The wonder is not that Fryderyk Chopin died an untimely death. Rather, it’s that he lived as long as he did, and managed to write enduring music while suffering the most debilitating illnesses imaginable.
Tuberculosis is probably what killed Fryderyk Chopin, a disease that was rampant – and uncurable – in the early 19th century. Chopin’s little sister Emilia was also a victim.
When he was 16, Fryderyk accompanied Emilia to the spa town of Bad Reinerz. There he convalesced from a recent “inflammation of the glands” and gave two benefit concerts for orphans. Meanwhile Emilia endured the horrific treatments of the era for tuberculosis: bleeding with leeches and blistering plasters. Her suffering stayed with Chopin: He distrusted conventional medicine and ever after refused to be bled. It probably extended his life.
But it was a life with a pattern consistent with chronic, progressive tuberculosis. Every winter Chopin came down with ailments variously described as catarrh, grippe, and bronchitis. The treatments? Everything from from extract of burnt acorns and oatmeal to mixtures of opium, belladonna and diachylon to minimize coughing. Chopin was seen by a Who’s Who of doctors in Europe, but to no avail.
But, rather than curtail his creativity, the increasingly serious episodes of Chopin’s illness seemed to inspire more music from him. Perhaps it was his only relief. But during the last two years of his life he declared in despair that he was unable “to write a single note more.” His final works, fittingly, were two brief mazurkas, bringing him full circle with his the native Polish land. - Frank Dominguez