Monday, March 1, 2010

Chopin’s birthday?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on 1 March 1810, according to all the statements of both Chopin, his friends and contemporaries, and his family including his mother. But in 1892, 43 years after his death, a baptismal record was found that gave his birth date as 22 February, exactly one week earlier. The baptismal certificate was written nearly two months after his birth, on 23rd April, when the infant was presented at the local church by his father (also oddly enough ‘22 February’, the date written on this document, happened to be the birth date of Chopin’s godfather, who was supposed to be at the baptism but didn't make it). If you’re the kind of person who favours the ‘status quo’ then you’ll probably side with the ‘official’ church document. And if your approach is more emotional you’re more likely to favour the date that Chopin and his mother gave for his birth!

This is why I am a little disappointed with some figures in the music world, who favour 22 February for Chopin’s birth, sighting as reference the London Chopin Society’s position which in turn bases its position on the views of its founder Lucie Swiatek. Rose Cholmondeley from the Society tells an interesting, though hard to verify, story that Jane Stirling, Chopin’s pupil, was told by Chopin that she was the only one to know Chopin’s ‘real’ birthday. This is odd, because the same Chopin Society article also sights confusion between ‘name-days’ and ‘birthdays’ being the reason for the discrepancy of dates over Chopin’s birth, even though Chopin and his family also celebrated his name-day separately on 5th March, and even went to some trouble to celebrate and acknowledge birthdays and name-days within the family. And why would Chopin, one of the most down-to-earth and rational people to have existed in this world (who even initially refused ‘last rights’ on his deathbed ‘to avoid being a hypocrite’) try to knowingly hide his ‘real’ birth date from everyone, including presumably George Sand, his mother and family, and closest friends, but not from Jane Stirling, a pupil to whom Chopin was not particularly close. Jane Stirling’s position makes this story, assuming it to be a true Jane Stirling recollection, unreliable to say the least: her fanatical devotion to Chopin was such that she would have done everything she could to preserve a story about Chopin to which she alone held the key! Having had the pleasure of meeting Lucie Swiatek and bearing in mind Jane Stirling’s partisan position, I can safely say that neither of these sources should be considered trustworthy when it comes to facts regarding Chopin (to put it mildly!). If one day it is proved I am wrong I will be prefuse in my recantation! Jane Stirling however does deserve considerable credit for keeping everything in her possession connected with Chopin after his death (including music scores with Chopin’s annotations, letters, etc.) and which now serves as a very valuable study source. Unfortunately some music bloggers are so swayed by Lucie Swiatek and the London Chopin Society’s position that they don’t wish Chopin a 200th birthday greeting today, 1st March, on their blogs, even though Chopin’s own mother wrote these words to her only son:

“Dear Fryderyk, The 1st and the 5th of March [Fryderyk’s birthday and name-day] are approaching and I am prevented from embracing you… “
[Chopin’s mother (Justyna Chopin) to Fryderyk in Paris;
Warsaw, end of February 1837]

Of course we still have the problem of the date written into the church baptismal document of 23 April 1837 (which remember is also, coincidentally, the date of birth of Chopin’s godfather – it should also be pointed out that there are other mistakes on Chopin’s birth document, such as wrong form of employment given to the co-signatories and so on). So let me put this to the test. Do YOU know when your birthday is? And does your MOTHER know when your birthday is? If you or your mother cannot remember your birth date then I would suggest you go with the 22 February date for Chopin’s birth. If on the other hand you have, during the course of your life, come across a document from a government official or civil servant with a mistake on it then you should go with the 1 March date for Chopin’s birth. Problem solved! Personally I favour trusting myself and especially my mother for confirmation of my birthday!

1st March 2010

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juld1c said...

I'm with Chopin and his Mum on this!
However perhaps it's a bit like the confusion over Chaucer's birth - in this case even the year, with 1340(?) being usually given but various other dates being argued for.
There's a lovely story that a fan died and eagerly sought out Chaucer in Heaven to ask about this, to which Chaucer firmly replied 'I was born in 1340 question mark'.
Let's enjoy the music!

Anonymous said...

I only became aware of this debate in yesterdays' Independent. It's given at least one venue license to perform the same concert twice.

I should think, though, that a mother finds it hard to forget the day she gives birth!.

It doesn't matter much, of course. I'd find a composers' death a more significant cause for commemoration within the music world.