Chopin’s Heart, Poland’s Spirit

(Pixabay)
The meanings behind the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor.

Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I t might seem hyperbolic to suggest that music can save lives. But in the case of Natalia Karp, that statement is true. A survivor of the Holocaust, Karp was, while imprisoned in Plaszow concentration camp in Poland, ordered to play the piano for the camp’s commandant, Amon Goeth (made famous by Ralph Fiennes’s depiction of him in Schindler’s List). Karp chose Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor for the simple reason that it was sad and so was she.

“Sie soll leben,” Goeth said after she’d finished playing. (“She shall live.”) “Not without my sister,” she replied. And Goeth acquiesced.

The nocturne, marked Lento con gran espressione, begins with a brief, repeated introduction. First, quiet and march-like; then even quieter. Its opening is solemn, almost like a sigh. After that, the piece begins in earnest. The melody in the right hand is accompanied by broken chords in the left (quite a stretch, even for long fingers). I had a piano teacher who told me the right hand was supposed to “sing.” Much to my embarrassment, I took this instruction to mean I should sing along. The real exercise was to breathe along with each melodic phrase so that the whole sound became an integrated, more visceral, performance.

The second section, which has striking similarities with Chopin’s second piano concerto, is much livelier. Triplets peter out toward the end, evocative, if you know Schubert’s song “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”), of a fish jumping out of water. The final section is a repetition of the first, only this time with greater urgency conveyed by the increase in flexibility and movement in the right hand. Up and down the scale it goes, spiraling upward into a wide glissando. The markings are delicato, then delicatissimo, subtly moving the listener to a surprising ending. We modulate from the minor key to its relative major. It’s sad, but not despairing.

The lasting popularity of this nocturne would have, I’m sure, surprised Chopin. Though written in 1829, the piece was not published until 21 years after his death. In retrospect, this posthumous delay seems appropriate since the piece—sometimes called “Reminiscence”is as nostalgic as it is melancholic. It is also little wonder, given Poland’s tumultuous history in the 20th century, that its somber romantic melody has become so associated with the soul of that country.

There is heart as well as soul in the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor. “To my sister Ludwika as an exercise before beginning the study of my second Concerto,” the composer inscribed it. Ludwika was Frédéric’s senior. They were close. After he emigrated to Paris in 1830, the two corresponded extensively. When his health took a turn for the worse, she traveled to be with him. It was to her that he made a strange request: that should he die of his disease—and he did—his heart should be taken back to Warsaw.

Chopin’s heart was cut from his body, pickled in a sealed jar, placed in an oak urn, and transported to Warsaw. It is now located at Holy Cross Church, encased in a pillar that is inscribed with a quote from the Book of Matthew: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” After Poland regained its independence in 1918, the site became a nationalist treasure. During the German occupation, priests smuggled the heart out of Holy Cross, hiding it from the Nazis.

There is another story about the life-saving, humanity-inducing capabilities of this Chopin work, as depicted in Roman Polanski’s 2002 movie The Pianist. Wladyslaw Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody), a renowned Polish pianist, performed the C-sharp-minor nocturne during a live broadcast of Polish radio in September 1939, while Warsaw was under attack by the invading German army. As bombs fell and buildings crumbled around him, he kept on playing. Later, the nocturne helped save his life—as it did Karp’s—when he played it for the German army officer Wilm Hosenfeld, who was moved to harbor and feed him during the final months of the war. In the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor, and the heart of Chopin—the spirit of Poland.

“Nocturne” means night piece. The one in C-sharp minor is dark and desperately sad. But it has in it the promise of something better as well (as signaled by the shift from minor to major in the final bars). “Tears fall at night,” as the verse goes, “but joy comes in the morning.”

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