Warsaw: Muzeum Chopina

It is the late 60s or early 70s perhaps; I can’t remember exactly. I am seated at one of two grand pianos in the salon of my piano teacher, Professor William Avera, on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building at Belhaven College. I am struggling mightily with one of Chopin’s compositions. At some point, my teacher stops me. “Do you know Danny Boy?” he asks. I tell him that I do. “Could you play that for me, please?” I do. I play the melody from memory, improvising the accompaniment. When I finish, my teacher says to me, “Now that is how I want you to play the Chopin. You should sound as though you are improvising, creating music at the keyboard, not recreating it.”

Muzeum Chopina, Warsaw, Poland.

Hats off, gentlemen—a genius! 

Robert Schumann on first hearing Fryderyk Chopin’s music [1831]

Tuesday, October 23, 2018. Today Beth and I visit the Muzeum Fryderyka Chopina.

Our original plan for today was to visit the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery. However, it’s raining and cold. We decide it’s better to visit the Muzeum Chopina, which we had initially planned to visit tomorrow. At the museum, we will be indoors, and warm.

The museum contains over 7000 items related to the life of Chopin. It is housed in the Ostrogski Castle in Warsaw and is under the care of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. The collection is divided into eleven themed exhibits addressing phases of Chopin’s life, distributed across three floors in the museum.

Level 0: This area of the museum contains items from Chopin’s Warsaw years, the years before he moved to Paris. His father was French, his mother Polish. Both countries claim him. Interestingly, his body, minus his heart, is buried in Paris; his heart is buried in Poland.

In this exhibit are pencil drawing portraits of the young Chopin by Eliza Radziwiłł; and one of his school penmanship books among other things. For me, however, the most interesting item is a beautiful gold watch that was given to Chopin in 1820 by the Italian opera singer Angelica Catalani to commemorate one of Chopin’s concerts. In his biography of Chopin, Dr. Alan Walker records the following¹:

On November 21, 1819, the Italian soprano Angelica Catalani made her long-awaited appearance in Warsaw. She was one of the acknowledged stars of the art of bel canto, and gave four hugely successful concerts in the Town Hall. During her stay in the city she lived in the home of Konstanty Wolicki, one of her relatives, and it was in the elegant salon of the Wolicki family that the young Chopin heard La Catalani sing and she in turn asked him to play. She was so enchanted with his performance that she presented him with a gold watch, which he kept as a precious relic for the rest of his life. It bore the inscription

Mme Catalani
à Frédéric Chopin
âgé de 10 ans
à Varsovie le
3 Janvier 1820

Level +1: Items here cover Chopin’s Paris Salon, Nohant (George Sand’s home where Chopin would spend much time during their nine-year affair), and, of course, the women in Chopin’s life. The Paris Salon Exhibit has Chopin’s last piano, a Pleyel. Speaking of Chopin’s affinity for Pleyel’s pianos, Dr. Walker writes, “it was on the silvery-toned Pleyel piano that he found his painter’s palette waiting for him, with all the colors of the rainbow at his disposal.”²

Chopin’s last piano, a Pleyel. Muzeum Chopina, Warsaw.

Concerning the women in Chopin’s wife, especially the author George Sand, I am drawn to two items on exhibit, a serviette with Chopin’s initials embroidered by George Sand and a lock of George Sand’s hair that had been rolled up in a sheet of cream colored paper.

A Serviette with Chopin’s initials embroidered by George Sand.
A lock of George Sand’s hair. Muzeum Chopina, Warsaw.

Level +2: In this exhibit are items about Chopin, the person, his travels around Europe, and his death. Chopin died on the 17th of October, 1849. He was only thirty-nine years old. The cause of death on his death certificate is tuberculosis, although his actual cause of death has been a matter of much discussion. Chopin’s sister Ludwika was present when he died. Also, Solange, George Sand’s daughter, was present. It was Solange’s husband, Jean-Baptiste Clésinger, who made a cast of Chopin’s left hand and his haunting death mask.

Jean-Baptiste Clésinger. Chopin’s death-mask. Muzeum Chopina, Warsaw.

A partial autopsy was carried out by Dr. Cruveilhier, who, in accordance with Chopin’s own wishes, removed the heart, which was placed in a crystal jar, preserved in alcohol, and eventually taken to Warsaw by Ludwika, where it was to find a permanent resting place in the Church of the Holy Cross. It resides there to this day, having survived not only the uprising of 1863 but also the devastation of World War II.³

Dr. Cruveilhier was Chopin’s attending physician at the time of his death; Ludwicka was Chopin’s sister.

There is a moving performance of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 by Władysław Szpilman made by his son Andrzej (copyright 1998 by Andrzej Szpilman). Szpilman was a Polish Jewish pianist and composer, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, and author of The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45. He died July 6, 2000, at the age of eighty-eight in Warsaw, Poland. Here is the link to the YouTube recording: https://youtu.be/n9oQEa-d5rU.

After leaving the museum, we walk in the rain to Bekef, an inexpensive Israeli style restaurant. Next time a visit to the Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery.

¹Walker, Dr. Alan. Fryderyk Chopin (Kindle Locations 1110-1119). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

²Ibid. (Kindle Locations 407-408).

³Ibid. (Kindle Locations 9921-9924).

All photos © Beth Ben-Avraham, 2018

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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