Chopin’s Pickled Heart

Chopin's pickled heart
Photograph reproduced from with permission of Elsevier

Contributor: Joanna Beaufoy

Location: Holy Cross Church, Warsaw, Poland

Description: A story goes that Fryderyk Chopin’s heart was smuggled from Paris to Warsaw in a jar of cognac by his sister, Ludwika, in the weeks following his death on 17 October 1849. The rest of Chopin’s body, we know for sure, was buried at the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, the city where he lived for the last nineteen years of his life. The heart, in its jar, remained in Warsaw, apart from a brief evacuation during the Second World War. It is still there, the amber liquid preserving it in a remarkable state of health for a one hundred and sixty five-year old heart.

Two aspects may excite the curiosity of scholars of European Romanticism: the heart itself, and the notion of home. Firstly, it is the story of the place the heart held in Romantic symbolic thought and its role in artistic creation. Secondly, the homecoming of the heart raises questions about home, nation, and belonging in the context of death. The object’s journey from France to Poland complicates ideas about Romanticism and national identity. Already at the time of Chopin’s death, rumours and conflicting accounts of the heart abounded. The difficulty of establishing the facts that led to the heart’s removal from Chopin’s corpse and its arrival in Warsaw reflects the heart’s status as a mythical object. What does the popularity of this story tell us about Romantic ideas about home, belonging, fatherland, illness, death, and love?

We do not know how or when Chopin’s heart was removed; the autopsy report, by the usually meticulous Docteur Cruveilhier, was lost, if it ever existed. Franz Liszt asked Chopin’s pupil, Miss Stirling, to scribe a list of questions and answers which was sent to Chopin’s family for validation. In answer to one of their questions, Liszt and Stirling write, ‘The autopsy revealed nothing about the cause of death. The chest seemed less compromised than the heart. His death was that of a pure, resigned and believing soul. Not even the slightest cloud from beyond the grave came to darken his last moments. Trust in faith and in love rested wholly upon his features.’ The effects of tuberculosis were visible on Chopin’s heart, as observation carried out in 2014 shows. But Liszt and Stirling’s mention of the heart may have another significance. According to Fay Bound Alberti referencing Kirstie Blair, ‘there was a renewed shift towards the heart in literary culture, in terms of heart-centred imagery, and its links with emotion and authenticity’. Nineteenth-century sufferers were anxious to blame their pathologies on the heart, as opposed to other less Romantic body parts: ‘Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti focused on their hearts rather than on consumption, or on cancer, respectively.’ Liszt and Stirling may have employed a similar telling of Chopin’s illness to move public focus onto his heart.

While multiple sources corroborate Chopin’s wish, expressed to his sister, to have his heart removed and taken to Poland, there is no documentary evidence remaining for this Romantic idea of a ‘last wish’ or ‘last words’ and the notion of a true and final resting place. The last words Chopin supposedly wrote — an exhausted scrawl, in French — are photographed and reproduced, in multiple publications as part of his collected letters and papers:

As this earth will suffocate me, I implore you to have my body opened, so that I may not be buried alive.

However, no bibliographic reference exists for the original document, and its first appearance in print was in 1904. According to the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, the original note was held by Chopin’s descendants, but was since lost. A graphologist asserted in 1974 that it was likely written by Chopin’s father about his own death, and ended up in Chopin’s papers. A 2005 biography, and an indispensable article from 2013 by Henryk Nowaczyk convincingly backs up this thesis. In short, evidence that Chopin specifically requested his heart be taken to Poland is scant, but plausible, as precedents for such split burials were discussed in Chopin’s circles.

The question of whether Chopin was French or Polish finds its roots in this era of the two national cultures trying to claim Chopin for themselves. As Chopin’s father was French and because the composer made his life in Paris, never returning to Poland, the answer is not binary. European nations, charting the history of Romantic music, have historically found this neither-nor of Chopin’s nationality challenging. Yet it was this migration, the diversity of musical influences on Chopin that gave us the unique melodies which are the sound of European Romanticism.

There are no accounts of the heart’s journey from Paris to Warsaw, but it can be deduced that Ludwika, Chopin’s sister who cared for him in his last weeks, began her journey with the jar in the first days of 1850.  The jar remained in Ludwika’s apartment in Warsaw, before being moved to the nearby church of St. Krzyża (Holy Cross Church), where it sat in the catacombs in a box, apparently lost and unnoticed. In 1882, a search was carried out and it was found and then immured inside a pillar with a plaque and a bilingual inscription: ‘Tu spoczywa serve Fryderyka Chopina/Here rests the heart of Frederick Chopin’. Below a bust of Chopin there is an inscription ‘Gdzie skarb twój, tam I serce twoje’, Matthew 13:44-46: ‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’.

Tourists visiting the Warsaw church today must content themselves with a stone plaque and bust: the heart is safely hidden in the pillar, and the photograph of it, shown here, is not on display. Polish molecular genetics specialists who examined high resolution photographs of the heart in 2014 call the heart, ‘a national relic of utmost emotional value.’ The Polish Minister for Culture, however, forbade DNA testing on the heart, because it would involve opening the jar. We may ask what risk opening the jar poses to the Franco-Polish narrative and to the history of European Romanticism.

Date: 1849

Creator: Fryderyk Chopin

Media rights: Photograph reproduced from with permission of Elsevier

Object type: heart, bodily organ

Format:  organic matter, glass, preserving liquid

Publisher: Elsevier


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