Persons related to Chopin Persons related to Chopin

Mikołaj Chopin

Mikołaj Chopin

Mikołaj Chopin

*15 IV 1771 Marainville, †3 V 1844 Warszawa

Nicolas (Mikołaj) Chopin was born on April 15th, 1771 in  France, in the town of Marainville, located on the Madon river, around 30 km from Nancy, the capital of Lorraine. Lorraine was formerly an independent duchy, governed by Poland's former king Stanisław Leszczyński to his death in 1766, and which then passed to France. The Chopin family's real historical seat, however, was the hamlet of Saint-Crépin in the Dauphiné region in the high Alps, on the border with Savoy and subjected to the bishop of Embrun. Saint-Crépin was a medieval stone-walled town built on a rocky promontory, equipped with a small castle and a stone church dedicated to St. Crispin (Saint Créspin), built in ca. 1444. Nicolas' first documented ancestor, Barthélémy, a local counsellor, is likely to have participated in the church's construction. Nicolas' Alpine forefathers, the Chapins (as this was the original spelling of their name), lived in Saint-Crépin and in surrounding hamlets - such as Les Chapins, existing to this day. The Chapins made a living from shepherding, craft and minor agriculture. The level of life of these communities was extremely low, pushing many to leave their homes looking for a better life.

The Chapin family, settled in the Alpine village of Saint-Crépin, has been documented with high probability from 1444, when the above-mentioned Barthélémy lived, to François, born around 1676 as son of Antoine and Marie, born Durrafourt. At the end of the 17th century both father and son left Saint-Crépin, most likely looking for a better life than that offered by the sub-Alpine hills. The subsequent destinies of Antoine have not been established, but François can be traced to the French hamlet of Romont on the Lorraine border, where in 1705 he married Catherine Oudot. After their betrothal the Chapins moved to Lorraine and settled in Catherine's native village of Xirocourt. From the christening of their first child the family name was spelled as Chopin (a wish to blur François past cannot be denied here, who might have been active as a smuggler). The names of Nicolas and François alternate among the numerous Chopin children of the next generations.

The last François in the Lorraine branch of the Chopin family was the grandfather of Fryderyk (who, according to tradition, received François as his second Christian name). François (1738-1814), a skilled wheeler and administrator of the commune of Marainville, married Marguerite Deflin (1736-1794). François enjoyed a far better existence than his Alpine ancestors, but his social status continued to be very low. Nonetheless, he strived to secure proper education for his children. Thus his son Nicolas, born in 1771, attended the highly reputed nearby secondary school in Tantimont, where he learned the basics. Meanwhile, in 1782, Pole Adam Weydlich with family settled in Marainville to take up a manager's position at the local castle and estate which had been purchased by Lithuanian gentleman, starosta of Ziołów and head of the Confederation of Bar in Lithuania, and now emigrant to France, Michał Jan Pac (1730-1787). The Weydlich family soon noticed the promising Nicolas and allowed him frequent visits to the castle. Moreover, lady Franciszka Weydlich (from a wealthy bourgeois Parisian family of German origins) saw to Nicolas' further education, who after a few years mastered a good level of French, German, and probably also Polish, accounting, calligraphy, literature, and music. After Michał Pac's death in 1787, having lost their employer, but also due to pre-Revolutionary political situation, the Weydlichs decided to return to Poland and embarked on their journey to Warsaw in fall 1787. This event proved decisive for Nicolas Chopin, who decided to leave his home and accompany the Weydlichs. The latter must have seen the intelligent 17-year-old as a highly useful helping hand in their business. Nicolas' parents saw this as a life opportunity for their son and agreed to part with him, as it was to turn out, forever.

Nicolas Chopin arrived with the Weydlichs to Warsaw at the end of 1787. Already in spring the following year Adam Weydlich founded a girls' boarding house, where Nicolas is likely to have found employment. Based on Nicolas' only letter to his parents (dated September 15th, 1790), we know that they initially stayed in touch, but that soon the Chopins stopped answering to Nicolas' letters. Nicolas was due to travel to France for matters related to Pac's inheritance, but abandoned this project due to the recent French Revolution and a fear of being conscripted. The assignment of legal inheritance issues to the 19-year-old Nicolas testifies not only to the trust bestowed upon him but also to his high competence. Until 1791 the Weydlichs resided in a missionary priests' house at 406 (today no. 1) Krakowskie Przedmieście Ave., which also remained Nicolas' private and professional address at least until February 1791.

