Monday, 27 September 2010

The Warsaw Debutants' Ball 'An Invitation from Fryderyk Chopin'

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Debutant tableau vivant and performance by Przemyslaw Pankiewicz of the Chopin Polonaise Op. 40 No:1 'The Military' that opened the
Warszawski Bal Debiutantow

The Debs dancing a splendid Mazur - one of a number of spirited Polish dances during the evening which included an oberek and a krakowiak as well as innumerable Viennese waltzes

In recent years there has been an attempt to resuscitate some of the old aristocratic traditions of the great noble families in Poland. This charity ball known in Polish as the Warszawski Bal Debiutantow is under the patronage of the Polish Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and is in its sixth year. The beneficary will be the newly established Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Equipment Rental Centre which is located in a finely restored Vodka Distillery known as  Koneser situated in the fascinating and developing bohemian artistic area of Warsaw known as Praga, an historic suburb on 'the other side' of the Vistula. 

At my age to attend a ball featuring glamorous young people from old Polish aristocratic circles may be considered optimistic at worst and foolhardy at best. But on Saturday evening I donned my black tie outfit from Eve & Ravenscroft of Chancery Lane London (robe makers since 1689) and set out with Zosia, the beautiful Polish princess, seductively dressed in a black ball gown with transparent lace and revealing divisions in all the right places. Well it was in a charitable cause to be rubbing shoulders with the young Czartoryskis, Bylickis, and Tarnowskis. There was a smattering of 'foreign' artistocratic debutants too such as the immortally named Constance de Bazelaire de Boucheporn, Jadwiga von Thun und Hohenstein, Amedee de Radzitzky d'Ostrowick and Alexander O'Rourke-Potocki. In fact there was an entire weekend of activites for the young people but I was limited to the ball.

The event began in a very Polish fashion with many of the dinner table allocations printed on small cards  being forced into a shambolic mound at the end of a long trestle table (particularly from 'K' onwards). Again in the customary Polish fashion, the masses leaning over each other, apologising and hopelessly shuffling through the almighty mix-up was taken in good part. The scrum was accompanied by that familiar Polish laughter that erupts self-effacingly when confronted with any sudden and unexpected reversal in life.

The ball took place in a vast marquee erected on the lawn below the Royal Castle and attached to a monumental colonnade originally designed by the architect Jakub Kubicki in 1818. The Kubicki Arcades, now a Public Space for events and concerts, are a triumph of engineering and sensitive restoration only completed last year.  At one point in 1995 the arcades were slowly sliding down the escarpment towards the Vistula River and oblivion.  

The marquee was filled with beautifully set tables scattered with rose petals, candles and Chopin chocolates in a box shaped like a grand piano (actually surprisingly delicious), a huge dance floor and immense stage holding a full traditional dance 'big band'.  Speeches of welcome for the 'High Patronage' of the event by the Warsaw Mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and the Grand Hospitaller of the Order of Malta, Albrecht Freiherr von Boeselager (who was unable to attend). The  'Military' Polonaise Op. 40 No:1 by Chopin was excellently performed in a robust interpretation by the young pianist Przemyslaw Pankiewicz (but unfortunately with all the repeats which makes it an interminable piece so familiar has it become).

This was followed by The Grand Entrance of the Debutants and spirited Polish dancing of the oberek (a fast 'spinning' dance), the mazur (a folk dance originally from the Mazovia region around Warsaw which became hugely popular in ballrooms throughout Europe in the nineteenth century) and the krakowiak (a dance from Krakow supposedly imitating the movement of horses). They also danced some romantic Viennese waltzes. One can quite easily agree with Napoleon's high estimation of the refined and elegant beauty of Polish girls (alright.....alright....'women'). Some couples were clearly at a professional level of ballroom dancing and one young 'officer' with a particularly dashing moustache and stunning partner in clinging cream silk, a beautiful Polish 'reed', convinced me of the safety of the Polish aristocratic gene pool despite the strenuous efforts by neighbouring barbarians to wipe it from the face of the earth.  

Dinner was served from 9.15 pm. It was a rather mediocre affair and tepid  but serving 800 guests a piping hot meal simultaneously is beyond even the 'swearing chef' Gordon Ramsay I expect. Interspersed with the 'big band' numbers were the results of the fancy dress competition Fryderyk Chopin and his time (won by a lady in a huge ballgown printed with Chopin's music - a week in Tuscany for four people in a luxury villa hotel. Yes, quite a prize.

