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Poland throws bash for Chopin's 200th

February 26, 2010|By Vanessa Gera

Reporting from Warsaw — The stirring strains of Frederic Chopin's music are reverberating across the world as music lovers celebrate the composer's 200th birthday this year -- from the château of his French lover to Egypt's pyramids and even into space.

But nowhere do celebrations carry the powerful sense of national feeling as they do in Poland, the land of his birth, where his heroic, tragic piano compositions are credited with capturing the country's soul.

Poland is going all out to display its best "product," as officials bluntly put it, staging bicentennial concerts and other events in and around Warsaw, the city where the composer -- known here as Fryderyk Chopin -- spent the first half of his life.

"Fryderyk Chopin is a Polish icon," said Andrzej Sulek, director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. "In Polish culture there is no other figure who is as well-known in the world and who represents Polish culture so well."

Perhaps nothing better conveys Chopin's importance -- literally -- than his heart. It is preserved like a relic in an urn of alcohol in a Warsaw church.

Just before his death at age 39 of what was probably tuberculosis, Chopin, fearful of being buried alive, asked that his heart be separated from his body and returned to his beloved homeland. His body is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Chopin spent the second half of his life.

Chopin was born in 1810 at a country estate in Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw, to a Polish mother and French émigré father. Historical sources suggest two possible dates of birth -- either Feb. 22, as noted in church records, or March 1, which was mentioned in letters between him and his mother and is considered the more probable date.

Since no one is sure, Poland is marking both. A series of concerts in Warsaw and Zelazowa Wola are taking place over those eight days featuring such world-class musicians as Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin, Garrick Ohlsson, Martha Argerich and Krystian Zimerman.

Then, a refurbished museum opens in Warsaw on Monday displaying Chopin's personal letters and musical manuscripts along with a narration of his life.

Celebrations span the globe, from Austria to concerts at Cairo's pyramids and across Asia.

The astronauts who blasted into orbit on the Endeavor space shuttle Feb. 8 carried with them a CD of Chopin's music and a copy of a manuscript of his Prelude Opus 28, No. 7 -- gifts from the Polish government.

The Endeavor commander, George Zamka, who has Polish roots, told the Polish news agency PAP ahead of his trip to the International Space Station that listening to Chopin in space would enhance the majesty of the cosmos.

"Chopin is universal," said Mariusz Brymora, a Foreign Ministry official who helped put Chopin's music in space.

In France, Chopin is valued as "the composer who ushered in the age of great French music," according to Adam Zamoyski, historian and author of the new biography "Chopin: Prince of the Romantics."

Chopin's entire musical output, about 15 hours' worth all together, will be played by about 60 pianists this week in the central French city of Châteauroux and in Paris.

And the small château in Nohant of Chopin's famous companion for eight years, feminist writer Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin -- best known by her nom de plume George Sand -- has been fixed up and will host three weeks of concerts in June. Chopin wrote some of his masterpieces at that spot in central France.

Poland's parliament has declared 2010 to be the "Year of Chopin," and officials in Warsaw feel his Polishness must be stressed because many non-Poles still link him primarily with France.

The matter touches a nerve in Poland, which has more often than not been controlled by foreign powers over the last two centuries -- most recently during the decades of Moscow-imposed Communist rule thrown off in 1989. Poles don't want to lose credit for Chopin, a genius whose universal appeal is even greater than that of Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa -- at least according to Brymora.

In Chopin's day, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria and did not exist as a state.

Poles hear in his music a deep nostalgia for his homeland. Halina Goldberg, author of "Music in Chopin's Warsaw," said that even before Chopin's death in 1849, Poles turned to his art to preserve a sense of their nationhood.

Vanessa Gera writes for the Associated Press.

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