Polish Independence Day 11 November 2018 - The Chopin Soul and Paderewski


Thoughts on the Chopin Soul and Paderewski 
Polish Independence Day
11 November 2018

Pencil drawing of Fryderyk Chopin by Francois-Xavier Winterhalter 2 May 1847

On a day celebrating the 100th Anniversary of Poland regaining independence (a country that for 123 years existed not on maps but as a virtual reality in the mind of its citizens), I feel I should express a few thoughts on the music of Fryderyk Chopin in this context. Today is also the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of the Great War on 'the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month' 1918 and to remind the old and perhaps educate the young of the historical significance of this day through the towering figure of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) - composer, pianist, politician and statesman - at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. It is difficult for us to even imagine how the hugely charismatic Paderewski, like some type of pianistic god, dominated the artistic firmament of those days. 

I would also like to reflect on a wartime incident concerning Polish officers and troops interned in Switzerland during my great uncle's musical career. He was the brilliant and rather glamorous Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill (1885-1975), who had a close connection, even obsession with the music of Chopin. He played his compositions for many of the crowned heads of Europe and South-East Asia and befriended Paderewski during WW II. 

The music of Fryderyk Chopin has always been a haven of spiritual refuge to the Polish nation under oppression be it Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany, the Soviets or the period of communist hegemony. The collective memory and final victory of the country over oppression was expressed by a chorus of ghosts without number in Chopin’s passionate and melancholic vision. What then is the emotional significance of Chopin for contemporary Poland?

All ages interpret the productions of genius through their own aesthetic and historical filters. In modern times the historical and cultural context in which Chopin composed is often ignored or imagined in crude ‘Hollywood’ terms. Following his emotional flight into exile before the rape of his native land by Russia in 1830, he encountered as well as the elegant salons, the assault of the pestilential filth of the Paris streets of that time. The raging cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849 killed many of his friends. This together with his exile, his own illness and the political convulsions of 1830 and 1848 strengthened his tragic view of the transience of life. We are mercifully far today from the source of his suffering.

However the passing of time has created a musical disconnection. Chopin is one of the most difficult of composers to interpret and begs for a cultivated mind of sensibility, poetry and a very particular form of spiritual unease in the face of human mortality. He occupies a discomforting position among composers, his feminine sensibility finely balancing a masculine lyric strength. His is a restrained sentiment that eschews sugared sentimentality. A proper understanding of his early Polish cultural milieu and noble historical style (including the contemporary instruments he used) needs to be acquired by any young modern performer. In Paris Chopin himself commented that in otherwise excellent performances of his work the ‘Polish element’ was missing. The resistance to political tyranny that runs like a red thread through his compositions, the fraught emotions of oppression and disinheritance he expressed in exile gave rise to the complex Polish emotion of żal (melancholic nostalgia and bitter remorse which at times can lead to a type of internal fury of protest). Such feelings have to be imagined by most young Polish pianists who were born, grew up and today live in an atmosphere of democratic freedom.

In response to the infinite repetitions possible with modern recordings and the modish concern with his sexual proclivities, various redefinitions of the composer have taken place since his death in 1849. Most prominent is the emphasis on the physical aspects of his virtuosity as expressed on behemoth Yamaha or Steinway instruments. The world young artists have inherited is loud, cruel and violent, a world dominated by technology that prizes physical power, speed and the body above intelligence, morality and the soul. Playing can certainly be physically exhilarating, but poetic thought, sensibility, refinement and elegance, even patriotism and morality once prized in all art, has become almost an embarrassment in the face of the muscular, the sportif and the overtly sexual in performance. Having almost exhausted the patriotic, aesthetic, literary, ideological, philosophical and musicological appreciation of Chopin we inevitably turn to the easy seductions of the physical.

