CHOPIN`S LIFE CHOPIN`S LIFE

Year Chopin's Birthday

The dates in light of the sources[1]

In recent years, in connection with successive Chopin anniversaries, the specialist press has carried renewed discussion of a subject that has exercised the minds of Chopin scholars and admirers of Chopin’s music for more than a hundred years: there is still no agreement over the day the composer was born, and doubts are also raised with regard to the year. So there is a need to recap and set in order the facts that are grounded in sources and for a critique of older biographical works which, given the dearth of those source-based facts, we need to rely on.

We currently have just two actual documents at our disposal: Chopin’s certificates of birth and baptism. Both were prepared (or at least dated) on 23 April 1810 in the parish church of Brochów, near Sochaczew; that was the parish to which Żelazowa Wola belonged. Both give the date as 22 February, with the (civil) birth certificate also indicating the ‘current’ year (1810) as the year in which Fryderyk was born. The (church) certificate of baptism was first discovered by Revd Tomasz Bielawski, parish priest of Brochów from 1879 to 1916, who published it in Echo Muzyczne and Słowo in January 1893.[2] Subsequently, Ferdynand Hoesick discovered the birth certificate and propagated the date 22 February 1810 in his Chopin biography, reissued several times.[3]

In those days, difficulties with establishing a true date of birth occurred quite frequently. Even Count Fryderyk Skarbek did not know exactly when he was born.[4]

Besides those two documents, we have only the dates given in the Chopin literature and discussed in numerous specialist and popular articles. So let us try to follow through what has been written about Fryderyk’s date of birth in the Chopin literature from the beginning, taking the opportunity to assess the reliability of the sources used by successive authors.

It turns out that the first Polish author to give the date of Chopin’s birth was not, as is generally thought, Maurycy Karasowski, but the Warsaw music critic and journalist Józef Sikorski (1813–1896), founder, in 1857, of the weekly Ruch Muzyczny and author of the first biographical work about Fryderyk, written just after the composer’s death, in the autumn of 1849. In that work, Sikorski gives the date 1 March 1809 and Żelazowa Wola as the place of birth.[5]

Let us note at this point that Henryk F. Nowaczyk, in quoting a work by Tadeusz A. Zieliński,[6] cites Julian Fontana, who, in the preface to his posthumous edition of Chopin’s works (Berlin: Schlesinger, 1855, book I), states in the first footnote (tr. from the French) that ‘Chopin was born on 1 March 1809, and not 1810, as most of his biographies wrongly assert’. Given the early date of that publication (1855), this categorical assertion on Fontana’s part ought to be of crucial significance. Yet from where could Fontana, living abroad at that time, have taken the exact date? Not from Fryderyk, no doubt, since he, as we know, was convinced that he was born in 1810. So his only possible sources were Chopin’s mother and his sister Ludwika, with whom Fontana was in close contact following his friend’s death, be it only in connection with the above-mentioned posthumous edition of Chopin’s works, which he was notarially authorised to prepare by Justyna Chopin and her daughters (document of 16 July 1852). As we learn from the content of that preface, Fontana approached the posthumous edition of Chopin’s works very seriously and fought to produce a reliable publication that was in keeping with his late friend’s intentions. That solicitude extended to the need to correct what he saw as the erroneous date of the composer’s birth. His efforts to establish such details lend his work considerable credibility, including with regard to the date, which he no doubt actively verified, given that he explicitly and precisely corrects ‘other biographies’.

