The Family of Fryderyk Chopin

The Chopin family home was blessed.  They were the perfect example of a loving family – dwelling within an intimate, secure atmosphere; all shared a deep, sincere love and respect for each other.  During his youth, Beethoven endured a troubled relationship with his alcoholic father. Bach was orphaned at an early age and had to live off the kindness of his brother. Mozart, the child prodigy, had been exploited shamelessly and was  driven to the point of exhaustion by ceaseless traveling resulting from the overblown ambitions of his father.  But the Chopin family wrapped young Fryderyk in a warm blanket of love and affection, where he was doted on not only by his parents, but by his sisters as well.  We know of the family’s closeness and affection through family correspondence. Even now, Chopinists continue to find new evidence solidifying the picture of an idyllic family life.THE MOTHER

Chopin’s mother’s maiden name was Justyna Krzyżanowska.  She came from the town, Izbica Kujawska.  We learn from her birth certificate that she was born in Długiem, September 17, 1782, the daughter of Jakub Krzyżanowski and Antonina Kołomińska.  Jakub was most likely renting properties owned there by the Skarbk family and Antonina was the stewardess of the Skarbk family estate in Izbica.   Despite several investigations, the dates and places of birth and death of Jakub and Antonina remain unknown. The birth certificates of their children indicate that the Krzyżanowski family was member of Polish nobility.

The name Krzyżanowski, remains a bit of a puzzle for genealogists.  Which family crest was used by Fryderyk’s grandparents remains a mystery.  One thing is certain; this family had close ties to the Kujawy province of Poland.  It was from his mother’s lips that young Fryderyk first heard the kujawiaki. (The kujawiaki is the lovely folk music of that region. It is characteristically Polish with outward power and beauty, tinged with inner sadness.)
We don’t know much about Justyna’s childhood and how she ended up on the Skarbk family’s estate in  Żelazowa Wola.  She was 24 when she married Nicholas Chopin. Nicholas was a Frenchman, a teacher, and eleven years her senior.  For a member of Polish nobility during this time, to marry a commoner was considered a misalliance. But actually, it was a very good alliance because it was a marriage based on true love. This is evidenced by the happy home and loving family that they created together.

There isn’t a lot of information about Justyna’s character and personality. She did not correspond much, perhaps because most of her time was spent in raising her four children with little time left for writing letters. She bore three daughters, Ludwika in 1807 in Warsaw;  Fryderyk Franciszek in Żelazowa Wola in 1810; Izabela in 1811 and Emilia in 1812, both in Warsaw.

From letters written in her later years, after the death of her husband, we see that she was fervently religious, but without slavish devotion. At its end, her life was centered on prayer. She was a fair, hardworking woman – a devoted mother and wife, tender, gentle and loving.  She remained modest, as she had always been, even after her son’s fame had spread throughout much of the western world.  She was unknown to most during her lifetime.  It was only after her death, that interest grew in her life and background. An anonymous journalist from Warsaw wrote, “Justyna Krzyżanowska-Chopin died October 1, 1861, of advanced age at the home of her daughter, Izabela Barcińska on Krakowskie Przedmieście [in Warsaw]. May she rest in peace, this mother who bore and raised a son, who is, and forever will be the pride of our nation.”

She was laid to rest at the Powązkowski Cemetery in Warsaw, having survived her husband by 17 years and her son by 12.

THE FATHER

The genealogy of Fryderyk Chopin’s father’s family in France has been better documented and understood than the Polish roots of his mother’s side.  Searches of archives prove that this family came from the Lorraine province of France. From his papers, retrieved in 1925 from the Soviet Union, we see that Nicholas was born April 15, 1771 in Maravinville.  Also found in the papers are the names and birthdates of many of his ancestors. However, there is not the time nor space to expound on the family’s genealogy here.  This was a prolific family. They were not country people, but tradesmen. They were simple people who were resourceful and prosperous and who frequently changed their places of residence, as they moved about the country.

After the downfall of the Barski Confederacy in 1772, its Lithuanian leader, Marshall Michał Jan Pac sought refuge in France. There he took ownership of estate with a castle in Maravinville. For this rambling estate he took Francois Chopin as a legal advisor, to assist him in taking care of legal matters. Nicholas, Francois’s young son, had many opportunities to play in the estate’s parks and visit the Pac castle where he became acquainted for the first time with Poland. When he later made his first trip to Poland at the age of seventeen, he was already conversant in the Polish language.  He traveled to Warsaw in the company of the Wejdlich family, the Pac family’s estate managers.