‘Technique is money’ one Asian professor recently remarked to me in a furtive aside at a Chopin master-class in Duszniki Zdrój, a spa town on the Polish Czech border where there the oldest Chopin piano festival in the world takes place annually. A young pianist from New York is advertised as having ‘the fastest fingers on the planet’ by an esteemed Russian professor. I have seen assistants sponging down sweating pianists between pieces like prize-fighters between bouts, the pianist wiping down the keyboard prior to playing as if it were a piece of sports tackle. George Sand was once amused at Chopin’s horror when he suspected he may actually have been sweating in the summer heat at her French country retreat in Nohant. Too often a form of making war on the piano has become the ideal, hysteria in interpretation all too frequent. ‘Facilement, facilement,’ Chopin often warned. ‘Caress the key, never bash it!’ he would admonish. Paradoxically Chopin playing tends under some fingers to become harsh reality itself rather than a consolation in the face of it.

Many pianists and listeners are simply too young and emotionally immature for the pain and mystery of Chopin. The spiritual tension of what the Polish musicologist Mieczysław Tomaszewski called Chopin’s ‘imprisoned romanticism’ is scarcely alluded to in performance. Understandably they lack a mature understanding of his ambiguous, neurasthenic and emotional vie intérieure. In many modern performances, naturally not all (pace Argerich, Freire, Olejniczak, Zimerman, Blechacz, Pires, Ohlsson, Pollini), the individual ‘voice’ of the performer has been mislaid. C.P.E. Bach put it well ‘They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it . . .’[1]

The spirit of Chopin is impregnable. Let us not lose sight of the true significance of this composer for music lovers amidst the superficial distractions of trade and insensitive performance. Chopin possesses an unrivaled position as Poland’s national composer and its musical wieszcz.[2] His music remains the beating heart of the country. The great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821–83) described Chopin as ‘a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent’. Virtuoso brilliance, a supreme gift for melody and an air of sentiment explain his immense appeal on a popular level. But more deeply the universality of Chopin lies in his profound sense of loss and nostalgia. His revolutionary music expresses a fierce resistance to domination, a sense of sacrificial melancholy in the face of the bitter finales of life – universal and timeless human emotions.

Fryderyk Chopin, while ‘detached’ from the Polish revolutionary cabals in nineteenth century Paris, expressed more profoundly than almost anyone, the sorrow and heroic aspirations of the Polish spirit. In doing so he gave voice to the universal suffering of any spirit labouring under a totalitarian heel or shackled by personal psychological chains. His music offers deep consolation to troubled hearts throughout the world. The music of Chopin continues to express the beauty and richness of conscious life forever overshadowed by the implacable reality of death, a profound awareness of which is surely the source of all we would wish to call ‘civilization’.


                                                                         *  *  *  *  *  *                                                                    

My great uncle, the celebrated Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill (1885-1975), had a great passion for the music Chopin and a deep understanding of its interpretative complexities, particularly after lessons with Alfred Cortot. He played for Queen Mary, privately for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and most of the English and French aristocracy in the glamorous London, Paris and French Riviera of the 1920s and 1930s. He befriended Paderewski whilst exiled and giving charity concerts in Montreux in Switzerland throughout WW II. With some difficulty and close to death in Monte-Carlo, Cahill managed to extract a pledge from me to travel to Poland at some time in my life and visit the places Chopin had frequented as a young man. He even asked me to spread his ashes at the birthplace of Chopin at  Żelazowa Wola, some 50 kms from Warsaw. He also managed to breathe out  'A country that can produce a man of the stamp of Ignacy Jan Paderewski deserves your undivided attention!’ 

Cahill was known by the nickname 'The Pocket Paderewski' owing to his virtuoso playing but diminutive stature. The two pianists shared the same concert agent in London. The spellbinding tone and refined touch of Paderewski’s playing in the 1920s captivated Cahill. He greatly admired the Pole’s control of the melodic line as if it was being sung. According to Paderewski, who was a pupil of the great Polish pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, ‘all had a singing tone. That was very, very important’. Hans von Bülow pedantically stated: ‘Anyone who cannot sing – with a lovely or unlovely voice – should not play the piano.’ 


