Celebrating the Chopin Year

Editorial by Maria Anna Harley

The 150th anniversary of the death of Fryderyk Chopin, Poland’s acclaimed greatest composer, has been celebrated with a multitude of scholarly and artistic events through the year 1999 – named “The Chopin Year” by UNESCO. The Second International Chopin Congress in Warsaw, Poland; the “Age of Chopin” symposium in Bloomington, Indiana; the “Chopin Forum” in London; and the “International Chopin Symposium” in Dusseldorf have been designed to bring together scholars and researchers to re-examine the achievements of the great composer in broad cultural contexts.[1] The number of commemorative events has been so large that the Polish Ministry of Culture and Arts established a special office dedicated to coordinating the festivities throughout the year.[2] This abundance of lectures, publications, conferences and festivals warrants a repetition of a comment made by Karol Szymanowski in the opening of his 1923 article on Fryderyk Chopin: [3] “How much we have written, spoken and thought about Fryderyk Chopin! How many colorful, rhetorical wreaths have been placed at his feet! Yet the questions surrounding his work still remain unresolved.” Szymanowski’s statement has not lost its validity in the past seventy years during which the public image of Chopin has frequently and dramatically changed.

Profile of Chopin from a bronze plate.
Polish Music Collection, USC.

The 1999 volume of the Polish Music Journal attempts to complement the “questions surrounding Chopin’s work,” especially as discussed in the English-speaking world, with issues raised by scholars who are either based in Poland, or make Chopin’s context in Polish culture a focal point of their research. The articles chosen for the present issue represent a wide range of methodological approaches. When Dr. Halina Goldberg (Visiting Assistant Professor, Indiana University) and Dorota Zakrzewska (Ph.D. candidate in musicology, McGill University, Montreal) received their Wilk Prizes for Research in Polish Music (in the 1998 competition;[4]Goldberg – Professional Prize; Zakrzewska – Student Prize), I realized that the juxtaposition of their articles in the summer 1999 issue of the Polish Music Journal called for more variations on the same theme. I complemented these texts with contributions by Dr. Andrzej Tuchowski (Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Pedagogical College, Zielona Góra, and at the University of Wrocław, Poland), Dr. Jan Węcowski (editor-in-chief, music publications of the F. Chopin Academy of Music, Warsaw, Poland), and Prof. Douglas Hofstadter (professor of computer science and cognitive science, adjunct professor of philosophy, psychology, comparative literature, and the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University; in 1999/2000 visiting professor of physics and Slavic literature at Stanford University).

Dr. Goldberg’s study of Chopin in Warsaw’s salons presents a segment of her doctoral dissertation highlighting aspects of Polish musical life not previously known in the West. As a result of her thorough survey of archival material, early 19th century publications and documents, the image of Warsaw changes from a provincial, backwater town to a modern, highly-cultured city. Warsaw’s sophisticated inhabitants participated in a wide range of musical events (public and private); they were aware of the most recent musical fashions. It is precisely this cultural milieu that allowed Chopin to become the man he was in Paris, to help him enter and conquer the salons of Parisian aristocracy. The scholarly solidity of Goldberg’s historical approach is coupled with a lively method of presentation. Colorful, vivid language characterizes also the article by Dorota Zakrzewska, a doctoral student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. After completing her M.A. thesis on Chopin (the present article is a selection of material from this project), she is planning to devote her Ph.D. dissertation to Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger. In an extended, if somewhat speculative, survey of relationships between Chopin and Mickiewicz, Chopin’s Ballades and Mickiewicz’s literary works, especially his Ballady, Zakrzewska presents us with a host of details about the “alienation and powerlessness” experienced by the Great Emigration of Polish intelligentsia who settled in Paris after the fall of the November Uprising (1831).[5] Nonetheless, Zakrzewska’s application of one “narrative schema” distilled from Mickiewicz’s poetic ballades (the subject of the final part of her study) is, like all other attempts at discovering detailed homologies between music and literature, destined to remain controversial.

