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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Fryderyk Chopin

A Life and Times

Alan Walker




The Child is father of the Man.

—William Wordsworth1


In 1787 a sixteen-year-old youth named Nicolas Chopin left his native France and journeyed a thousand miles across Europe—to Poland. Until modern times it was impossible to speculate about his reasons. The youth broke completely with his past and in later life he kept from his children all knowledge of their humble French relations. Nicolas Chopin embraced Poland as if it were his native land. He generated a powerful sense of patriotism that was to become the single most unifying influence in the life of his closely knit family. We now know that Nicolas was born in the village of Marainville, in the province of Lorraine, on April 15, 1771. This information and the attendant details of his lowly origins might never have come to light had it not been for the fact that he was forced to declare them when he retired as a professor of French at the School of Artillery and Military Engineering in Warsaw, the only way he could qualify for a pension. On this application he stated not only that he was born in Marainville, but also that his father was François Chopin (1738–1814) and his mother was Marguerite Deflin (1736–94). The file was buried in Russian archives, Warsaw at that time being under Russian rule, and was only brought to light in 1925.2 It was then but a short step to consult the register of births and deaths in Marainville to complete the rest of the story. We learn that Nicolas’s father was a wheelwright by trade, whose marriage had produced two other children—Anne (1769–1845) and Marguerite (1775–1845). They were Fryderyk Chopin’s aunts. It is one of the abiding puzzles of Chopin’s family background that even as he enjoyed his greatest fame in Paris, these two elderly ladies lived less than three hundred kilometers away, unaware of their famous nephew, and he of them. After his retirement François Chopin abandoned his trade of wheelwright and became a vintner. By an odd coincidence Nicolas Chopin, at the moment of his own retirement, also took up the cultivation of grapes, in the somewhat more hostile climate of Poland, and proudly informed his famous son of the success he was having with his new pastime.

Marainville, where Nicolas was brought up, possessed strong Polish ties. Ever since Louis XV had conferred the title of Duke of Lorraine and Bar on his father-in-law, the deposed Polish king Stanislaw Leszczynski, in 1737, large numbers of exiled Polish aristocrats and their families had gravitated to the province. The Polish population of Lorraine grew even further after the First Partition of Poland in 1772 by the country’s traditional enemies, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Soon the province possessed a thriving community of Polish émigrés, where the language and customs of the mother country were everywhere to be found. In 1780 the château of Marainville was purchased by a Polish nobleman, Count Michal Jan Pac. It was here that the ten-year-old Nicolas caught the attention of the count’s estate manager, a Pole named Adam Weydlich, whose sophisticated Paris-born wife, Françoise, took the boy under her wing, developed his social skills, and arranged for him to take lessons on the flute and violin—instruments on which he remained modestly proficient. He also discovered the works of Voltaire, whose writings he liked to quote in later life. It was a relatively privileged existence for Nicolas. By nature he was industrious, loyal, and thrifty, characteristics he exhibited all his life, and it is possible that by his mid-teens he had already acquired a sound knowledge of the Polish language, which he heard spoken all around him. With the death of Count Pac in 1787, the château and its surrounding lands were sold off to pay the count’s debts, and the Weydlichs, perhaps fearing the social upheavals of the approaching French Revolution, went back to Warsaw, taking young Nicolas with them. The youth lived for a time in the home of Weydlich’s brother Franciszek, a teacher of German and Latin at Warsaw’s so-called Knights’ School for military cadets. It used to be thought that during these early years in Warsaw, Nicolas worked as an accountant in a tobacco factory formerly owned by Count Pac, a job for which his knowledge of bookkeeping and business transactions would certainly have fitted him—Weydlich had often entrusted him with matters concerning the Pac estate. But that idea has recently been jettisoned in favor of one that is better documented. On February 22, 1788, the Weydlichs announced in the Warsaw Gazette that they planned to open a boarding school for girls, promising proficiency in French. We detect the hand of Mme Françoise Weydlich in this enterprise, who saw in the seventeen-year-old Nicolas a potential language instructor whose fluent French was his (and their) greatest asset. His first two pupils were the children of Adam Weydlich—Henryka and Michal. We must also mention another pupil, ten-year-old Jan Dekert, who came along shortly afterward and with whose family Nicolas forged bonds of friendship. Dekert became a priest, and as Bishop Jan Dekert he delivered a moving funeral oration over the coffin of his old mentor, in May 1844, from which some important details of Nicolas’s early years in Poland may be gleaned.3

