Chopin’s heart and the early deaths of great com­posers



Young clas­si­cal mu­si­cians face an oc­cu­pa­tional hazard – early death. One of Eng­land’s most fa­mous com­posers, Henry Pur­cell, died aged 36 of a chill caught when his wife ac­ci­den­tally locked him out­side of his house one cold night.

When Mozart died aged 35, a physi­cian put his death down to a ‘‘se­vere mil­iary fever’’ – a vague di­ag­no­sis re­fer­ring to bumps on the skin. Gen­er­a­tions of med­i­cal sleuths have put up count­less the­o­ries try­ing to ex­plain his death.

In the 19th cen­tury, mer­cury was widely used in a vain at­tempt to treat syphilis. The syphilitic com­poser Robert Schu­mann tried un­suc­cess­fully to drown him­self in the Rhine be­fore be­ing put away in an asy­lum where he died aged 46, pos­si­bly be­cause of mer­cury poi­son­ing.

Franz Schu­bert was one of the most pro­lific com­posers of all time, writ­ing more than 1000 pieces in his 31 years. His death is usu­ally at­trib­uted to typhoid, but he too suf­fered from syphilis and mer­cury may have con­trib­uted to his early death.

Felix Men­delssohn died of a se­ries of strokes aged 38 and George Gersh­win died of a brain tu­mour at the same age.

Fred­er­ick Chopin was al­ways frail and had dif­fi­culty breath­ing. As an adult he weighed only 45kg. Liv­ing in Paris, he be­came in­creas­ingly de­bil­i­tated in his 30s, and less ac­tive as a per­former, teacher and com­poser. He treated him­self with opium and bel­ladonna. In 1889, at age 35, the ail­ing Chopin’s last words were, ‘‘Swear to make them cut me open so that I won’t be buried alive’’.

A pro­fes­sor of pathol­ogy con­ducted a thor­ough au­topsy on his body and Chopin’s sis­ter Lud­wika made off with his heart in a jar of co­gnac. She smug­gled the pre­served heart past Rus­sian bor­der guards and back to Poland. There, his heart was placed within a con­tainer and shut up in a pil­lar of the Holy Cross Church, War­saw.

Dur­ing World War II, the Nazi com­man­dant in War­saw, a Chopin ad­mirer, took the con­tainer and heart to Ger­many for safe keep­ing, and re­turned it safely to the church af­ter the war.

Notes of Chopin’s au­topsy were lost, prompt­ing gen­er­a­tions of doc­tors to spec­u­late about the cause of his death. Was it tu­ber­cu­lo­sis or some­thing more rare?

Spec­u­la­tion has been put to rest by re­cent devel­op­ments. In 2014, queries were raised about the con­di­tion of the con­tainer, so it was re­moved from the church pil­lar and sci­en­tists were given ac­cess to the em­balmed heart.

In the lat­est Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Medicine, Pol­ish pathol­o­gists con­firm that Chopin had chronic tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, but the im­me­di­ate cause of his death was prob­a­bly peri­cardi­tis – an in­flam­ma­tion of the outer mem­brane of his heart.

Chopin’s heart­less body was buried in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Ceme­tery, be­neath a statue of a muse weep­ing over a bro­ken lyre. Chopin shares the ceme­tery with fel­low mu­si­cians Cheru­bini, Bizet, Rossini, Edith Piaf, Maria Cal­las, Django Rein­hart and oth­ers.

More than 3 mil­lion peo­ple visit the fa­mous ceme­tery an­nu­ally and devo­tees garland Chopin’s grave with fresh flow­ers.


Chopin’s heart was buried within a pil­lar in the Holy Cross Church.

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