Nicolas Chopin's life in the following years, i.e. between 1791 and 1802, is difficult to document due to a lack of trustworthy sources and a certain confusion in the Chopin literature. Latest research, however, has shed some light on the chronology of Nicolas' bachelor years, although some facts are still hypothetical. It is still unknown how long he worked at the Weydlich boarding house - probably until 1791/1792. In the following years (1792-1794) he resided in Szafarnia (Dobrzyń county) with Jan Dziewanowski as tutor and teacher to his son Jan Nepomucen, who later was heroically killed at the battle of Somosierra. In 1794 Nicolas became teacher to Jan Dekert Jr. in Warsaw, and in November that year he is reputed to have participated in the defence of Warsaw from the Russian army of Alexander Suvorov, which ended with the bloodshed of the Praga district and the fall of the capital. Nicolas did not serve in the army, but in the compulsory civil defense (residents' militia). During this period he lived together with his employer, the widow Dekert, later married to tobacco manufacturer Piotr-Filip Benezet (e.g. at 2142 Kłopot St., now destroyed). It cannot be excluded that apart from his tutorship of the young Jan Dekert, Nicolas would take up a side job at the office of the nearby Tobacco Manufacture (or rather at institutions that followed after the latter's dissolution in 1789), as mentioned by later biographers. After 1795 Nicolas can be traced as a home tutor to the children of Ewa Łączyńska (born Zaborowska, died 1816/1819), widow of Maciej Łączyński, starosta of Gostynin (died 1795), who remarried with Józef Chrzanowski. Nicolas thus first worked in Kiernozia in the Gostynin district, then probably at Chrzanowski's estate in Piekarty in the Kalisz district. In 1802 Nicolas was engaged as tutor to the sons of Kacper Skarbek and his wife Ludwika (born Fenger) in Żelazowa Wola, and worked for them until 1810, when he became professor at the public Warsaw High School. In his early period Nicolas tutored several prominent future figures of the Congress Kingdom of Poland, including Jan Dekert (1786-1861), Warsaw suffragan bishop, son of former Warsaw mayor, a distinguished reformer of the Four-Year Sejm period; Maria Walewska born Łączyńska (1786-1817), Napoleon's mistress and mother of his son Aleksander Walewski; Teodor Łączyński (1785-1842), Maria's brother, Napoleon's officer; Jan Nepomucen Dziewanowski (1782-1808), famous cavalry officer from Somosierra; Fryderyk Skarbek (1792-1866), distinguished economist, historian and writer.

In 1806 in Brochów (the parish to which Żelazowa Wola belonged), Nicolas married Justyna Krzyżanowska, a poor gentrywoman originating from the Kujawy region, who belonged to a family working for the Skarbeks for several decades. This marriage proved successful and durable, given that the Chopins lived happily united for 38 years. A year after their marriage, in 1807, their first daughter Ludwika was born in Warsaw; son Fryderyk followed, born in Żelazowa Wola in 1809 or 1810; and then two daughters, Izabela and Emilia, again in Warsaw, in 1811 and 1812. The changes in the family's residence clearly indicate that Nicolas moved with his family from Żelazowa Wola to Warsaw and back following his employer, the Skarbek family, depending on the political and military situation which made Warsaw a dangerous place for many, notably in 1806/1807, i.e. during the war Napoleon's war with Prussia and Russia, waged on Polish territories; in 1809, during the Warsaw Duchy war with Russia, and in 1812, during Napoleon's failed Moscow expedition.

