Famous around the world for the striking piano music that he composed and a national hero in his homeland of Poland, Frédéric Chopin died at the age of just 39 in 1849. And ever since his death, the cause of his premature demise has been the subject of speculation. But now, scientists may have finally ascertained the cause of his passing.
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born in 1810 in the Polish village of ?elazowa Wola, about 30 miles from the country’s capital, Warsaw. His father was French while his mother was a Pole, and Chopin had three sisters. Not long after his birth, his family moved to Warsaw.
Chopin’s first formal piano lessons came while he was still very young in 1816, and he was swiftly recognized as a child prodigy. He was already playing in public and writing compositions at the age of seven. He went on to study music at the Warsaw Lyceum and the Warsaw Conservatory, all the while performing in public concerts and writing new pieces.
In 1826 he performed before the Russian Tsar Alexander I, who gave the composer a diamond ring as a sign of his admiration. Soon Chopin’s renown began to spread further afield, and he subsequently spent time in Berlin. Shortly afterwards, he had his debut performance in Vienna, garnering enthusiastic reviews. After further travels around Europe, Chopin finally left Poland for good and made his way to Paris in 1831.
Chopin’s first Parisian concert at the prestigious Salle Pleyel was widely celebrated. For instance, respected fellow musician and critic Robert Schumann wrote, “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius.” The composer had truly arrived on the European music scene of the 19th century.
And Chopin now moved in some of Europe’s most exalted cultural circles. He rubbed shoulders with fellow composers Hector Berlioz and Franz Lizst, as well as the artist Eugène Delacroix, who painted this portrait of him when Chopin was 28.
He also embarked on an affair with the author Georges Sand in 1838, even though his first impression of her had been far from favorable. “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” Chopin had asked rather ungallantly. Yet despite this unpromising start, their affair was to last until 1847.
However, as early as 1842 – when Chopin was still only 32 or 33 – his health began to show worrying signs of decline. In a letter that year to his friend and mentor Albert Grzyma?a, Chopin wrote, “I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much.” As his physical condition deteriorated, sadly so did his musical output.
In 1848 Chopin embarked on a tour of England and Scotland, performing at concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow. And in an eerie premonition of the future, he wrote his last will and testament while staying in Edinburgh. “A kind of disposition to be made of my stuff in the future, if I should drop dead somewhere,” as he put it in another letter to Grzyma?a.
It was in November 1848 that Chopin played his last concert. He performed it in the splendid surroundings of London’s Guildhall, at a charitable event to support Polish refugees. By this stage, though, it was clear that he was gravely ill. And his doctors did not believe that he could make a recovery. Chopin subsequently journeyed back to Paris in late November.
Chopin passed away in the early hours of 17 October, 1849. Although his funeral a fortnight after his death was a ticket-only affair at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, some 3,000 people turned up. Mourners traveled from as far afield as Vienna, Berlin and London.
Shortly before his death, Chopin made a somewhat peculiar request. With a pencil, he wrote, “As this cough will choke me, I implore you to have my body opened, so that I may not be buried alive.” And so it passed: Chopin’s sister Ludwika arranged for her brother’s heart to be removed from his cadaver. The organ was then preserved in a jar of spirits, which may perhaps have been Cognac.
Chopin’s body was subsequently buried in the famous Parisian cemetery Père Lachaise, where it is still visited by music lovers from all over the world. In 1850 Ludwika took her brother’s heart back to Poland concealed, it is said, under her cloak. This was to avoid the scrutiny of imperial Russian officials, at a time when Poland was ruled by Russia.
Chopin’s heart was laid to rest in Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church. During World War Two, however, Poland was invaded and occupied by the Nazis. Towards the end of the war, in 1944 there was a major rebellion – known as the Warsaw Uprising – against Nazi rule by the city’s beleaguered residents.
The Nazis, with the SS playing a leading part, brutally suppressed the uprising of lightly armed partisans. In the process, they murdered as many as 200,000 non-combatant civilians in a vengeful and ruthless massacre. And the Germans also obliterated some 85 percent of the historic capital city.
As the fighting raged, Polish priests – fearing its destruction – handed Chopin’s heart over to a German cleric. Unfortunately, it then ended up in the possession of a senior SS officer, Heinz Reinefarth. He had been closely involved in the barbaric massacres of Polish citizens during the Warsaw Uprising.
So it was a minor miracle that this precious artifact survived the war, being returned to its former resting place in 1945. And it remained undisturbed in Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church for almost 70 years. But in 2014 – during an operation that was conducted in secret – the heart was once again removed from its niche in the church.
This time, though, there was no risk to the heart. It was being removed by researchers with the approval of the Polish Catholic Church and the government. The purpose was to check that the organ was still in a good state of preservation and to find out the answer to an enduring mystery. Just what had killed Chopin at such an early age?
It was to be another three years before the results of the examination of the heart were made public, however. They finally appeared in a paper published in the The American Journal of Medicine in October 2017. The scientists were not permitted to take the heart out of its container, so any genetic analysis was impossible. But observation of the organ led them to the conclusion that Chopin died of complications arising from tuberculosis.
Speaking to The Observer, the team’s senior scientist Professor Michael Witt said, “From the state of the heart we can say, with high probability, that Chopin suffered from tuberculosis, while the complication pericarditis was probably the immediate cause of his death.” Pericarditis is a swelling of tissue around the heart. So now we may know at last what killed Frederick Chopin. What we’ll never know, though, is what heights of musical artistry he might have scaled had he lived longer.