It should be assumed that the date 1 (2) March 1809 came from the composer’s family, and most probably from his mother, Justyna Chopin, née Krzyżanowska. Several years later (in 1862), the information given by Sikorski was repeated by Karasowski in the first version of his work about Chopin.[7] A year later, however, Orgelbrand’s universal encyclopaedia included a biographical piece about Fryderyk written by Oskar Kolberg,[8] in which the author states that Fryderyk was born in Żelazowa Wola on the night of 1 and 2 March 1809. In 1873, another Chopin biographer, Marceli Antoni Szulc, gives the date 2 March 1809.[9] Szulc, who lived in Poznań, writes in his introduction that he has drawn his information (like other nineteenth-century biographers) from the accounts of living persons and from other published works. Subsequent publications were the book edition of Karasowski’s work, in which the author repeats the date 1 March 1809, and the above-mentioned monograph by Hoesick, where we find the date 22 February 1810.[10] All the authors mentioned here given Żelazowa Wola as the place of birth. I ignore here foreign authors entirely, with the sole exception of Franz Liszt, who invoked a specific source. According to Liszt, Fryderyk was born in 1810 in Żelazowa Wola; he did not know the exact date of his birth, but calculated it from the inscription on a souvenir watch.[11]

Chopin’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris bears solely the date of his death, although Karasowski (without foundation) mentions 1810.[12] The other important inscription containing his date of birth is also a prime example of the confusion surrounding the state of our knowledge of that date. Reference here to the plaque in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw commemorating the composer’s heart, which is placed there. Funded by the Warsaw Music Society in 1879 and blessed a year later, on Chopin’s name-day (5 March), in the presence of his sister, Izabela Barcińska, and nephew, Antoni Jędrzejewicz, among others, it originally bore the date 2 March 1809. According to the Echo Muzyczne, ‘The date of birth placed on the said monument according to the best sources supplied by the deceased’s family is different to that which is widely familiar, since it is 2 March 1809’. So this was the date given by earlier biographies of the composer. Yet on the actual casket containing the urn with Chopin’s heart, immured beneath the plaque, a different date was inscribed: 1 March 1810. At the time, no one remarked on the contradiction, even though these inscriptions were written about in the press at the time, which also contributed to the confusion over the date of birth: for example, Kłosy of 4 March 1880 wrote that ‘engraved on the plaque was the following: ‘[…] born on 1 March 1810’. In actual fact, however, prints of the time representing that plaque clearly show the inscribed date ‘2 March 1809’.

Under the influence of Ferdynand Hoesick’s publication, in 1935 that plaque was replaced by a new one, funded by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, but with the date 22 February 1810.[13]

To sum up: until the time of Hoesick’s publication, the accepted date was 1 (sometimes 1–2) March 1809; thereafter, it was 22 February 1810. That date remains the ‘official’ one today, although Bronisław E. Sydow, in 1955, publishing Chopin’s correspondence, also published a brief chronicle of his life and work, where we find the birthdate 1 March 1810.[14] That date undoubtedly appeared there in connection with the content of Fryderyk’s correspondence with his family, where his date of birth is given as 1 March. Since the certificates discovered by Revd Bielawska and Hoesick indicate unequivocally 1810, the date 1 March was placed beneath that very year. The decisive argument, we assume, was a letter written by Chopin himself containing the date of birth 1 March 1810.[15]

Let us emphasise that all Fryderyk’s biographers before Hoesick tended not to consult any documents, drawing merely on oral information from the composer’s family and other individuals. It should be assumed that Fryderyk Chopin himself also never made use of his certificate (or a copy of it). In those days, such a document was generally used only for successive sacraments (especially marriage) and for affirming one’s noble birth. None of those circumstances occurred in Chopin’s life, and for the same reasons one may doubt that Fryderyk’s family possessed a copy of that document.

Let us take a close look at the content of that certificate of baptism:[16] ‘Ego qui supra suplevi ccremonias super infantem baptizatum ox aqua, bini nominis Fridericum Franciscum natum 22 februari M[agni]ficorum Nicolai Choppen, Gali, et Justina de Krzyżanowskie Legit.[imorum] Conjug[um]. Patrini M[a]g[ni]ficus Franeiscus Grembecki de villa Ci[e]pliny cum M[a]g[ni]fica D[omi]na Anna Skarbkowna comitissa de Żelazowa Wola.’ In translation: ‘I, as above, [Józef Morawski, curate of Brochów] have completed the rite of baptism on an infant given an emergency baptism with the two Christian names Fryderyk Franciszek, born on 22 February to the Respectable Mikołaj Choppen [sic], a Frenchman, and Justyna, née Krzyżanowska, a married couple. Godparents: the Respectable Franciszek Grembecki of Ci[e]pliny with the Respectable Miss Anna Skarbek, countess’s daughter of Żelazowa Wola.’

