The Not-So-Feeble Frédéric Chopin

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Frédéric Chopin, age 25, in 1835

How would you describe the Minute Waltz, by 19th-Century composer Frédéric François Chopin?

Lighthearted and whimsical? Dainty, delicate, fragile?

In some classical music circles, Chopin’s work has a sissy reputation. As a Washington Post critic wrote last year, “Chopin’s music has sometimes been branded effeminate, or ‘salon music’: not quite serious, not quite healthy.” Chopin the man is also known for a certain lack of virility. The American composer Charles Ives once wrote, rather viciously, of Chopin: “One just naturally thinks of him with a skirt on, but one which he made himself.”

Part of Chopin’s feeble image comes from the fact that he was always sick. As a teenager, he suffered long bouts of respiratory illness, with swollen glands and dramatic weight loss. For the rest of his life, he dealt with frequent episodes of bronchitis and laryngitis. He never developed facial hair. He was extremely weak: after long piano performances he had to be carried to bed.

When Chopin died, at just 39 years old, his death certificate blamed tuberculosis, a common bacterial infection. But, as described in a review published last month, some medical experts are skeptical of that diagnosis.

For one thing, the doctor who performed the autopsy, Jean Cruveilhier — who had written several books about tuberculosis — reportedly said that he had never before seen a disease like Chopin’s. He also noted that Chopin’s heart was more affected than his lungs were. Another problem: tuberculosis is highly infectious, and none of Chopin’s intimate companions (most notably, the novelist George Sand and her two children) came down sick. He also didn’t have any finger clubbing (a common symptom of tuberculosis) and did have frequent diarrhea (not a symptom of tuberculosis).

What other diseases fit his profile of symptoms? One of the more interesting theories is that Chopin had cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that’s caused by a glitch in a gene involved in producing sweat, mucus and digestive fluids. It causes mucus to build up on the lungs, gastrointestinal tract and pancreas.

In the past couple of decades, thanks to early genetic testing and advances in antibiotics and lung transplants, the lifespan for people with cystic fibrosis has increased dramatically, with the average hovering around 35 years. As late as the 1950s, though, most children with the disease didn’t live through childhood.

Cystic fibrosis could account for* Chopin’s breathing problems, as well as his diarrhea, joint pain, stunted growth and lack of facial hair. It could explain why he died with an enlarged heart (low oxygen and constricted vessels means the heart has to work much harder) and, perhaps, why he didn’t have any children (in men with the disease, the vas deferens gets blocked with mucus). His family history also suggests an inherited condition: two of his three sisters died of respiratory illness, one at age 47 and the other at age 14.

Chopin's heart lives in a Warsaw church

Chopin’s body was buried in Paris but, following his wishes, his heart went back to his native country, Poland. In 2008, geneticist Michal Witt of Warsaw’s International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology asked Poland’s Culture Ministry if he could do a DNA test on the heart. The request was denied. Today, Chopin’s heart is still floating in a crystal jar of cognac in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw.

Let’s say, just for a moment, that Chopin did have this deadly genetic disease. In that case, his body was amazingly robust — virile enough to fend off the disease for decades longer than most.

And I wonder, what if the past two centuries of musical critics had thought of his sickness in this way? What language would we be using to describe Chopin’s work? You could say, I suppose, that the Minute Waltz is fragile, teetering, and feminine. But you might also say that it exudes a charming stubbornness — that it’s fun, bold and mischievous.

The real name of the piece, by the way, is Valse du Petit Chien, or The Little Dog Waltz. Chopin was inspired to write the piece after watching his lover’s dog, Marquis, chase its tail.

*Cystic fibrosis may not explain all of Chopin’s quirks. He sometimes had Lilliputian hallucinations while he was playing, which some researchers have attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy.

Portrait courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Heart shrine photo from travelwithnate, via Flickr.

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8 thoughts on “The Not-So-Feeble Frédéric Chopin

  1. I read an article (http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090708/full/460164a.html) about research on cystic fibrosis that mentioned a researcher who has cystic fibrosis himself, but was never diagnosed or treated as a child. He diagnosed himself at the age of 19, in 1965, and was still alive at least in 2009. It’s anecdotal, but that seems to suggest there are milder forms around, which could explain Chopin’s survival. I wonder if it depends on the precise mutation, or the genetic background, or is just chance? Hmm…

  2. I’m always fascinated by the physical and mental health of creative people and wonder would they have created the same stuff had they been what other people call “normal”? Anti depressants are guaranteed to bash creativity on the head.
    Is creativity just the result of a chemical soup? Pyhsical and mental health could certainly change the ingredients and taste. Certainly when playing an instrument or painting one can enter what I can only describe as “channeling”. Interesting article.

  3. Me, too, Rosie! One thing I didn’t say in the post is the reason why Dr. Witt wants to do the DNA test of Chopin’s heart (other than academic curiosity). Here’s what he wrote in his paper that outlined the hypothesis:

    “Is it not right to make an attempt to prove to many suffering people that many things count in life much more than a weak physical body, and they are not predestined to vanish without leaving something that will influence, inspire and enrich generations to come?”

    It’s truly amazing to think of everything Chopin accomplished in spite of his devastating illness.

  4. Liz —

    Yes, I probably should have mentioned that there are known mild forms of cystic fibrosis. I’m definitely not an expert on this, but apparently it all depends on the way the cystic fibrosis gene (CFTR) is mutated. There are some 1,500 different mutations that cause CF, according to Wikipedia (I know, not the best source, but in a pinch…)

  5. Now you have me wondering if any transplant patients show a creativity they never had before being donated with a piece of somebody else ? I know a lot of talent is inherited but is it possible to be a memory genetically passed on?

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