Quick! Name a famous Polish composer!
Chances are we all thought of the same guy: Frédéric Chopin. Born in 1810 to a French father and a Polish mother, in Żelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. As a child I was slightly obsessed with the man: not so much with his music, but with his plight. When I was about six, my parents bought me a record called ‘The Life of Chopin,’ a kind of radio play, specially for young listeners. In one of the final tracks, you heard “the composer” playing his Prelude in D Major — commonly known as the ‘Raindrop Prelude’ — interspersed met ominous coughing and hoarse whispers of ‘Poland… Poland…’ That, combined with the image of the decidedly non-tubercular Cornell Wilde in the 1940’s Chopin film A Song to Remember — which for some reason was broadcast in 1963 every night for a week, and which, because I had to go to bed at 7:30, I never saw more than half an hour of (5 times) — only served to fuel my compassion.
By now, my image of Chopin has undergone some revision, I’ve heard and loved much more of his music than just the Raindrop Prelude, and I’ve watched A Song to Remember all the way to the end. I also spent an afternoon last October at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, where I learned that there was yet another Chopin Museum, in the Czech spa town of Mariánské Lázně. Apparently Mariánské Lázně (or ‘Marienbad’, as it was called in those days) is “one of the few places in central Europe not to claim Mozart as one of its sons, but Frédéric François Chopin.” The town even hosts an annual Chopin festival, because “during his lifetime, Chopin loved to visit Mariánské Lázně, and the town has never forgotten his loyalty.”
Why was Chopin so fond of Mariánské Lázně? I suppose the most likely explanation is that the composer, whose health was already beginning to deteriorate, was “taking the waters.” And of course, it was an place to see and be seen (and heard). But there was more: there was Maria Wodzińska.
“Chopin found a kind of refuge in the Czech Republic at several points in his life,” explains Maciej Ruczaj of the Polish Institute in Prague, “He stayed in Marienbad and Prague [and Karlsbad, now Karlový Vary, SK] for several months, especially when he wasn’t able to go back to Poland because of the Russian repression after the Polish uprising against the Russian occupation in 1830 and 1831.” In early September, 1835, on his way back to Paris from Karlsbad, Chopin stopped for a few days in Dresden and met the Polish Wodziński family and their dark-haired, dark-eyed, sixteen-year-old daughter Maria. He had met her once before, five years earlier: “I used to chase her through the rooms at Pszenny in days gone by,” he wrote. Now she was “an enchanting young woman,” and he fell in love with her. (One source suggests that, homesick for Poland as he was, he may actually have fallen in love with her “Polish-ness.”) A year later he saw her again: he had heard that the Wodzińskis were spending a month in Marienbad and set out immediately, uninvited, to join them there, even taking a room at the same hotel. Not much is known about those weeks, because “Frédéric did not write any letters and devoted all his time to resting, or taking long walks with his beloved Maria Wodzińska, as well as giving frequent concerts for friends and numerous acquaintances from Poland, all of whom continually pressed him to play for them.” (Maria herself recorded the visit in a series of watercolor portraits of the composer.) By the time the month was over, the couple was engaged to be married, but eventually Maria married someone else and Frédéric was devastated. He wrapped her letters in a bundle, tied it with a pink ribbon and labeled it ‘My Sorrow.’ Thirteen years later, when the composer died of tuberculosis, the bundle of letters was found among his belongings.
There was one good thing to come out of all this: Chopin’s ‘Valse de l’adieu,’ inscribed Pour Mlle Marie, which he wrote for Maria on a September morning in 1835. The Farewell Waltz. As if he knew what lay ahead.
(Oberon played ‘George Sand,’ Maria’s successor)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3Z2mrpqtRo (a special treat)
Steen, M., The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, Icon, London, 2003.
Eisler, B., Chopin’s Funeral, Vintage, New York, 2003.
Zamojski, A., Chopin: Prince of the Romantics, HarperPress, London, 2011.