Scientists have been trying to solve a 169-year-old mystery surrounding the cause of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin’s untimely death at the age of 39.
He was described as having a poetic genius combined with a professional technique that was unequalled in his generation. The Warsaw-born composer has attained legendary status in the years since his death in 1849.
His life was cut tragically short after he had shown signs of serious illness, which modern-day doctors now believe may have been cystic fibrosis. In the 19th century, the condition hadn’t been recognised and Chopin went largely untreated, which appears to have hastened his demise.
A virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era, Chopin composed music mainly for solo piano. His beautiful compositions, such as arguably his most famous work, Nocturne Op.9 No.2, are recognised as timeless classics.
This haunting piece of music is among Chopin’s most popular compositions and has been used on the soundtrack of many modern films.
It was on the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever in 1977, Blue Lagoon in 1980, Bad Santa in 2003, The Wedding Ringer in 2015 and Passage to Mars in 2016, to name but a few. It was also on the soundtrack of the documentary, The Heart Dances – the Journey of The Piano: the Ballet.
The composer’s Mazurka No.13 in A minor, Op.17, No.4, was on the soundtrack of the 1987 epic, Empire of the Sun, Prelude No.4 in E minor, Op.28, No.4 was on the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack in 2015 and Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor, Op.35: III featured in a number of films, including the iconic Citizen Kane in 1941, Fanny and Alexander in 1982, Space Jam in 1996 and Paradise Road in 1997.
An opera was written in 1901 about Chopin, with a score that combined more than 100 of his melodies. The Italian composer, Giacomo Orefice, adapted the composer’s music into an opera, with each of the four acts representing a “season” in his life, beginning with spring and his youth in Poland.
How it all began
Chopin was born in March 1810 and showed an aptitude for music from a very early age, becoming a child prodigy in his native Poland. After receiving organ lessons at the Warsaw Lyceum from 1823 to 1826, he began a three-year course at Warsaw Conservatory, studying composition, music theory and the musical notation system, figured bass.
He was already composing and giving public recitals across Warsaw by this time. The first of his works to be commercially published was Rondo Op.1 in June 1825, which earned him his first mention in the foreign press.
Having moved to Paris, he continued to write music, although reduced the number of public performances which he gave, supporting himself by giving piano lessons and selling his music instead.
Most of his songs were written for a solo pianist, although he also wrote several chamber pieces, two piano concertos and 19 songs with Polish lyrics.
He spent time in Berlin and mingled with royalty in 1829, when he was a guest of the governor of the Grand Duchy of Posen, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł – a composer and cellist himself. Chopin wrote Introduction and Polonaise Brillante in C Major for Cello and Piano Op.3 for the prince and his daughter, Wanda, who was an aspiring pianist.
He was in Vienna when the November 1830 uprising occurred in Poland, so he was unable to return to his native country. After the dissent was crushed, he felt anguished. Later, friends said these events in his native country led to his maturing into an inspired bard.
Living in Paris, he mingled with many musicians, artists and other distinguished individuals, including French composer Hector Berlioz, Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, German composer Ferdinand Hiller and poet Adam Mickiewicz, who was principal of the Polish Literary Society. Chopin set some of Mickiewicz’s poems to music.
He attained celebrity status after his famous contemporary, Robert Schumann, reviewed Chopin’s Op.2 Variations in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, describing him as a “genius”. Chopin’s concert on 26th February 1832 at the Salle Pleyel drew international acclaim.
After being introduced to the wealthy Rothschild banking family, he found new horizons had been opened up to him. Helped by his fastidious appearance, excellent manners and sensitive demeanour, he became popular in the great houses of Paris as a pianist and a piano teacher.
Chopin began to suffer from increasingly poor health in the late 1830s and 1840s. He frequently had respiratory infections and had a permanent cough, which was worse in the morning. He first had the cough at the age of 15 and it persisted for the remainder of his life. He had infections of both the upper and lower respiratory tracts, which were more severe in winter.
In 1836, the composer met the French author Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin, who went by the pen name of George Sand. They began a relationship in 1838 and moved to Majorca in Spain with Sand’s two children, hoping that the climate may improve Chopin’s health.
However, when the local community heard rumours that Chopin had tuberculosis, they were hounded out of their residence and had to find lodgings in a remote former monastery in Valldemossa, where the conditions were inhospitably cold when winter came.
Chopin’s health deteriorated gradually and they returned to France in 1939. They spent summers at Nohant (Sand’s country house), where the climate was warmer. Chopin again made money by composing and teaching piano – they were productive times, musically.
In 1848, his relationship with Sand ended and the composer’s health worsened. His final public appearance was at the London Guildhall on 16th November 1848, when he played for the benefit of Polish refugees. He died the following year in Paris, on 17th October.
At the time of his death, Chopin was thought to have tuberculosis. However, his physical shape during his lifetime pointed to the fact he may have had cystic fibrosis, as he was 5ft 6ins tall, but weighed only around seven stone for most of his life.
He appeared emaciated and would lose weight after respiratory infections – he was always affected by a chronic cough. His condition seemed similar to the symptoms of cystic fibrosis, including a persistent cough (at times with phlegm), regular lung infections, shortness of breath, wheezing and poor weight gain, even when eating well.
In 2014, Chopin’s heart (which had been preserved in alcohol at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw) was removed from its final resting place by scientists for a visual examination to try and determine the cause of death.
Forensic and genetic scientists had hoped to carry out physical tissue tests, but this was opposed on moral grounds from many quarters, including Chopin’s sister’s great-great-granddaughter, the former director of Poland’s Chopin Institute and Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, the Archbishop of Warsaw.
The visual examination revealed that the heart was enlarged, suggesting respiratory problems, but the examination was inconclusive. Cystic fibrosis wasn’t officially recognised until 1938, when American pathologist Dr Dorothy Andersen described the condition. It appears Chopin’s medical condition will remain shrouded in mystery.
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