What sort of city would have greeted Nicolas Chopin as he alighted from the stagecoach in that unsettled autumn of 1787? The English travel writer William Coxe left a graphic description of Warsaw at this time. It was populated by Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Russians, Jews, and of course Poles. Coxe marveled at “the prodigious number of foreigners” in a city of no more than seventy thousand inhabitants. This volatile mixture of solitudes has been memorably described as “a melting-pot that never melted”—always simmering and ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. And there were provocations aplenty at this moment in Warsaw’s turbulent history. Coxe wrote:

The whole town has a melancholy appearance, exhibiting that strong contrast of wealth and poverty, luxury and distress, which pervade every part of this unhappy country. The streets are spacious, but ill-paved; the churches and public buildings are large and magnificent; the palaces of the nobility are numerous and splendid; but the greatest part of the houses, particularly in the suburbs, are mean and ill-constructed wooden hovels.4

Nicolas was far from home and he gave serious thought to returning to France; but he himself tells us that he fell ill and twice delayed the decision. And so he stayed, lived with the Weydlichs, and taught French at their school for the next four years. It was a time of growing political unrest in Poland, and it coincided with the opening of the Great Sejm (or Parliament), which promised fundamental freedoms for the Poles, enshrined in the celebrated Constitution of May 3, 1791, a document that was modeled in part on the American Constitution of 1788. Caught up in the rising tide of nationalism that was sweeping the country, Nicolas adopted the Polish form of his name, Mikolaj, which he never abandoned, and which we therefore propose to use throughout our narrative. His decision to remain in Poland rested on a practical consideration: he might have faced military conscription in the French army had he returned to Lorraine. In a solitary surviving letter to his parents Nicolas/Mikolaj told them, “I would regret leaving here, only to become a soldier, even in my own country.”5 When he penned these lines, he had no idea that within three years he would join Warsaw’s civilian militia, be placed in charge of his own detachment of men, and fight alongside soldiers in the Polish army.

In 1793, Russia, under Catherine the Great, invaded Poland in an attempt to quell the threat of a growing movement for national independence, and together with her Prussian ally partitioned the country for a second time, virtually tearing Poland’s new constitution to shreds. The Poles rose up against their oppressors and won some impressive victories on the battlefield under the banner of the Polish national hero General Tadeusz Kosciuszko. During the crucial Battle of Maciejowice (October 10, 1794), Kosciuszko was wounded and taken prisoner.6 The Poles fought a series of rearguard actions and fell back on the Warsaw suburb of Praga, on the right bank of the Vistula, where they took up defensive positions. On November 3, a Russian army of seventeen thousand soldiers under the command of General Alexander Suvorov reached the outskirts of Praga and began a fierce artillery barrage. This led the Poles to think that Suvorov planned a long siege, but under cover of darkness the Russians took the Polish defenders by surprise. The Battle of Praga began at three o’clock the following morning, November 4. Just before Russian troops overran the area, Mikolaj Chopin and the detachment of men under his command were ordered to take up a fresh position elsewhere in the city, which is how he survived the massacre that followed. In defiance of orders given by General Suvorov to his troops, the Russians went on a rampage, looting, burning, and raping as they went along, and by the time that Praga fell, upwards of twenty thousand men, women, and children had been slaughtered. This was carnage on an unprecedented scale, carried out against a civilian population, and it became seared in the memory of the nation. As General Suvorov was later to write, “The whole of Praga was strewn with dead bodies, blood was flowing in streams.”7 He reported his victory to the Russian empress, Catherine the Great, with three words: “Hurrah—Praga—Suvorov.” Catherine replied with equal brevity: “Bravo Field Marshal, Catherine.” His promotion to the rank of Field Marshal as a reward for what history recognizes as the “Massacre of Praga” stained his reputation and that of the Russian army he commanded. With Poland now surrounded on three sides by Russia, Prussia, and Austria (a late arrival at the banquet table, gorging on the spoils of war), the uprising was doomed. The country was partitioned in 1795 for the third time, and sovereign Poland disappeared from the map. It was not restored until the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919. Napoléon made a small territorial adjustment in 1807 when he created the Duchy of Warsaw, into which Fryderyk Chopin was born. And after Napoléon’s defeat the so-called Congress Kingdom was created by the victorious powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1815; but it was little more than a vassal state that lacked sovereignty, and it fell entirely under Russian dominion when Tsar Alexander I had himself crowned King of Poland a few years later. It is difficult to improve on the despairing but entirely appropriate description attached to the Poland of those times by one of its leading historians, Norman Davies, who dubbed it “God’s Playground.”