Fryderyk’s civil birth certificate, meanwhile, reads as follows:[17] ‘At three o’clock in the afternoon of the twenty-third day of the month of April in the year eighteen hundred and ten, the father, Mikołaj Chopyn [sic], aged forty years and resident in the village of Żelazowa Wola, stood before me, the Brochów Parish Priest, in my capacity as registrar of the parish commune of Brochów, district of Sochaczew, county of Warsaw, and presented me with a male child born in his home at six o’clock in the evening of the twenty-second day of the month of February of the current year, declaring it to be the issue of himself and his spouse Justyna née Krzyżanowska, aged twenty-eight years, and requesting that it be given the two names Fryderyk Franciszek. After making the above declaration and presenting the child to me in the presence of Józef Wyrzykowski, a steward aged thirty-eight years, and Fryderyk Geszt, aged forty years, both resident in the village of Żelazowa Wola, the father and the two witnesses, after the reading of the birth certificate, avowed that they could write. We signed the present certificate. Fr Jan Duchnowski, Brochów parish priest in his capacity as registrar; Mikołaj Chopin, father.’

Let us note that the two documents, although theoretically prepared in the same place and on the same day, were signed by two different priests. Fryderyk was baptised by Revd Józef Morawski, curate of Brochów parish. The birth certificate, meanwhile, was signed by Revd Jan Duchnowski, the new parish priest of Brochów. It is worth drawing attention to certain details contained in the documents. In the certificate of baptism, only the day and month of birth are given, 22 February, whilst there is no information about the year.

Of crucial significance is the wording about completing the rite of baptism. This means that an ‘emergency’ baptism must have occurred earlier, as Henryk F. Nowaczyk was the first to note.[18] An emergency baptism (literally ‘z wody’, meaning ‘out of water’, tr.) usually took place when there was a danger of the child dying, so generally immediately after the birth, at home, in haste, in order to prepare the soul to enter a state of grace. The danger usually passed after a couple of days. In such instances, the godparents were not sought, and the matter was sometimes dealt with by the midwife or even someone who just happened to be there; the presence of a priest was also not necessary. If there was a priest, however, then he noted that fact in the book of baptisms, and the second, ‘ceremonial’, baptism, sometimes performed even a couple of years later (see below) was entered later (invoking the first). In our case, no other inscription on this subject appears in the Brochów books. It may be assumed, therefore, that the emergency baptism took place without a priest, particularly since Żelazowa Wola was ten kilometres from Brochów and the child was born in the winter, so the conditions may also have ruled out sending for a priest. The baptism (and birth) no doubt took place in the home of Countess Ludwika Skarbek or in the annexe (assuming that is where the Chopins were living). It cannot be excluded, however, that the emergency baptism took place a year earlier, that is, on 1 or 2 March 1809, possibly even in the presence of a priest, but – due to a break in the keeping of the official records in Brochów – was not noted.

Another interesting matter is the choice of the godparents. Let us remember that according to the family tradition Fryderyk Chopin’s godfather was Fryderyk Skarbek.[19] However, he does not appear at all on the certificate of baptism (the ‘ceremonial’ certificate, that is), where we find the name of one Franciszek Grembecki. Godparents were usually of somewhat higher estate, which lent ‘splendour’ to the baptised child. For their son, the Chopins chose the local lady Anna Skarbek, of Żelazowa Wola (Fryderyk Skarbek’s sister), and Franciszek Grembecki, of Ciepliny. We know that Anna Skarbek, a good friend of the Chopin family, was later married to Stefan Wiesiołowski of Strzyżewo.

