieth-century Chopin biographer, dismissed her pretty much altogether: “
It is useless to incriminate [her] conduct,” he wrote. “She was a girl of seventeen years old, without will, without courage.” Maria is interesting in the story of these years not because she was Chopin’s last Polish love and callously broke his heart, but for the way she prepares us for what’s to come: another liaison that will have, in the end, a much greater consequence, with an artist who was, in the words of her prolific rival and friend Honoré de Balzac, anything but passive: she was
a “lioness.” These very different women—the traditional Polish family friend and France’s notorious, cigar-smoking, cross-dressing, writer (Ivan Turgenev: “What a brave man she was!”)—represent two animating forces in Chopin’s life that intersected around the time he began working on Opus 35. The first would largely be forgotten; the second became the stuff of legend that still, hundreds of years later, captivates modern imaginations.
Chopin met George Sand the year he proposed to Maria, but it was not an auspicious beginning. “What an unattractive person La Sand is,” he commented to a friend after their introduction in late 1836. “There is something about her which positively repels me.” (Maybe it was what Balzac also described as her “
double chin, like a canon of the church.”) Then he asked the question that was on so many minds at the time: “
Is she really a woman?” But when they met again two years later, it was love at second sight. The situation, however, was complicated, and in classic Sand style she treated the question of an affair with the exotic Polish exile as she would a new writing project, casting it in a sweeping, contemporary theme that was especially dear to both of their hearts: nationhood. It was a subject that came naturally to her. Sand’s autobiography, Story of My Life
, was so huge it took a team of sixty-five translators five years to produce the entire thing in English; she becomes so immersed in the role her family played in the history of France that it takes twenty-one chapters to get to her own birth. Sand’s memoir has been read by scholars not just as the life of a singular woman but as the story of a century of French history and the birth of the modern nation.
So when Sand wrote a letter that was immense even by her own standards—more than five thousand words—to Chopin’s closest friend to solicit advice about what course their relationship should take, it was perfectly fitting she would cast the drama in terms of patriotism. In the aftermath of revolutions in America, France, Poland, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland, the idea of citizenship, of national belonging, was the most powerful metaphor she could reach for when it came to articulating the project of human love. Someone once said of George Sand that “
her work is an immense legal plea, advanced by an indefatigable lawyer,” and her June 1838 letter to Albert (Wojciech) Grzymala, a Polish statesman and banker variously described as a brother and father figure to Chopin, is worthy of the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court. She begins with the reality on the ground: she is involved with another man (“
as good as married”) and Chopin is still in love with “this childhood friend… this young lady
.” After a peroration on chastity and her own honorable intentions she goes all-out Cleopatra, casting their love in a language for the ages. “I have no wish to steal anyone from anyone, unless it be prisoners from their jailers, victims from their executioners, Poland from Russia.” She commands Grzymala to “tell me whether it is some Russia
whose memory haunts our boy,” in which case she would, like the avenging sorceress in a popular opera, muster her “allurements” and “save him from surrendering.” But: “if it is a Poland
, let him go on,” because “Nothing is so precious as a fatherland, and a man who has one already must not make unto himself a new one.” If that were the case, she goes on, “I shall represent for him an Italy
… a land that one dreams of, longs for or regrets… which one visits and enjoys on spring days but where one cannot remain permanently.”
Like almost everything Sand wrote, this masterful letter is about many things at once, including a worldview about love and marriage that was well ahead of its time and had been developing for many years. She had articulated her notion of true love in a letter to a girlhood friend ten years earlier, explaining it could only occur “
when the heart, the mind, and the body understand and embrace each other.” It was rare, she admitted—“This happens once every thousand years”—but it became her lifelong project. She had begun working out these ideas in her first novel, Indiana
(1832), a highly unconventional portrait of an unhappy woman trapped in a crippling marriage Sand describes as a form of slavery: “
the chain beneath which my life has been shattered and my youth spoiled.” Now, instead of shackling herself and her companion to a traditional union defined by laws of the state—“a graveyard for this artist soul” she said to Gryzmala, no doubt speaking for them both—she puts forth a vision of ideal love that eschews “the bonds of everyday life” and favors a true friendship based on “chaste passion and gentle poetry.” Sand was famous for her gender-bending liberation—dressing like a man, earning money by the pen like a man—but at this moment in her life, when she met Chopin, she was focused on something more complex: a penetrating contemplation of what gender really meant—for women and
for men. She would refine and develop this theme in Gabriel
, the novel she commenced writing just after the love affair with Chopin began, but it’s here, in the “frightful letter” (her words) that she begins working out her ideas about friendship between the genders, exploring a radical notion that people should be able to love in “different ways.” She outwardly wrestles with “this question of possession” that defined relations between men and women and seeks a richer, more enlightened path, one that was unmoored from physical and sexual burdens. She herself, Sand confides to Chopin’s mentor, had known many varieties of love: that of an artist, a woman, sister, mother, nun (from her Catholic school days), and poet. She believed that the heart can—and ideally should—be large enough to contain two different but simultaneous loves: one “for the body
of life while the other is the soul
.” Sand is well known for innovating in her work as a writer; here, at this early stage in her relationship with Chopin, she was, it seems, ready to improvise on a whole new style of friendship. There’s no record of a reply from Albert Gryzmala, but within some number of days following Sand’s epic letter she and Chopin consummated their love.
