Chopin and Polish Nationalism
Kenneth Herman
 By Kenneth Herman

To whom does Chopin belong? Is he that great standard-bearer of Polish nationalism, much as Greig embodies Norwegian music, De Falla and Albéniz define Spanish musical culture, and Dvorák and Smetena incessantly sing their Czech patrimony? Or is he the eminent French Romantic composer who connects the elegance of Francois Couperin’s rococo harpsichord suites to Claude Debussy’s impressionist piano portraits? Or does he really belong to that great canon of western classical music, the Bach-Beethoven-Brahms pantheon of (largely teutonic) composers whose vision and inspiration transcend nationalist labels?

Fryderyk Chopin (the Polish form of his name),born in 1810 in a village outside of Warsaw to a French father and a Polish mother, will always remain a confounding case. Polish was his native language, but he learned French at home; indeed, his father earned his living as a French language teacher. Although Chopin was an ardent Polish patriot, he left Poland at the end of his teens and spent his adult career in Paris. While there was political turmoil in Poland shortly after the young Pole left Warsaw, after 1833 he could have easily returned to Poland, but he never chose to do so, not even for a short visit.

In truth, the only time Fryderyk saw his parents after he had left his native soil was when he visited them while they were taking a rare vacation in the German spa town of Karlsbad. He wrote members of his family extensively, so there was no lack of communication between them, but the expatriate never came home. Following his death in 1849, Chopin’s body was buried in the celebrated Paris cemetery Père Lachaise, but his heart was returned to the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw by his older sister Ludwika. He clearly was a divided individual from his conception to his grave.

However, once Chopin’s body left the grand Paris church of La Madeleine, where the “Requiem” of Mozart was sung for the deceased Pole, the battle over Chopin’s legacy and identity began. Chopin’s closest male acquaintance, the Polish Count Wojciech Grzymala, had strong notions to write a definitive biography of his friend, but his equivocation was pushed in the negative direction by Jane Stirling, Chopin’s wealthy Scottish student who took care of him in his difficult final years, following his break-up with the strong-willed novelist George Sand.

Why Stirling dissuaded Grzymala from taking up the challenge of writing the biography remains unclear. A jealous and determined woman, she perhaps feared his version of the composer’s saga would devote too much time to his life with Sand or portray Sand in a light that was too flattering for Stirling’s taste. Whatever her reasons, she was successful in derailing the Chopin biography that at the very least could have given a distinctly Polish perspective to Chopin’s story.

It was none other than Franz Liszt who penned the first Chopin biography, which appeared a mere three years after the composer’s demise, and, like the Creator in the Book of Genesis, Liszt created Chopin in his own image. Liszt had become one of Chopin’s first collegial friends when the young Pole arrived in Paris in 1831, where Liszt already enjoyed acclaim as a virtuoso pianist and composer. Their life-long friendship was always complicated by the inherent professional jealousies that were bound to arise between two foreign-born piano virtuosos who were cultivating the same wealthy society patrons for their bread and butter, but Liszt, only a year younger than Chopin, admired the Pole and acknowledged his influence on his own developing musical style.

Liszt’s “Frédéric Chopin” (the French form of the name) interpreted Chopin’s life through the lens of Paris society, its musical culture, its elegant salon performances and its own distillation of the emotional intoxicant of Romanticism. Although this fanciful biography with its winning literary flourishes probably reflects the handiwork of Liszt’s mistress at the time, the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, another Pole, it clearly anchors Chopin in the nexus of the French culture and the French capital’s infatuation with pianistic genius, in that period of the 1830s in which Liszt found his own musical identity.

With Liszt’s newly-published French biography of Chopin as stimulus, the prolific cottage industry of French musical criticism expanded and codified Chopin’s Gallic profile. Among the widely-read French journals, the influential “Revue et gazette musicale” not only polished his musical reputation, but reserved for him a special pedestal of honor that removed him from the company of the shallow piano virtuosi that surrounded Chopin in his lifetime, men such as Friedrich Kalkbrenner and Sigismond Thalberg. The “Revue” also concentrated on the spiritual and transcendental aspects of Chopin’s more sensitive virtuoso style, a theology that served two purposes for the French musical establishment. It was used as a fortification against the infiltration of Richard Wagner’s teutonic, myth-drenched “music of the future,” and it eventually turned Chopin into that necessary musical bridge connecting the generation of Francois Couperin and the Impressionists Debussy and Ravel.