I would have given the crown to the deliciously erotic ball gown  inspired by the Man Ray photograph  called Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) of 1924. The black gown had a fine flesh-coloured netting back, dramatically open and plunging,  on which the f holes of a string instrument were embroidered in black diamantes (Swarowski crystals?). Clearly the gown was inspired by the famous picture by the American photographic artist and Surrealist painter Man Ray. Using a photograph of his model Kiki posing nude in a turban, he had transformed her into a musical instrument with a few deft brushstrokes. She was thus objectified and her beauty appreciated at once. Certainly I could not take my eyes of the lady in question - brilliant. Needless to say (perhaps even disappointingly) she was not revealing quite as much further down as Kiki did in the wild 1920s photograph.

Man Ray gelatin silver print Le Violon d'Ingres (Ingres's Violin) 1924

I danced a jive and something slow with one of my favourite ladies of all time, Professor Irena Poniatowska from The Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. She really is a miracle of energy, exuberance and brilliant intelligence. I just hope I have even a small percentage of her joie de vivre when I am her age.

Zosia and I 'waltzed the night away' but I had forgotten many of the dance steps (particularly the 'reverse') of the Viennese Waltz learned at great expense many years ago for the Vienna Opera Ball. Spinning makes me so giddy these days! The debutants did a witty turn when they reversed the dance roles - the girls took on the role of  the boys and wore tailcoats while the boys rather ineffectually, but very amusingly, tried to become dancing girls with folkloric shawls.

By about 2.30 am my feet (and also Zosia's high heels) had become impossibly painful appurtenances and so we headed back to our home by the Vistula on the northern borders of the city.

A joyful and uplifting evening of some style and distinction. All that was missing were some splendid nineteenth century Polish cavalry officers in full dress uniform and a dashing military ambience.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Being the Chapter devoted to Chopin extracted from my book A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland

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The author busking at the Steinway with the great pianist Artur Rubinstein in the main street of Lodz, Poland  2010

I thought you might  like to read my personal view of Fryderyk Chopin, my feelings concerning the challenging interpretation of his music and an account of the period he spent in Warsaw as a young man before left Poland forever. In this chapter there is also just a hint of my burgeoning romance with a beautiful Polish lady that took a very serious turn one romantic spring evening at Zelazowa Wola, the birthplace of the composer not far from Warsaw.

The chapter is offered in both the English and Polish versions.

Chapter 12   Frycek and the Prism of Reminiscence extracted from A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland by Michael Moran (Granta, London 2009)

Download the chapter free at:                                                                  

Kraj z Księżyca: Podróże do serca Polski  (Wydawnictwo Czarne, Warszawa 2010)

Rozdzial 12  Frycek i pryzmat wspomnień

More on the book itself at:

A sketch of the young Chopin by Eliza Radziwill 1826, probably drawn at the hunting lodge of Prince Antoni Radziwill at Antonin, Poland


Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill - Work in Progress

I am attempting to read myself into understanding and getting a 'feel' for the period of my next book - what one might call a  'travel biography' of the glamorous but now forgotten Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill - quite a task but rewarding. Just sharing a few of my recent discoveries with you.

I share my Uncle Eddie's love of Chopin and although I never did manage to become a concert pianist although I tried very hard. I vicariously live the life of one through this project at least through writing about the performance of this composer's music (there is a significant chapter on Chopin in my most recent book A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland). Again I live in Warsaw which is crammed to bursting with Chopiniana at present leading up to the International Piano Competition in October. Radio 2 here (known as Dwojka) unashamedly plays many obscure and well- known recordings of the composer with highbrow commentary of the most detailed sort - really terribly interesting.

If you are new to this blog and interested there are many other postings concerning my extensive ongoing research into the life of my great-uncle in the Archive on the right - in particular June and July 2010.

This project has been generously funded by a competitive Literary non-Fiction Award granted to me by the Australia Council (the cultural arm of the Australian Government). It is nearing the end of its first year of two years of funding.

Edward Cahill (1895-1975)  at age 28 when he first played Chopin for 'nearly sublime' Queen Mary of Teck in London

Beenleigh in rural coastal Queensland, Australia in 1895.

This is the town where Edward Cahill was born. The town was famous for the powerful rum distilled there, its rifle and rugby club. It was a long, long way from Beenleigh in those days to playing Bach, Chopin, Mozart and Liszt  at Buckingham Palace and for the aristocratic Mayfair set and the Proustian world of Paris, the French Riviera and Monaco in the glamorous 1920s and 1930s. Rural colonial Australia was a rough  male dominated society.
 How did he do it?

