• Sto lat! Jan Ekier (and Lutosławski)

Jan Ekier (2010)Happy Birthday to the Polish pianist Jan Ekier, whose 100th birthday today is being celebrated by a ten-hour marathon of Chopin performances (by younger pianists!) as part of the Chopin and His Europe festival in Warsaw.  This is entirely appropriate, because Ekier was the editor-in-chief of the National  Edition of Chopin’s music which followed Paderewski’s long-standing Complete Edition.  Chopin scholarship has moved on again since Ekier started his edition, but I’m surprised that he has no entry in the New Grove dictionaries, neither in 1980 nor in 2001.  His role within Poland as a pianist, teacher as well as editor is significant. He received Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle (above) in 2010, at the same time as Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.  For a time he was also a composer – Kolorowe melodie for piano (1948) is his best-known work.

Ekier was a good friend of Lutosławski and his wife.  In Danuta Gwizdalanka’s fascinating texts for the mobile app. Witold Lutosławski. Guide to Warsaw, she quotes Ekier’s recollections of when he and Lutosławski shared a flat immediately after the end of World War II:

Aleja Waszyngtona [Washington Avenue] 22

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 19.37.08Witold Lutosławski lived here for just under a year in 1945-1946.  He was taken in by one of his school friends, the pianist and composer Jan Ekier, who was one of the first musicians to return to the ruins of Warsaw.  “Witold was looking for somewhere to stay for a while till things fell into place for him.  He lived in my apartment.  At first it was just us, but later we were joined by his wife, his housekeeper Bronia and a black cat,” Ekier later recalled.
In this apartment Lutosławski mainly composed programme music for radio and for two documentary films, By the Oder to the Baltic (directed by Stanisław Możdżeński) and Warsaw Suite (directed by Tadeusz Makarzyński).  On a commission from the Polish Music Publishing House [PWM], he also composed a cycle of 12 easy works for piano – Folk Melodies.  The conditions in that flat were such that Lutosławski and Ekier couldn’t help but overhearing each other working.  “We were in neigbouring rooms, I guess we each had our own instrument, because I still had an extra borrowed piano,” explained Ekier, “As we were both fascinated by Polish folk music, when he was writing his Folk Melodies, I was writing my Colourful Melodies
[…]
The hard winter of 1945/46 made life difficult for residents of Warsaw, who had to shelter somehow in unheated apartments, but it also made things easier for those needing to cross the Vistula [the bridges had not yet been rebuilt].  You simply walked across the ice.  “We took it as a gift of Providence,” was Jan Ekier’s recollection of the frozen river.
“In our bachelor days we had plenty of culinary adventures, because we were left to fend for ourselves,” said Ekier.  “There were plenty of surprises resulting from the fact that neither of us had any particular talent for cooking.  Sometimes the neighbours helped out, because if we wanted to cook up something hot, it never turned out right.  Later on, a measure of normality was achieved when Witold lived at my place together with his wife…”

Ekier was a fine pianist, and came eighth in the third International Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1937.  I first heard him when he played in the concert that inaugurated the Chopin Competition in 1970.  On that occasion, he introduced me to the orchestral music of Szymanowski in a scintillating performance of the Symphonie Concertante. It was great to relive that moment this morning: Petroc Trelawny programmed the finale (with the Warsaw PO under Witold Rowicki) on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast at 07.20, following my tip-off to him on Twitter yesterday.  Nice work, Petroc, and thanks for the mention!

Here is Ekier in a recording of Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat, recorded in the late 1950s and released on the Muza label.

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