Jerzy MIZIOŁEK: Home of Chopin’s youth

Home of Chopin’s youth

Photo of Prof. Jerzy MIZIOŁEK

Prof. Jerzy MIZIOŁEK

Art historian, professor of humanities, in 2018–2019 director of the National Museum in Warsaw.

other articles by this author

The home where the eminent pianist spent his youth was located within the walls of the Warsaw University. It has survived all the cataclysms of history and, in the coming years, will become a special memorial to Chopin – writes Jerzy MIZIOŁEK

We now have an almost complete picture of the apartments the Chopin family lived in after they had moved to Warsaw from Żelazowa Wola in the summer of 1810 when Fryderyk was just six months old. One of their addresses was Krakowskie Przedmieście 411 (7 today), currently the location of the Bolesław Prus Scientific Bookshop. Another was in the left, i.e. southern, outhouse of the Saxon Palace (Krakowskie Przedmieście 413), but we can only make conjectures about the size and furnishings of that apartment as there is nothing left of the building except for foundations and cellars (recently excavated and refilled). The large number of inkwells found in the surviving underground parts of the southern wing of the palace, situated vis-à-vis Victoria Hotel, near the papal cross, seems to suggest that the Warsaw Lyceum, where Nicolas Chopin taught, was located in that wing until 1817. The Chopins allegedly lived on the second floor of that building, running their famous boarding house for lyceum students. We know from Fryderyk Skarbek’s Diaries that the windows of at least one room of the lyceum overlooked the Saxon Gardens. What could be the view from the window of the apartment where Fryderyk discovered the soul of the piano under the eye of his mother, Justyna? We will probably never know. As we imagine Chopin looking out at the surroundings, we need to stop at the blue sky and tree tops in the Saxon Garden as the arcades that now contain the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier do not remember the young Fryderyk, having been erected in 1838-1842.

More important, however, is the life that the Chopin family lived within the walls of the Warsaw University where they stayed from March 1817 to July 1827. The matter was not fully explained until 2010 when the author of these words and the employees of the Warsaw University Museum carried out a thorough examination of source texts and iconographic records. The results of this research, which is still ongoing, have been published in two books and leaflets available in several language versions. They were also made into a film whose title is the same as that of one of the books: Chopin among artists and scholars.

What do we know about the Chopins’ apartment within the university? And how did Fryderyk find his way among the professors and students of the university and the Warsaw Lyceum? It is beyond any doubt that Prof Nicolas Chopin’s family moved into a completely new apartment in the building erected in 1815-1816. It must have been ready to be occupied in the spring of 1817 when the lyceum was moved to the Kazimierz Palace.

A lot of information about the years the young composer spent on the university/lyceum campus may be found in Chopin’s letters to Jan Białobłocki, his first close friend, who died of tuberculosis in 1828, as well as the memoirs of the Kolberg brothers, Eustachy Marylski, Eugeniusz Skrodzki and Michalina Glogerowa. Marylski and Białobłocki boarded with the Chopins while Skrodzki and the Kolbergs were their neighbours at the university; they lived in the vice-rector building at the same number.

In his first surviving letter of 8 September 1823 Fryderyk (who was then 13) writes about a mission of truly academic importance that he was given by the much older Marylski. He was supposed to find out “when the courses [at the Faculty of Law] are due to begin.” Having talked to Ignacy Zubelewicz, a philosophy professor, he got back to Marylski with precise and concise feedback. The letter and its postscript also said: “I’m sorry my handwriting is so bad, but I’m in a hurry. […] Don’t show this letter to anyone or they will say I can’t write at all and don’t know anything about politics.” This is how young Fryderyk was described by Eugeniusz Skrodzki, neighbour of the Chopins writing under the pen name Wielisław: “Quick and lively in his movements, witty and rather terse in conversation.”

On 24 December 1825, Fryderyk wrote to Białobłocki: “You would never guess where this letter comes from!… Would you believe it was sent from the second entrance of the Kazimierz Palace?” The pavilion of the Kazimierz Palace has survived until today as the so-called vice-rector section of the University. It was inhabited by the professors teaching at the Warsaw Lyceum and Warsaw University as well as the rectors of both institutions – Samuel Bogumił Linde and Wojciech Szweykowski. Young Chopin’s life was intertwined with the lives of many illustrious academic teachers for whom he was first a close acquaintance and then a friend. One of his letters to Białobłocki said: “As for personal news, I can only tell you that Colonel Gutkowski, at whose place I bruised my leg, died; Zubelewicz has a daughter; Jarocki got married in Podole and brought his wife here right after the wedding; on Sunday, a week ago today, I visited the Zamoyskis where they admired Długosz’s aeolopantalon almost all evening; Długosz sold an aeolopantalon to one Mniewski, who is getting married, and who was recently present at Mrs Pruski walking around in a fabulous frock coat; Kosiński died; Woelke has a daughter; Domowicz was recently in Warsaw, told me to give you his greetings; Zakrzewski is in Warsaw; I have a locker for notes; finally, my shoes have holes which is why I walk in booties.”

