CHOPIN`S LIFE CHOPIN`S LIFE

Year The year 1809

The year 1809

The arguments in favour of the year 1809 are as follows:

1. It cannot be excluded that Józef Sikorski mistakenly gave the wrong year (1809), and Karasowski and Kolberg mechanically copied it after him. That would seem very unlikely, however; after all, had the wrong date been in circulation, Justyna Chopin or her daughter Izabela Barcińska would certainly have induced later authors collecting material from them to correct it.

2. Fryderyk Skarbek could only have been Fryderyk Chopin’s godfather in 1809, since in the autumn of that year he left to study in Paris.[1] Meanwhile, were Skarbek to have been godfather in 1810, via the intermediary of Franciszek Grembecki, a customary note would have been made in the certificate of baptism. That contradiction could be reconciled if we assumed that Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1809, that the young Skarbek, together with his mother, attended the ‘emergency’ baptism at home and that such a tradition was cultivated by the Chopin family, particularly since, in later years, Skarbek became an eminent public figure.

3. The period of time between an emergency baptism and the completion of that sacrament was not established in law. Analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century records from the Wielkopolska region [2] allows us to state that that period varied from a few days to more than fifty years! The most common lapses of time were one month and between one and two years, since the ceremony itself was linked to social life (a visit from people who represented suitable godparents) or to the need to obtain other sacraments (for example, a wedding).

4. An error over the child’s date of birth (22 February instead of 1 March) is much more likely if the baptism and the announcement of the birth took place more than a year later. If they occurred less than two months later, the possibility of error is rather improbable.

5. Although not well documented, it is possible that the Chopins were in Żelazowa Wola during the spring of 1809. In considering the circumstances surrounding Fryderyk’s birth, one should not forget, however, about the historical events being played out in the immediate vicinity of the area of interest to us (Sochaczew, Warsaw). The fortunes of the Skarbek and Chopin families were directly dependent on the dramatic events of that period. Let us recall what Fryderyk Skarbek writes about the years 1808–1810. [3] Midway through 1808, he took his final exam at the Warsaw Lyceum. His mother was intending to send him for further studies to Göttingen, but financial troubles thwarted that plan and forced the ‘entire household’ to return to the country, that is, to Żelazowa Wola (we established above that the Chopins accompanied the Skarbeks both in Warsaw and in Żelazowa Wola). In the spring of 1809 (15 April), the Polish-Austrian War broke out. Skarbek apparently heard the distant sound of cannons from Raszyn (19 April). Subsequent events were as follows: 21 April, the evacuation of Polish forces form Warsaw and their retreat to Modlin and Serock; 3 May, the Austrians make an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Vistula between Płock and Modlin; a failed attempt to capture Toruń; the Austrians set up a large camp near Sochaczew; the war then moves to Galicia; on 15 July, Prince Poniatowski takes Cracow; on 14 October, the Treaty of Schönbrunn is signed, bringing an end to the war. Skarbek mentions these events in brief while staying with his family in the country before leaving for Paris (autumn 1809). So how did the Chopins’ parallel fortunes pan out? There are several possibilities, but it should be borne in mind that travelling through the middle of the scene of military action was rather inconceivable. So either the Chopins spent the period of war with the Skarbeks in Żelazowa Wola (and both years of birth are admissible) or else they (at least Justyna) did not travel there until the winter of 1809/1810.

So did the Chopin family accompany the ‘entire Skarbek household’ in their removal to the country? They probably did: after all, the younger Skarbeks, Teodor (b. 1795) and Michał (b. 1796), may still have required the supervision of their tutor. This could explain the fact that the Chopins’ next child, Fryderyk, was born here, in Żelazowa Wola (officially on 22 February 1810), although this is not entirely proven, since the Chopins could just as well have stayed in Warsaw, living ‘on their own’, the young Skarbeks could have attended school in Warsaw, whilst Freddie could have entered the world during a visit paid by Justyna to Mrs Skarbek. That could even have occurred during Mikołaj’s absence, which in turn might explain the confusion over Freddie’s date of birth: 22 February or 1 March (or even 2 March). If the child was born prematurely, then the father, informed after the fact, would have arrived from Warsaw and had the child’s birth entered into the civil records with a delay (23 April 1810), giving the date 22 February that year. The fact that he gave Żelazowa Wola as ‘home’, that is, his place of residence, does not rule out the possibility that he was in Warsaw at the time: as an employee of the countess, he had moved between the two places with her and her household for years, whilst Żelazowa Wola was the main seat of Countess Ludwika Skarbek and her entourage.