This obsession with the production of a beautiful tone, a ‘noble, singing melody’, preoccupied Cahill as a direct result of his own lessons in Vienna with the Leschetizky pupil and sometime assistant Leonie Gombrich (the talented and fascinating mother of the great art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich). On one visit to Lausanne in 1940 Cahill called on his friend Paderewski who had been very ill. The great pianist would never play in public again but had not lost his sense of humour. At his villa in Morges Cahill recalled ‘He told me he had been advised as a young man to give up the piano and study the trombone!’ 



As an example of the profound effect the music Chopin can have on Poles and the bolstering of Polish identity, I would like to quote one incident from my recently published biography of Edward Cahill. This is a review of a charity recital given by him to Polish troops during Christmas 1940 at the WW II internment camps at Büren and Münchenbuchsee in Switzerland. For me this is a very moving example of the power of Chopin (and Paderewski) to sustain and strengthen the spirit of the Polish nation under oppression. 

From The Pocket Paderewski: The Beguiling Life of the Australian Concert Pianist Edward Cahill 

Michael Moran 

(Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne 2016) pp.244-7

                        Bored and resentful internees at Büren an der Aare Internment Camp nr. Berne Switzerland 1940

Christmas 1940 was fast approaching for six thousand Polish officers and men interned in Switzerland. Snow and ice lay heavy on the ground. When in the midsummer of 1940 General Guderian’s Panzer divisions had pinned the French 45th Army Corps commanded by General Darius Daille against the Swiss frontier, the Swiss Federal Council rapidly granted refuge to the beleaguered French and Polish troops who had put up fierce resistance. The 45th Army Corps included some twelve thousand men of the Polish 2nd Rifle Division (2DSP Dywizja Strzelców Pieszych under General Prugar Ketling). They were among the valiant Poles who had joined the French to continue the fight for their homeland after the brutal German conquest of their country.

Unlike the French soldiers who were sent home in January 1941, the Poles now found themselves homeless. The Polish state had once again been erased from the map of Europe. Under international law, the Swiss were now forced to finance their detention. To facilitate this and simultaneously defuse political tension with Nazi Germany (which had planned to invade Switzerland in Operation Tannenbaum prior to the outbreak of war) a Polish mass detention camp housing some six thousand men was established near the picturesque medieval village of Büren an der Aare near Berne. It was completed by the winter of 1940. Up to that time the Poles had been billeted in scattered villages where they had become rather too popular with the female population in the absence of Swiss men gamely manning the frontiers and fortresses.

Their abrupt imprisonment at Büren led the Poles to suspect the Swiss were acting on German instructions. Morale fell. The Swiss tightened discipline. Anger erupted into revolt in December 1940. Shots were fired and a number of Polish soldiers were wounded. Following the revolt, the Poles were permitted to work for the princely sum of one franc per day in field, forest and factory, producing badly needed food. The results of this work more than repaid the costs of their internment, to the great satisfaction of the Nazi-encircled Swiss.

* * *

The cold on 15th December 1940 was Siberian in its intensity.[3] The new arrivals at the little village station of Büren had crossed the grey winter-wasted plains at the foot of the first range of the Jura mountains by train. Swiss families of soldiers billeted in the village were overjoyed to see their loved ones and thronged the platform. However, among the passengers were a number of Polish internees who descended from the train under watchful eyes, their heads covered by forage caps like common prisoners. They were forbidden to acknowledge any civilians who had come to gawp. They saw no-one, watched nothing except the little train returning to civilization on its meandering course and disappearing into the distance. They watched as one might watch a ship slowly pass over the horizon with no hope of return. In the streets of the old town above the great medieval covered wooden bridge that spanned the River Aare, their comrades sauntered in the village streets in small groups dressed warmly in heavy brown overcoats and Basque berets. They vaguely gazed into the windows of the Gothic-fronted boutiques, windows already too familiar and jammed with naive and rarely changed arrangements of fashion and antiques.