We have long since known quite a lot about Fryderyk’s godmother, so here we will give just the latest findings. Anna-Emilia, daughter of Kacper Skarbek from his second marriage to Ludwika Fenger, was born on 26 July 1793 in Komorów, near Izbica. On 11 April 1820, in Brochów, she married (Idzi) Stefan Wiesiołowski (b. 1791), the owner of Strzyżewo, in the Krotoszyn district, in the Grand Duchy of Posen (Poznań), son of Stanisław and Honorata (née Kiełczewska). Anna Wiesiołowska died on 4 May 1873. In the 1930s, her gravestone lay in the parish church of Janin, near Stopnica.[20]

The godfather, Franciszek Grembecki, has hitherto remained virtually unknown; however, recent research has shed a little light on him too. He was born c.1747, in 1785 was burgrave of Przedecz, and from 1792 served as ‘regent’ of Przedecz; so he lived and worked in the Kujawy region, from where Justyna Chopin hailed. He also appears in 1796 in the records of Izbica parish. Grembecki was ‘possessor’ (probably leaseholder) of the estate of Ciepliny, situated eight kilometres to the south-east of Izbica and approx. 140 kilometres west of Żelazowa Wola. He was probably the son of Mateusz or Józef; he died a bachelor at Ciepliny on 27 January 1827.

Why was Grembecki made Fryderyk’s godfather and a few years earlier was a witness at the wedding of Mikołaj and Justyna? Living in nearby Izbica, where Justyna’s parents spent almost forty years, Franciszek Grembecki must have been an acquaintance, if not a friend, of Jakub and Antonina Krzyżanowski, Fryderyk’s grandparents, and he certainly knew their children. It is not surprising that Justyna (who by then had lost at least one of her parents) chose him for the wedding and baptism ceremonies.

Czesław Sielużycki claimed recently that Grembecki lived as a squire in Orły (an estate belonging to the Skarbeks, situated three kilometres south-west of Żelazowa Wola, sold by Fryderyk Skarbek before 1832.[21]) Sielużycki invokes the recollections of Józefa Kościelska (née Wodzińska), published by Ferdynand Hoesick.[22] However, in the transcript of Hoesick’s conversation with Kościelska, conducted in 1900, there is no mention of Grembecki’s presence in Orły, only of the Chopin family’s holiday trips to Orły (then belonging to Fryderyk Skarbek)![23]

Actually, we have one more potential godfather to Fryderyk. Mikołaj Chopin, in a letter to his son of 16 October 1842, used the wording: ‘Your godfather, Elsner, who is travelling to Vienna…’.[24] This should be taken as a slip of the tongue on Mikołaj’s part, otherwise it would be difficult to explain, unless Mikołaj used the word ‘parrain’ in the figurative sense of ‘patron’ (e.g. in his artistic career).

To render the question of Chopin’s baptism even more complicated, let us remember that according to the inscription on Ludwika Skarbek’s gravestone she was ‘godmother to Fryderyk Chopin’. The stone also features the wording ‘Reconstruction of the original inscription’.[25] We do not know who wrote this inscription or when, although its appearance suggests the mid twentieth century. André Clavier, who discovered this inscription, regarded it as an obvious mistake, given that the certificate of baptism in Brochów gives the godmother as Ludwika’s daughter, Anna Skarbek (the future Anna Wiesiołowska). Others have also taken a similar view, given that this inscription was removed during the eighties. Despite appearances, however, that inscription could have been true. After all, the familiar document from Brochów is a ceremonial completion of the original emergency baptism (the inscription of which has not been found). The emergency baptism could have occurred in the home of Ludwika Skarbek, without a priest, so we may suppose that it was done by Countess Ludwika (together with her son Fryderyk, for example, which would also explain the later tradition and point to the year 1809). An argument against that hypothesis would be Ludwika’s Evangelist faith, although perhaps, in critical situations, the Catholic Church permitted such an act. We should tend to assume, however, that a few decades later, when the original inscription was being prepared, Ludwika was confused with her daughter Anna, who was Fryderyk’s official godmother.

