The Heart of Chopin Still Beats in Warsaw, Poland
Katarzyna Kraszewska sat ramrod straight in front of the black lacquered Steinway & Sons grand piano. She contemplated the keyboard for a moment before striking the first commanding chord of a piece written by Frédéric Chopin. For the next hour I was mesmerized, fascinated that so much of the music was familiar to me, despite not being a particular fan of classical music.
The ubiquitous performances of Chopin in Warsaw are no coincidence. The famous composer was born 29 miles outside the Polish capital in 1810. Six months later, the family moved into the right wing of the Saski Palace in Warsaw proper. Chopin began studying the piano at the age of six and was giving concerts by the time he turned eight. During his short life he produced a body of work, mostly for the solo piano, that is still hailed as pure genius. He was the Michael Jackson of the 19th century, superstar in every imaginable way, and Warsaw rightly claims him as a native son.
One might say that Warsaw is obsessed with the famous composer. I was treated to a Chopin walking tour by the kind folks at Fall In Love With Warsaw. My guide pointed out the building on the grounds of Warsaw University where Chopin lived as a student, the churches where he played the organ, and the houses where he lived as a child. Even Saski Palace, his childhood home that was destroyed during WWII, is commemorated. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands on the former site of the palace, and it seems the soldiers who keep vigil there do so as much for Chopin as for the unsung heroes of the war.
There are dozens of locations associated with Chopin in Warsaw. To ensure that fans can easily find them, the city has installed Chopin benches at each site. Though I might have be pardoned for resting my weary feet, these benches are not meant for sitting. A description of the site and how it relates to the musician is carved into each polished stone seat, and pressing a button fills the air with Chopin’s haunting melodies.
Eventually, all Chopin fans make their way to Lazienki Królewskie Park, one of the city’s gorgeous green spaces. Free Chopin concerts are performed every Sunday at noon and 4 p.m. from mid-May to the end of September, near the statue of Chopin. After the concert, be sure to stroll around the lake to the lovely Baroque Palace on the Isle.
In 1830, Chopin set off on a performance tour of Eastern Europe. During his absence from Warsaw, the November Uprising broke out and was subsequently crushed. Unable to return to Warsaw for political reasons, he moved to Paris, where he would remain until his death at the age of 39. Chopin cursed the day he left Warsaw. Though he eventually became a French citizen, he never ceased thinking of himself as a Pole.
By the age of 32, Chopin’s health began to decline. As the end grew near, the composer gathered his family and friends around him and made them promise to have his heart removed after his death and returned to Warsaw. His body was interned at Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery but Chopin’s sister, Ludwika, carried his heart back to Warsaw in an urn, where it was interned beneath a column inside the Church of the Holy Cross.
My guide had to rush off for another tour at noon, but I continued to seek out more sites associated with Chopin. At a confectionery, I sampled the Rose-flavored chocolates that Chopin’s sister used as bribes to keep her brother practicing the piano.
At Castle Square I learned about the daily Chopin recitals at the Stara Galeria from a flyer-wielding woman. Moments later, I was seated in the gallery, being carried away to a place of bliss as the deft fingers of Madame Kraszewska filled the space with the music of Chopin.
I must confess to being unexpectedly smitten with Warsaw. I had heard that the city was dull and filled with uninspiring Soviet-era architecture. Instead, I discovered a surprisingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan city with broad boulevards, exceedingly friendly locals, and a thriving entertainment scene. But best of all was the discovery that the heart of Chopin still beats strongly in Warsaw.
Author’s note: For even more fun as you search for Chopin sites around Warsaw, download the following two apps for your smartphone (available for iOS and Android): Selfie with Chopin and Chopin in Warsaw.