Chopin’s death mask on show in Prague after leaving Poland for the first time

13-10-2009

The 19th century Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin is especially important to two particular countries: his father’s homeland of France, where he lived and died, and Poland, where he was born and raised. It is the Czech Republic though that is first to display an item of great importance to Chopin devotees and Poles in general: as a prelude to 2010 as the Year of Chopin, his funeral mask has come to Prague, where it will be on display for the first time outside of Poland.

A macabre example of how divided Chopin is between the land of his birth and that of his death is the story of his heart. His body was buried in France at his request, but his heart was brought to Poland, where it remains today in a reliquary-like memorial. Another item of reverence is Chopin’s bronze funeral mask. Maciej Ruczaj of the Polish Institute in Prague, which organised the mask’s first-ever display outside of Poland, told me of its significance:

“In fact there are two funeral masks of Chopin, the first was made immediately after his death. But the French artist who made it decided that it was too, let’s say, drastic, because his face was really deformed by his illness. And about three days later he made a second version of the funeral mask, which is slightly more dignified, and that is the copy we are presenting here.

“The mask is a very important symbol for Poles. It was being held at the Warsaw Royal Castle when the castle was deliberately destroyed by the Germans in 1944, and the mask was found in a completely untouched state in the ashes, in the ruins, of the castle. So it was a symbol of the kind of resurrection of Poland after this terrifying period.”

UNESCO and the Polish Parliament have declared 2010 the Year of Chopin, in honour of the composer’s 200th birthday, while October 17 is the 160th anniversary of his death. So with these special occasions coming up, why was the Czech Republic chosen for the foreign debut of this important Polish artefact? Because this country too played an important though unsung role in the life Fryderyk Chopin, and also in continuing his memory.

“Chopin found a kind of refuge in the Czech Republic at several points in his life. He stayed here in Mariánské Lázně and Prague for several months, especially when he wasn’t able to go back to Poland because of the Russian repression after the Polish uprising against the Russian occupation in 1830 and 1831. The second stimulus is the fact that here in the Czech Republic we’ve got one of the oldest Chopin festivals outside Poland in Mariánské Lázně. This year we celebrated the 50th year of the International Chopin Festival, and the Czech association for the spread and promotion of Chopin’s music is a very active and lively organisation.”

The Cathedral of St Vitus at Prague Castle will host the mask on October 17, when the Chopin Symphony Orchestra and Choir will play Mozart’s Requiem, the piece that Chopin himself requested for his funeral.

13-10-2009