The catastrophic history of Poland, with its hundreds of thousands of dead, was an open wound that soaked the fabric of the nation with its blood. It is impossible to write a life of Chopin without taking these turbulent times into account, because throughout his childhood and adolescence there were countless families known to the young composer whose lives had been devastated by the conflicts that marked Poland’s constant struggle for sovereignty. The soldiers who joined Napoléon’s Polish Legion, and fought with his Grande Armée against Russia in 1812, were the stuff of legend while Chopin was growing up. A total of 98,000 of them fought with the French when Napoléon attacked and took Moscow. The Polish lancers of the Vistula region were the first troops to enter the city, and when he was forced to withdraw they protected Napoléon’s flanks. Of the original 98,000 members of the Polish Legion, only 26,000 returned home.8 For a generation or more these old campaigners—survivors of the battles of Maciejowice, Ostroleka, and Borodino—could be seen walking the streets of Warsaw, with missing limbs, and saber-scarred hands and faces, a daily reminder of the sufferings endured by the population at large. Like other Polish children of his generation, the young Chopin was utterly familiar with such sights. The most famous of these veterans was General Józef Sowinski, who lost a leg during the Napoléonic campaign of 1812, and now walked with the help of a prosthesis. This national hero was affectionately referred to as “the soldier with the wooden leg.” He played a prominent role in the Polish Uprising of 1831, and was killed during the defense of Warsaw in September of that year. Chopin mourned his loss in his “Stuttgart Diary,” referring to Sowinski as “that fine patriot.”

After the Third Partition in 1795, and all the uncertainties that came in its wake, Mikolaj was thrown back on his own resources. Since the Weydlichs had closed their school he had led a peripatetic existence, earning a living as a French tutor to the children of several wealthy Polish families in Warsaw, before moving to the region of Kalisz in 1797. There his reputation as a reliable and trustworthy teacher flourished. The following year he moved to the village of Szafarnia, in the province of Mazovia, where he became the resident tutor of the wealthy Dziewanowski family, owners of the large estate there, forming lifelong bonds of friendship with them. (Many years later Fryderyk Chopin spent his summer holidays at Szafarnia in the company of his father.) Mikolaj then moved to the estate of Czerniewo as tutor to the young children of the wealthy Laczynski family, one of whose daughters was to find a place in history as the future Marie Walewska, the mistress of Napoléon and the mother of his son Alexandre Walewski. This early period of Mikolaj’s career came to a close in 1802 when he gained a new position as tutor to the five children of Countess Ludwika Skarbek at her estate at Zelazowa Wola, which lay about sixty kilometers west of Warsaw.


