Editorial by Maja Trochimczyk

In 1995, the cover of the special issue of the now-defunct music monthly Studio (addressed to musicians, music lovers and audiophiles alike) was graced by a strange double portrait: Chopin and Lutosławski, face-to-face, nose-to-nose. The portrait presented the two composers as if they just met in person, smiling; this image visualized their equality of status. At that time Chopin’s music was celebrated in the 1995 International Piano Competition in Warsaw (the occasion for the special issue of Studio); Lutosławski’s recent death (February 1994) provided an opportunity for fresh re-evaluation of his whole oeuvre and its significance in the history of Polish music. The issue contained an interesting essay on Chopin written by Lutosławski in late 1960s and first published in 1970.[1]  This essay, inspired by Lutoslawski’s own service on the jury of the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1955, presented the composer’s thought about the personal significance of his great predecessor. At this point, of course, Lutosławski could not have known that he would emerge as Chopin’s equal and the most important Polish composer of the second half of the 20th century. This is what he wrote about Chopin:[2]

With no other composer in the whole history of music one could encounter the union of three elements that occurred with such an incomparable power and such an unbreakable cohesiveness: the elements of the hand, the keyboard, and the feeling of music through sound. […] The world brought to existence in Chopin’s works is full of infinite enchantments and unfathomable riches that are, simultaneously, completely unusual. Despite its fantastic features, this world remains profoundly human: it is as deeply human as the intense, burning desire for the ideal.

It is interesting to juxtapose Lutosławski’s statements about Chopin with those expressed by other composers who were trying to come to terms with the greatness of Chopin’s achievements and their significance for Polish music. Writing soon after World War I, Karol Szymanowski selected Chopin as a model of a “new” national composer – someone of a world-class talent and classical perfection. According to Szymanowski,[3]

In the absolute “musicality” of his works he [Chopin] outgrew his times in a twofold sense: as an artist, he sought forms reaching beyond the dramatic and literary content of music, which were characteristic of Romanticism; as a Pole, he did not aim to reflect the tragic events in the history of his nation, but, instinctively, sought to express the supra-historical essence of his ethnicity [literally “rasa,” i.e. “race”], which lies beyond national history. Chopin recognized that only by setting his art free from the dramatic and historical content he could ensure the preservation of its truly Polish character and endow it with the most lasting values.

The essays by Szymanowski and Lutosławski about their distinguished model appear in their entirety in After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music, the sixth volume of the Polish Music History Series published by the Polish Music Center. The history of Chopin reception in Poland, especially the construction of his image as a national genius is not well known in the West; the essays selected for this book attempt to fill this gap. Interestingly, the further back one reaches while searching for statements about Chopin, the more frequent become various “national” and “nationalistic” pronouncements. In Poland, Chopin’s music, even when not understood in its entirety, served as a national treasure. Yet, the composer settled in Paris and his music – through enterprising publishers and traveling virtuosi – reached America already during the composer’s life. The essays selected for the second issue of the 2000 volume of the Polish Music Journal address these two subjects: the reception of Chopin’s music in America and its connection to its contemporaneous Parisian context. Dr. Sandra P. Rosenblum, the author of the first study, compiled an excellent and highly detailed documentation of American editions, performances, and reviews of Chopin’s music. None of this material was known earlier and its discovery and compilation constitutes an important contribution both to Chopin studies and to the history of American music, or, rather music in America.

Prof. James Parakilas, on the other hand, while following his interest in cultural contexts of Chopin’s music, attempted to connect textural gestures from Chopin’s nocturnes to the little-known genre of Parisian vocal nocturne of his time. Parakilas’s thesis, though received with a dose of scepticism by Polish scholars, seems plausible enough both to accept its importance for a better understanding of Chopin’s music and to extend this type of research to other genres.

The essays by Rosenblum and Parakilas share two characteristics. First, both essays were first presented as conference papers at the The Age of Chopin: The Chopin Sesquicentennial Symposium (Indiana University, Bloomington, September 1999). Second, both essays were awarded the 1999 Wilk Prize for Research in Polish Music (ex aequo, in the professional category). Their co-presence may not end there: selected papers from the conference are not being prepared for a volume edited by Halina Goldberg.

Dr. Martina Homma, another Wilk Prize winner, received her award in the fall of 2000. She shared the newly instituted Wilk Book Prize for Research in Polish Music with Prof. Jeffrey Kallberg (University of Pennsylvania). Her monumental study of the compositional technique of Witold Lutosławski is the subject of a review by a Polish musicologist, Andrzej Chłopecki (published in this volume); the study, Dr. Homma’s doctoral dissertation, crowns years of research and was already recognized as “opus eximium” by Homma’s alma mater, University of Cologne. While the English-speaking readers would have to wait for the full volume to appear in their language, the present issue of the Polish Music Journal provides a “teaser” – in the form of an essay about sketches for Lutosławski’s Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux. Dr. Homma was commissioned to write this essay for the opening of the Lutosławski Concert Studio at the Polish Radio when copies of the sketches were first presented to the Polish public. While not as detailed and not as richly footnoted as the dissertation, the essay provides a useful glimpse into a composer’s mind – a glimpse that only a scholar who knew all his works by heart and repeatedly interviewed their author would have had.

The final part of this issue of the Polish Music Journal is another review written by Dr. Zbigniew Skowron (Institute of Musicology, Warsaw). Dr. Skowron’s unbounded enthusiasm for Mieczysław Tomaszewski’s Fryderyk Chopin: Człowiek, Dzieło, Rezonans, the most celebrated Chopin study that was recently published in Poland, may be seen as free of prejudice and inter-personal entanglements since his primary field of research lies in the 20th century (his edited volume of Lutosławski Studies is forthcoming from Oxford University Press) and his institutional affiliation is with Warsaw, rather than Kraków.

So what does Lutosławski have in common with Chopin? Perhaps they share an unquestionable greatness and musical perfectionism, intuitive sense of the overall form and painstaking effort to clarify all details (both composers left a profusion of sketches, incomplete works and variants). Their shared “classicist” approach to music is, perhaps, best captured in the words of Karol Szymanowski (p. 55):

Chopin’s creation itself sparkles with a stunning light – a strange magic which makes its own worlds of beauty that have their independent existence. His music, liberated from all direct links to his psychic life (from which it emerged), reveals itself as a play of forms, pure and absolute; forms which in the invariable harmony of their individual elements give expression only to themselves. [4]


[1]. The four-page undated manuscript of this essay may be found in the Witold Lutosławski Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel. The text was first published as “Powroty: Chopin, nasz współczesny” [Returns: Chopin, our contemporary] Polska (9 (1970): 3-4, 20, 21); reprinted as “Chopin w moim życiu. Z archiwum Witolda Lutosławskiego,” [Chopin in my life. From the archives of Witold Lutosławski] in a special issue of Studio [no. 1 (1 October 1995): 1-2] marking the occasion of the 13th International Chopin Piano Competition. [Back]

[2]. Witold Lutosławski, “Back to Chopin,” trans. Maja Trochimczyk, in After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music, Maja Trochimczyk, ed., (Los Angeles: Polish Music Center, 2000), p. 83, 86. [Back]

[3]. Karol Szymanowski, “Fryderyk Chopin,” trans. Maria Piłatowicz, in After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music, Maja Trochimczyk, ed., (Los Angeles: Polish Music Center, 2000), p. 60. The essay was drafted in 1921-1922, and completed it in February 1923.[Back]

[4]. According to conversations held during The Age of Chopin: The Chopin Sesquicentennial Symposium at Indiana University, Bloomington, in September 1999. [Back]