This Sunday was unlike any other. Today the celebrated Australian pianist Edward Cahill would give a concert in the 13th century Evangelical Reform church in the village. This was a rare gift of God for such innate musicians as the Poles. Well before the appointed time, the church was filled to bursting with men sitting erect, wearing sombre expressions on faces weathered to the colour of Spanish leather. Officials brusquely turned back any civilians who tried to enter. The same veto applied to any journalist from Berne who lacked official authorization to attend the concert. Polish and Swiss officers sat in the gallery while the soldiers sat closely packed around the grand piano placed in the centre of the choir. Then, Edward Cahill, who is small, slender and quick had to thread his way through the rows of soldiers to get to his instrument. He began with two impromptus by Schubert followed by the famous Minuet in G and Mélodie by Paderewski. He gave such an exquisite interpretation a tremor passed through the audience.

The first notes of the Chopin ‘Heroic’ polonaise reverberated through the church. Edward played works by the Polish master for more than an hour. Many present had never known a more moving moment in their lives, occurring as it did in the middle of a bloody conflict and desperate dispossession. In the darkened church an immense atmosphere of self-communion or meditation descended over the assembled refugees, the magnificent white hair of Edward Cahill seeming to softly glow above the keyboard of the black instrument in the choir.

Before long, these toughened soldiers had closed their eyes. Some had buried their heads in their arms, unable to stop their shoulders shaking with sobs. On the Polish officers’ handsome faces, all military stiffness of expression had disappeared to be replaced by an inexpressible nostalgia for their motherland that sang from the piano. Next to Cahill one Polish soldier had stood as immobile as a statue throughout the performance, his arms crossed. When the music ceased, he relaxed. He seemed to lose the fierce resistance to his emotions, a painfully maintained self-control, and collapsed within as he groped blindly for a seat to support him.

Edward stopped playing and, exhausted by his efforts, waited for a few moments in the silence that descended over the company. He did not dare to separate them from their patriotic dreams. He understood that he must allow these tough men time to collect themselves before finally launched into a ravishing Carillon de Noël of his own composition. He concluded the concert with a dazzling interpretation of another impromptu by Schubert, lifting the gloom into the realm of renewed hope.

Silence reigned once more, the faces of the soldiers and officers again froze into stoic immobility as the Polish internees left the church and plunged into the clammy mist and ice that enshrouded their camp. They carried in their hearts a seemingly interminable depression. [3]

[1] Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen 1753 (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments), Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, trans. ed. W.J. Mitchell (London 1949)
[2] There is no English equivalent for this Polish word – an approximation might be ‘bard’, ‘prophetic seer’ or ‘messianic messenger’. Adam Mickiewicz is considered a wieszcz through his national epic Pan Tadeusz and the poetic drama Dziady (Forefathers' Eve).
[3] For the following rare first-hand poetic description of a concert by Edward Cahill in wartime I am indebted to the then 29-year-old Colette Muret who wrote this fine review for La Revue de Lausanne sometime in December 1940. Muret, ‘la doyenne of Vaud journalists’, died in 2009 at the age of 98. 

You can listen to Edward Cahill's artistry in private recordings of Chopin and Liszt if you are further interested using these links:

http://www.michael-moran.net/paderewski-book.htm

http://www.michael-moran.net/paderewski-recordings.htm



[piotr-betlej-op-10-n-1-2016-copyright-galerie-roi-dore

                                                                             Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)
Piotr Betlej Op 10 N 1 2016 © Galerie Roi Doré

Paderewski is such an underestimated composer of affecting lyrical and poetic piano music which speaks directly to the heart and sensibility rather than burdening the intellect with high seriousness. As an example of relieving humour, at the Paris Peace Conference Georges Clemenceau (the 'old Tiger') came up to Paderewski and wickedly asked 'Are you a cousin of the famous pianist Paderewski?' When Paderewski replied 'It is I, Monsieur le Président,' Clemenceau observed, acting as if greatly surprised 'And you the famous artist have become Prime Minister? What a come-down!'

Naturally being a great patriot he writes many Polish mazurkas and polonaises but much of his piano music reminds me of a superb film score for say an intensely romantic French love affair set in Provence directed by Francois Truffaut. During the Romanza from his A minor piano concerto, in our imagination we could be bowling along a poplar lined route secondaire past hills of vineyards with Catherine Deneuve or Stephane Audran in the passenger seat of a Chapron Citroen cabriolet. Her hair is wonderfully awry in the wind as we head towards une belle gentilhommiere and nights of sophisticated sensual bliss, days of cultivated tastes, food and wine.  Ah...what we have lost of true civilization and culture in 2016...Paderewski had it all.

