The mystery of Chopin's birthday

Fryderyk Chopin was born at Zelazowa Wola in Mazovia, in the Warsaw region of Poland. His father Nicholas had been born in France in 1771 in Marainville, a village in Lorraine Ė a area which at that time was ruled over by the Polish King Stanislas Leszczynski.

Nicholas, of humble origin, but very able and intelligent, had accompanied the Polish agent of his village to Warsaw in 1792, and from then on identified totally with Poland, preferring to speak Polish rather than French.

The Manor of Zelazowa Wola, Chopin's birthplace
The Manor of Zelazowa Wola
In 1802 Nicholas Chopin was engaged by Count Skarbek to be tutor to his four children at his estate of Zelazowa Zola, and in 1806 he married a poor relation of the family, Justyna Krzyzanowska, then living with the Skarbeks and acting as their housekeeper. The couple had a daughter in 1807 and then moved out of the main house into a thatched cottage close by, where their only son was born on possibly the 22nd of February and possibly the 1st of March 1810.

The child was named Fryderyk after Fryderyk Skarbek, the Countís eldest son, who was to be godfather. Actually they had to wait some time to receive the 18-year old Countís consent, as he was studying in Paris, and when the christening eventually took place on the 23rd April at the parish church of Saint-Rock in Brochůw, a proxy stood in for young Fryderyk Skarbek. The date of the birth was duly entered as the 22nd of February in the baptismal register. (It is interesting to note that Chopinís godfather was to become a distinguished economist, historian and writer, and that he and Chopin became good friends in later life).

Despite the date in the parish register, Chopinís family always celebrated his birthday on the 1st of March.

To complicate things further, Jane Stirling Ė his Scottish pupil and benefactor Ė said that Chopin had told her she was the only one who knew his real birth date. She wrote it down, put it in a box, and this box was apparently placed in Chopinís grave in the PŤre Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Some sense can be made of this. In the nineteenth century people were much more vague about actual birthdays than we are today, and in a Catholic country such as Poland the name day would have been just as important, if not more so. However, in Britain it is the birthday which counts, and one can imagine Jane Stirling asking her beloved Master when his birthday was, so she could give him a present. He may have told her, adding that she was not to tell anyone else, as he did not want a lot of fuss.

Whether the writing in Janeís box would even be legible now is dubious, so even if it is the real date we may never know the truth.

The Chopin Society celebrates the 22nd of February, as our Founder, Lucie Swiatek, favoured that date, though generally the 1st of March is more frequently regarded as correct.

© Copyright Rose Cholmondeley 1998 (with acknowledgements to Iwo and Pamela Zaluski).

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