6. A certain German author, mentioned by Hedley, who did not give his name,[4] put forward the hypothesis that Mikołaj Chopin, wishing to avoid a fine for not announcing his child’s birth within the requisite time, deliberately gave the year 1810 instead of the actual date a year earlier, that is, 1 March 1809, in order to lessen the delay! That is a crucial argument, since in any case Mikołaj had broken the civil law. The Napoleonic Codex, introduced on 22 July 1807, clearly obliges the father of a child to register it no later than on the third day after the birth (art. 55 of the section on civil records).[5] The content of article 57 (‘In the birth certificate, the day, hour and place of birth will be specified, together with the child’s sex, given names [author’s emphasis], and the name, profession and place of residence of its Parents and the witnesses’) may indicate that the ceremony of baptism, combined with the name-giving (in those days, given names were almost exclusively saints’ names), was held first, then the civil document was prepared. The fact that this duty was not carried out in time may indicate that Mikołaj was not present at the birth of his son, and it may allow us to assume that since the rule had been broken anyway (and the baptism, at least the emergency baptism, had taken place), the date when the child was actually registered in the civil records played no greater role. Such a situation means that both years are possible.

7. Let us note that Karasowski also gives dates linked to other members of the Chopin family: the birth (6 April 1807) and death (29 October 1855) of Ludwika and the death of Emilia (10 April 1827),[6] and there are no errors in those dates. So why would he commit an error in relation to the most important person? What is more, Karasowski, in mentioning that date, writes: ‘Fryderyk Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, a village six miles from Warsaw, not in 1810, as many opine and as is wrongly expressed on his gravestone in Père Lachaise in Paris, but on 1 March 1809.’ Overlooking the fact that no date of birth appears on that gravestone, let us note that the author of those words knew that the date 1810 functioned in the public awareness, but he nonetheless insisted on 1809.

8. Oskar Kolberg, quite closely linked to the Chopins, gives the circumstances of Fryderyk’s birth very precisely: the night of 1 to 2 March. That information could have come from Justyna herself (she died shortly before Kolberg’s biographic note was published) or possibly from Izabela Barcińska (we assume that hypothesis to be much less likely). Consequently, it is difficult to imagine that Kolberg would have made a mistake with the year of Chopin’s birth. What is more, that date is a more exact version and so definitely comes from a different family interview than the information given by Sikorski and Karasowski.

9. The watch that Fryderyk received in 1820 supposedly pointed to the year 1810, but that argument is rather weak, since calculating the year of birth on the basis of the person’s age usually leads to greater or lesser errors. Let us note also that the date engraved on the watch concerns a moment (3 January 1820) when Fryderyk would have already celebrated his ninth, not tenth, birthday, and usually, in French as well as in English, a ten-year-old (‘âgé de 10 ans’) is a person past their tenth birthday. Of course, in this specific situation of a small child, this argument does not amount to proof, but it strongly indicates the year 1809. One cannot rule out the hypothesis that it was from this inscription that Fryderyk gained the conviction that he was born in 1810, as he specifies in the letter to the Historical-Literary Society (he knew the day at least from the birthday wishes he received).

10. Researchers have not previously noted that no entries were made in the records of Brochów parish between August 1808 and December 1809, so a period of almost eighteenth months. This concerns the church book of baptisms, weddings and deaths, where the numbering of the pages is continuous and correct, which shows that no one removed entries from that period. Meanwhile, entries continued to be made for the whole of that period in the civil records of Brochów commune. In 1809, the duties of registrar for Brochów commune, as already mentioned, were carried out by the parish priest of Brochów, Leon Porzycki,[7] and from January 1810 by the parish priest of Kampinos, Jakub Żegocki. Up to mid April 1810, he was also commendatory for Brochów. So why the lack of church documents, particularly for 1809, when the parish priest was in situ? One possible explanation is that Revd Porzycki, and then perhaps also Revd Żegocki, made notes about administered sacraments before later inscribing them in the book. For some reason, however, they did not do the latter; possibly, the notes were lost or were not returned to Brochów by Revd Żegocki.[8] Only from January 1810 did the curate Józef Morawski begin administering sacraments in Brochów parish, and in mid April 1810 a new parish priest appeared, Revd Jan Duchnowski.[9] Interestingly, for the first four months, Revd Duchnowski acted solely as registrar and administered no sacraments whatsoever (Morawski continued to do so).[10] Revd Duchnowski made his first entry in the civil records under the date 19 April, so just four days before Chopin’s document was drawn up, which indicates that he was entirely unknown to the entourage of the Skarbeks and Chopins.

