As Frederic Chopin gasped for air in Paris in 1849, he whispered a request that became the stuff of musical legend: Remove my heart after I die and entomb it in Poland.
He wanted the symbol of his soul to rest in the native land he pined for from self-imposed exile in France.
Ever since, the composer’s body has rested in peace at the a cemetery in Paris — while his heart has endured a wild journey of intrigue and adulation. First it was sealed in a jar of liquor believed to be cognac. Then it was smuggled into Warsaw past border guards. Once in his hometown, Chopin’s heart passed through the hands of several relatives before being enshrined within a pillar in Holy Cross Church.
The organ has been exhumed several times, most recently in a secret operation to check whether the tissue remains well preserved. Chopin’s heart inspires a deep fascination in Poland normally reserved for the relics of saints.
For Poles, Chopin’s nostalgic compositions capture the national spirit — and the heart’s fate is seen as intertwined with Poland’s greatest agonies and triumphs over nearly two centuries of foreign occupation, warfare and liberation.
Chopin experts have wanted to carry out genetic testing to establish whether the genius died at 39 of tuberculosis, as is believed, or of some other illness. But they remain frustrated. The Polish church and government, the custodians of the heart, have for years refused requests for any invasive tests.
This year, however, they finally consented to a superficial inspection after a forensic scientist raised alarm that after so many years the alcohol could have evaporated, leaving the heart to dry up and darken.
Close to midnight on April 14, 13 people sworn to secrecy gathered in the dark sanctuary. They included the archbishop of Warsaw, the culture minister, two scientists and other officials.
Officials kept all details of the inspection secret for five months, giving no reason for the delay — but said the heart is in good shape and that they did not want to subject to be sensationalised.
Some Chopin experts are critical of what they consider a lack of transparency.
While their concerns remain unanswered, officials have already announced plans for another inspection — 50 years from now.