In this same period of the mid-19th century, Chopin’s German publishers, Breitkopf & Haertel, were busy disseminating his piano compositions through its unmatched worldwide merchandising connections. Although this powerful firm did not possess exclusive rights to the Chopin canon, its status in the publishing world was unique. Between 1878 and1880 Breitkopf published the complete works of Chopin, a feat that raised Chopin’s stature in the classical music world of that era, for Chopin was the only non-German composer (with the exception of Palestrina) that was honored with such a complete works edition. This act by Breitkopf helped establish Chopin’s place in the great classical succession of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn, whose scholarly complete works compilations the Leipzig pubishing firm had assiduously turned out beginning in 1850,that centennial year of the death of J. S. Bach. Overnight, the bourgeois German music guides reclassified those popular Chopin piano solos from the low estate of mere “salon music” to genuine classical works. For the German musical establisment, Chopin was neither French nor Polish. He was something much better, a true classical composer whose genius was not mortgaged to some provincial cultural repository.

The Poles, whether at home or in the diaspora, had never for a moment let go of their native son as a talisman of national identity. In the U.S., perhaps because of its large immigrant populations, Chopin’s status as a Polish nationalist composer is taken for granted. The American music critic and journalist James Huneker in his classic 1899 biography (“Chopin: The Man and His Music”) articulates this article of faith: “Chopin is the musical soul of Poland; he incarnates its political passion. First a Slav, by adoption a Parisian, he is the open door because he admitted into the West, Eastern musical ideas, Eastern tonalities and rhythms . . . Chopin taught his century the pathos of patriotism and showed Grieg the value of national ore.”

For nineteenth-century Polish listeners, Chopin’s music came to symbolize their national struggle, helping to foster the Polish spirit at a time when the country was without political status. Early in that century, Poland had been partitioned among its traditional foes, Russia, Prussia and Austria, and an independent Poland did not reappear until the end of World War I. To the residents of occupied Poland and their brethren abroad, Chopin’s piano works, especially the mazurkas, the polonaises, and the ballades preserved Polish spirit and identity. As Scandinavian, Czech, and Russian nationalist composers began to unfurl their banners and distinguish themselves from the Austo-German mainstream, Poles saw Chopin as the first-born of this new breed of composers.

Chopin is usually credited with writing the first piano ballades, an antique musical term that had previously designated a delicate form of vocal music that did not survive the Renaissance. A passing comment by Robert Schumann in his oft-quoted review of a performance of Chopin’s “Second Ballade” in 1841 has linked the first two of Chopin’s four ballades with the nationalistic poetry of Adam Mickiewicz, a Polish-Lithuanian author and scholar who, like Chopin, chose to live his exile in Paris. Twelve years Chopin’s senior, Mickiewicz became a good friend of the composer, who over the years set a few of his poems for voice and piano. He never attempted to publish these works, however, and wished to have them destroyed upon his demise, along with all of his other unpublished compositions. For good or for ill, his friends saved every scrap of music from the composer’s desk and published several posthumous volumes of music.

The Schumann claim that Chopin was inspired by the patriotic verse ballades of Mickiewicz has encouraged scholars and musiciological pedants to search for poetic scenarios of a nationalistic character hidden in the“Four Ballades.” Not surprisingly, Chopin’s ballades then become virtual Rorschach tests, and each researcher comes up with different and contradictory findings. There is simply no objective evidence, either penned on the manuscripts of the “Ballades” or explicated in the composer’s journals, that actually link this music with Mickiewicz or any other non-musical subject. Those who hear Polish history in these piano solos have brought their own scenario with them to press upon the music.

The polonaise, a traditional, stately Polish dance form that even J. S. Bach had included in several dance suites, in Chopin’s hands became a magnet for reading Polish history into works given no program by the composer. Thus the stately A Major Polonaise, Op. 40, No. 1, (named “Military,” but not by Chopin) became the story of Poland’s greatness, and the noble but distressing C Minor Polonaise, Op. 40, No. 2, became the story of Poland’s downfall and partition. The A-flat Polonaise, Op. 53, was claimed to portray a huge battle tableau, “with its thunder of horses’ hooves and fierce challengings. What fire, what sword thrusts and smoke and clash of mortal conflict!” (Huneker) To these descriptions, a critical eye can only retort, “What imagination, what clever invention, what fantasy!”

More deeply rooted in Polish folk tradition is the mazurka, which is not a single dance form, but rather a family of closely related, lively, triple-meter dances that come from different Polish provinces. Indeed the province of Mazowse, located north of Warsaw, produced the most popular form of the dance, the “mazur,” which gives us the root of the name “mazurka.” Even those analysts who don’t paint Chopin as a flaming nationalist admit that his mazurkas are his most genuinely Polish art form. Huneker called Chopin’s mazurkas “dances of the soul,” which the composer filled with exotic melodies of the augmented fourth (some musicologists claim the Lydian mode, with its raised fourth step, is characteristic of Polish folk music) and major sevenths, not to mention unexpected modulations and tempo changes.

