Chopin's Heart

The heart of Fryderyk Chopin could hold the secret of his untimely death. The renowned 19th century Polish-French pianist and composer died at the age of 39, of what is believed to be tuberculosis. But leading Polish medical experts are betting that DNA tests on his heart - perfectly preserved in what appears to be cognac - could prove he suffered from cystic fibrosis. Their request to Poland's culture ministry for tissue samples to check for the CFTR gene marking cystic fibrosis suffers has, however, sparked mixed feelings over the prospect of picking over a national icon.

The Church of the Holy Cross, Warsaw from an old gravure print
The Church of the Holy Cross, Warsaw

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" reads the biblical passage inscribed on a pillar in Warsaw's sprawling and ornate baroque Church of the Holy Cross. There, inside a crystal urn filled with alcohol lies Chopin's heart, brought home in 1849 - as he had wished - by his elder sister Ludwicka from Paris, where the rest of his remains lie in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Leading Polish cystic fibrosis specialist Wojciech Cichy said the symptoms Chopin suffered were typical of cystic fibrosis, a genetic illness which clogs the lungs with excess thick and sticky mucus. "From early childhood he was weak, prone to chest infections, wheezing, coughing" Cichy said.

Records shows that as an adult weighing 40 kilos (about 88lbs) and 1.70 metres (5'6") tall, Chopin was chronically under weight - another tell-tale symptom of cystic fibrosis. Cichy also pointed out that despite a passionate romance with flamboyant French writer George Sand, Chopin had no known children, suggesting infertility - another clue. And few cystic fibrosis sufferers live past 40.

Grzegorz Michalski, director of Poland's National Fryderyk Chopin Institute, said the last known time that the heart was examined was just after the end of World War II in 1945. It showed that the heart was "perfectly preserved" in the hermetically-sealed crystal urn that was filled with an alcoholic liquid, presumed to be cognac.

"Records show it is in perfect condition, so to tamper with it risks destroying it" Michalski said, adding that while one of two of Chopin's living descendents favours DNA testing, the other is staunchly opposed.

No one has yet asked the Friars of St Vincent de Paul at the Holy Cross Church whether they would agree to the test. "I can't comment on the matter in any way because, until now, no one has contacted me with either a question or any kind of proposal to test Chopin's heart" senior priest, Father Marek Bailkowski, told AFP.

Iwona Radziszewska, spokesperson of the culture ministry, said "an appropriate decision" would be taken upon review of a series of studies now underway. As a Polish émigré in his father's native France after an 1830-31 uprising of Polish insurgents against the 1795 partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria, Chopin refused to take a Russian passport. Thus he was never able to set foot on his native soil after the doomed insurrection. "The uprising was a drama that ruptured Chopin's life" said Michalski, explaining the musician's desperate homesickness and his dreams of Polish independence.

Described by 19th century German composer Robert Schumann as “cannons hidden among flowers”, Chopin's music was and remains a symbol of Poland's long struggle for freedom. Nazi Germany banned it for that very reason.

But Michalski recalled that it was a German general, Erich von dem Bach, who saved the heart from oblivion amid a relentless Nazi bombing campaign during the 1944 uprising by Polish partisans in what was then occupied Warsaw.

Reprinted from an AFP Agency report on the internet.

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