Logan and Albert Riflemen at a club meeting Beenleigh 1909

After the Duszniki Zdroj Chopin Festival and the coming International Chopin Competition in Warsaw one realises that concert life in Europe for pianists in the nineteen twenties and thirties was dramatically different to today.

My research is turning up very interesting material indeed.

He was largely self-taught as a pianist taking his first lessons as a child prodigy from the wife of the Beenleigh milkman. Later, after winning many competitions and during his established professional career in London and Paris, he studied more seriously with Alfred Cortot in Paris and Leonie Gombrich in Vienna. She was a pupil and assistant to the great Polish pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky. For me this humble beginning makes his achievement even more astonishing and emphasises his natural genius for the intrument.

Eddie was a friend of the French/Russian surgeon Dr. Serge Voronoff who carried out the first transplantations of monkey testicles into humans in an attempt to prolong and enhance old age. This 'cell regeneration therapy' is still carried out in Swiss clinics. Voronoff wrote a diverting illustrated text entitled The Sources of Life of which I have managed to obtain a copy. The Ukrainian writer Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a most amusing subversive anti-Soviet novella based around this idea called The Heart of a Dog.  Eddie also knew the great Italian air ace Baron Leonino da Zara who flew paper and wire aircraft in the famous 1909 air race in Brescia. This incredible event attracted Franz Kafka, Max Brod, the wild Italian poet D'Annunzio and even the opera composer Puccini as spectators. The whole event is chronicled in a rare and beautifully produced book called The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 by Peter Demetz (New York 2002).

 I have discovered a tiny photograph and short 16mm film of Eddie, Voronoff and de Zara at the Teatro Romano in Ventimiglia where in 1947 Eddie gave the first performance for 2000 years. Eva Peron attended this concert and had a great love of Chopin. He also met the German conductor Furtwangler who gave him a written apologia for his tolerating the Nazis ‘in the cause of immortal German music’. A fascinating document indeed. The English playwright Ronald Harwood wrote a play called Taking Sides which is in part a riveting interrogation of Furtwangler by an American Army Officer after WW II highlighting the moral dilemmas involved in the accusations of 'collaboration' that the conductor suffered.

I thought you might also like to hear an example of Edward Cahill's playing. He belonged to a completely different school of pianism to the percussive pounding of today (although the 'thunderers' of the piano have been with us for some time). It is impossible for me to adequately examine the fascinating history of performance here. The recordings of the giants of late Romantic pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninov, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofman, Vladimir Horowitz and Leopold Godowsky give at least some indication of the incredible Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth century. They possessed exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch which scarcely any pianist today achieves with the same consistency. Above all they possessed great sensibility, poetry and charm.

Edward Cahill belonged to the final flourish of this tradition. He adored the playing of Walter Gieseking whose personal credo of pianism was close to his ideal : 'I prefer less power but, instead, more delicacy and ethereal refinement of tone.' Cahill's superb qualities of tone and touch can be heard to great effect in his private recording of La Campanella ('The Little Bell') by Liszt, the third of his 'Grand  Etudes after Paganini'  S.141. The theme was taken by Liszt from the final movement of Paganini's Second Violin Concerto in B minor, where the delightful music is actually accompanied by the ringing of a small handbell by the percussionist.

Cahill achieves a scintillating bell-like clarity, le son perle, in this marvellous performance on his preferred instrument, the Grotrian-Steinweg. Walter Gieseking found the richness, nuanced tone and delicacy of the Grotrian instrument to be the most cultivated piano in the world. Clara Schumann only gave recitals on her Grotrian-Steinweg and the seductive nature of the instrument was much praised by the composer Paul Hindemith. The monopoly enjoyed today by Steinway and Yamaha in almost every genre of piano music is sadly depriving audiences of the wonderful variety of sound palette and tonal colouration of many other great makes of concert instrument.

The recording was made some time in the 1930s on a 78 rpm shellac disc that miraculously survived war, accidents and his own peripatetic existence. Bear in mind that such recordings were made in 'one take' without the multiple digital copies and detailed electronic mixing that contributes to the characterless 'perfection' of too many classical piano recordings today. Cahill is almost note perfect. His virtuosity is all the more remarkable if you understand the fantastically difficult leaps in this piece - he had terribly small hands that could scracely span an octave. This seemed never to be a handicap to this remarkable poet of the instrument.

He made a number of private 'visionary' Chopin recordings that also survived but you will have to wait for my book to hear those.

Free download at:

Edward Cahill in a recital in 1935 at the Queens Hall, London.  

The Queen’s Hall, a beloved and favourite concert hall of Londoners, was destroyed by enemy action on the night of May 10th-11th, 1941