Nicolas' teaching achievements and personal characteristics soon brought him recognition in the Warsaw élite: in 1810 the headmaster of the Warsaw High School (Liceum Warszawskie, the city's major secondary school institution together with the Piarist-run Collegium Nobilium), Samuel Bogumił Linde, eminent lexicographer, author of the monumental Dictionary of the Polish Language, hired him as collaborator (October 1st, 1810 through June 1st, 1814), and subsequently (until the High School's dissolution in 1832) as titular professor of French language, with a base yearly salary of 3,000 zlotys. The Warsaw High School initially had seat in the Saxon Palace, and from 1817 onwards in the Kazimierzowski Palace at Krakowskie Przedmieście Ave., on what is today the Warsaw University campus.

At the Warsaw High School, Nicolas Chopin first substituted for deceased professor Karol Mahé, teaching French in the lower grades. Two years later, from 1812 onwards, following the death of professor Józef Rousseau, he also took up the higher grades. Together with his engagement at the Warsaw High School, Nicolas with his wife established a boarding house for boys. The running of such institutions was subject to detailed rules and controlled by the educational authorities, guaranteeing the highest quality service. The Chopins' boarding house soon became highly reputed, making it also Warsaw's most expensive at 4,000 zlotys per year.

The Chopins usually had six resident students, of which three would sleep in Nicolas' room, and three with their tutor. Nicolas dealt with education and upbringing, while his wife with their three daughters saw to the living quarters and the everyday necessities. In later years the number of residing students rose to ten. We do not know the exact dates of establishment and end of this activity, but it can be argued that it started immediately after Nicolas took up his post at the Warsaw High School and continued at least until Nicolas' retirement in 1837. This would give a rough total of 40 to 50 students who stayed at the Chopins' boarding house; only half this number is known in detail.

Nicolas' career was not restricted to the Warsaw High School. Starting on January 1st, 1812, he taught French at the Elementary School of Artillery and Engineering (Szkoła Elementarna Artylerii i Inżynierii), an introductory school for lower military staff, while on November 1st, 1820 he was nominated professor of the newly established military university, the Application School of Artillery and Engineering (Szkoła Aplikacyjna Artylerii i Inżynierii), where he served until the school's dissolution after the fall of the 1831 uprising. He referred directly to lieutenant-colonel Józef Sowiński, later general and heroic defender of the Wola district during the Polish-Russian war of 1831. The Chopins maintained close social bonds with the general's widow Katarzyna.

The period after the 1831 uprising proved difficult to the Chopins - Nicolas' health deteriorated as his age advanced, and their income drastically decreased. After the Warsaw High School shut down and was transformed into the Warsaw District Gymnasium (Warszawskie Gimnazjum Wojewódzkie), Nicolas was not re-engaged, although as a nominated professor he still received wages. Authorities planned to established a Pedagogical Institute in which a post for Nicolas would be created, but the project never came to fruition, and Chopin's salary was halved. Despite the actual dissolution of the Application School, he remained in "active service" until August 1836, when he was officially dismissed. Boarding house fees thus remained the major source of income for the family; Nicolas also took up French language and literature classes at the Main Seminary (Seminarium Główne, ca. 1834-1835), transformed in 1836/1837 into the Roman-Catholic Spiritual Academy (Rzymsko-Katolicka Akademia Duchowna), based on 1863c, Zakroczymska St. In 1837 Nicolas was hired there as a French language teacher, with a salary of 1200 zlotys. He did not stay long, resigning after three or four months due to declining health and retirement.

During his several decades as a civil servant Nicolas was also a distinguished member of e.g. the High Examination Committee (Komitet Najwyższy Egzaminacyjny) and the Revising Commission for Library and School Books (Komisja do Rewizji Ksiąg Bibliotecznych i Szkolnych); in 1815 his name can also be found among the contributors to the new Kopernik monument.

Nicolas' social circle was composed of his former students and boarding house residents with their families, including the Dziewanowskis, Pruszaks, Skarzyńskis and Zboińskis, but chiefly the Skarbeks. Among his close friends we find the Kolberg family, Jakub Benik, head engineer of the Mint, and Jan Austen, owner of an elementary school and a boys' boarding house similar to that of the Chopins.