“He breaks and varies the conventionalized rhythm in a half hundred ways, lifting to the plane of a poem the heavy hoofed peasant dance. But in this idealization, he never robs it altogether of the flavor of the soil.”

Huneker’s flowery but insightful analysis attempts to keep Chopin in both camps, the composer who is inspired by his musical patrimony yet at the same time creates works whose originality and scope are not compromised by such provincial categories. The American pianist and eminent critic Charles Rosen drew this careful distinction in his Chopin commentary in his 1995 “The Romantic Generation,” based on his Norton Lectures at Harvard.

“From early on, Chopin’s mazurkas are much more elaborate than the few modest pieces employing mazurka rhythms by Chopin’s Polish predecessors, and they soon became the occasion for some of the most complex and pretentious of Chopin’s forms.”

While Chopin’s mazurkas reflect the typical rhythmic patterns of the dance (without which, of course, they would not be mazurkas, but something else), he quotes no known Polish tunes nor depicts any portion of the Polish countryside, although Rosen puckishly points out that one of the mazurkas imitates Scottish bagpipes. Although we are unlikely to discover what Chopin took from his musical experiences of the mazurka as a child and what is purely his own invention, Rosen concludes that what is most important about the mazurkas is the freedom it gave him to express his original ideas and experimental harmonies. This distinguishes Chopin from the ardent nationalist and portrays him in that pioneering artist role so admired by the German Romantics.

The contemporary Polish musicologist Tadeusz Andrzej Zielinski points to subjective perception as the real method to discern the emotional component of Chopin’s nationalism:

“When talking about the emotions in Chopin’s music, one is bound to remember the ones which were born out of the emigree’s feelings for Poland and its fate and which are reflected not only in the national style of the Mazurkas and Polonaises, but reach much deeper, too. The strong patriotic feelings expressed by Chopin in his letters and notes are also emblazoned on his music. To recognise and share them is, however, a matter of intuition and sensitivity on the part of the pianist and the listener.”

From this viewpoint, neither objective scholarly analysis of Chopin’s scores nor the intrepid reseach of the ethonomusicologist will divulge the Polish character of the music: it is rather a matter of intutition on the part of the observer. According to another Polish musicologist, Prof. Regina Smendzianka, performers who fail to acquire Polish “culture, customs, history and psychology” will never be able to interpret properly Chopin’s mazurkas and polonaises, regardless of their technical prowess. She also posits that a performer’s inablility to intuit the “Polish national spirit” of Chopin is bound to lead to artistic failure. Of course, intuition excludes reason and is parallel to that “leap of faith” theologians so frequently invoke when no logical or reasonable proof is at hand.

The British Chopin researcher Jim Samson in his thoughtful, analytical 1986 biography “The Music of Chopin” is willing to allow that Chopin may have been a “reluctant nationalist,” although he points out that Chopin vociferously rejected all the pressures from his expatriate Polish colleagues in Paris to write a nationalistic opera or some kind of instrumental program music to glorify the Polish cause. This sort of project, Samson notes, Chopin left to the Polish composers who remained at home in partitioned Poland, and the results, Samson dryly adds, speak for themselves.

Perhaps the insistence of the Polish lobby on the unassailable character of Chopin’s nationalist contribution is a diguised lament for a Polish musical movement that did not come to pass, unlike, for example, the Czech musical dynasty that began with Smetana, and was continued by Dvorák, Suk and Janácek. Samson concludes that “Chopin laid the foundations upon which a Polish style might have been built, which is not to claim that his music embodies indigenous qualities of Polishness.”

Karol Szymanowski, a Polish composer of note who straddled the last two centuries and proved influential in the post-World War I era of Polish music history, also described Chopin’s great nationalist contribution in terms of what might have become.

“Chopin was an eternal example of what Polish music was capable of achieving – a symbol of Europeanized Poland, losing nothing of his national features but standing on the highest pinnacle of European culture.”

I have saved for my conclusion the one comment from Chopin himself that appears to speak to the composer’s intention to raise the flag of Polish nationalism through his music.

“The Official Bulletin declared that the Poles should be as proud of me as the Germans are of Mozart—obvious nonsense.”

© Kenneth Herman

While teaching music history at San Diego State University, Ken Herman was hired to write occasional music reviews for the San Diego Union Tribune. When the Los Angeles Times started producing its San Diego Edition, he became the classical music reviewer for that edition throughout its San Diego run. Since then he has written freelance and now covers classical music for