Chopin Regained. The Presence of Chopin in the Reflexion of Contemporary Polish Composers

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Is there a place for Chopin in the consciousness of contemporary Polish composers? And would such a presence (or absence) of Chopin – if not necessarily straightforwardly or directly in music, then in the thought, in  the  reflexion  of  a  contemporary  artist  –  provide  significant  insights into our musical contemporariness? I have addressed the Polish composing community with questions of this kind (just in time for the year 200 A.Ch., i.e. after Chopin’s birth). Twenty three answers have been selected and published in my book Chopinspira[1].  The title might be misunderstood, hence the clarification: chopinspira is a neologism in any language, devised for the purpose of this project alone; the project had been presented at an away session of the Programme Committee of the “Warsaw Autumn” Festival at Radziejowice in 2008 (each year before the long vacation, the Committee  has  an  annual  brainstorming  meeting  at  the  palace  there). At the time, a project bringing together the impending Chopin jubilee (2010) with the “Warsaw Autumn” had been received less than enthusiastically by the Committee. Still, the seed had been sown and, in May last year, with the gracious support of the Polish Composers’ Union and the Festival, I was able to address the composing community on the Chopin venture, publication guaranteed.

Władysław Stróżewski writes thus on inspiration: “the word inspiration contains  a  root  derived  from  the  Latin  spiritus,  denoting ‘spirit,’ ‘breath’ as well as ‘current of air’ and ‘wind’. Inspiratio, in a purely philological translation, is ‘breath,’ ‘breathing,’ ‘the breath of life’ … In the depiction of the creation of man in Genesis, the Vulgate uses the verb inspiro to render breathing life into man and the emergence of the living soul … . Inspiration contains in its meaning a connotation of movement, of stimulation …. The concept of inspiration, so dear to the Romantics and the Modernists, lost much of its appeal in our times, sharing the fate of other words that are better left unsaid”[2].  This might have been another explanation of the doubts as to the Chopinspira project. In my own opinion, however, there have been no serious reasons to desist from asking contemporary composers about their positions towards Chopin; about their Chopinian “inspirations,” even if these were only “negative inspirations”. In fact, my address to the composers did not even contain the word “inspiration”, a term with overly lofty connotations. The address was to serve as incentive to reflexion and to foster statements on Chopin, “inspired” in the most common understanding of the word.

Half a century ago (1959), Mieczysław Tomaszewski published an anthology[3]   of  statements  on  Chopin  by  Polish  composers  from  Józef Elsner (1769-1854), Chopin’s teacher in Warsaw, to Stefan Kisielewski (1911-1991) and Zygmunt Mycielski (1907-1987), post-war composers and, at the same time, influential musical critics. The content of this anthology leads to the conclusion that the way of thinking about Chopin determined, to some degree, the fate, the shape and the horizons of Polish music; that Chopin’s presence – not necessarily a straightforward/direct presence in the oeuvre of his successors, but a presence in their thoughts, in the later composers’ reflexion expressed in discourse – has had its influence on the nature of musical reality and, more broadly, on the quality of national culture. It was this belief, and the faith in the sense of this venture in the jubilee year 200 A. Ch., that stands at the origin of Chopinspira.

My  call  for  statements  to  Polish  composers  quoted  opinions  on Chopin by four artists: Witold Lutosławski, Witold Szalonek and Roman Berger, and the example by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki. Lutosławski (1913-1994) valued Chopin as a visionary who outlined new horizons of tone, harmony and melody; he also saw in him “a typically Polish temperament of music,” remarking that “ it would have been difficult to place Chopin anywhere in the history of French music”[4].  For Szalonek (1927-2001; a major Polish representative of sonorism), the art of Chopin defined one of the major paradigms of modern European musical culture. And he placed his own sonorism in the context of Chopin seen as the discoverer of the sonorist principle in music. “Based on the archetypal tone of church bells, (Chopin’s) music was the first ever manifestation of an immanent feature of piano: its sound, its sonorism! And taking away nothing from the dazzling beauty of Chopin’s melodies and the unparalleled wealth of his harmony, Chopin’s work above all reveals to us the soul of piano”. “The contemporary sound of piano, the most typical musical instrument of European culture, has its origins in the universal oeuvre of Chopin, in its sounding layer which then develops further in the works of Skriabin, Debussy, Ravel, Szymanowski, all the way to Cage and to electronically-processed piano”[5]