The Warsaw University was located in the former royal residence, called Villa Regia; its main building was, and still is, the Kazimierz Palace. For dozens of years, including in Chopin’s time, the name Kazimierz Palace denoted the entire historical complex; another often used term was “cadet barracks” as in 1766–1793 the complex housed the School of Chivalry whose students were called cadets. The entire area was a separate property, accessed through a 1732 three-arched gate topped by a large tin globe. It was probably this blue-painted globe that gave rise to the name “blue courtyard”; Fryderyk cited that name in a letter to Białobłocki from 12 February 1826. I was under that globe and through that gate that the Chopins entered the university complex in March 1817.

The building they moved into was also occupied by the physics professor Józef Karol Skrodzki and the measurements professor Julian Kolberg together with their families. One of Kolberg’s sons, Oskar, wrote in his memoirs: “When we moved to Warsaw, we lived in one of the long two-storey pavilions (the so-called cadet barracks next to the lyceum, library and university). Our apartment consisted of four rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor, the poet Brodziński lived opposite to us (across the vestibule), while the second floor (accessed from the same vestibule) was occupied by Mr Chopin, a professor of French, who rented rooms to students and whose son was considered even then (in 1824) to be an exceptionally talented musician.”

Oskar Kolberg returned to the issue of Chopin’s apartment long after Fryderyk’s death when the latter was already a universally recognised composer and every aspect of his life was put under scrutiny. In 1877, upon request of a researcher, Kolberg drew a plan of the entire university complex on an envelope, marking the vice-rector building and the entrance leading to the Chopins’ apartment. Held in the Library of the Polish Academy of Learning, this schematic drawing conclusively settles the question of identifying the right pavilion and one of its four doors. Fortunately, the entrance has been preserved until the present day. However, the staircase has undergone a slight modification and is now hidden on the first floor.

An equally valuable account of this important Chopin location was left by Oskar Kolberg’s brother, Wilhelm, who was in the same class at the lyceum as the piano genius and then, in 1829, took private English lessons with him: “I often recollect, as if it was tomorrow, our learned cadet barracks, that long pavilion next to the lyceum, where we lived, Fryderyk practicing at the piano, our exercises in the yard and the old Chopin calling from the second-floor window his eleves as they played ball […].”

Another invaluable addition to our knowledge about Chopin’s apartment is the measurement carried out by Jan Tafiłowski which contains plans of the ground floor and both upper levels of the vice-rector building. The first entrance led to the apartment of the already mentioned zoology professor Feliks Paweł Jarocki with whom Fryderyk travelled to Berlin in September 1828. The second led to the apartments occupied by professor Skrodzki and his son Eugeniusz (on the left), and the Chopins (on the right); the latter was most likely a five-room apartment with a kitchen, which made it possible to keep several students. Four windows of Chopin’s apartment faced north, three – south.

What do we know about the furnishings of the place and the daily life of the Chopins? The subject is mentioned briefly by Michalina Glogerowa in her memoirs from 1825: “The apartment of Mr and Mrs Chopin consisted of several spacious rooms which, though furnished modestly, were always exceptionally clean and tidy, order being much beloved by Mrs Justyna Chopin née Krzyżanowska. In the “drawing” room there was mahogany furniture covered with striped cilice as was then common in all houses of average wealth in our country, both urban and rural. Of the other furnishings, I can only remember a long piano on which 15-year-old Fryderyk rarely played, perhaps because, as I believe today, his parents could not afford a very costly instrument that would be more suited to the young master’s genius.”

More priceless information about the daily life of the family and their resident students is provided by Marylski: “I cannot but feel gratitude when I recollect the noble family of Nicolas Chopin. We were cared for as only parents can care for their children. There were six of us and we always stayed in two rooms: three slept with N. Chopin, the other three with the tutor. The students who stayed with me at the Chopins’ were: Jan Białobłocki from the Płock region, who died a few years after graduating; Jan del Campo Scipio, today a canon in Kraków; Tytus Wojciechowski, who lives in the Lublin region; Karol Weltz, Tytus Wojciechowski’s half-brother; Michał Lisowski, who now lives in the Radom region, and Wodziński […]. [Nicolas] Chopin had a silver snuff box fashioned in the image of a lion which he would leave on the desk. We would take a sniff, for the fun of it, when we got up before him or late at night. If his students were noisy, he tapped this little lion on the table, and we got quiet. No one (of the people who boarded with the Chopins) could go out into the street alone. We would sit at the table with Mr and Mrs Chopin and their children, i.e. Ludwika, Izabella, Emilia and Fryderyk, who was the talk of the entire artistic community.”

