ABOUT HALFWAY INTO the outdoor concert, the Warsaw sun intensifying its gaze, I glanced around for a refreshment booth, perhaps a vendor perambulating the grounds with an ice chest filled with cold drinks.
There was, I soon realised, no such offering. Then I noticed something else: there were no banners pitching hotels and banks, airlines and restaurants. There was nobody selling programmes, or T-shirts, baseball caps or CDs.
This was Chopin, after all, and we were attending yet another tribute to Warsaw’s beloved native son. He is a legend whose talent is cherished by this city, and the ritual of these concerts is held in the highest regard.
Twice a day on Sundays, from May to September and no matter the weather, Chopin’s music comes alive in a section of Lazienki Park, the city’s largest, occupying almost 80 hectares. On it stand the Palac na Wodzie (Palace on the Water) or Palac na Wyspie (Palace on the Island), a striking 17thcentury edifice later occupied by Poland’s last king, Stanislaw August Poniatowski. The lush green grounds are a popular venue for locals and tourists coming to see the palaces, the Roman theatre and the Orangery, with its elaborate arched hallways and sparkling glass walls.
The concerts are held adjacent to a lake, and at the foot of a towering sculpture of the composer. An acclaimed pianist takes the stage each time, seated at a grand piano beneath a canopy shaped like the Sydney Opera House.
On this Sunday in August, my family and I found a spot on the grass amid some 4,000 people, and as the soulful stirrings of a nocturne echoed through the air, the sun’s rays sparkling off the lake, babies and grandparents on blankets and benches, all gathered to rejoice in the melodies of one of history’s most formidable composers, it was impossible not to be moved.
It was our last day of a two-week stay in Poland, my family’s first visit to the country. I was there with my two young sons; the older, at 11, is a fan of Chopin in the same way that other boys his age might love Minecraft or Halo. He had forged a connection years ago with Chopin’s potently evocative and enduring music, learning to play as much of it as he could. So when one of his piano instructors in Los Angeles, herself an alum of the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, a former concert pianist and a noted expert in the man’s music, planned a classical-culture-immersion excursion to her country, it was hard to say no.
Two weeks earlier we’d flown into Warsaw, where we began our exploration of Chopin, the city’s affinity for him being evident from the outset (the airport is named after him). After 24 hours there, we trundled off on a bumpy, four-hour bus ride to the scenic south-eastern town of Zamosc, where my son and others in the group were performing two concerts as a tribute to Polish culture. We did more of the same in the larger city of Rzeszow, moved on to the cathedrals and castles of Krakow, went to see the former home – now a museum – of the late 20th-century composer and pianist Karol Szymanowski in the mountainous village of Zakopane, and then, after a 10-hour overnight train ride, ended up in Warsaw again. This was where Chopin’s own journey ended.
That week, it was hard not to escape the legacy of the composer. The ninth annual Chopin Music Festival was about to get under way, and the city was awash in recitals and concerts by international piano luminaries. Every five years, Warsaw hosts the illustrious International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition – the next one is in 2015 – whose winners are all but guaranteed a spot on the international concert circuit.
Even for those who aren’t classical music buffs, walking in Chopin’s footsteps, as it were, or visiting his birthplace, the salons in which he lived and where he first entertained European aristocracy, provides valuable glimpses into the heart of the city, what moves it and what it holds dear.
Not that it’s all archaic and quaint: the Fryderyk Chopin Museum, at the revamped Ostrogski Palace on Okolnik Street, is four floors of high-tech razzle-dazzle. We were given cards with computer chips to swipe across interactive displays – touch a button on one of his first-edition musical scores and the music starts to play. Among the 5,000 exhibits are a lock of his hair – strands of brown laid out, somewhat creepily, on a small tray inside a glass case – and a flower perfectly preserved from Chopin’s death bed, mounted in a gilt-edged, oval frame.
Our guide’s contention was that it’s impossible to connect with Chopin and appreciate the breadth of his musicality until a journey has been made to his origins. An hour outside Warsaw is the village of Zelazowa Wola, where Chopin was born in 1810, while the country was under Russian rule. His French father, Nicolas (who subsequently changed his name to the much more Polish-sounding Mikolaj) was employed as a tutor to the children of a noble family, and had been given a home on the family’s sprawling estate. That home is today part of a museum, one of its rooms holding a grand piano at which, behind closed doors, a pianist seats himself every Sunday and begins to perform Chopin’s works as speakers pipe the melodies to enthralled listeners in the gardens outside as they sit surrounded by ponds and bridges. In another building, a short film on the life of Chopin plays on a loop and a gift store sells his entire works (as well as irresistible I Love Chopin T-shirts).
Chopin left Zelazowa Wola with his family while still an infant when his father accepted the position of French teacher at a school in Warsaw. They eventually made their home in a building that today houses the Academy of Fine Arts, its broad hallways tacked with black-and-white photos. Up a flight of stairs is a drawing room where the family partly lived, recreated to resemble what it might have looked like back then, a piano at one end, a faded Empire chair, etchings on the walls of Chopin’s beloved sisters. But there’s nothing in the space that was touched by Chopin, and as I endeavoured to cool down in the musty, hot room, this lack was obvious to me.
Warsaw is characterised by wide thoroughfares, lengthy blocks and ice-cream vendors every few steps – and all overwhelmed by the grand architecture. Back outside, we continued walking down Krakowskie Przedmiescie, picking up the trail of Chopin as we went: here was the palace in which he had his first public performances; at number 7 stood another one of his early homes; and this is where he composed his first mazurka.
We arrived at the Holy Cross Church, a typically glorious masterpiece of baroque architecture. Inside the hallowed space, a few people scattered in silent prayer, is the fulfilment of Chopin’s last wish: though he died in Paris in 1849, he wanted his heart to be interred here, so it was brought back by his sister, apparently preserved in a bottle of cognac. Now it rests deep inside a stone pillar, a small bust of him above the mounted marble epitaph, brandishing the biblical quote: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”