Equally disputable, and highly interesting for this very reason, is the study of “Polish Religious Folklore in Chopin’s Music” by Dr. Jan Węcowski (Warsaw). I first encountered echoes of this work while interviewing the Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki in April 1998 in Katowice, Poland. Górecki evaded my first question about his own music with an outburst of enthusiasm directed at Węcowski’s research:[6]

Węcowski proves that Chopin used Polish religious songs in his works. . . . This research changes everything. Our whole image of Chopin was false. Do you know what a tragic figure Chopin was, what a tragic person? . . . If the source of his melodies is in Polish church songs, the songs that have texts, that speak about something, everything changes… These songs are not like some little folk mazurkas! Here, Chopin returns to the foundation, to the roots from which everything grows. . . . For me it is a Chopin Revolution! . . . It is a revolution because here we are dealing with the whole mystery of Chopin’s compositional workshop, of Chopin’s music—and he was such a genius! That he was a genius is obvious, but geniuses do not come out of nowhere. You may have a good ear, a good memory, this and that. But something else is needed for you to become truly “yourself.”

Curious about the quality of research that could elicit such enthusiasm from this composer (inclined to strong and often harsh judgements), I requested a copy of Dr. Węcowski’s paper for its possible publication in the Polish Music Journal. It appears here without editorial interventions, as received and translated by Barbara Milewski. Dr. Węcowski’s expertise has previously centered on Polish early music and religious folk traditions.[7] During our conversations, he assured me that the present venture into the field of Chopin studies is just a beginning of an extensive research project. According to Węcowski, the examples of parallels between passages from Chopin’s pieces and 19th century religious songs in the vernacular that he collected for his article are just “the tip of the iceberg.” I present this thesis to our readers hoping that the online format of the Journal will encourage a lively discussion.

In the next article-length contribution to the Journal, Andrzej Tuchowski examines one of Chopin’s methods of large-scale pitch organization and its reminiscences in later works by Szymanowski and Lutosławski. Tuchowski is now a professor of music theory at the Academy of Music in Zielona Góra. I have met him as a fellow participant in the Doctoral Seminar in Music Theory and Analysis directed by of Prof. Zofia Helman of the Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (1985-1988). The Seminar meetings were held in the salon of the house donated to the University of Warsaw by the late Prof. Zofia Lissa: a house – museum, with her library still intact (sadly, it was sold off in recent years – and the library dispersed – by the University, burdened with limited financial resources). In 1986-88, Tuchowski commuted to Warsaw from Zielona Góra, to read chapters of his dissertation-in-progress on symbolism in Britten’s operas.[8] This dissertation later gave rise to two books, but during Helman’s seminar it was discussed with an intense and zealous criticism of the young minds, fearless and unwilling to compromise. Helman, a student of Lissa, stimulated these discussions as a means of developing a capacity for independent, critical thinking by her students. Thus, she belonged to the great intellectual tradition represented in the U.S. by Hannah Arendt whose teaching method was described by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in the following words:[9] “Her encouragement was generous, and her criticism was delivered with the respectful, if harsh, assumption that anyone who could not accept it well should not continue under her tutelage.”

It might be surprising that instead of praising Tuchowski’s original, post-Schenkerian analytical approach—freely borrowing ideas from Reti, Schenker and Salzer, and permeated with his own concepts and terminology—I have digressed into a recollection of the seminar at the threshold of his academic career. This gesture could be seen, perhaps, as a sign of my “nostalgia” for the idealized past, similar to one that the Parisian emigre circles had preached and practiced in 1830s. My intention, however, is to connect Tuchowski with another participant in Prof. Helman’s seminar in 1980s, Małgorzata Gąsiorowska, whose recent monograph on Grażyna Bacewicz is reviewed here by Alicja Usarek (D.M.A candidate, University of Texas). Gąsiorowska’s book was published by PWM to honor the double anniversary of Poland’s greatest woman composer (90th of her birth and 30th of her death). The book began as Gąsiorowska’s Ph.D. project within the context of Helman’s Seminar in Music Theory and Aesthetics. However, the dissertation remained unfinished; the author’s involvement with the Polish Radio and her many other duties delayed the completion of her work until 1999. From my reading, the Bacewicz monograph benefited from its long gestation and deserved to have been so eagerly awaited: its scope and treatment of the subject transcend all the previous efforts in this field. We should not forget that the year 1999 has also been declared in Poland “The Bacewicz Year,” thus, it is fitting to have Gąsiorowska’s scholarly tribute to Bacewicz at least noticed in the U.S.