For Berger (b. 1930), on the other hand, “the problem of Chopin” boils down nowadays to a fundamental question of the principle of creative activity, on the present-day feasibility of Great Art. Berger postulates a reinterpretation of Chopin: “In a situation of crisis and chaos, levelling and relativism, studies allowing a closer inspection of the oeuvre of the figurehead of Polish music could help solve the present problems of musical culture (…). Chopin’s Opus Magnum serves as a reminder that technique and erudition – while necessary – are not enough to explain the heart of the matter. And that a discipline of consciousness and thought is essential and only attainable … through askesis: exercise, training…. Chopin’s works are evidence of that very rare ability to spontaneously return to states that condition an Opus Magnus, states of deep meditation”[6].  Finally, Górecki (1933-2010) was presented in the address as an example of an artist “inspired” in the deepest sense: the obsessive ostinato of two chords – inherited from Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17 No. 4 – in the third movement (Lento, cantabile-semplice) of Symphony No. 3, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, is nothing other than inspiration/enchantment with Chopinian sound.

At the same time, I asked the composers not to let themselves be influenced too much by the quoted statements. What I wanted to elicit were Chopinian inspirations rather than others’ opinions on Chopin. This is why I asked for personal and sincere answers, with no pressure to refer to “canonical” interpretations of Chopin’s art; for answers unfettered with “professional” correctness; for an artistic examination of conscience. And, in most cases, this is what I received. Out of a greater number, I have selected 23 responses to include them in Chopinspira. A contemporary composer does not find it at all easy to talk about Chopin. The difficulty lies, first, in the quasi-axiological belief that “all” has already been said about Chopin (and hence the fear of belabouring the obvious); on the other hand, not everyone can bear a public scrutiny of one’s conscience; finally, not every composer feels the need to talk about music, in the belief that “music should talk for itself”. This makes one appreciate even more the fact that most artists have decided to talk, and talk very openly at that.

Chopinspira documents the [very] different attitude of contemporary composers towards Chopin – across the scale cool-lukewarm-warm-hot-passionate. Yet even the cool and the lukewarm do not negate the value and the objective significance of Chopin’s oeuvre; a great majority do not deny the genetic presence of a “Chopinian note” in themselves and in our musical contemporariness (Chopin, “the music of our roots”). Here is an interesting research question: to what extent do these Chopinian “roots” define a certain distinctiveness of Polish music against an international background?

Chopinspira features statements by authors from A to Z: from Rafał Augustyn to Lidia Zielińska. They are all voices by free artists, i.e. asked, encouraged, but not coerced in any way. The texts vary from individual to individual, also in terms of forms and literary genres: they include a rhymed humorous poem, a poem in prose, a journal and a philosophical essay. Most are short texts that combine autobiographical moments with the value of Chopin’s work – these could all come under the common heading “Chopin in my life”. The unifying factor is their true sincerity. Most are highly personal; yet even the few that strive for objectivity betray their authors. Someone [Arkadiusz Kubica of the Silesian Quartet] has already remarked that he could attribute most authors, even if they were unsigned.

More often than not, contemporary artists emphasize the national character of Chopin’s music:

–  “Art  intrinsically  associated  with  Polishness,  it  dwells  deeply enough to constitute a part of our identity” (Baculewski);

–  “Subsoil, not always realized”, but “the art of the masters con-strains one to silence at times” (Bargielski);

–  A genetic presence (“a drop of Chopin’s blood”), also not always realized (Bortnowski);

–  “Music that is Polish through and through”; the Germans were well aware of that when they banned Chopin performances in Poland during the Occupation (in World War Two) (Bujarski);

–  “A Polish Mediterranean composer, … exactly the kind of person I want all Poles to be” (Kilar);

–  A source of strong emotion, especially when one is abroad (Knittel);

–  “My soul is homeless without Chopin” (Wielecki).

