Biography of place and landscape. Memory and monuments.
The Birthplace. The composer’s mother, Justyna nee Krzyżanowska, from an impoverished gentry family, helped with the house keeping as a resident of the Skarbek’s manor house. She met Mikołaj Chopin, a French immigrant who became tutor to the Skarbek’s children at Żelazowa Wola. The Chopins married in 1806 and set up home in the right part of the annexe of the Skarbek’s estate.
Nothing is known about the furnishings of the flat where Fryderyk’s parents lived in the annexe of the Skarbek’s manor house. It could have contained furniture belonging to the Skarbeks, but the Chopins might also have possessed their own. There is no doubt, however, that the interiors were furnished modestly and in a stylistically inconsistent way. The existing books belonged to the family and certainly have been kept in a bookcase.
After moving to Warsaw in the autumn 1810, the Chopin family maintained close and warm contacts with the Skarbek family. Żelazowa Wola became a destination for Chopins summer excursions. Only one letter addressed to Fryderyk’s friend Jan Białobłocki survived, where the composer describes his summer holiday in Poland. Fryderyk and Jan spent the summers of 1824 and 1825 in close proximity. Their visited one another on regular basis. Białobłocki died at 21, most probably of tuberculosis of the knee. Chopin wrote 13 letters to his friend, the last dated 12 March 1827.
Descriptions from the period, which are not always reliable, speak of the composer giving concerts on a piano carried out from the house and placed beneath a spurt, on which occasions his music would have been heard by all around.
The Museum. The idea of creating a museum devoted to Fryderyk Chopin in the annexe of the Skarbek’s estate dates back to 1891, but it was not until the inter-war period that concepts for its display began to be realized at Żelazowa Wola. None of them was fully implemented at that time. The intention was to furnish Chopin’s birthplace partly with historical furniture, in an effort to recreate the atmosphere of the times. The plan was to fill the display devoted to Chopin with souvenirs connected with the composer and his family.
During the period when the Chopin Family was living at Żelazowa Wola, the right part of the annexe was residential, while the left part, with a cellar, served functional purposes. The display in this room presents the history of this modest manorial annexe, with its successive renovations and functions from beginning of the XVIII century, when the landed estate of Żelazowa Wola was acquired by Count Skarbek, up to the 1930s, when the neglected building was rebuilt and turned into a museum – a place devoted to the memory of Fryderyk Chopin.
Although the display was not officially opened until 1949, it is known that the Chopin’s death mask was already here in 1930 and later also two pianos, copies of portraits of the composer by Delacroix, Scheffer and the Bissons, a collection of Chopin-related drawings and probably a cast of his hand. Few of the items from the pre-war interiors survived the World War II.
In post-war display, the furnishings were more in line with current conceptions of the interiors of a XIX century Polish manor house than the humble annexe in which Chopin was born. At that time, the left side of the annexe was not distinguished as having been non-residential, with a fictive vision of a manor house created throughout the building.
The Monument. On 14 October 1894, the first Chopin monument on Polish lands was unveiled. Modest in form, referring to the tradition of obelisk commemoration and given such a form due to censorship restrictions. It was shaped like a gravestone, since that was the only form allowed by the Russian imperial authorities of those times. The medallion with an effigy of Fryderyk Chopin was designed by Jan Woydyga whereas the whole monument was designed by Bronisław Żochowski.
The unveiling ceremony represents a symbolic watershed in the history of the commemoration of Chopin’s birthplace. It also marked the start of lengthy efforts to set up a museum devoted to the composer. From the beginning of the XX century, many initiatives designed to popularize the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin were undertaken, like numerous concerts, trips and exhibitions, accompanied by the collecting of donations initially towards the purchase of the annexe from private hands and then for the creation of a museum.
Mily Balakirev, a Russian composer, pianist, conductor and musical activist and an enthusiast of Fryderyk Chopin’s music, secured the permission of the Russian imperial governor of Warsaw to erect a monument to the composer. Aleksander Poliński, a member of the Committee of the Warsaw Music Society, sought to buy the historical annexe from the then owner of the estate. Although the plan fell through at that time, a monument was raised in front of the annexe.
During the unveiling ceremony, works by the Polish composer were played by Aleksander Michałowski, one of the leading pianist in the transmission of the Chopin pianistic tradition, Mily Balakirev, and the pianist and journalist Jan Kleczyński. The official programme featured a performance of Zygmunt Noskowski’s polonaise-style cantata On the Banks of the Utrata/ Nad Utratą, and the Lutnia choir sang vocal transcriptions of works by Chopin.
The Park – Monument. The rebuilt annexe of the Skarbek family estate was to be the centerpiece of a modernist park-monument designed by Franciszek Krzywda-Polkowski, founder and head of the Parks and Landscape Architecture Department of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, who broke with the idea of an idyllic garden detached from the context of the surrounding Mazovian landscape. The modernist character of the design was manifest in the treatment of the park as a closed, individual work of art, characterized by the geometrisation and rhythmisation of the spatial elements such as architectural features, paths and avenues. Their composition with the flora, laid out in a free and picturesque way, indicates the character of a landscape park.
The work on laying out The Park – Monument began in the early spring of 1933. In many places the lie of the land was altered mostly new flora was planted, not all of it native to Poland, and paths and avenues were marked out, including the road leading from the new gate to the Chopin’s birthplace. Terraces, steps and bridge were built, the River Utrata was regulate, water bodies were created and architectural features were raised, like bowers, rain shelters, a pergola and a summer concert stage. The 1894 monument was moved from in front of the annexe to the western part of the park, and in its place a pool was created, in which the annexe’s façade is reflected. The work was completed in December 1937.
The decision not to recreate the surroundings of the annexe from Chopin’s times gave rise to numerous polemics in that times. Opponents of the modern vision argued that a garden typical of the impoverished gentry of the period ought to be created around the composer’s birthplace. That argument was countered with notions of the revolutionary and innovative character of Chopin’s music, which should be reflected in a bold design. Finally, the revolutionary vision was realized.
The latest archaeological research revealed that the annexe in which Chopin was born stood opposite the larger building referred to in documents as the Old Manor – probably the only residential building besides the annexe on the Skarbek’s estate.
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Detailed information is derived from the New Display at the Birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin in Żelazowa Wola, 2015