It was recently possible to read the so far unpublished hand-over report from 1817 describing the apartment as it was when Nicolas Chopin moved in. Among others, it mentions doors with S-shaped fittings that can still be found in some rooms of the vice-rector building. Creating a Chopin Museum in this over 115-metre-large apartment will therefore not be difficult, especially that we are helped by Antoni Kolberg’s drawing depicting the Chopins’ salon with all its paintings. The vice-rector building is being renovated and plans to commemorate Chopin in his former home, first devised in 2010, are becoming a reality. The priceless hand-over report says:

In the second vestibule from the entrance, on the left, there is a single door on S-shaped hinges, with two hooks, a lock, a handle, and a key, which leads to a front room. This room has a double window with hooked hinges, two bolt locks, a latch in the middle, and two safety catches to keep the halves shut, each half glazed with two large panes. Floor planed, walls and ceiling white, two single doors like the previous door, one leading to another front room, the other to the back kitchen. In the second room there are two front windows like the one previously described; floor planed, walls and ceiling white. Stove heating the two rooms made of white tiles, with a door and a pipe; has a separate door for cleaning soot. A door like the one previously described leads from this room to a back room. The room has one window; floor planed, walls and ceiling white. Stove heating the two rooms, with door and a pipe; has a separate door for cleaning soot. Two single doors like the one previously described, one leads to another back room, the other to the third vestibule. The other room has one window like the ones described, planed floor, white walls and ceiling. A door like the previous ones leads to the kitchen which has one window like the one described, bricked floor and white walls and ceiling. Fire with a cap (hood over fire and hearth), small pantry by the fire accessed by a hinged door with a lock and key, without a handle, further on a single door on S-shaped hinges with a lock, handle and key leading from the kitchen to the second vestibule; in the third vestibule a room formerly occupied by Mr Kamieński; on the left hand side, looking from the front, a single door on S-shaped hinges with a lock, handle and key leading to a room with one front window glazed with four large panes: pin hooks, hinges, two bolt locks, latch in the middle and two safety catches to keep the halves shut. Planed floor, walls and ceiling white. Stove with a door and a pipe made of white tiles; in addition an iron door for cleaning soot, further on two doors with fittings which are like the ones previously described but which are bricked from the rear so that the room does not open onto other rooms. Doors and windows are covered with oil paint.

It is a well-known fact that musical life flourished at the Chopin household and that, after the reading the then famous Historical Songs by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Fryderyk would often “paint” them with his music. We also know for sure that the Chopins’ library held the very first edition of the work, published in 1816, as Fryderyk’s father had subscribed to it. Stories of such patriotic evenings inspired the British painter Andrew Carrick Gow to paint his Musical Story by Chopin in 1879. As the young Fryderyk is playing the piano, his father is seated by the window with a book in his hand, watching the performance intently. The pianist is surrounded by standing or sitting boys – neighbours and boarding students. This is how one of them – Marylski – described Fryderyk’s evening concerts: “At dusk, when we were not busy with our studies, we would tell stories from Polish history, like the death of King Władysław of Varna or Żółkiewski or the battles our commanders waged, and young Chopin played all that on the piano. We sometimes cried listening to this music.” It has not yet been possible to establish who ordered the painting and told the painter about the musical evenings at the Chopins’.

The practice of playing music in the context of books about Polish history and the country’s former greatness, as described by Marylski, resulted from Chopin’s deep patriotism that the composer cherished until the end of his life. He did not write an opera about a Polish king, although he was strongly encouraged to do so, but when he was in Vienna on his way to Paris, he mentioned twice that the city was saved by Polish troops led by Jan III Sobieski in 1683; he also talked about King Stefan Batory and a portrait of Tadeusz Kościuszko was always present in his Paris apartments.

This is how Chopin’s attitude to Poland was described by George Sand in The Story of My Life: “Being able to return to Poland and knowing that he would be tolerated there, he preferred to yearn after his beloved family for ten years rather than see it changed and maimed.” How much Chopin waited for a free Poland is evident from the letter he sent to Julian Fontana on 4 April 1848, when the Springtime of the Nations erupted: “Our people are gathering in Poznań. Czartoryski was the first to go there – but God only knows what direction this is going to take before Poland is reinstated […] some terrible things will need to happen, but at the end of it all there is Poland, great and big – in a word, Poland.”

.Chopin did not live to see Poland reborn, but he made a huge contribution to preserving its memory, and then later his music helped reconstruct the country’s independence thanks to the many concerts given by Ignacy Jan Paderewski in America.

Jerzy Miziołek

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 17/02/2022