The mystery of the national character of Chopin’s music remains valued to this day, yet it is not always liberating or inspiring (“the constraint to silence” in Bargielski’s confession). In some cases, it is objectionable, especially  when  appropriated  by  ideological  propaganda  (Knittel: “December 13th, 1981. A TV screen of a coat of arms, hanging crookedly on the wall. In the foreground, general Jaruzelski informs me in his gracious voice of the declaration of the martial law… and Chopin’s music has been chosen as a background for the occasion… brr…”), or when Chopin is used and abused in the educational process, which leads to life-long aversion (Zielińska: “I cannot relate to the music of Chopin, I cannot reach to it across the heaped layers cluttering my consciousness … I feel mutilated, yes. But I’ve been alive without Chopin’s music for so long. Even I know it is wrong. It would have been so beautiful to hear it now for the first time…”).

Other moments of fascination with Chopin are even more mysterious:

–  “A  combination  of  the  sensual  and  the  spiritual  that  defies  all understanding” (Augustyn);

–  “The way Chopin captivates me remains an unparalleled source of emotion” (Jabłoński);

–  “Chopin’s music poured into me like a ray of light and a rush of fresh air. It whirled with a mystery in my childish consciousness” (Zawadzka-Gołosz).

Features of Chopin’s work and persona associated with the composer’s technique and attitude are particularly admired:

–  “Splendid ideas of harmony and texture” (Baculewski);

–  “The greatest polyphonist of Romanticism” (Prasqual);

–  “A rare gift of sincere melody” (Kilar);

–  A category of “shining” as an immanent aesthetic category proper to the music of Chopin (Kornowicz);

–  “A challenge thrown to the abyss of the future” (Widłak, on the finale of Sonata in B flat minor);

–  A model artist and revolutionary Romantic who fought for his own, new, individual art (Krauze).

Finally, Chopinspira contains some non plus ultra judgments on Chopin’s oeuvre as unequalled in the history of music:

–  “The works of Chopin have been branded with divine perfection”, Chopin, along with Haydn, is “the genius of all time” (Penherski), while

–  Sławiński, when faced with a global cataclysm, would have saved Chopin at the expense of Bach.

At a presentation of Chopinspira in Warsaw (Feb. 24, 2010), Mieczysław Tomaszewski described it as “brilliant material for the study of Chopin’s reception and resonance. Some statements deserve to be carved in stone … For instance, that by Roman Berger: ‘Chopin reminds us that beauty is truth accessible through senses,’ or Tadeusz Wielecki’s: ‘Chopin is a genius in a human way”.

Finally, Berger, already-quoted here: his text is sui generis peculiar and exceptional.  It  is  an  extensive  philosophical  essay[7] that  asks  questions about the essence of the “Chopin problem” nowadays. Berger relates to “a key phenomenon of our time – the change in the cognitive paradigm”, from the classic Cartesian Cogito ergo sum to Paul Ricoeur’s anti-Cartesian Sum, ergo cogito. In this perspective, beauty is the above-mentioned “truth accessible through senses (not infrequently quite distant from the sphere of the ‘pretty’)”. And then “not all of Chopin can fit into the aesthetics of beautiful (de facto: pretty) objects. A part of his oeuvre is terrible, horrifying, resonating in the depth of the soul, resonating in the archaic man within us, deafened not only by ‘the barbarity of civilization’ but also by humanist (anthropocentric) culture. … The new paradigm is a universalist  one:  it  relativises/destroys  illusions  of  anthropocentrism,  humanism, individualism, egocentrism etc.” Berger goes on to analyze Chopin’s output from the perspective of the “new paradigm” and concludes that Chopin  would  have  been  a  troublemaker  nowadays. “For  Chopin  was a dissident. Today, he would be in opposition to the official mega-trend, the transformation of man, a creature of the homo creativus species, into a  consumer;  of  art  into ‘entertainment’  and  the  pop-rock-cool  musical education of the society that serves this purpose. He would have been salonunfaehig in today’s salons: kept away from, useless in, a salon”.

