Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Travels of Chopin's Heart

Frederic Chopin, one of the greatest musical composers of all time, was born near Warsaw, Poland, in 1810. Twenty years later, he traveled to Paris, choosing to live in self-exile rather than under repression of Imperial Russia. Twenty years after his move, Chopin lay gasping for breath on his death bed, whispering a final request: "Remove my heart after I die and entomb it in Poland." Chopin had possessed a fear of being buried alive. Removal of his heart would not only ensure this never happened, but that part of him would return to his beloved homeland.

While the composer's body has rested in peace at Paris' famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery, his heart has endured a wild journey of intrigue:

1. It was first sealed in a jar of cognac liquor.

2. His sister, Ludwika, smuggled it under her skirts past Russian border guards to Chopin's hometown of Warsaw.

3. The heart was kept in the family for several years, and then...

4. ... passed through the hands of several relatives.

5. It was eventually enshrined within a pillar in central Warsaw's Baroque Holy Cross Church.

6. During World War II, Chopin's heart fell into the clutches of the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Germans felt the organ rightfully belonged to them due to the musical influence they believed Germanys' great composers had had on Chopin. Going block by block, the Nazis would slaughter 200,000 Poles in retribution for the would-be revolution, yet they took great pains to preserve the composer's relic.

7. After the war, the heart was returned to the Polish church with ceremony meant to show German respect towards the composer.

8. The organ has been subsequently exhumed several times.

9. The most recent exhumation was conducted in a secret operation this year.

For years, Chopin experts had petitioned to carry out genetic testing on the heart to establish whether the sickly genius died of tuberculosis (as is generally believed), cystic fibrosis (a disease unknown at the time) or from some other cause. Their efforts had been, however, stymied by the Polish church and government. As custodians of the heart, all requests had been refused partly because of opposition from one of Chopin's distant relatives. This year, however, consent was finally granted to a superficial inspection after a forensic scientist raised the alarm that the alcohol could have evaporated over the years, leaving the heart to dry up and darken.

Thus, thirteen people -- sworn to secrecy -- gathered in the dark sanctuary of Holy Cross Church on April 14, 2015. The group, focused and in whispers, removed the heart from its resting place to take more than 1,000 photos of it and add hot wax to the jar's seal to prevent evaporation. Prayers were recited over the heart as it was returned to its niche. Although these photos were not released to the public, it was reported that the heart appeared as an enlarged white lump submerged in an amber-colored fluid within a crystal jar.

Interested scientists will have another chance to conduct their genetic tests on the heart when the next exhumation occurs -- scheduled 50 years from now.

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