In light of the central role that she and her children were to play in the lives of the Chopin family, a few words about Countess Ludwika Skarbek (1765–1827) are in order. She was the daughter of Jakub Fenger, one of the richest bankers in Torun, the city where she was born. The family’s wealth brought her an offer of marriage from Count Kacper Skarbek, who emerges from the literature as a ne’er-do-well and a fortune hunter, someone who introduced much misery into Ludwika’s life. Kacper arrived on the scene with a checkered past and a mountain of debt. After abducting a young girl, Justyna Dambska, from her family home and marrying her when he was barely eighteen years old, he abandoned her a few years later, leaving her with three young children and a line of creditors knocking at the door. The marriage was annulled around 1789.9 Kacper was not wrong to see in Ludwika his possible salvation. On the day of the nuptials, in 1791, Kacper’s new father-in-law, Jakub Fenger, paid off his debts, settled a large dowry on the bride, and bought the pair the estate of Modzerowo in western Poland as a wedding gift. For Kacper it was déjà vu all over again. He proceeded to sire five children with Ludwika, squander a second fortune through what was described as his “lordly and riotous” lifestyle, and then flee from his creditors, seeking sanctuary abroad and settling in the Grand Duchy of Poznan, where his pursuers had no leverage over him.10 The long-suffering Ludwika filed for a Protestant divorce (she was brought up as a Lutheran), which was granted in 1806. She was forty-one years old. Showing commendable resourcefulness, as well as something of her father’s business acumen, she began purchasing after the latter’s death in 1798 several properties in her own name, including the estate at Zelazowa Wola in 1799, in order to protect herself from Kacper’s creditors.

All Ludwika’s children were under ten years of age when they arrived at their new home in Zelazowa Wola: Fryderyk Florian (1792–1866), Anna Emilia (1793–1873), Anastazy-Teodor (1795–1812), Michal (1796–1834), and Kazimierz (c. 1800–1805). They quickly fell under the spell of their newly arrived French tutor, Mikolaj Chopin, the slender, self-assured gentleman with black hair and dark eyes who liked to quote Voltaire. He gained their affection with his quiet authority and his ability to arouse their curiosity in the world around them. After their lessons, conducted in both Polish and French, Mikolaj would sometimes take his pupils out of doors, where they would sit under the tall chestnut trees near the manor house, and regale them with stories about their country’s history. Sometimes they would wander along the banks of the Utrata River, which ran through the estate, and explore the local geography, taking notes on ornithology and botany. A pause at the old water mill might lead to a spontaneous discussion on the magic of hydraulics, and how the power of water properly harnessed could transform the economy of an estate.

No topic was too abstruse for a question-and-answer session between the children and their young tutor. Mikolaj came to be regarded as a member of the family; he joined the countess and her fledglings for meals, and became a beloved authority figure. He treated his young charges not as children but as small adults, and for that they gave him their boundless respect. Mikolaj formed a special bond with Fryderyk Skarbek, Ludwika’s eldest son, whose intellect he helped to shape, and who became not only a man of letters and a professor of economics at Warsaw University, but also Fryderyk Chopin’s godfather.

Countess Ludwika liked to invite her Warsaw friends to visit Zelazowa Wola and join her for weekend house parties. Concerts were a regular feature of family life, as they were at most of the great Polish estates, and when the week’s work was done friends and neighbors would gather in the drawing room of the manor house to enjoy whatever entertainment had been arranged. It may have been in response to one such invitation, in 1805, that Dr. Samuel Bogumil Linde, the rector of the recently established Warsaw Lyceum, turned up at Zelazowa Wola, where he formed a friendship with Mikolaj Chopin and took an interest in the latter’s teenage pupil Fryderyk Skarbek. Years earlier Countess Ludwika had been Linde’s pupil in Torun and it was natural that she now wanted the education of her eldest son to be placed in the care of her former tutor. Within a few months, and with a bit of extra coaching from Mikolaj, young Skarbek passed the entrance examinations and became one of the first students at the Lyceum. Many years later, when he looked back on these halcyon days at Zelazowa Wola, Fryderyk Skarbek wrote a fine tribute to his old mentor, whose personality he enshrined in his memoirs.