The music of Paderewski wears its learning lightly with poetry, charm, elegance and refinement of the highest order. His solo  pieces are a neglected repertoire for young pianists and with luck might kindle poetry and charm in their playing.


My argument of neglect is validated by the only recording of his complete piano works I know of made by the pianist Karol Radziwonowicz in Warsaw in 1991 in a co-production for the French Le Chant Du Monde label and the Polish label Selene. To my knowledge it has never been reissued.  LDC 278 1073/5 distributed by Harmonia Mundi. Used copies are available but at inflated prices.






For those of you unfamiliar with Paderewki's solo piano compositions, a superbly recorded CD has just been released by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute (Grey Series NIFCCD 057). The music is magnificently performed by the distinguished artist Kevin Kenner who clearly has an instinctive sympathy with this music and affection for it. I first became aware of Paderewsi's solo piano compositions covering the International Paderewski Piano Competitions that are held every three years in Bydgoszcz in Poland. The rarely heard or performed, formidable and passionately urgent E-flat minor Sonata Op.21 is monumental in scope and range, Kenner grandly elevating Paderewski as a serious composer. Another discovery for me was the impressive and arresting Dans le desert: Tableau musical en forme d'une toccata Op. 15.  He plays a glorious sounding, at times radiant, 1925 Steinway piano D 233Y. His sensitive rubato, phrasing, vivid and glowing tone quality and cultivated touch are splendidly reflected in this recording.The instrument presented on the CD, from the National Museum in Warsaw, was made especially for Paderewski and presented to him by Steinway. 

concerto-poster

Although not recorded on this CD, the Paderewski Piano Concerto is such a lyrical and grand work full of piano pyrotechnics, noble harmonies, dance energy and infectious charm. Audiences adore it!

Kevin Kenner has made a fine recording of the Paderewski A minor Piano Concerto Op. 17 and Polish fantasy for piano and orchestra op.19 with the Opera and Podlaska Philharmonic Orchestra in Białystock conducted by Marcin Nałęcz-Niesiołowski for the DUX label - DUX 0733

For me one of the finest interpretations of the Paderewski Piano Concerto in A minor Op.17 and Polish fantasy for piano and orchestra op.19 is by the Polish pianist Piotr Paleczny with the Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk. The BeArTon CD is available together with more information on Paderewski as well as the history and gestation of these two works using this link:

http://www.bearton.pl/en/the-best-of-paderewski-en/


However perhaps the most exciting and rewarding performance of the Paderewski A minor Piano Concerto Op. 17 for me is by Earl Wild with the London Symphony Orchestra under Arthur Fiedler made in 1995 for ELAN RECORDINGS CD 82266

The Independence Day Gala Concert at the Wielki National Opera Theatre  also featured the Paderewski concerto in a pleasant performance by Garrick Ohlsson as the soloist with the Orchestra of the Wielki National Opera conducted by Jacrk Kaspszyk. I found Ohlsson's treatment of the supremely beautiful melody of the Romanza. Andante  particularly poetic and emotionally sensitive. 




 *  *  *  *  *

On 9 November at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw I attended the launch of a fascinating and highly intelligent book published by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute  entitled Pianist: Conversations with Garrick Ohlsson. 

It is a significant production of 350 pages covering many aspects of piano playing and reflections on the interpretation and cultural significance of the music of Chopin. The interviews were carried out by the personally engaging Dr. Kamila Stępień-Kutera, Head of the Research and Publishing Department at the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute. 

It was hoped Garrick Ohlsson would be present but unfortunately he was stranded in Poznań. His plane was unable to land at Chopin International Airport, Warsaw which was closed by heavy fog. However Dr. Stępień-Kutera gave us an exhaustive and interesting introduction to the book. It will be published in English in 2019.

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