Kalisz is the second largest city in Greater Poland and one of the oldest cities in Poland. It was placed under Prussian rule following the Second Partition of Poland (1793) and remained in Prussia until 1806. It was one of the largest cities incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland (Congress Poland), a polity created by the Congress of Vienna (1814–1815), in 1815. Three years later, following a decision by Józef Zajączek (the tsar’s viceroy in Poland), considerable funds were made available for major construction work in Kalisz. Existing streets were paved and new ones laid down. The Tribunal Palace, the Governor’s Palace, the Stone Bridge, the Voivodeship School and many industrial facilities were built.
Kalisz was linked to Warsaw via major transport routes, which carried a lot of coach traffic. The main roads that connected Congress Poland to the rest of Europe traversed the city. The routes from Warsaw to Dresden, Paris, Vienna, Italy and Switzerland, as well as Silesia and Bohemia, all passed through Kalisz. The travel journal of Count Fryderyk Skarbek, who went to Duszniki in June 1826, contains the following description of the new road from Warsaw to Kalisz: ‘The macadamised road to Kalisz has just been completed. It is good, but boring, as it runs straight and bypasses villages’. Chopin’s sister Ludwika was travelling with Skarbek. Her impressions of the trip have been preserved as Podróż Józia z Warszawy do wód szlązkich przez niego samego opisana [Little Joseph’s journey from Warsaw to the Silesian waters], a story she had published in 1844. The eponymous Little Joseph, an alter ego of Ludwika, was very impressed with Kalisz: ‘Oh, Kalisz is such a beautiful city! It is completely different from Łowicz, Kutno and Koło and all the other cities I have seen. It is more like Warsaw. What houses! Palaces! And such wide streets! What people! I would not have believed that I had left Warsaw, only I knew for certain that I had. Only the tollgates are different. Father told me that this city is not long built and that it was very rundown ten or twenty years ago’.
Many of Chopin’s travels took him through Kalisz. Indeed, he is known from contemporary sources to have stayed in the city as many as six times.
The first time was at the end of July 1826 while en route to Duszniki with his mother. The road to the resort took him through Błonie, Sochaczew, Łowicz, Kutno, Kłodawa, Koło, Turek, Kalisz, Ostrów, Międzybórz, Oleśnica, Wrocław, Nimptsch (Niemcza), Frankenstein (Ząbkowice Śląskie), Warta (Bardo) and Glatz (Kłodzko). The return trip home from Duszniki in mid-September that year likewise took him through Kalisz.
Chopin’s third stay, in early September 1829, was connected with the route he took coming home from Vienna, where he had met with international acclaim as a distinguished pianist. Chopin and his companions, Ignacy Maciejowski and Alfons Brandt, paid a surprise visit to Adam Helbich, a doctor and philanthropist, in Kalisz. Their host was just leaving for Żychlin, and, as he was reluctant to leave the travellers on their own, he proposed that they come with him.
Chopin set out from Warsaw for the Grand Duchy of Posen (Poznań) in the autumn of that year, as he had been invited to Prince Radziwiłł’s estate in Antonin and to nearby Strzyżew, where his godmother lived. Kalisz was on the outward and return routes, and Chopin is known to have stayed there on 21–22 October (as Henryk Nowaczyk ascertained, he probably spent the night with the Flamm family) and on 7 November. Chopin still managed to fit in a social meeting: ‘On the way home, I was in Kalisz at a soirée, where Mrs Łączyńska and Miss Biernacka were present – she dragged me out to dance, I had to dance a mazurka, and with a young miss even prettier than she, or at least equally pretty, Paulina Niesowska’.
Kalisz was once more a staging point for Chopin on his way to the border in 1830, only this time, he was never to return to Poland. Chopin and his friend Tytus Woyciechowski spent three days (3–5 November) in Kalisz before heading for Vienna (via Wrocław, Dresden and Prague).
A bas-relief by Wiesław A. Oźmina was engraved into the façade of the townhouse at the intersection of ul. Zamkowa and the Main Marketplace to mark Chopin’s visits to Kalisz. It was unveiled on the bicentennial of the composer’s birth.
Kalisz has one of the oldest musical societies in Poland, founded on 21 October 1818, which since 1975 has been named after Alfred Wiłkomirski.