Mikolaj Chopin, this tutor under whose care I lived in a strange house, became my teacher, and after having spent several years with me and my brothers, was then appointed French master at the Warsaw Lyceum, where he taught until his old age, when he became eligible for a pension. He was neither an emigrant nor a spoiled priest, as were at that time most French tutors, who directed the trend of education of our young people into paths so uncharacteristic of the Polish nation. Chopin came to Poland before the French Revolution, as a clerk or accountant in a tobacco factory, established in Warsaw by one of his countrymen.11 He was not imbued either with the principles of exaggerated Republican liberty, or with the affected bigotry of the French emigrants; nor was he a Royalist infused with an idolatrous respect for the throne and the altar, but a moral, honest man who, devoting himself to the upbringing of young Poles, never attempted to turn them into Frenchmen or to inculcate in them the principles then reigning in France. With respect for the Poles, and with gratitude towards the people in whose land he had found a hospitable reception and a suitable way of earning his living, he sincerely repaid his debt of gratitude by the conscientious upbringing of their offspring to be useful citizens. By his sojourn of many years in our country, through his amicable relations with Polish homes, but chiefly through his marriage to a Polish lady, and hence through the bonds of matrimony … he became a Pole indeed … Under this revered teacher, who was until his death the best friend of myself and of all my family, I received my first inclination towards learning, which at the time when I first went to school, rested more on a general development of mental power than on any training in particular subjects.12

The death of Ludwika’s five-year-old son Kazimierz in 1805, following so hard on the heels of her abandonment by Kacper Skarbek, provided her with an incentive to find someone to help her stabilize the household. When she heard that Jakub Krzyzanowski, a longtime administrator of one her estates, had died and left his daughter Justyna in impoverished circumstances, Ludwika offered the young woman shelter and brought her to Zelazowa Wola as a housekeeper, where she met Mikolaj Chopin. Justyna Krzyzanowska was twenty-four years old and since she had no estate was probably considered (by the standards of the time) unmarriageable. Ludwika played the role of matchmaker and Justyna and Mikolaj, who was already thirty-five and regarded as a confirmed bachelor, were married within a year of their first meeting.


Tekla Justyna Krzyzanowska, Chopin’s mother, occupied a special place within Ludwika’s family circle, where she was treated as an equal. It led to an unfounded assumption that the two families may have been related. Despite assiduous research by Polish scholars no such connection has ever been traced. Contrary to widespread assertions, Justyna’s family had no blood ties with the Skarbeks.13 It remains only to add that all the old virtues were present in Justyna’s character. She was an excellent housekeeper, careful with money, and endowed with a kind and loving disposition. Contemporary observers describe her as having typical Polish features with flaxen hair and sapphire-blue eyes—which the only known portrait of her, painted when she was forty-seven years old, does nothing to contradict. She was musical, sang beautifully, and may have played the piano well enough to accompany Mikolaj on his flute. Her singing voice would have been among the first sounds that the infant Chopin heard. One of her favorite songs was the Polish melody “Juz miesiac zeszedl” (“The Moon Has Risen”), which Chopin later incorporated into his youthful “Fantasy on Polish Airs,” op. 13.

Justyna was a devout Roman Catholic and a regular churchgoer, which provided the moral compass for her daily life, and incidentally for that of her children. She often took Chopin with her to the Catholic service in the Carmelite church on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, where she had him kneel in front of her pew and read from his prayer book, “humble and repentant.”14 Chopin adored her. Many years later George Sand observed that Justyna was the only woman whom Chopin had ever truly loved. On his deathbed he is said to have cried out for her just hours before he died.

The marriage of Mikolaj and Justyna took place on June 28, 1806,15 in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Roch and John the Baptist in the village of Brochów, the parish church of Zelazowa Wola. An entry in the church register runs:

I, Ignatius Maryanski, Curate of the Church, having called the banns on three Sundays in the presence of the congregation at divine service and having found no canonical impediment to the marriage between Mikolaj Chopin, gentleman, tutor at Zelazowa Wola, bachelor, and Justyna Krzyzanowska, spinster, have blessed and confirmed the contract legally according to the rites of the Church in the presence of Franciszek Grembecki, gentleman, and Karol Henke, gentleman.

