• The Pianist (b. 5.12.1911) and his Red Bus

Thanks to an alert last night from a friend in Warsaw, I was reminded that today marks the centenary of the birth of Władysław Szpilman (1911-2000). Szpilman was well-known in Poland from the 1930s as a fine concert pianist and as a composer of concert music and popular songs, especially after World War II.  He recounted his extraordinary survival of the war in his memoir Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City).  The memoir was republished in English as The Pianist shortly before his death and turned into an award-winning, internationally popular film of the same title by Roman Polański (2002), with Adrien Brody playing the lead role.

I once sat behind the quiet, elderly Szpilman at a concert in Warsaw.  I regret not speaking to him.  Later, I wanted to reproduce the opening page of one of his songs – Jak młode Stare Miasto (Like The Young Old Town, 1951) – in my book Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005).  But permission was refused by his family as they thought that some of his songs were not representative of his talents (and also perhaps because 1951 was the height of the socialist-realist push in the arts). Yet this hugely popular song had already been released on CD (‘Golden Hits of Socialism’ [!], Intersonus ISO84).  Such is the unpredictability of copyright permission.

In 2000, Polish Radio issued a 5-CD set of Szpilman’s performances and compositions (PRCD 241-245):

• CD 1: 19 songs (1952-91).
• CD 2: Szpilman as pianist – including in his own Concertino (1940), Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1954), Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major (1960) and two pieces by Chopin, including the Nocturne in C# minor (1980) with which he both closed Polish Radio broadcasts in 1939 and reopened them in 1945.
• CD 3: Szpilman as a member of the Warsaw Quintet – piano quintets by Brahms and Schumann (1963-65).
• CD 4: Szpilman with Bronisław Gimpel (who also led the Warsaw Quintet) – violin sonatas by Brahms (no.3), Grieg (no.3) and Franck (1958-65).
• CD 5: songs for children including three extended ‘musical fairytales’ (1962-75).

One of Szpilman’s most popular songs was Czerwony Autobus (The Red Bus, 1952).  The recording on CD 1 above is particularly fine, not least because of its sense of good humour, considerably aided by Szpilman’s own swinging piano.  Search it out if you can.  That recording was made by the best close-harmony male-voice quartet of the time, Chór Czejanda (Czejanda Choir).  They also made another, longer recording with dance orchestra.  In the YouTube video below (Legendy PRL: Legends of the Polish People’s Republic), this audio recording is accompanied by shots of Warsaw buses in various ‘picturesque’ locations of the post-war socialist capital [14 October 2014: the original video – www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_xZGriR2DE – has since been withdrawn ‘for multiple third-party notifications of copyright infringement’.  But there are several other videos with the same recording, so here’s one of them instead.  The video element this time is not of buses, sadly, but still shots in black and white of scenes in Warsaw in the 1950s].  I’ve put my translation of the first three verses below.  Enjoy!

When at dawn I run like a wind through the streets,
The city like a good friend welcomes me,
And – honestly – I wish you all such happiness
As every day gives me in Warsaw.

On board, please!  No-one will be late for work,
We will go quickly, even though we’re surrounded by a forest –
A forest of scaffolding, which really does mean
That here time does not stand still.

The red bus rushes along my city’s streets,
Passes the new, bright houses and the gardens’ cool shade.
Sometimes a girl will cast us a glance like a fiery flower.
Not only ‘Nowy Swiat’* is new – here each day is new.

* ‘New World’, a beautiful old street in Warsaw, reconstructed after the war.

[For more information, go to http://www.szpilman.net/]

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