This remarkable confusion among the very people involved would suggest that in the Chopin family no particular weight was attached to such ‘details’ as the identity of godparents. Also surprising is the fact that Fryderyk Skarbek, although he writes in his memoirs about Fryderyk as ‘one of the greatest musical geniuses’, says nothing about being that genius’s godfather, although he takes every opportunity to highlight his position, role and personal achievements.[26]

The contradiction between the inscription on the document and the family tradition regarding the identity of Fryderyk’s godfather also shows, in our opinion, that in later years the Chopin family did not know what was in the civil document, so did not know also about the date 22 February that was written there.

It would seem that we can state today that the date 1 March (or possibly the night of 1 to 2 March) is much more likely than the date 22 February entered in the documents. The Chopin family correspondence provides us with examples confirming the former date, in two instances giving the information directly.[27]

We do not know how entries were made in the books of baptisms and births in the parish of Brochów. Possibly, the priest or his assistant made notes during the ceremony and then, some time later, when a larger amount of entries had been collected, the book was brought up to date. It goes without saying that such a procedure could have caused a week-long error in the date of birth, even though Mikołaj gave the age of the child, born several weeks earlier, perfectly correctly.

Piotr Mysłakowski

 

[1] Piotr Mysłakowski and Andrzej Sikorski’s article ‘Okoliczności urodzin Fryderyka Chopina. Co mówią źródła’ [The circumstances of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth. What the sources say] was published in a slightly altered form in Ruch Muzyczny, 2002/20, 28–34.

[2] [Revd T. Bielawski], ‘Listy do redakcji “Słowa". Data urodzin Chopina’ [Letters to the editors of Słowo. The date of Chopin’s birth], Słowo, 1893/11, 203; ‘Data urodzin Fryderyka Chopina’ [Fryderyk Chopin’s date of birth] [letter from Revd T. Bielawski], Echo Muzyczne, Teatralne i Artystyczne, 1893/3, 29–30. In publishing Revd Bielawski’s letter, the editors of Echo Muzyczne expressed their surprise that neither the mother nor the sisters of Chopin reacted to the erroneous date 1 (2) March 1809 that was published in many biographies of the composer. This letter was also published soon afterwards in other parts of Poland, for example in the Dziennik Poznański, 1893/19, supplement.

[3] Ferdynand Hoesick, Chopin. Życie i twórczość [Chopin: his life and work], i (1810–1831) (Warsaw, 1904), 23–25.

[4] As Fryderyk Skarbek wrote, his mother, Ludwika Skarbek, ‘marked the day of my birth as 22 February, always adding that she was angry that I’d brought such a common name, that is, Piotr (22 February is one of the name-days of Piotr, tr.), whilst my official certificate taken from the Church of St John in Toruń had me born seven days earlier ‘. See [F. Skarbek], Pamiętniki Fryderyka hrabiego Skarbka [Memoir of Count Fryderyk Skarbek], new edn, ed. Piotr Mysłakowski (Warsaw, 2009), 35.

[5] Józef Sikorski, ‘Wspomnienie Szopena’ [Souvenirs of Chopin], Biblioteka Warszawska, 1849/4, 515.

[6] Henryk F. Nowaczyk, ‘Rok 1809 w biografii Fryderyka Chopina’ [The year 1809 in the biography of Fryderyk Chopin], Ruch Muzyczny, 1999/18 and n.9.

[7] Maurycy Karasowski, ‘Młodość Fryderyka Chopina’ [The youth of Fryderyk Chopin], Biblioteka Warszawska, 1862/4, 2.

[8] Encyklopedia Orgelbranda [Orgelbrand encyclopaedia], v (Warsaw, 1861), 458.

