For almost two centuries, fans of classical music have wondered how Frédéric Chopin died. The Polish composer and virtuoso pianist passed away at the young age of only 38.
What caused his death and robbed the world of the music he could have composed? Studies done on his heart, which has been preserved in a jar since his death, have finally revealed his cause of death.
Why it’s taken so long to examine his heart is an interesting story. When Chopin died in 1849, his body was buried in Paris and his heart was taken to Warsaw.
“The heart has a long and contentious history. Chopin, who died in Paris in 1849 at the age of 39, dreaded being buried alive and asked that his body be cut open before burial and his heart sent to Warsaw,” explained The New York Times. “Accordingly, his heart was cut out, sealed in a crystal jar and smuggled past the Russian authorities into what is now Poland.”
Chopin’s heart was pickled in a jar of alcohol—thought to be cognac—and encased in a stone pillar in Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. The heart remained there for almost 100 years until the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
The occupying German forces feared that Chopin’s status as “Polish national icon” would inspire the people. They suppressed performances of his music, and his heart was removed from the church and kept at the headquarters of the SS commander Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski.
After the war, the heart returned to the church. It was “interred in a pillar inscribed with a verse from Matthew: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,’” described the Times.
Now, an article that will be published in the American Journal of Medicine says the Polish composer died from complications of tuberculosis. The article, “A Closer Look at Frederic Chopin’s Cause of Death,” describes how “the researchers found Chopin’s heart ‘submerged in an amber-brown liquid,’ thought to be Cognac, which was often used for tissue preservation,” relates The Times.
For fear of causing deterioration, the researchers didn’t open the jar, but they did observe that the heart had become “massively enlarged and floppy.” It was also covered with a white substance that gave it a “frosted” appearance, leading the researchers to conclude that Chopin had suffered from pericarditis. Pericarditis is an inflammation of tissue around the heart, which in this case was likely the result of tuberculosis.
In the past, doctors had theorized that Chopin died from cystic fibrosis. ClassicFM reported that Chopin experts had been eager to examine the heart for decades, but the “Polish church and government have been reluctant to give permission.” They finally gave permission after experts expressed concerns that the alcohol may have evaporated.
Dr. Michal Witt, the lead researcher on a team of Polish scientists who worked on the article, told the Times “that it was important to understand the heart as a symbol of Polish national identity: ‘For Poles, this piece of his body which is present still in Poland is of special emotional value,’” he said.
Chopin’s body is still buried in Paris. He spent the last 18 years of his life in that city.
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