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Frédéric Chopin’s telltale heart

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Scientists have written another chapter in the curious case of the composer’s heart. But it is unlikely to be the end of the story.

The composer Frédéric Chopin died in 1849, but the debate about what killed him continues. Credit: De Agostini/A. Dagli Orti/Getty

Edgar Allen Poe was a master of the macabre. His 1843 The Tell-Tale Heart is a classic gothic tale for Halloween with its roots in guilt and fear: a murderer is haunted by the imagined beating of the excised heart of his victim.

The piano works of Frédéric Chopin — one of the greatest composers of the same period — tend more towards the uplifting. But events after his death have puzzled experts for more than a century and are worthy of any horror story. Scientists in Poland now claim to have solved the mystery. As the researchers conclude in a long-awaited report, he almost certainly died of complications caused by tuberculosis (M. Witt et al. Am. J. Med.; in the press; available at http://doi.org/cfpt). The evidence? The scientists have examined Chopin’s own telltale heart.

The macabre afterlife of Chopin began with his recorded last words: “Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.” Taphephobia, as this fear is called, was a nineteenth-century obsession (shared by Alfred Nobel, among others), and saw some coffins made with alarm systems to be rung from within. Chopin’s sister had an autopsy performed on him, during which his heart was removed. So although most of her brother lies in the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the city in which he died, she sealed his heart in a jar of (probably) brandy and took it back to Warsaw, the city closest to where he was born.

This wasn’t too unusual. Remote burial of the heart was a fairly common practice, partly because it was too difficult to repatriate the bodies of kings and nobles who fell in foreign fields. (The heart of the English writer Thomas Hardy is said to be buried in his beloved Dorset, UK, although a more gruesome version of the story has the precious organ being eaten by a cat, and that of the offending animal interred instead.) But Chopin’s status as a Polish national hero has helped to make sure that his heart never really rested in peace. His sister smuggled it into Poland past Russian border guards and it was later sealed inside a church pillar. Decades afterwards, during the Second World War, it was retrieved and protected by a Nazi SS commander who claimed to love Chopin’s music. After the war, the heart was returned to rest in the church — but only until 2014.

Then, scientists were invited to join an official inspection of the jar and its contents. Their examination — and brief comments to journalists months later — focused on how he died. The original autopsy notes are lost, and an entire academic subfield across many disciplines has emerged to discuss whether Chopin had tuberculosis or something much rarer, perhaps an early known case of cystic fibrosis. Those academics now have a Halloween treat: a draft of a paper to appear in The American Journal of Medicine offers more details on the state of the heart.

The original autopsy caused significant damage to both atria, but the paper claims “with high probability” that the remains show that Chopin had chronic tuberculosis, and that the immediate cause of death was a life-threatening complication called pericarditis — inflammation of the membrane enclosing the heart.

Chopin is not the only ghost from the past to offer their secrets to scientists. The artist Salvador Dalí was exhumed in July, moustache reportedly intact, to provide samples to decide a paternity case (he was not the father); and 2015 tests on bones of the Communist poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Pablo Neruda, have fuelled theories that he was poisoned in Chile after Augusto Pinochet seized power in 1973.

There could yet be a twist in Chopin’s tale. Some scholars are unsure that the heart is the composer’s, and DNA tests to check for cystic fibrosis have so far been refused. The scientists were not allowed to open the jar in 2014, and Michał Witt at the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Human Genetics in Poznan, who worked on the project, says that they didn’t want to. The next opportunity will be in 50 years, when the heart is again scheduled for inspection. Witt does not expect to be around to see it. Still, he does have something more planned: the team was allowed to take photographs of the embalmed heart, and although none is yet public, he does plan to include them in the final manuscript. The full tale, after all, has not yet been told.

Related links

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Neuroscience: How music meets mind 2017-Jun-14

Music theory: Music calculations out of tune 2016-Aug-17

Beyond the image of the tragic genius 2010-Apr-14

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Frédéric Chopin’s telltale heart. Nature 551, 5 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/551005a

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