[9] Marceli Antoni Szulc, Fryderyk Chopin i utwory jego muzyczne [Fryderyk Chopin and his musical works] (Poznań, 1873), 22.

[10] Karasowski, Fryderyk Chopin. Życie listy dzieła [Fryderyk Chopin: his life, letters and works], i (Warsaw, 1882), 27; Hoesick, Chopin.

[11] Franz Liszt, Chopin (Cracow, 1960), 122. The watch, a gift from the singer Catalani, presented in 1820, bore the inscription ‘Mme Catalani à Frédéric Chopin âgé de 10 ans à Varsovie, le 3 janvier 1820’.

[12] Andrzej Biernat (ed.), Inskrypcje grobów polskich na cmentarzach w Paryżu. Père Lachaise [Inscriptions on Polish graves in Paris cemeteries. Père Lachaise] (Warsaw, 1991), 12; Karasowski, Młodość, 2.

[13] Wiek, 1880/48, 3; Biesiada Literacka, 219 (1880), 162; Kurier Warszawski, 1880/51, 3; Kłosy, 776 (1880), 154; Maria Mirska, Szlakiem Chopina [On the trail of Chopin] (Warsaw, 1949) (view of the original plaque); Leopold Binental, Chopin. Życiorys twórcy i jego sztuka [Chopin: the composer’s life and his art] (Warsaw, 1937), 131 (photograph of the new plaque) and 153–154; Echo Muzyczne, 1880/6. The quoted passage from the Echo is repeated here after Janina Siwkowska, Nokturn czyli rodzina Fryderyka Chopina i Warszawa w latach 1832–1881 [Nocturne, or Fryderyk Chopin’s family and Warsaw in the years 1832–1881], iii (Warsaw, 1996), 159–160.

[14] Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina [Correspondence of Fryderyk Chopin], ed. Bronisław Edward Sydow, i (Warsaw, 1955), 23.

[15] Ibid, 224.

[16] Warsaw Metropolitan Curia, Liber Baptizatorum parafii Brochów 1802–1821 [Brochów parish book of baptisms 1802–1821], 414, entry no. 2.

[17] Warsaw Metropolitan Curia, Akta stanu cywilnego gminy brochowskiej 1810 [Brochów commune civil records 1810].

[18] Nowaczyk, ‘Chopin ochrzczony “z wody” w Żelazowej Woli’ [Chopin baptised ‘out of water’ at Żelazowa Wola], Ruch Muzyczny, 1999/14.

[19] The question of this ‘godfatherhood’ is discussed by Henryk F. Nowaczyk in ‘Rok 1809 w biografii Fryderyka Chopina’ [The year 1809 in the biography of Fryderyk Chopin], Ruch Muzyczny, 1999/18.

[20] Andrzej Sikorski and Piotr Mysłakowski, Rodzina matki Chopina. Mity i rzeczywistość [The family of Chopin’s mother: myths and reality] (Warzaw, 2000), 61.

[21] Letter from Ludwika Chopin to Fryderyk of 28 June 1832; Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina, i:215.

[22] Czesław Sielużycki, ‘Mikołaj Chopin a metrykalna data urodzin jego syna’ [Mikołaj Chopin and the registered date of his son’s birth], Ruch Muzyczny, 2002/1. 32 and n. 25.

[23] Hoesick, Słowacki i Chopin. Z zagadnień twórczości [Słowacki and Chopin: aspects of their work], i (Warsaw, 1932), 129.

[24] Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina, ii:70. The original reads: ‘Ton parrain, Elsner, qui doit aller à Vienne…’

[25] See photograph of that plaque, in André Clavier, Dans l'entourage de Chopin, ii (Lens, 1984), 37.

[26] Skarbek, Pamiętniki, 10.

[27] Letter from Justyna Chopin to Fryderyk, Warsaw, February 1837, and letter from Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Warsaw, 21 March 1842; Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina, i:296, ii:57.