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.