Chopin: Poland’s “Cannons Buried in Flowers”

Between 1772 and 1795, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy divided and annexed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth amongst themselves in a series of three partitions.

Though one of the largest and most populous countries in 16th– and 17th-century Europe, decades of protracted political, military and economic decline led the country to the brink of civil war, made it vulnerable to foreign influences, and ultimately rendered it unable to withstand the onslaught brought by the encroaching powers, even in spite of a revolutionary new constitution, a war in its defense and an uprising led by Tadeusz Kosciuszko. (As a side note, Kosciuszko was also a decorated hero of the American Revolutionary War and an accomplished military architect who designed and oversaw the construction of state-of-the-art fortifications, including those at West Point.)

Tadeusz Kosciuszko

While a few contemporary scholars and politicians called out the partitions as a violation of international law or criticized their immorality, most were content to accept the explanations of the “enlightened apologists” of the partitioning states, since the partitions themselves retained an equilibrium in the balance of power on the European continent. Among the rationalizations of these apologists were the arguments, for instance, that Poland’s liberum veto (based on the principle that all noblemen were equal, this device allowed a single member of the legislature to force an immediate end to the current parliamentary session and nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session) was so counterproductive as to prevent decision-making, especially on divisive issues such as wide-scale social reform, and that ethnically non-Polish populations like the Belarussians and Ukrainians were more similar in culture, language and religion to the Russians and therefore belonged under Russian rule. Only two countries in the world refused to accept the partitions: the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire.

Just because Poland was not on the map between 1795 and 1918, however, did not mean that Poland did not continue to live on in the souls of the Polish people. Those 123 years were marked by a series of uprisings and wars. Perhaps the most notable of these was the November Uprising of 1830-1831, after which many of the military interned by the Prussians and Austrians decided to emigrate west, largely to France, rather than return to the Russian partition and a tsar who, in spite of announcing amnesty, later sent many participants of the Uprising to Siberia or the Caucasus.

Wojciech Kossak. Clash between Polish insurgents and Russian cuirassiers on bridge in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park (1898)

The first wave of Polish emigrants of what became known as the Great Emigration arrived in France in October 1831. These were mainly representative of the authorities, as well as rich civilians and soldiers. Both an aristocratic government-in-exile and a Polish democratic movement were soon established, and communities of writers, artists and the intelligentsia flourished, all while maintaining contacts with their homeland and trying to use the freedoms afforded to them in the West to develop the national Polish spirit, popularize knowledge about Poland in the societies of their host countries, and organize further action at home through emissaries.

The artists of the Great Emigration included the pillars of Polish Romantic poetry, but with a substantial language barrier, it was a musical genius who brought the Polish national spirit to the rest of the world: Fryderyk Chopin. Following musical successes at home and pursuing his career as a composer and performer, Chopin had left Poland for Vienna just weeks before the November Uprising broke out. Nostalgia, regret and guilt set in almost immediately, only to be exacerbated at the failure of the uprising.

Fryderyk Chopin

Chopin’s nationalism has been the subject of much debate since Schumann’s 1836 review of the piano concertos. In Chopin’s music, some see the heart and soul of an entire nation, while others argue for the primacy of his musical connections to Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.

The “Polish character” of Chopin’s work is unquestionable; not because he also wrote polonaises and mazurkas … which forms … were often stuffed with alien ideological and literary contents from the outside. … As an artist he looked for forms that stood apart from the literary-dramatic character of music which was a feature of Romanticism, as a Pole he reflected in his work the very essence of the tragic break in the history of the people and instinctively aspired to give the deepest expression of his nation … For he understood that he could invest his music with the most enduring and truly Polish qualities only by liberating art from the confines of dramatic and historical contents. This attitude toward the question of “national music” – an inspired solution to his art – was the reason why Chopin’s works have come to be understood everywhere outside of Poland … Therein lies the strange riddle of his eternal vigour.

Karol Szymanowski, composer and pianist, 1923

He did undoubtedly, though, incorporate distinctly Polish musical forms, modes, styles and even melodies throughout his works. Aside from the inclusion of the melody of beloved 17th-century Christmas carol “Lulajże Jezuniu” (“Lullaby, Jesus”) into his Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, perhaps most visible are his series of works based on Polish national dances, chiefly the polonaise and the mazur (known in Chopin’s oeuvre by the French “mazurka”). Especially in the mazurkas, we see the distinctly Polish mixture of major and minor modes, as well as the appearance of the so-called “Polish mode,” which is one of the oldest European scales and consists of the first six notes of the Lydian mode with a sharpened 4th.

In the mazurkas, we also see a significant amount of rubato, which, together with the trademark dotted rhythms and irregular accents, is intrinsic to the mazur itself. The late Professor Jan Gorbaty, a noted scholar of Polish music, goes so far as to call this rubato the “very soul” of Polish folk music. Neither Chopin nor his pupils left an explanation for rubato, and no definite rules are involved. Most likely, Chopin’s rubato was based on the expressive rubato employed by Italian Bel Canto singers, who also influenced his improvisational approach to composition and the sweetness and grace of his melodies.

Indeed, it is these three elements – Chopin’s improvisational approach, his sweet melodies and his incorporation of rubato – that demand a high level of emotional intelligence and artistry from the musician. Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM Edition), the oldest and largest music publisher in present-day Poland and publisher of the complete works of Chopin in editions edited by composer and pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and in modern Urtext editions, has produced a video with pianist, teacher and writer Andrew Eales, in which Eales instructs us how to approach Chopin’s Preludes both artistically and technically and even gives us some revelatory fingering techniques:

This video is part of “Music from Chopin’s Land,” a campaign and international educational project by PWM Edition to bring works by Polish composers closer to audiences worldwide. With tutorials in English, French, German, Italian and Japanese, as well as a series of performances, the series tackles piano pieces by Paderewski, Szymanowska, Moniuszko, and many others.

It is well worth exploring these other Polish composers. Some have written music more deeply rooted in Polish folk traditions than Chopin, while others have moved far away from those themes and sentiments. All are lodged in the Polish national consciousness, but none with roots as deep as Chopin, who continues to inspire prestigious institutes and global competitions as much as his music continues to ring in Polish ears, as Robert Schumann so deftly noted, as “cannons buried in flowers.”

Just as the heart of Poland lies still today with Chopin, so too does Chopin’s heart lie in Poland. Days before his death in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39, knowing that he would never again see his homeland, Chopin asked that his body be cut open before burial and his heart sent to Warsaw. Accordingly, his heart was cut out and sealed in a crystal jar, and his eldest sister, Ludwika, smuggled it past the Russian authorities to the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw where it was buried beneath a small monument.

Chopin’s Heart. Holy Cross Church, Warsaw.