11. While taking nothing for granted, we should add a small, but by no means trifling, aspect of the matter, hitherto overlooked: the first years of any marriage – at least in those days, when no one had any great notion of family planning – were usually the most productive years as regards children. From this point of view, it is somewhat surprising that after the birth of their first child (1807), a three-year gap should occur in the Chopin family (up to 1810), whereas the next children were born in successive years (Izabela 1811, Emilia 1812). From this point of view, the year 1809 would be more understandable as the year of Fryderyk’s birth. Statistics of births in Warsaw at the end of the eighteenth century show that around fifteen months tended to elapse between a wedding and the birth of the first child, then more or less two years between the first and second and the second and third children.[11]

12. The original plaque in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw bore the date 2 March 1809. Since it was produced in cooperation with Fryderyk’s family (especially his nephew, Antoni Jędrzejewicz), we should assume that it perpetuated the date from the family tradition. And indeed it is the same date as that given by Sikorski, Kolberg and Karasowski.

* * *

To sum up our considerations, it should be stated that the day of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth was almost certainly 1 March, more precisely the night of 1 to 2 March, since the family tradition and the information given many times by people close to Chopin seem much more reliable than entries in books, around which too many unexplained circumstances exist.

The year of his birth is more debatable, but it should be emphasised that the year 1809 is at least as likely as 1810; indeed, even more so. It would seem, however, that we will have to content ourselves with hypotheses, since the chances of finding any new sources that would shed light on all these doubts are rather scant.

 

[1] Polski Słownik Biograficzny [Polish biographical dictionary], xxviii (Warsaw, 1997–1998), 8–13 (biographic entry for Fryderyk Skarbek by K. Bartoszyński and S. Kieniewicz); Skarbek, Pamiętniki, 33.

[2] Teki Dworzaczka [The Dworzaczek files], CD-ROM v. 1.2.0. (Kórnik, 1997). This contains historical-genealogical materials relating to the history of the nobility in the Greater Poland region during the fifteenth to twentieth centuries.

[3] Skarbek, Pamiętniki, 28–33.

[4] Arthur Hedley, Chopin (London, 1947), 4.

[5] Kodex Napoleona Xięstwu Warszawskiemu Artykułem 69-tym Ustawy Konstytucyjnej Roku 1807 dnia 22 lipca za Prawo Cywilne podany [Codex of Napoleon given to the Duchy of Warsaw through article 69 of the Constitution Bill of 22 July 1807 as civil law] (Warsaw, 1810). In 1825, that deadline was extended to eight days. All infringements of the regulations incurred sizeable monetary fines for the registrar (i.e. the parish priest).

[6] Karasowski, Fryderyk Chopin, i:19–20.

[7] Księga urodzeń, ślubów, zgonów par. Brochów nr 2 [Book of births, weddings and deaths of Brochów parish no. 2] (titled ‘Births 1808’). This is probably a rough copy of the civil registry covering the years 1808–1809. The last entry made by Revd L. Porzycki is dated 18 November 1809.

[8] Revd Jakub Żegocki, canon of Livonia and dean of Sochaczew, born c.1757, was parish priest of Kampinos from 1781 and died there on 8 May 1810; Kampinos parish archive, Księga zgonów 1800–1823 [Book of deaths 1800–1823], 15. Unfortunately, there are no notes or drafts made by Revd Żegocki in Kampinos parish archive. The civil records of Kampinos from that period are also lacking any entries concerning places in Brochów parish.

[9] Revd Jan Duchnowski, parish priest of Brochów and honorary canon of Łęczyca, born c.1766 in Warmia, died 24 February 1822 in Brochów; Brochów parish archive, Księga zgonów 1822 [Book of deaths 1822], fols. 66v–67, entry no. 10.

[10] Warsaw Metropolitan Curia, Liber Baptizatorum parafii Brochów 1802–1821 [Brochów parish book of baptisms 1802–1821] and Akta stanu cywilnego gminy brochowskiej 1810 [Brochów commune civil records 1810], fols. 5v, 52v, 67v–68, 108v, 109.

[11] Cezary Kuklo, Rodzina w osiemnastowiecznej Warszawie [The family in eighteenth-century Warsaw] (Białystok, 1991), 211–218.