Chopin’s Warsaw

Last year, for three cold, wintry days, I found myself stalking a man. I couldn’t help it; his presence was everywhere – on benches, in the park, museums and in the churches.  

It is expected when you are a genius. A beautiful city, Poland’s capital is not as compelling or historically relevant as Krakow. But, it has Fryderyk Chopin.

The city’s most famous son wasn’t born here but his genius was discovered and nurtured in the Warsaw’s salons, churches and concert halls. It was here that he learned to play the piano, and gave his first concert when just eight. He spent the first half of his life in the city and his heart lies here, quite literally.

Today, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of the composer. Armed with a guide book and an app, I set out to discover the genius in the city that was once his home.

The churches

I stumbled onto one of Chopin’s resting places by accident. Walking along the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmieście, I take a pit stop at the Holy Cross Church. In the early 19th century, this baroque church was the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw.

 It was packed with tourists, who weren’t there to pray but to pay homage. They were busy admiring the church’s plain white pillars, one of which had Chopin’s heart interred within it. The pillar is simple, with a carved bust of the composer and two cherubs. The church was significant to the Chopin family – Fryderyk’s sisters, Izabella and Emilia, were baptised in it. Although the composer’s remains are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart lies in Warsaw.

Chopin played in the choir for masses held at Visitationist Church.

A little down the road is another church of importance. The 17th century Visitationist Church was built for French nuns and has survived World War II with majority of its original furnishings, including a rococo boat-shaped pulpit. It was here that Chopin played the organ – which is still intact – as a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum. A plaque outside confirms this fact. My guidebook tells me that it was while playing in this church that he met his first love, Konstancja, who sang at mass. Needless to say, he made sure Sunday mass was quite the experience. 

Musical signposts

As I leave the church, Chopin’s Largo in E Flat Major fills the evening air, mellowing out the sounds of traffic and chatter. The source for this is a smooth cast iron black stone bench. These benches – 15 in all – are spread through the city and act as musical signposts to signify important sites in his life. There are 15 of them are spread across the city. Designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, these benches come with a button, which plays music for 30 seconds; a route map and an explanation (in English and Polish) about the site’s relevance.

The coolest part though is that the benches have photo codes, which gave me access to an instant audio and visual Chopin guide, and other melodies. 

Saxon palace/garden

If Chopin grew up performing at the Holy Cross Church, he probably played games and took walks in the Saxon Garden; the family lived near the park. The city’s oldest public garden, it gets its name from the Saxon figures that lead up to Warsaw’s first city fountain, and a marble sundial.  

In those days, the Saxon Palace complex housed the school Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk’s father was a French language teacher, and the family lived in the staff quarters. It was here that Chopin composed his first pieces, with the aid of his father and teacher. The Saxon Palace was completely destroyed during WW II, only the triple arch remained. Today, the remains of the palace hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum

The Chopin museum is a four-floor structure in the Ostrogski Palace. The museum opened in 2010 and houses the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world. 

Here, I get a comprehensive and interactive look into the musical genius’ life, from birth to death. The museum is multimedia – there are e-books, audio-visuals, and touchscreen options. There are games too – on one floor is a musical version of Twister, which has me jumping from one spot to another creating my own compositions. Microphones hanging from the ceiling recorded exclamations, sounds of laughter or music depending on the exhibit. Another section allows me to open drawers, which display a sheet of music while speakers play its musical notes. I spent the most time learning about the women in his life – there were many – through photos, letters, sketches and notes.  

The museum is based on the family’s collection of mementos – letters, autograph music manuscripts, books. Some of the weirder exhibits include his school exercise books, a lock of dark brown hair, a gold watch he received from an admiring singer, a gold barrel-shaped pendant with his monogram, and dried flowers from his deathbed. There is also a detailed recreation of his Paris drawing room, with the Pleyel grand paino, which he played in the final two years of his life.

Łazienki Royal Park

The Łazienki Royal Park is a stunning palace and garden complex, built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the last king of Poland. A vast expanse of trees and shaded paths reveal places of interest: a baroque bathing pavilion (which gives the park its name), the Palace on the Isle, a little White House, a water tower and an old guardhouse, among others.  

Chopin monument
Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin.

The park is home to Warsaw’s most iconic and visited structures, sculptor Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin. It shows him sitting beneath a stylised willow tree, with a Polish eagle’s head at the corner. The sculpture was erected in 1926 before being one of the first structures demolished by the Nazis. After the war, it was rebuilt thanks to an original mould, and placed on a red sandstone pedestal and basin.

Every year, concerts are held at the foot of the monument. When I visit, it is filled with tourists sunning themselves on the manicured lawns. It is easy to imagine pianists filling the park with sweet melodies in front of a captive audience, while Chopin watches benevolently from above.  

Log on to www.chopin.warsawtour.pl

 

[A version of this story appeared in the Indian Express: My heart beats for Warsaw, on January 7, 2018.]

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An evening at Vienna’s Central Cemetery

It was meant to be a search for the final resting places of music legends Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. In two hours, however, the Central Cemetery in Vienna gave us all the trappings of a horror flick with a surprising cast of characters. No, they weren’t the ghosts of music past. 

