One hundred seventy years ago, on October 17, 1849, the Polish French composer and pianist who renewed the sound of the Romantic piano died: Frederic Chopin (1810–1849).
His superhuman, sad, and passionate art is well summarized in the following words, beautiful and moving, which the Venerable Pope Pius XII addressed to a large group of Poles in Rome, on September 30, 1939:
In each of you there is a little of the soul of your immortal Chopin, whose music so wonderfully draws profound and endless joy from our poor human tears. If the art of man could achieve so much, how much more skillful must be the art of God in assuaging the grief of your souls? (The Catholic Northwest Progress, Seattle, WA, 6 October 1939, p. 3)
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI praised Chopin, saying: “May the music of this famous Polish composer, who made such a great contribution to the culture of Europe and the world, bring those who listen to him close to God and help them discover the depth of man’s spirit” (Insegnamenti di Benedetto XVI, VI, 1 2010, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, p. 284).
Chopin’s interior life presents three successive stages: the upbringing in Warsaw in a devout Catholic family, the distancing from the Faith and religious practice during his lightning career in Paris (his main residence from 1831 to the end of his days), and the movement of return to God just before he died.
His father Nicholas, a French émigré, and his Polish mother Justyna, the first piano teacher of her son and the firstborn Ludwika, never failed in the honor and the responsibility to transmit the Faith to their children. In a letter written around mid-March 1842, Justyna assures her son of her closeness in prayer and that of her husband, even during the Parisian years, the happiest and most active period of Chopin’s musical career: “You forgot, my dearest child, that your old father and mother live only for you and pray God every day to bless and keep you.”
But in Paris, his faith dwindled, and life became more tormented. Many of his new friends were “men and women without principles, or rather with bad principles” (J. Huneker, Chopin: The Man and His Music, New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1918, p. 79). Not even some women were his consolation — especially the Romantic writer George Sand, “a devourer of men,” who knew him in 1836 and, after contrasts of ideas and characters, abandoned him in 1847.
His already delicate health, especially the increasingly severe and frequent lung infections, weakened him a lot in the last years of his life. One of the most illustrious representatives of Polish emigration, Reverend Alexander Jelowicki, one of Chopin’s closest friends, approached the bedside of the dying musician. The priest himself would report in detail Chopin’s return to the ancient faith (Huneker, op. cit., pp. 78–84).
Fr. Alexander took advantage of the composer’s sweetened mood to talk to him about his beloved mother Justyna, a good Christian. “Yes,” Chopin said, “in order not to offend my mother, I would not die without the sacraments, but for my part I do not regard them in the sense that you desire. I understand the blessing of the confession in so far as it is unburdening of a heavy heart into a friendly hand, but not as a sacrament. I am ready to confess to you if you wish it, because I love you, not because I hold it necessary.” But the priest did not despair of grace, which seemed near.
On the evening of October 12, 1849, the musician’s physician, convinced that Chopin would not live through the night, called Fr. Jelowicki, who hastened to him. The dying pressed his hand but asked him to depart, assured that he loved him but didn’t wish to speak to him.
The next day, the feast of St. Edward the Confessor in the traditional Martyrology, Fr. Alexander celebrated the Mass for the repose of the soul of his brother Edward, shot in Vienna during the 1848 upheavals, and prayed for Chopin’s soul. He returned to the composer’s bedside and reminded him that that day was the name day of his poor brother, whom Chopin had loved very much. “Oh, do not let us speak of it,” the dying cried. “Dearest friend,” the priest went on, “you must give me something for my brother’s name day.” “What shall I give you?” “Your soul.” “Ah, I understand. Here it is; take it!”.
The musician held the crucifix offered to him by Fr. Jelowicki; professed faith in Christ, which his mother taught him; and received the sacraments that prepare the dying to meet the living God. His agonies lasted four days, but he was resigned, patient, and sometimes smiling. The priest wrote:
He blessed his friends, and when, after an apparently last crisis, he saw himself surrounded by the crowd that day and night filled his chamber, he asked me, “Why do they not pray?”. At these words all fell on their knees, and even the Protestants joined in the litanies and prayers for the dying.
Some of Chopin’s last words are these: “Without you, my friend, I would have died like a pig!” (Wierzynski, The Life and Death of Chopin, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949, p. 412). He called on the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; grabbed a crucifix; pressed it to his heart; and gratefully said, “Now I am at the source of blessedness!” In an apartment at 12 Place Vendôme in Paris, now home to a jewelry store, at 2:00 A.M. on Wednesday, October 17, 1849, Chopin the rebel died at 39 years. “Thus died Chopin,” father Jelowicki concluded, “and in truth, his death was the most beautiful concerto of all his life” (Huneker, op. cit. pp. 83–84).
Massimo Scapin, an Italian conductor of both opera and the symphonic repertoire, composer, and pianist, holds degrees in piano and choral conducting from the State Conservatory of Music in Perugia, in orchestral conducting and composition from the National College of Music in London, and in religious science (magna cum laude) from the Pontifical Lateran University. Massimo appeared as guest conductor and pianist in Europe, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and the United States. He was also a Vatican Radio commentator and entertainer. He currently serves as Director of Liturgical Music at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.