Chopin’s hand in the Frederick Chopin Museum in Warsaw (photograph by Adrian Grycuk)
When genius dies, sometimes we try to dissect what made a person great. In the case of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, the focus was on his hands.
After he died at the age of 39 from a still-debated illness likely related to tuberculosis on October 17, 1849 in Paris, sculptor Auguste Clésinger was rushed to his bed. There he made a cast of the composer’s left hand, and a death mask. According to Victor Lederer’s book on Chopin, Chopin’s hands were “extraordinarily beautiful,” but Lederer calls the death mask a “ghastly artifact” showing “a bloated face, its mouth twisted by the effort to breathe, beneath a bald head.” Apparently this horrid thing was so shocking to Chopin’s sister that Clésinger remade it to be a prettier version of the deceased, to fit with his place as an icon of Romanticism.
Chopin in 1849 before his death (via Wikimedia)
Chopin’s hand & death mask at the Hunterian Museum (photograph by Dave Russ)
Chopin’s body was buried in Père-Lachaise in Paris (he can now be found under a monument by Clésinger, who seemed to have given all his skills to a proper immortalization), and his heart was sent to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. His hand, however, went far. Casts of it can be found in metal and plaster in collections including the Frederick Chopin Museum in Warsaw, the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris, the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in the UK, and the Polish Museum in Rapperswil, Switzerland.
Why obsess over this hand? It wasn’t unheard of at the time to commemorate composers in this rather macabre way, and you can also find casts of the hands of Beethoven and Franz Liszt. However, by all reports Chopin’s hands were special, and an anatomical key to his success. In At the Piano with Chopin, composer Stephen Heller is cited as extolling how Chopin’s slim hands would “suddenly expand and cover a third of the keyboard. It was like the opening of the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit whole.” A student, Adolf Gutmann, also reportedly said Chopin’s “whole body was extraordinarily flexible.”
Rhapsodic language aside, maybe there is something to be learned from looking at those legendary hands, able to bend across the piano in an unparalleled flow of movement. And there’s something beautiful in knowing that in the haunting melodies of his nocturnes, pianists are still evoking his ghost.
Chopin’s hand (at left) in the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris (photograph by the author)
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