In the end Sand did not have to become Italy in the contest of nations, but her famous letter anticipated the way future generations would come to associate Chopin with an enlightened ideal of patriotism, a phenomenon that becomes manifestly evident every hundred years as the world pauses to commemorate his birth. If the second centennial “Year of Chopin” in 2010 inspired young entrepreneurs to resurrect him as a superhero in high-tech video games, it was the first that paved the way by solidifying forever the idea that “Chopin composed Poland.” It was Ignacy Jan Paderewski, himself one of the world’s most famous pianists, who opened the Chopin Centenary Festival in the Polish town of Lemberg in October 1910. Like every Pole of his generation, Paderewski had grown up under authoritarian rule; even now, when he was fifty, the region was still under Austrian control.
We have suffered “thunderbolt after thunderbolt,” he told the crowd, and the whole shattered nation “quivers, not with fear but with dismay.” Why then, he asked, “should the spirit of our country have expressed itself so clearly in Chopin, above all others?” For Paderewski, the answer was in the music, and to explain how his compositions personified the embattled nation he cited Chopin’s innovative use of rhythm, fixating on his signature technique of tempo rubato
. Franz Liszt had dubbed this the “rule of irregularity”: a rhythm flexible enough to depart from the unforgiving metronome, but which always accelerates just a bit to make up for lost time. This strategy of “stolen time” (the term derives from the Italian verb rubare
, to steal) accounts for the often improvisatory sound of Chopin’s works, because the performer has some discretion to liberate notes from the mathematics that govern a piece of music, which are set out in the little fraction known as a time signature at the beginning of each work. Rubato is permission to, at least temporarily, thwart time, to put your own signature
on a phrase, and it was in this gesture that Paderewski located the historic fighting spirit of the Polish people. To his countrymen in Lemberg he said: “This music which eludes metrical discipline, rejects the fetters of rhythmic rule, and refuses submission to the metronome as if it were the yoke of some hated government: this music bids us hear, know, and realize that our nation, our land, the whole of Poland, lives, feels, and moves, in Tempo Rubato
.” How do we endure through our tragic journey? Paderewski asked his fellow Poles. “Chopin best of all can tell us.”
Paderewski’s story took an improbable turn eight years later, in what I think of as an only in Poland
phenomenon: in 1918 he abandoned the concert hall and became prime minister of his newly freed country. It’s hard to grasp how astonishing this is, but if you’re an American living in the twenty-first century, imagine Yo-Yo Ma giving a stirring speech about how George Gershwin “composed America” through his use of melodic chromaticism, unexpected rhythms, and wanderings into remote harmonic territories (and yes, using that highly technical language) and then, a decade later, becoming president of the country. The sensitive musician as supreme leader; it’s something unimaginable—unless, apparently, you are Polish.
After Paderewski’s speech there was much more suffering ahead, beginning with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, which led to a ban on Chopin’s music in his homeland. Paderewski died in New York in 1941; his body was taken to Washington, DC, and transported by a horse-drawn caisson and military honor guard to Arlington National Cemetery, where it was temporarily entombed in the vault of USS Maine
He may lie there until Poland is free,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed. In 1992, after the fall of Communism, Paderewski’s body was finally returned to Warsaw. All but his heart, that is; it was the pianist-statesman’s wish that it remain in America forever, and to this day the organ is interred in a shrine at the Our Lady of Czestochowa Cemetery in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
The “very hard story” of Poland continues in the twenty-first century under the far-right Law and Justice Party, with its nationalist vision of “Poland first.” Since assuming power in 2015, the government has acted to seize control of the country’s public media; attempted to overhaul the judicial system and neutralize the highest court by imposing age restrictions on justices; curbed public gatherings; imposed restrictions on freedom of speech; and launched a nationwide initiative in schools committed to “patriotic education.” A leading Polish intellectual described the party’s philosophy in stark, if haunting, terms. Law and Justice, he said, “offered a meaning [and] their meaning was:
‘We’ll make Poland great again.’?” Even so, the ruling party could be counted on to use the language of music and Frédéric Chopin when, in 2018, it kicked off a year of events designed to commemorate a century of independence. In opening remarks before a concert in Warsaw on February 24—the day that, two hundred years earlier, an eight-year-old Chopin first performed in public with an orchestra—Law and Justice president Andrzej Duda said that without Chopin it was highly likely Poland would have remained under the yoke of its autocratic neighbors. Unlike Paderewski, he offered no concrete examples, musical or otherwise, but ended by stating that “
it was thanks to his music that Poland re-emerged on the world map in 1918.”
This is how Chopin became, over the course of two centuries, inextricably embedded in the patriotic imagination of his country, in both its historic struggles and contemporary culture wars. Most of the landscape he knew in Warsaw was destroyed by German bombs in World War II, and during those years of twentieth-century strife there were many attempts made to censure his music, remove his name from repertoires, musical publications, and radio programs. Even monuments erected to commemorate his work were destroyed, including the most famous, which depicts Chopin underneath a willow tree, a symbol of Polishness. It was restored in 1958 and placed in a Warsaw park, where every weekend during the summer a piano is set next to the statue and an artist performs Chopin’s music to a large, diverse crowd. In recent years city officials went even further in their effort to fill the air with Chopin by installing “musical benches” that, at the touch of a button, play a famous work. New smartphone apps hit the market regularly, enabling users to do everything from take a selfie with Chopin in places where he once hung out to providing geo-tagged locations with relevant background and history. But while technology, monuments, and media programming come and go, one thing never changes in this remarkable country, with its long, poignant, ever-present history. As a Polish journalist put it in 1995, as the entire country was fixated on the prestigious International Chopin Piano Competition being broadcast live on national television and radio: “
Poles are born with Chopin in their souls. Chopin for us is everything that surrounds us, everything we would like to express, but for which there are no words.”