Documentation of Nicolas' professional activities, although scarce, allows to outline his personal characteristics. Professor Chopin was remembered by his numerous students as a man of rigid moral standards, meticulous, just, hard-working and demanding. He enjoyed a considerable prestige on Warsaw élite circles. His reputation increased thanks to his son, initially invited to play as a child prodigy and who soon became renowned as a truly extraordinary musician. Chopin's parents had a decisive influence on the development of his talent, guaranteeing him a steady course of both musical and general education. Their psychological support allowed the young Fryderyk to fully immerge himself in his difficult art. Perhaps Nicolas remembered the educational effort of his own parents and took the same approach with his own son. This is particularly evident in Nicolas' efforts to obtain a government scholarship for Fryderyk's musical studies in France, his efforts in organizing Fryderyk's 1830 journey, his continuing correspondence with his son, advice sent to Paris, and his financial help.

In characterizing Nicolas' personal traits, it is necessary to mention his attitude during the political unrest of the time. Although he managed to escape revolutionary unrest in France, he soon became confronted with a political breakthrough in Poland: the Polish-Russian war of 1792, the Kościuszko Uprising ending with Poland's third partition, the Prussian occupation, the French army invasion, establishment of the Warsaw Duchy, the war with Austria in 1809, the Moscow campaign of Napoleon, the period of tsarist rule and finally the November 1830 uprising and repressive policy that followed its fall. All these events concerned the Chopins directly. Nicolas distanced himself from any political radicalism; he sure was not a clericalist, yet approached the ideas of the French Revolution with skepticism; he was enthusiastic about the reforms of the Four-Year Sejm, accepting the general mood of the period (and also through his close ties with mayor Dekert, his employer), but was already more reserved towards the policy of Napoleon. He was also ambiguous about the 1830 uprising in Poland, since he advised his son in Paris to be careful not to become closely associated with the circles of post-insurrectional political émigrés. Nicolas' attitude throughout this eventful period shows a detached rationalism, a resistance to widespread popular opinion, sometimes even an excessively soft approach to authorities. Nicolas cared about his own reputation and maintaining appropriate social relationships, perhaps he was too easily impressed with aristocratic connections. Yet despite this apparent opportunism, he showed a vivid attachment to his new country and Polish affairs, saw to the patriotic education of his children, and imbued them with a civic sentiment. He himself felt so closely tied to Poland that he saw France as "a foreign country" - not only in the geographical sense. On Polish ground he remained a "Frenchy", but felt a Polish national and wanted his son Fryderyk to be likewise, despite his forced emigration to his father's former home country.

After his retirement, Nicolas and his wife settled with their daughter Izabela, now married Barcińska, at 1255 (today no. 55) Nowy Świat St. They both led a peaceful and quiet life; Nicolas' great joy was his cultivation of a vine tree in their home garden, whose fruit probably reminded him of his childhood and parental home. It is the only documented occurrence of Nicolas' nostalgy towards France. His physical health remained good for years. No confirmation survives of any serious illness (perhaps relating to his character: he never complained or required attention). He kept almost all his teeth in good condition to his death. In the last decade or so his health gradually deteriorated, however; he suffered from insistent cough and failing sight. He remained fully conscious until his death at 74 on May 3rd, 1844 at three o'clock in the afternoon, in the house of Izabela Barcińska. He was buried in the catacombs of the Powązki Cemetery on May 6th. In 1948, after the catacombs' destruction, Nicolas' coffin was transferred to a new grave at the back of the church of St. Charles Borromeo, where it remains to this day. On the occasion of this exhumation, detailed anthropological examination was undertaken, which will allow to establish Nicolas' appearance.

Piotr Mysłakowski, Andrzej Sikorski (January 2006)

André Clavier, Dans l'entourage de Chopin, Lens 1981.
Gabriel Ladaïque, Les origines lorraines de Frédéric Chopin, Sarreguemines 1999.
Piotr Mysłakowski, Rodzina ojca Chopina. Migracja i awans [The Family of Chopin's Father. Emigration and Success], Warszawa 2003.
Piotr Mysłakowski, Andrzej Sikorski, Chopinowie. Krąg rodzinno-towarzyski [The Chopins. Their Family and Social Circle], Warszawa 2005.


By category: