Chopin movement music to ears of Polish tourism officials

A concerted effort is under way to cash in on the composer, as the country seeks to build on the 3 million visitors who come to Warsaw each year

They stream in from China to hear his nocturnes and mazurkas, and from Japan to file reverently by his birthplace. Poland has few legends of international renown, so it makes sense that it has finally woken up to the pulling power of Chopin.

Tourism officials say a concerted effort is under way to cash in on the composer, as the country seeks to build on the 3 million visitors who come to Warsaw each year.

Of those, 200,000 already visit two museums dedicated to the virtuoso pianist – a baroque palace in central Warsaw’s unlovely, grey, communist-era blocks, and his birthplace in bucolic Żelazowa Wola, an hour west of the city.

Now there are plans for a website dedicated to Chopin tourism, and the tourist board is also working on a mobile application that will allow users to take “selfies with Chopin” at five locations across Warsaw, with a picture of the composer superimposed on to the image.

Anna Przyłuska, of the Warsaw Tourist Office, said: “Interest in Chopin is one factor behind the increase in visitors. And some come just because Warsaw is the city of Chopin.”

Visitors at the Chopin monument in Łazienki park, Warsaw.
Visitors at the Chopin monument in Łazienki park, Warsaw. Photograph: Matt Lutton/Boreal Collective

Tomasz Fiedorowicz, general manager at Melody Tours, said Poland was “working to make Chopin a tourist brand and to create tourist products linked to the composer. This is still at a very early stage of development and still much has to be done”.

Frédéric Chopin was born just outside Warsaw and the city is full of monuments associated with the composer, from grand palaces to manicured parks. Chopin left Poland in 1830 aged 20, but Poles insist that the Polish spirit suffuses his music – and that his spirit lives on in their much-rebuilt capital.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors seem to agree, flocking to the land of Chopin’s birth not only to hear his music, but to see where he lived his formative years, and gain an understanding of what shaped him as a composer and a man.

“We see that people feel a connection with Chopin that is almost religious,” said Artur Szklener, director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. “It’s very important for them to be in the place he loved, where he grew up and that shaped him. It’s like a pilgrimage.”

According to Szklener, research indicates that more people came to Poland for the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth in 2010 than for the European football championship hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine two years later. The bicentenary helped to galvanise the concept of Chopin tourism, which Poland is now developing as a central part of its tourism strategy.

“Chopin is one of the most important cultural brands for Poland,” said Szklener.

The Chopin museum in Warsaw.
The Chopin museum in Warsaw. Photograph: Matt Lutton/Boreal Collective

The Warsaw museum was reopened for the bicentenary in 2010 with a range of multimedia and interactive exhibits. Traditionalists were shocked, but tourists have voted with their feet. Some of the 7,000 Chopin-related artefacts the institute owns are displayed, while one room is dedicated to the women in his life.

In glass pods on the ground floor, and in the cavernous brick cellar, visitors can listen to a vast range of Chopin’s music, from his nocturnes to jaunty Écossaises, and less-celebrated songs set to Polish poems.

“Chopin is of great importance to Poles, we’re very proud of him,” said Hanna Napiórkowska, a guide at the museum. “In some countries, people haven’t heard of Poland, but they know Chopin.”

The Fryderyk Chopin Institute is gearing up to host the 17th international Fryderyk Chopin competition, over three weeks in October. The contest is held every five years, involving 80 participants from around the world, and the final concert attracts an audience of 10,000.

Of the 450 initial applicants this year, half are from Asia, with China, Japan and South Korea the top three participating countries; Poland is fourth. Tickets went on sale last year and demand is particularly strong in Asia. This is indicative of a phenomenon that is increasingly discussed in Poland – the enthusiasm of Asian musicians and audiences for Chopin. This fervour is not merely an academic matter, as there is a growing realisation that Chopin is a major draw for Poland in huge tourism markets such as China and Japan.

“The Chopin theme is one of the most important factors for Japanese travellers’ visits to Poland,” said Fiedorowicz, of Melody Tours, a Polish agency that focuses on the far east market. “The composer, his legend and his music is so popular among travellers from the far east. His emotional music speaks to Asian aesthetic sense and taste.”

Szklener said he has heard a number of theories about why Chopin had become so popular in east Asia. One is that his music’s structure has similarities with Asian languages, another more plausible idea being that Chopin’s combination of musical styles and compositions, “rich in emotion but modest in form”, appeals across cultures, but particularly in east Asia.

“Chopin’s music comes from our feelings, while Mozart and Beethoven are too classical for my taste,” said Soshei Tazawa, a Japanese tourist at the Chopin museum in Warsaw. “He’s my favourite composer, and his spirit is here in Poland. Someone who loves him must come here to know him fully.”

Haiping Cui, a Chinese visitor strolling past a huge and sombre copper statue of the composer beneath a windswept tree in Łazienki park, has a simpler explanation.

“We have heard Chopin since we were small as he’s one of the world’s great composers. The Chinese like the piano, and Chopin is famous for piano music.”


Andrew MacDowall in Warsaw

The GuardianTramp

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