Each year, millions of visitors to Poland are introduced to the country’s favorite son before they even set foot on its soil.
Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, the nation’s largest transport hub, greets more than 1 million people every month. And it’s far from the only landmark dedicated to the Romantic-era composer, born in a tiny hamlet west of the capital 210 years ago; his name is everywhere, his works and image ubiquitous across the central European country.
Chopin’s residences bear unmissable plaques. Busts and statues of his likeness are dotted across most major cities. His name adorns parks, streets, benches and buildings. Even his heart, preserved in alcohol after his death in 1849 at the age of 39, is sealed into a wall of Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church.
But new suggestions about Frederic Chopin’s private life collide awkwardly with Poland’s staunchly conservative traditions and its right-wing leadership – and have caused some to question whether the story of Chopin that Poles are told from a young age is true.
According to a Swiss radio documentary that has been discussed at length in Poland in recent days, the composer had relationships with men, and those relationships were left out of history by successive historians and biographers; a potentially thorny charge in one of Europe’s worst countries for LGBTQ rights.
Music journalist Moritz Weber, whose program aired on Swiss network SRF, said he reviewed letters from Chopin, sent to male friends, that feature explicit and romantic passages.
Weber also found that subsequent biographies and re-tellings of some letters swap male pronouns to female ones and downplay, whether intentionally or not, any evidence of Chopin’s relationships with men.
“He’s talking about love so directly with men,” Weber told CNN. “Why wasn’t that questioned by all these scholars and famous biographers?”
The most traditional story of Chopin’s love life is that he had romantic relationships with women – most notably the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was known by her pen name, George Sand.
But the archive of letters that Weber trawled told a different story, he found. “He didn’t write letters to them at all. And he doesn’t write about them in a way that you could conclude there was love,” Weber said.
“What is obvious in his letters that there is love written to his male friends – most passionately to Titus Woyciechowski,” Weber said, referring to the Polish activist and longtime friend of Chopin’s. Later, he wrote in such a way to “many other” men, he added.
Suggestions that Chopin had male lovers are not new, and the sexuality of a Romantic-era artist would be of little importance in many parts of the world.
In Poland, however – where Chopin’s music is omnipresent, and where the artist commands a reverence rivaled only by compatriots Pope John Paul II and Marie Curie – Weber’s documentary has attracted notice.
“Was Chopin gay?” several Polish newspapers have asked in recent days, debating the merits of the suggestion. “Chopin kisses his friend. Does that mean he was gay?” another publication questioned. “The West is excited that Chopin was gay,” a columnist for the Gazeta Wyborcza summarized, noting that the rumor has long been a source of speculation.
“He’s like a holy person (in Poland),” Weber notes. “He’s admired, his music is so important there.”
While Poland loves Chopin, its relationship with the LGBTQ community is a painful one. The country’s populist government frequently uses harshly homophobic rhetoric, with its Prime Minister complaining of a “homosexual agenda” threatening the homeland.
A third of the nation has declared itself “LGBT-free,” a legally meaningless stunt that has LGBTQ people living in fear. And in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, where the church maintains a staggering influence, religious leaders have resisted moves to expand LGBTQ rights.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has denounced LGBTQ people, winning re-election earlier this year after putting the issue front and center in his campaign.
The governing party’s powerful leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has claimed LGBT people “threaten the Polish state.”
Its new Education Minister said last year that “these people are not equal to normal people.” And last year, Krakow’s archbishop bemoaned that the country was under siege from a “rainbow plague.”
These trends have led to Poland being named the EU’s worst country for LGBTQ rights by the monitoring charity ILGA-Europe.
Activists in the country are hoping that the renewed interest in Chopin’s relationships will cause a reflection on those attitudes. “Let’s say it openly. Yes, Chopin was at least bisexual,” Bart Staszewski, the nation’s foremost LGBTQ campaigner, wrote on Wednesday.
‘An awful lot of things are suppressed’
Chopin’s love life has long been considered enigmatic, and admirers of the composer have debated in recent days whether his relationships warrant discussion at all.
“Chopin himself was so very secretive that one could imagine all kinds of things,” said Rose Cholmondeley, the president of the UK’s Chopin Society. “I would hesitate to say Chopin was any (sexuality) really. I think he was a man of feeling,” she told CNN.
“Because Chopin was rather discreet about revealing his intimate life even to his closest friends, the most trusted among them being Tytus Woyciechowski, it is difficult to build theories about this aspect of his life,” a spokesperson for Poland’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute said..
“The claims that there were attempts to airbrush something from history are simply absurd,” the spokesperson told CNN. “Moritz Weber of SRF has actually ‘discovered’ something that every second-year student of musicology in Poland knows about.”
But Weber insists that Chopin’s male relationships, and his efforts to hide them from public view, influenced both his personality and his works. He suggested that the findings shine a new light on Chopin’s music, nearly two centuries after the artist’s death.
“As he writes in his letters, an issue in his life was that he … wasn’t showing his inner self to the public,” he said. “We hear these extreme holes in his music – for example the Scherzo in E major, where the surrounding of the A part is very sunny, and in the middle there’s one of the most depressing, and melancholic and sad passages.”
But experts agree that the suggestion that Chopin had homosexual relationships would not be welcomed in much of Poland.
“He is a symbol of Poland, but you’ve got a government now which is absolutely anti-gay – and were he to be gay, God knows what they would make of it,” Cholmondeley said. “When somebody’s an icon, an awful lot of things are suppressed.”
That attitude may already have colored the way Chopin’s life is retold in Poland, she added.
Some uncovered letters apparently describing Chopin’s relationships with women have turned out to be forgeries, she noted. And other Polish histories have “turned him into a Catholic icon, when actually he didn’t go to church,” Cholmondeley said.
“(People) don’t want to do anything which would ‘damage’ his reputation in his country, it’s such an important thing to them,” she concluded.
Chopin is celebrated as vehemently as ever by Poland’s current leaders. On one of his first foreign trips as President, Duda donated a bust of the composer to the Beijing Concert Hall.
It was a gesture that encapsulated the stance of his populist Law and Justice party: It unabashedly touts Poland’s heritage and traditional culture, of which Chopin represents a weighty part.
The nation’s admiration was returned by the artist himself. “They have a very rich national music in Poland. There’s always been (one), amongst peasants, amongst aristocrats. Poland is thought of as the home of the dance,” Cholmondeley said. “And Chopin put all of that into his music; he (captured) the whole feel of it. So it’s very, very Polish.”
The extent of Poland’s national conversation over Chopin’s life remains to be seen, but it will be closely watched by his admirers and LGBTQ campaigners alike.
Experts agree, however, that any attempts to evolve the legacy of the man whose name adorns so much of the country will not be made easy.
“We use Shakespeare in all our conversations. Chopin is as big (in Poland) as Shakespeare is to us,” Cholmondeley said, referring to her British compatriots.
“(And) we can accept that Shakespeare had male friends as well as female,” she added, alluding to the longstanding debate over Shakespeare’s sexuality.
“As people we are getting more frank about various things,” she said. “But in some places, they’re not.”