His first years in Poland were quite difficult and he changed employers frequently.  At first he was a bookkeeper in a tobacco factory. Then he taught French in the homes of nobility.  During the Kościuszko Insurrection, he joined the division of Jan Kiliński to defend his adopted country. He quickly advanced to the rank of Captain of the National Guard.  After the suppression of the insurrection in 1795, he became the teacher of Antonina and Maria Łączyńska in Kiernoz. Maria is better historically known as Mrs.Walewska, the mo-ther of Napoleon Bonaparte’s son.  In 1802, Nicholas moved to Żelazowa Wola to work for the Skarbk family, where he will met Justyna Krzyżanowska.

Nicholas married Justyna Krzyżanowska on June 2, 1806.  After a stay in Żelazowa Wola of less than four years, the Chopin family moved to Warsaw with three-year-old Ludwika and six month old Fryderyk.  In the capital, Nicholas Chopin continues as a teacher. By now his position was advanced considerably.  He had become the director of a private school for the children of nobility.  He made the acquaintance of many of the intellectuals and luminaries of Warsaw’s literary/cultural circles.  He hosted in his salons, Samuel Bogumił Linde, the creator of the first intellectual polish dictionary; Oskar Kolberg, ethnographer, musician, composer; Józef Eisner teacher and composer.

Nicholas proved to be quite a capable and intelligent teacher and administrator. He was particularly skilled as a linguist. Along with French, he mastered the Polish language and also taught German.  His insight and sensitivity allowed him to recognize and appreciate early on, the precious gift his son possessed.  His self-assurance and individuality help keep his privileged charges, in line at the boarding school.

Unfortunately, in his care were some students who had contracted tuberculosis.  It was not known at that time how contagious the disease was. Three members of the Chopin family succumbed to it – first, Fryderyk’s fourteen-year-old sister Emilia, then 39-year-old Fryderyk and finally, Nicholas himself, at the age of 75.

THE SISTERS

Biographers of famous people give ample space to describe the women who have influenced them. Generally these are wives, lovers, and mothers. The roles of sisters have been left out for the most part.

In the Chopin family, the people closest to Fryderyk, besides his mother, were his sisters. Three years younger than Fryderyk, Emilia was a very talented girl.  She wrote poetry and plays, which she and Fryderyk performed accompanied by Ludwika. Fryde-ryk’s devotion to his sisters is seen in a letter he wrote after Emilia’s death at the age of 14. He remembers with tenderness and warmth the wonderful times he had shared with her.

Izabela was an extraordinary musician and she learned all of her brother’s compositions for herself, as she wrote: ”because it’s not for anyone else or for performing, that I have learned your [music] but mo-stly because you are my brother and nothing suits my soul more than you.”

As an adult, Fryderyk found in his sister Lud-wika, his greatest confidant for secrets of the heart and his creative struggles.  Her correspondence with Fryderyk is indeed a treasure trove. Wending through it is a fine philosophy, typical of a Warsaw resident, along with a dedication and a loving concern for her brother in every word.  Ludwika, along with her husband Kalasanty Jędrzejewicz, traveled to the home of George Sand in Nohant to console Fryderyk after the death of their father in 1844.  Ludwika was at Fryderyk’s side in the last four months of Fryderyk’s life.  Both Fryderyk and Ludwika planned his funeral.  It was Fryderyk’s wish to have his remains transported to Poland and laid to rest next to his father in Powązkowski Cemetery. But they knew that the powers that had annexed Poland would never allow it. Finally, Ludwika and Fryderyk agreed that only Chopin’s heart would be brought back secretly to Warsaw. It was transported by Ludwika to be buried in the main column of the nave of the Church of the Holy Cross where it remains to this day. While Fryderyk Chopin’s grave can be found in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, his heart is in Poland.

In 1948 when the remains of Chopin’s parents were moved from the ruined catacombs to graves, the great granddaughter of Chopin’s sister Ludwika, Ludwika Ciechomska, participated in the ceremony.  The family descendants continue to live in Poland today.

Dr Elżbieta Ulanowska
Translated by Zofia Wisniewski

Forum, 3/2005

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