Finally, to return to the musicology of “The Chopin Year,” I hope that the scope of methodologies and subjects of the articles published here will attest to the vitality of the discipline, continually enriched by the perspectives of young scholars and by the insights of their older colleagues who have arrived in the field of Chopin studies from different musicological orientations. The diversity of approaches to Chopin’s music and reception—as revealed by the articles in the Journal—is further increased by the inclusion of a humorous review of Chopin’s “Mayonnaises” by Douglas Hofstadter. This parody of music criticism a la James Huneker is permeated with phrases that take the tone encountered in Huneker’s writings to another level. About the mazurkas, Huneker stated the following: “Like hardy, simple, wild flowers they are mostly for the open air, the only out-of-door music Chopin ever made. But even in the open, and under the moon, the note of self-torture, of sophisticated sadness is not absent. . . . They are creatures of moods, melodic air-plants, swinging to the rhythm of any vagrant breeze. . . . Within the tremulous spaces of this miniature dance is enacted the play of the human soul, a soul that voices the revolt and sorrow of a dying race, of a dying poet.”[10] Hofstadter’s “Huneker-style” essay amuses while indirectly raising some serious questions about the limits and abuses of descriptive language in musicology (an issue as current now, as ever before). I am delighted to be able to offer this enjoyable text to our readers.

In conclusion, it might be interesting to look ahead and to note that the first issue of the 2000 volume of the Polish Music Journal will focus on the transformations of Chopin’s style examined by a group of Polish scholars whose contributions first appeared in Polish in 1993, in a volume of studies entitled Przemiany Stylu Chopina [Transformations of Chopin’s Style]. [11] Prof. Maciej Gołąb, the editor of this volume, kindly agreed to serve as the guest editor of the Polish Music Journal vol. 3, no. 1, and to select a sample of representative articles from his book to be translated and issued here. The articles will be accompanied by several reviews of books on Chopin.

Recent Chopin literature in Poland poses problems that might be somewhat different from those asked in the West. Here, as in contemporary interpretative studies of music in general, “far more questions are raised than answered.”[12] This comment, taken from Agnes Heller’s A Theory of Modernity, leads to the philosopher’s statement that “it is easier to answer questions than to leave them open.” The articles by Goldberg, Zakrzewska, Tuchowski, Węcowski, and—partly—Hofstadter, do leave some questions “open” and highlight lacunae to be filled by further research. Chopin remains the focus of intense discussions and re-evaluations while our “omnivorous culture continues to feed on unlimited interpretation.”[13] I would like to end this preface with an extended quotation from Szymanowski’s 1923 essay (cited above) reflecting on one of the controversial issues, i.e. Chopin’s ambivalent position “between the national and the universal.” Szymanowski concluded his examination of Chopin’s artistry and his stature in Polish music by stating:[14]

Chopin possessed an uncommon, objective and secure wisdom, which is a hallmark of those who fearlessly abandon the territories which had already been explored a thousand times over, realms which are predictable and not threatening with any revelations, lands where traditional “aestheticism” spreads like a bad habit and new ideas are quickly labeled as “fashionable trends.” Only today – from the distance of almost a century—. . . only today it is possible to fully comprehend his extraordinary meaning in the evolution of the universal music. . . . Chopin recognized that only by setting his art free from the dramatic and historical content could he insure the preservation of its truly Polish character and endow it with the most lasting values. Such an approach to the question of “national music”—which in his own art proved to be a stroke of genius—made his compositions widely accessible far beyond Polish borders . . . and elevated his music to the category of the universal art.


[1]. The “Age of Chopin: A Sesquicentennial Symposium” was held at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, 17-19 September 1999; The Second International Chopin Congress, under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture and Arts of the Republic of Poland, took place on the 10-17 October 1999 in Warsaw, Poland; The Chopin Forum – musicological symposium was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 16-17 October 1999; the International Chopin Symposium, devoted to issues of reception and interpretation, was organized in Dusseldorf by the Polish Institute, on 6-8 December 1999. [Back]

[2]. The web site of the “Międzynarodowy Rok Chopinowski/ Chopin Year 1999” may be found at: www.waw.pdi.net/%7Echopin99. The Chopin Year is celebrated under the honorary patronage of the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski; the Chopin Year Committee is directed by Grzegorz Michalski, coordinator; its members include Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Andrzej Jasiński, Kazimierz Kord, Janusz Olejniczak, Władysław Stróżewski, Mieczysław Tomaszewski, Piotr Paleczny, Ewa Pobłocka and Jacek Weiss. [Back]

