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Following One’s Heart: A Strange Afterlife!

His decision to leave his homeland had pained him, immensely. He had always wanted to return home. However, the young man, who had left his country at the age of 20, was unable to return to his home when he was alive! He returned only after his demise, in the sense that as requested by him, his sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz took his heart (which had been removed by his Doctor Jean Cruveilhier and preserved in alcohol in a vase) back to Poland, his homeland, in 1850.

For the last 172 years, his heart has been sleeping peacefully in Poland, with his love for his country being immortal during this period of time. Frédéric François Chopin, born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (March 1, 1810 – October 17, 1849), was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic period who had written primarily for solo piano. He was renowned for his poetic genius that was based on a professional technique, which was considered without equal in his generation…

Chopin in 1849

Chopin’s heart has been well preserved in a Polish church for 172 years with a break during the Nazi period… Chopin’s eldest sister, Ludwika, complied with his request, taking the heart before his body could be buried, and secretly carried it back to Poland in a jar of booze… most likely cognac. Ludwika hid the hearty package under her cloak, avoiding officers and agents who might ask too many questions about the body part she was carrying, and was able to smuggle it to the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where it was buried beneath a small monument. Given Chopin’s popularity in his native Poland, the monument to his heart quickly became a rallying point for proud nationalists. During World War II, the Nazis, knowing the power the composer’s legacy held over the people, stole the heart (as well as outlawing playing his music). However, they gave it back after the war. The heart was reinterred in the church and remains there to this day, undisturbed until recently!

Chopin’s Heart

Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola in the Duchy of Warsaw, and grew up in the Polish capital. He had arrived in France in 1830 and lived mostly there, till his last breath. He used to earn a handsome amount as a piano teacher in France. In France, Chopin had led a colourful life and had fallen in love with many girls. After a failed engagement to Maria Wodzińska from 1836-37, he maintained an often troubled relationship with French author Amantine Dupin (known by her pen name, George Sand). However, a brief and unhappy visit to Mallorca with Sand in 1838-39 would prove one of his most productive periods as far as composition was concerned. It may be noted that Ludwika had also taken a collection of 200 letters from Sand to Chopin while leaving France with Chopin’s heart. After 1851, these were returned to Sand, who destroyed them. Later in 1848, the musician was supported financially by his admirer Jane Stirling, who had arranged for him to visit Scotland. Chopin was in poor health for most of his life. He weighed just 45kg when he was 28! He died in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39, probably of pericarditis aggravated by tuberculosis.

Maria Wodzińska, self-portrait

This famous musician experienced acute financial crisis in his final days. He had only a few friends by his side who provided him with financial support. He suffered from tuberculosis mainly because of malnutrition. He used to cough so much that he could not even speak. Often, blood would come out of his mouth. He eventually died of pericarditis. However, the cause of his death remained unknown till 2014. This secret came to light in 2017, 165 years after his death, when doctors, in the presence of researchers, discovered his heart at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. Interestingly, doctors and researchers did not touch his heart. They prepared a report by observing it from outside the jar in which it has been preserved for so many years. The report was first published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2017.

Statue of Chopin

Only the heart of Chopin is kept at the church in Warsaw, while his body is lying in France. In his final days, Chopin wanted to return to Poland. However, he was not allowed to leave France by the doctors because of his deteriorating physical condition. Then, his sister reached France and started staying with him. That’s when Chopin informed his sister about his final wish. As he wanted his heart to be taken to Poland after his demise, his sister took out the heart from his body with the help of doctors. Later, she hid the heart in a bottle filled with alcohol and brought it to Poland.

Funerary Monument on a pillar in Holy Cross Church, Warsaw, enclosing Chopin’s heart

Chopin’s heart is still floating in the liquid inside that bottle kept in a crypt at the Holy Cross Church. A memorial, named after him, has also been built near the church. Researchers feared that Chopin’s heart might be damaged, if the alcohol dried up. However, they discovered in 2014 that the heart was still in a good condition. Chopin’s tombstone, featuring the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre, was designed and sculpted by Clésinger and installed on the anniversary of his death in 1850. The expenses of the monument, amounting to CHF 4,500, were covered by Jane Stirling, who had also paid for the return of the composer’s sister Ludwika to Warsaw.

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