Two great composer’s narratives of interpreting Chopin appeared at the dawn of the 20th century (as documented by the above-cited Anthology by Tomaszewski): that of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) and, a little later, that of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Paderewski, in his famous and largely political speech at the celebration of the 500 th  anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (The Herald of the Polish Nation, 1910), presented Chopin through the lens of national history and national values as a bard whose music speaks for his enslaved and humiliated nation. By contrast, Szymanowski’s texts on Chopin (1923, 1930) highlighted – in what was in a way a polemic against Paderewski and his “national” followers – the universal and the timeless, yet rooted in race (in the Tainian sense) rather than in history. Both narratives continued throughout the 20th century.

I think that there is a text-narrative in Chopinspira that could and should be set alongside those of Paderewski and Szymanowski: the text by Berger. It opens new horizons, new perspectives in the reading of the Chopin phenomenon in the 21 st  century. In each of these cases, questions about Chopin are in fact questions about Poland and the Poles: questions about the conservative and traditional Poland of Paderewski, and about the modernized, modern, European Poland of Szymanowski. And about Berger’s Poland. Chopin, reinterpreted according to the “new paradigm”, is supposed to lead us to a Poland “where processes would begin of trans-forming a set of ego-particles into an organic society; of transforming the present quasi-democracy, the democracy of ‘masters and owners of the world’ into a democracy sensu stricto, a democracy adhaerens, relating to the true needs and goals of man, a spiritual creature. A democracy based on the idea of solidarity”. It is clear at this point that what Berger means is in fact not just a Chopinian Poland: what he means is a Chopinian world. For failure to undergo the metamorphosis postulated by Berger will result in the end of man as a spiritual creature.

[1] Chopinspira.  Współcześni  kompozytorzy  polscy  o  Chopinie  [Chopinspira.  Contemporary Polish Composers on Chopin]: [Rafał Augustyn, Krzysztof Baculewski, Zbigniew Bargielski, Jerzy Bauer, Roman Berger, Marcin Bortnowski, Zbigniew Bujarski, Maciej Jabłoński,  Wojciech  Kilar,  Eugeniusz  Knapik,  Krzysztof  Knittel,  Jerzy  Kornowicz, Włodzimierz  Kotoński,  Zygmunt  Krauze,  Krzysztof  Meyer,  Zbigniew  Penherski,  PRASQUAL,  Adam  Sławiński,  Wojciech  Widłak,  Tadeusz  Wielecki,  Anna Zawadzka-Gołosz, Lidia Zielińska + Wojciech Maciejewski on Roman Maciejewski], Krzysztof Droba (conceived, selected and ed.), Warszawska Jesień, Warszawa 2009.

[2] Władysław Stróżewski, O pojęciu inspiracji [On Inspiration], [in:] Muzyka Krzysztofa Pendereckiego. Poetyka i recepcja [Krzysztof Penderecki’s Music. Poetics and Reception], Akademia Muzyczna, Kraków 1996, p. 7.

[3] Kompozytorzy  polscy  o  Chopinie.  Antologia  [Polish  Composers  on  Chopin.  Anthology], Mieczysław Tomaszewski (ed. and with an introduction), Kraków 1959.

[4] Z Witoldem Lutosławskim o muzyce Fryderyka Chopina rozmawia Claude Maupome  z  Radia  France  (1982)  [Claude  Maupome  from  Radio  France  is  talking  to Witold Lutosławski – 1982], Programme notes of the Fifth Musical Festival of the Polish Radio, 2001, p. 159.

[5] Quoted  in  Lilianna  M.  Moll,  Witold Szalonek. Katalog tematyczny. Teksty o muzyce [Witold Szalonek. Thematic Catalogue. Music Texts], Katowice 2002, pp. 238, 242.

[6] Roman Berger, Zasada twórczości. Wybór pism z lat 1984-2005 [Principle of Oeuvre. Selected Writings 1984-2005], Katowice 2005, pp. 168-69.

[7] Roman Berger, Postscriptum w sprawie Chopina. List [Postscript to Chopin’s Case. The Letter], [in:] Chopinspira…, pp. 77-102.