[3]. Karol Szymanowski, “Fryderyk Chopin,” in K. Szymanowski, Pisma, vol. 1 Pisma muzyczne, Kornel Michałowski, ed. (Kraków: PWM, 1984), 89-103. The essay was first published in two issues of the Warsaw monthly Skamander (no.28, April 1923, p. 22-27; and no.29/30, May-June 1923, p. 106-110). This is Szymanowski’s first essay devoted to Fryderyk Chopin. The manuscript is held in the Karol Szymanowski Collection, Archives of Polish Composers, Library of the Warsaw University (BUW). English translation by Maria Pilatowicz forthcoming in After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music, ed. Maria Anna Harley; Los Angeles: USC Friends of Polish Music. [Back]

[4]. Established in 1986 at the Polish Music Reference Center, The Stefan & Wanda Wilk Prizes for Research in Polish Music are sponsored by the PMRC and the Thornton School of Music of the University of Southern California. They are intended to stimulate research on Polish music in academic circles outside of Poland. The prizes are awarded to authors of the best papers reflecting original research on some aspect of the music of Poland, preferably on a less researched topic or composer. Winners include Jeffrey Kallberg, John Rink, Barbara Milewski, Timothy Cooley, Michael Kline, etc. [Back]

[5]. In distinguishing between the musical “ballades” and the literary “ballady” I use the terminology of the author who attempts to unequivocally separate the musical and the literary forms of the ballade. Note that in the original Polish (as well as in French, or English), these terms are identical. [Back]

[6]. Interview with Maria Anna Harley, April 1998, Katowice. Unpublished transcript of tape recording. PMRC Archives, Thornton School of Music. Forthcoming in Górecki: An Autumn Portrait, ed. Maria Anna Harley. The expression “to come out of nowhere” replaces the literal translation of “to fall from heaven” (“spaść z nieba”). [Back]

[7]. Jan Węcowski published extensively on early music in Poland (from medieval through Baroque) and on traditional religious songs. He transcribed and edited volumes of music by Andreas Hakenberger (The Pelplin tablature choral compositions: Transcriptions of Andrzej Hakenberger’s works. ; Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1970); Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (Completorium; Kraków: PWM, 1963; vol. 7 in ” Sources to the History of Polish Music” series); Antoni Milwid (Sub tuum praesidium: 12 Cantatas for soprano, bass and instrumental ensemble; Kraków: PWM, 1979; vol. 17 in series “Sources to the History of Polish Music”). Wêcowski has edited a volume of Christmas carol for children, Kolędować małemu [To sing carols to the small one] (Warsaw: MiGo, 1992); he also served as editor, producer, and annotator for a series of LP recordings with traditional religious repertoire for Catholic services issued by Veriton in 1960s-1980s: Gorzkie Żale. Passion Meditations, Adoramus te Christe. Śpiewy przy Bozym Grobie (chants at God’s Tomb), Polskie Pieśni Religijne (Polish Religious Songs), etc. [Back]

[8]. See Andrzej Tuchowski, Symbolika oper Benjamina Brittena (The Symbolic Meaning in Benjamin Britten Operas), Ph.D. dissertation, (Warsaw, Poland: University of Warsaw, 1988; published in Zielona Góra: Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna, 1990); Benjamin Britten—twórca, dzieło, epoka (Benjamin Britten—the composer, his oeuvre, his epoch). (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1994). Tuchowski entered the domain of Chopin studies with his “Habilitationschrift,” the second large-scale monograph required for the degree of associate professor in Poland’s academic system, Integracja strukturalna w świetle przemian stylu Chopina (The structural coherence in view of the transformational changes of Chopin’s style; Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1996). [Back]

[9]. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), 426.[Back]

[10]. Hofstadter parodies here Huneker’s introductions to editions of Chopin’s Etudes and Mazurkas (an annotated photocopy of these two articles accompanies the typescript of his text). The best known Chopin study by Huneker is Chopin: The Man and his Music. (St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, 1972; originally published in New York by Scribner, 1926). [Back]

[11]. Maciej Gołąb, ed. Przemiany stylu Chopina [Transformations of Chopin’s style] (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 1993). [Back]

[12]. Agnes Heller, A Theory of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 235. [Back]

[13]. Ibidem, p. 144. [Back]

[14]. Szymanowski, op. cit. English translation by Maria Pilatowicz. [Back]