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Category: Interviews

Chopin above all things

"Chopin was a Romantic idol, nonetheless standing on Classical ground, which served as an automatic medium for censure" – interview with professor Mieczysław Tomaszewski.

Does Chopin remain a mystery for you?

Certainly. I could name a number of things that are still awaiting discovery. But as you’re speaking of mysteries and not mere facts about Chopin’s life or his works, it’s rather to do with something like a phenomenon. But a phenomenon cannot be deciphered so simply.  is is much like an idiom, which is based on groupings of syncretically interconnected elements that are essentially quite different. With regard to Chopin, the situation gets even stranger as these elements are in opposition to one another, with oxymorons coming into place. The responses of those who listened to Chopin not just as a composer, but as a performer too – those who were close to him, such as Liszt, Heine, Balzac, Nietzsche – are dotted with such expressions as “bittersweet happiness”, “painful pleasure”,
“laughter through tears”, “heroism of catastrophe”.

Similar expressions bring to mind not only the style of Chopin, but the composer’s myth as well. What sort of opinions are truly in circulation?

In spite of the suggestion that arose in his biography from the time of Hoesick, Chopin was not an atheist. In Histoire de ma vie, in which George Sand describes Chopin – in spite of the false note upon which their friendship ended – as a wonderful personality, she writes: “But I can’t forgive him for one thing – his dogmatic Catholicism”. There is the myth, too, of a Chopin whose head was fi lled with nothing but piano keys. Chopin was not one to take on the general cloud of philosophical opinions that floated around. Instead, he held his own views about a world shaped by his own experience. His statements demonstrate that he was, above all, a thinking man, a reflective soul. His father, his masters Elsner and Linde, the director of the Warsaw Lycée, they all transferred on to him the enlightenment-era model of “cogito ergo sum”, of substance and material form. This is apparent in the letter Chopin wrote home to his parents. At times, one has the impression that his intention is to speak of only that which is essential. He provides much detail because he assumes it will interest his mother, his father, Ludwika. This attention to detail is also evident in his letters to his friends, but from time to time he ends up “spilling the beans”. He writes: “Today I completed the Fantaisie, and the sky is beautiful, and my heart is sad, but that doesn’t matter. If it were otherwise, my existence wouldn’t be of use to anyone. Let us save ourselves until after death”. Or in his letter to Julian Fontana, we find the words “the sky is beautiful, as is your soul, and the ground as black as my heart”. In another letter he says: “It’s painful for me to write; so, so many things are left behind by the pen.” A wonderful phrase that says a great deal, contains a great deal of reflection. Another myth is the idea that Chopin is strictly a Romantic. All one has to do is open Liszt’s book on Chopin, where he writes that in truth Chopin stood at the forefront of the Romantic movement, but at the same time he claims that he battled those Romantics who lost their grasp of form, who fantasised, who went into too many minute details. After all, he never even touched upon the Middle Ages, which were a holy altar for the Romantics, he never managed to write a song that would be considered first class in the 19th century. Chopin was an Romantic idol, nonetheless standing on Classical ground, which served as an automatic medium for censure.

And was Chopin also an idol of Polish composers of the 20th century?

During the past century, Karol Szymanowski was known to voice fundamental opinions on the subject of Chopin. Not only that he was euphoric about Chopin in his texts, but also in his own works – he would take his cue from Chopin; for example in the Preludes. Later, beginning from “Słopiewni” – the return to Slav and folk themes – this all came to pass by way of Chopin. In the second half of the 20th century, Witold Lutosławski proved to be a great admirer of Chopin. But it’s important to note everything that Lutosławski said at different times. He spoke of how he would listen to the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31 from underneath the table in order to hide his tears. Later he spoke of recourses to Chopin, adding that how they would always take place during the tougher times in his life. Chopin brought him peace, allowed him to come back to his senses, added to the fact that he was a brilliant pianist – well, he could play Chopin’s pieces himself. From its first chords, he described the Sonata in B-flat minor as etched in stone, and the Prelude in F-sharp minor he referred to as a miracle. You can’t say any more than that! He once said that Chopin is behind several of his own compositions, that we are dealing with a palimpsest. And even though it’s difficult to prove, all the words he said leave you with no doubt.
In the 1970s, Polska magazine conducted a poll among composers. One of the questions related to their particular stance towards Chopin’s music. Besides Lutosławski, there was Wojciech Kilar, Włodzimierz Kotonski, Bogusław Schaeffer, whose statement – from an absolute avant-gardist – suprised me the most. He said that Chopin holds the largest concentration of human expression that has ever come to pass in music. For me, this is particularly important because Schaeffer pointed out the fundamental value of Chopin, which is why he is known all over the world – not because he is an example of a wonderful equilibrium, a brilliant technique, but because he does not only surprise and amaze, but captivates, electrifies, excites and stirs.

Chopin was admired not just by composers.

I like to bring up a statement by Freidrich Nietzsche – it’s quite irreverent, actually. He said, “For one Chopin, I could trade all other music”. He wrote this in Ecce Homo. What does this mean? That he would sell Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms in exchange for Chopin? I won’t even mention Wagner. Incredible! His heart stolen by Chopin! It was much the same with Julian Tuwim. In a 1936 edition of Wiadomosci Literackie we can read that his choice of a book or record to take along on a desert island, or if someone were to put a gun to his head and force him to choose, then he would sorrowfully have to sacrifice Mickiewicz and Słowacki in favour of Chopin. This cannot only be an admiration based on fluency or dexterity… And finally Tolstoy, who once said that he might even be able to love the Poles thanks to Chopin.

Interview by Daniel Cichy, Jakub Puchalski. The interview published by courtesy of the “Chopin Express” editorial staff.
Professor Mieczysław Tomaszewski

Professor Mieczysław Tomaszewski