After the wedding Mikolaj and Justyna moved into a modest tenement on the Skarbek estate that Ludwika made available for them. It resembled a bungalow with whitewashed walls shaded by trees, and lay not far from the manor house, where Justyna continued to supervise the running of the household and Mikolaj tutored the Skarbek children. It was in this simple dwelling that Chopin was born on March 1, 1810, at six o’clock in the evening. The place has meanwhile become a national shrine even though the infant spent only the first seven months of his life there.

Chopin was baptized in the Church of St. Roch in Brochów, where his parents had been married four years earlier. Owing to an inexplicable error, the curate registered the birth as “February 22.” All his life, however, Chopin and his family insisted that March 1 was his birthday, and they celebrated it accordingly. His correspondence furnishes us with ample proof of that fact.16 The baptism certificate reads:

23 April, 1810. I, the aforesaid [Józef Morawski, curate of Brochów], have performed the ceremony of baptism over the infant baptized with water [ex aqua] by the two names Fryderyk Franciszek, born on February 22 of Mikolaj Choppen [sic], Frenchman, and Justyna née Krzyzanowska, his legal spouse. The godparents: Franciszek Grembecki, gentleman, from the village of Ciepliny, and Countess Anna Skarbek, spinster, of Zelazowa Wola.

Chopin’s birthplace at Zelazowa Wola; a photograph (c. 1932). The obelisk in the foreground is a monument to Chopin’s memory, unveiled in the presence of the Russian composer Mily Balakirev in 1894.

The Latin words ex aqua draw attention. They refer to an earlier baptism carried out at home with ordinary water. Such “emergency baptisms” often took place where no priest was immediately available and the infant’s life might be in danger. Any Christian could fulfill this ritual and no declaration was required until the “fulfillment baptism” took place in church. In Chopin’s case, a comparison of his birth and baptismal certificates indicates a delay of several weeks, and carries the implication that his health was precarious from the start. Two of Countess Ludwika’s children were Chopin’s godparents, another indication of the closeness of the two families. Fryderyk Skarbek, after whom Chopin is named, was in Paris at the time of the ceremony, so Franciszek Grembecki acted as his proxy and it was from him that Chopin acquired his second name, Franciszek. Anna Skarbek, Chopin’s godmother, was Countess Skarbek’s seventeen-year-old daughter. The birth certificate, prepared on the same day, repeats the wrong date of birth.

In the year 1810, on April 23, at 3:00 p.m. Before me, the parish priest of Brochów, acting registrar of Brochów in the district of Sochaczew in the Department of Warsaw, there appeared Mikolaj Chopyn [sic], the father, aged forty domiciled in Zelazowa Wola, who showed me a male child which was born in his house on February 22 of this year at 6:00 o’clock in the evening, declaring that it was the child of himself and of Justyna born Krzyzanowska, aged twenty-eight, his spouse, and that it was his wish to give the child two names, Fryderyk Franciszek. After making this declaration, and showing me the child in the presence of Józef Wyrzykowski, bailiff, aged thirty-eight, and Fryderyk Geszt, aged forty, both domiciled in the village of Zelazowa Wola. The father and both witnesses after reading the present birth certificate declared that they could write. We have signed this document:

Fr. Jan Duchnowski,

parish priest of Brochów, acting registrar.

Mikolaj Chopin,

the father.

The signature of Mikolaj Chopin on a document bearing the wrong date of his son’s birth is a puzzle that remains unresolved. It has been suggested that Mikolaj may have signed the certificate before the details themselves were written down—an idea supported by the incongruous position of the signature. Mikolaj’s own name is misspelled twice, being rendered as “Chopyn” on the birth certificate and “Choppen” on the baptismal register, indicating some laxity on the part of the officiating clerics.17

Mikolaj and Justyna Chopin; a drawing by Ambrozy Mieroszewski (c. 1829).


Copyright © 2018 by Alan Walker

Maps copyright © 2018 by Bridget Whittle