Fryderyk Chopin was a graduate of the University of Warsaw, within the walls of which he lived for a decade, from 1817 till 1827. This was where he grew and nurtured his musical talent, where he saw new buildings and facilities for scholars being built, Fine Arts Museum being founded and art exhibitions being organised. Many of those events were recalled in letters written by Chopin, who mentioned numerous professors by name and recalled the University’s Botanical Garden. The University was the subject of the composer’s first surviving letter, written at the age of 13.
The University of Warsaw, established in 1816, was in some respects the crowning achievement of the Polish Enlightenment. Already at that time it must have seemed impressive with its rapidly expanding library, etchings collected in it, twenty studies for scholars, Music School and Fine Arts Department as well as thousands of plants in its Botanical Garden. When in the autumn of 1826 young Chopin, having graduated from the Warsaw Lyceum, entered the Music School, its university status – developed since 1822 – was unquestionable. The Music School, from which Chopin graduated in July 1829, was an integral part of the University; the young composer, together with his fellow music students, also attended history and literature lectures. The rector and author of the curriculum was Józef Elsner, an eminent composer and teacher, titular University professor and Fryderyk Chopin's most important teacher.
The University of Warsaw was housed in a former royal residence, initially known as Villa Regia and subsequently as Casimir Palace, after King John Casimir. Visitors entered the courtyard of the Casimir Palace through a classicist gate topped by a huge metal globe and erected in 1732. Through this gate the Chopins entered the university premises in March 1817, becoming its residents until August 1827. The building into which the Chopins moved, known today as the rector house, was erected (together with a twin building located north of it) in the austere classicist style in 1815–1816. It was also the home of the Lyceum and University rectors, physics professor Karol Skrodzki as well as metrology and geodesy professor Juliusz Kolberg with their families.
The rector house has retained its original form to this day, although in 1860 it was decorated with pilasters and sculptures in the abutments. The second doors and staircase described by Fryderyk Chopin and Oskar Kolberg still exist today, but many interiors have undergone extensive transformations. Today the building houses the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Art History. The Chopins’ erstwhile residence is commemorated by a plaque on the shorter elevation of the building (from the side of the Casimir Palace) reading: FRYDERYK CHOPIN LIVED IN THIS BUILDING IN 1817–1827, as well as a bilingual plaque placed by the entrance to the main staircase unveiled in March 2015 to mark the composer’s name day (7 March).
Fryderyk’s numerous gifts included a talent for drawing. A dozen or so of his drawings – caricatures and landscapes – have been preserved, revealing a high degree of professionalism. This inborn talent was developed during drawing lessons conducted for the Lyceum students by Zygmunt Vogel. What also mattered was Chopin’s friendship with Jan Białobłocki, a law student and pupil of the painter Antoni Blank, very keen on painting and drawing. In addition, every day Chopin met artists, professors at the University’s Fine Arts Department, established in 1817 as the first fine arts school in Poland.
Important places in Chopin’s life included the Visitandines’ Church at the paved square at the end of Ulica Królewska which served as the university church at that time. Going back to the reign of the Vasas (17th century), the church has survived in the form Fryderyk knew, when he would come here every Sunday to play as the school organist.
The brilliant composer spent probably the happiest years of his life in the learned and artistic atmosphere of the University of Warsaw. This was not only where he wrote his youthful compositions but also where his patriotism and cult of learning originated. In his letters he fondly remembers the names not only of his friends from the Lyceum and University, but also of the professors whose lectures he attended; he also mentions Apollo and the Muses adorning the abutments of the Casimir Palace. This was his world which he took with him to Vienna and Paris, which he “painted” in his nocturnes, waltzes and polonaises. As we walk along Krakowskie Przedmieście, across the historic University premises, as we run to the new Library through the University's former Botanical Garden, as we visit the Visitandines’ Church, let us not forget that we are following the footsteps of one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.
Dr Hubert Kowalski
Deputy Director of the Museum of the University of Warsaw