It all started quite harmlessly. We had earlier visited the St Marx Cemetery that once contained the remains of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and now just had a representative grave. 

 It seemed only right that we follow the trail of his remains, which were resting at the city’s largest cemetery, Vienna Central Cemetery or Zentral Friedhof. His grave was moved in 1891 on the occasion of his 100th death anniversary. Another attraction was the fact the cemetery was home to the graves of over 2.5 million souls. 

There we were, having braved a 40-minute tram ride to the cemetery, situated on the outskirts of the city at Simmering, on a cold and wet evening. On entering, we perused the map, neatly divided and numbered into sections. There was no mention of the grave we were out to find so we decided to start walking, hoping the memorial would be conspicuous enough to spot. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The oldest and largest cemetery in Vienna, much like the rest of the city, is pleasing to the eye. Every grave was different and more intricate than the rest. We spotted the normal angels and religious figures gazing beatifically down; statues of children clutching toys and pets as if they were frozen in time (creepy, yes); canopies shielded scenes from history; busts of people; They were creepy but we couldn’t help admiring the artwork; many tombstones also had the names of the architects who built them. 

Aside: History lesson  The cemetery was built in 1870 and opened on All Saints Day in 1874. It is quite interdenominational – houses a Protestant cemetery, a Muslim burial ground, two Jewish cemeteries, Russian Orthodox Burial Ground – which caused much controversy at the time. At 620 acres, it is the largest in Europe and the dead population is believed to be more than the actual population of Vienna! 

The cemetery was empty but for us, and another couple who walked ahead, frequently taking detours to hunt among the rows. We stuck to the main path, losing them in the bargain, and 40 minutes later, couldn’t find anything; even the tombstones had begun to lose their charm. 

We were ready to give up and return – the light was fading and a slight drizzle had begun – when we spotted the church. It suddenly struck us that the most important graves would be around the structure and so set off towards it. Our hunch proved right when we stumbled on the Music Graves, and there were the souls we had come to see. 

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In the centre was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; to the left was Ludwig van Beethoven, to the right was Franz Schubert and a little further away, Johannes Strauss and Johannes Brahms. 

Suitably wowed – we were in the presence of geniuses, after all – we turned back. It was only after reaching the gate, half an hour later, that we realised it was shut. We were locked in. (I confess, at this point, I had a moment of terror. I’m not a fan of cemeteries and especially not when it was getting dark and we were all alone in). A few tense moments later, we realised there was a sign for an emergency gate so we started walking back the way we had come, this time taking a short cut through the muddy paths between the graves. 

A few steps later, my friend K (who has been laughing at my attempts at stalking all the dogs I saw during my trip) suddenly said, “I saw a dog here”. We were both surprises, stray dogs don’t exist in most European countries and who would bring their pet to a cemetery. We continue walking and then in the distance, the ‘dog’ appears. It isn’t a dog but a deer and it freezes just like the idiom it gave rise to. We pull out our cameras with as little noise as possible, not wishing to scare it away before we get a shot at it. But, it scampered away. We ran into it again, a few metres away but my squeal of surprise scared it. It seemed alone and we couldn’t spot any other deer or any other animal around, leading us to wonder what it was doing in an empty cemetery. 

We will never know. 

Conclusion: After walking through half the cemetery in the rain, we found the tiny emergency gate and made our exit quickly. We don’t know what happened to the couple, we didn’t spot them anywhere.  

At: Zentralfriedhof, Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Vienna (look for group 32A).

 

[A version of this story was published in Hindu: On the Graveyard shift in Vienna on December 27, 2017]

Rekha Bhardwaj

Rekha Bhardwaj is a lovely person. The kind that will constantly message you apologizing for being late for your telephonic interview because she has lunch plans and got stuck in traffic. It’s a Sunday and you really want to speak to her, so you drop everything else you are doing when she calls. The preparation for the interview is little – there’s an upcoming Sufi festival and she is performing at it. It’s a short interview and you have five questions read, all related to her journey with Sufi, which began with her first album Ishqa Ishqa in 2000.

Then she calls and talks to you for an hour, refusing your requests to call her back.

She may have some beautiful numbers (how soulful is Phir Le Aya Dil?) in Bollywood films but there’s a downside. “Bollywood has become very big and everyone wants you to do something from it. so, even if I’m doing a show that’s pegged on Sufi or classical music, moment you go on stage, after three songs you get a request for Genda Phool,” she says, laughing. “I don’t mind because there are elements of Sufi in all my songs.”

It was but natural that our conversation would turn to Gulzar saab. She considers him her master, her guru, her guide and everything in between. “Earlier, just after I was married, whenever he came over, I used to stay quiet. He would just greet me. I would serve him chai and listen to the two of them talk. But over the years, our relationship has changed,” she says.

“I am fortunate that most of my songs have been written by him. His lyrics are poetry so 60% of my work is already done,” she says. If there’s one song of theirs that he asks for, it is Dil Hoom Hoom Kare and Abhi Mujhe Koi. “He loves my singing.” Then again, who doesn’t?

She even sang a few lines of Phir Le Aya Dil to me and I was in raptures. On a separate note, can every interview of mine end with someone singing to me? 

 

My full interview is here: Sufi with Rekha Bhardwaj