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Poland pays homage to its "Elvis"

Poles set out to reclaim Chopin, two centuries after his birth.

Warsaw mural
Cars drive by graffiti dedicated to Polish composer Frederic Chopin on the 200th anniversary of his birth in front of a museum in Warsaw on July 1. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

WARSAW, Poland - Frederic Chopin never painted a mural, never sang jazz, rapped or even wrote an opera, and he never traveled outside of Europe. But organizers of this year's celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of his birth are using all of those elements to bring to life Poland's greatest composer.

Waldemar Dabrowski, the former culture minister in charge of an enormous program of celebrations, calls Chopin the Elvis of the 19th century, remarking on his star status and enormous popularity in the age of romanticism, and he is trying, with some success, to replicate that feeling long after Chopin's death.

“Chopin was the idol of his age. We can be proud of having such an artist,” said Dabrowski, sitting in his cluttered office near Warsaw's Great Theater, surrounded by piles of commemorative Chopin photo albums, posters, books and a box of chocolates dedicated to the composer.

Chopin provides a rare opportunity for Poland to promote itself abroad. Despite being one of the six big nations of Europe, alongside Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain, Poland's intellectual and artistic achievements are of a lower caliber, due in large part to the country's political troubles which forced its people to focus on regaining independence and not on more esoteric pursuits. Probably the only other Pole with a similar name recognition is astronomer Nicholas Copernicus.

“Chopin is really world-class, people all around the world have heard of him, although they don't always associate him with Poland,” says Dabrowski.

This month Warsaw is hosting some of the biggest musical talents in the world for a music festival called “Chopin and his Europe,” which plays with the Chopin theme – either by putting his music in a much more contemporary setting, such as performances by jazz singer Bobby McFerrin and the Paco Pena Flamenco Company, which will present a Chopin flamenco concert, as well as musical troupes playing traditional period instruments.

“From the beginning, a very important part of the event was the original historic sound of the instruments from Chopin's time,” said Stanislaw Leszczynski, the festival's artistic director.

The event is drawing international attention, as will the Chopin contest taking place in Poland in October.

The Polish government has seized on the anniversary as a way to promote the country, drawing on the global popularity of Chopin in order to present a more modern image of Polish culture.

At a cost of more than $100 million, the government has built a world-class Chopin multimedia museum in a formerly derelict palace in the center of Warsaw, as well as benches which play the composer's music to passers-by scattered around the Polish capital – a city Chopin called home before moving to France in 1831, following the defeat of an uprising against Poland’s Russian occupiers.

Once in exile in France, Chopin was consumed with nostalgia for the country he had left behind, and his music incorporates elements of Polish folk tunes. However, unlike other Polish artists who focused on their country's travails, Chopin's music was able to transcend his national origins and appeal to a worldwide audience.

It is that audience that the government is hoping to draw on.