At Expo 2020 in Dubai, the Polish Pavilion celebrated Poland’s national independence day on November 11, 2021, with the music of Fryderyk Chopin. The composer, who lived from 1810 to 1849, left the Polish people--and the world--a rich musical legacy. Many of his compositions have graced public events in Poland and at celebrations honoring Polish culture all over the world over the many decades since his death.
Romantic composer and patriot
It’s not too much to say that Chopin’s creative genius alone puts him in the ranks of the heroes of the Polish people. His extraordinary gifts led him to elaborate on native elements in Polish folk music to form richly textured, fiery, and lyrical compositions that express the essence of his heritage and his feelings of patriotism.
But this composer of powerful concertos, wistful nocturnes, and exuberant waltzes, mazurkas, and polonaises, was also a hero of the centuries-long Polish fight for independence.
A threat to tyrants
For Poles of all ages today, Chopin’s music stirs powerful feelings of pride, chiefly as the composer’s music has been used as a backdrop to Poland’s many efforts to resist tyranny over the decades and centuries. Under the Nazi occupation of Poland, it was forbidden to play or listen to his works. The edict was part of Hitler’s dedicated program of crushing any expressions of indigenous culture or national identity. The Nazi occupiers even dynamited a statue in Warsaw erected in Chopin’s memory.
The “Revolutionary Etude,” Op. 10, No. 12, is one of the signature Chopin works that continues to serve as an inspiration to all people who feel a hunger for democracy and freedom. Historians today point to this piece, along with works like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth and Seventh (“Leningrad”) Symphonies, and Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” (both composed in 1942), as compositions that stirred millions of people amid the threat of totalitarianism in the Second World War.
“Cannons hidden among blossoms”
Chopin’s contemporary Robert Schumann remarked, after listening to the fiercely Romantic “Revolutionary Etude” and the thoroughly Polish mazurkas, that Chopin’s work made him think of “cannons hidden among blossoms.” Schuman also observed that if the tsar were to listen to and understand Chopin’s music, he would ban it immediately.
Indeed, Russia would later censure Chopin’s works. In 1863 Russian soldiers even hurled his childhood piano out of a second-story window as a demonstration of vengeance after the thwarted assassination of a Russian official on Polish soil. By that time, Chopin had been dead for 14 years.
Paean to the revolutionary spirit
From 1830 to 1831, there was a Polish uprising against Russia in protest of the 35-year-old third Partition of Poland that had split apart the country, giving pieces of it to Habsburg Austria, the German state of Prussia, and Russia. This final partition completely erased an independent Poland from the map of Europe. Chopin had left Poland for a musical tour that took him to France, the birthplace of his father, just before the uprising. It was in France that he composed the “Revolutionary Etude,” which scholars believe is the product of his patriotic emotions awakened by the Russian capture of Warsaw.
After this conflict, also called the Polish-Russian war, the tsar ordered that Poland would be entirely subsumed into Russia, leaving the formerly thriving city of Warsaw as nothing more than a military outpost. Poland would not regain any meaningful independence until after World War I.
Due to the 20-year-old Chopin’s refusal to accept a Russian-issued passport after the war, he rendered himself forever an exile from his motherland. He would never return to Poland again.
A last wish fulfilled
Almost 20 years later, as he lay dying, Chopin expressed a last wish: for his heart, which he felt to be the repository of his living soul, to be cut from his body and returned to Poland. According to history, his sister smuggled the heart into Poland, where it reposes, preserved in alcohol, in a crystal urn in Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross. The rest of the composer’s body was interred in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
A legacy survives the flames of war and hatred
Fast-forward to September 23, 1939. The Nazis, who had invaded Poland three weeks earlier, were dropping bombs on Warsaw, including the radio station where the acclaimed Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was in the middle of a live performance of Chopin. The piece was the Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
The shelling forced Szpilman to stop playing, and he was lucky to escape death, as the station was destroyed. He would go on to lead a harrowing existence in the Warsaw ghetto. His whole family died in the death camp Treblinka, located outside Warsaw.
In 1945 Szpilman returned to Warsaw. He had come back to a city pummeled into ruins, almost unrecognizable. As told in the Oscar-winning 2002 film The Pianist, he went back to Polish Radio to give his first performance after the war: Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor.
In 1958 the Poles rebuilt the statue of Chopin that the Nazis had destroyed, placing it in the same park where it once stood.