• History of Music in Poland: Romanticism

[Book Review]

I hope to review the occasional book, recording and musical event in these posts.  These reviews are intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive.  To date, I’ve turned my attention to two topics: Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto on YouTube (4 December 2011) and Polish Music ‘Muzyka Nowa’, WQXR (25 January 2012).  I’ve now got round to looking at a two-volume study of Polish music and musical life during the second half of the nineteenth century:

• Irena Poniatowska, Romanticism Part 2A, 1850-1900: Musical Output (Warsaw: Sutkowski Edition, 2011), 424pp. ISBN 978-83-917035-7-1
• Elżbieta Szczepańska-Lange, Romanticism Part 2B, 1850-1901: Musical Life in Warsaw (Warsaw: Sutkowski Edition, 2011), 481pp. ISBN 978-83-917035-7-1

These two complementary volumes constitute vol.5  from the series ‘The History of Music in Poland’.  They were first published in Polish in 2010 and have been ably translated into English by John Comber (who has worked on all the volumes in the series).  They effectively cover the history of Polish music from the death of Chopin (1849) to the establishment of the first properly professional symphony orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic (1901).

The series is the brainchild of Stefan Sutkowski, who turned 80 in March this year.  His musical career has been extraordinarily varied.  In 1954-1974 he was an oboist with the National Philharmonic and therefore played a role in the premieres of a host of new Polish compositions.  From 1957, he also took the initiative in developing the performance of early music in Poland (Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense).  This strand in his activities led eventually to the establishment of the Warsaw Chamber Opera and a series of special festivals devoted to Mozart (1991), Baroque Opera (1993), Rossini (1999) and Handel (2000).  He also founded Pro Musica Camerata in order to disseminate Polish music through new printed editions of early music and on CD.

‘The History of Music in Poland’ has done something never before attempted: a history from medieval times to the present, in Polish and, more importantly, in English.  For the first time, non-Polish readers are able to obtain both an overview and more detailed insights into the many riches of Polish musical culture.  I should add that there is also one specific volume that, unfortunately, has yet to be translated.  This is not on an historical period, as elsewhere in the series, but on a single composer.  Tadeusz Kaczyński’s chronicled reminiscences in Lutosławski. Zycie i muzyka (Lutosławski. Life and Music), published in 1994 but apparently no longer available, is a mine of information, so I hope that plans are afoot for it to appear in English.

Musical Output

Poniatowska’s volume on musical output is organised by genre, ten in all: opera, ballet, song, cantata, choral music, sacred music (oratorio, mass, organ music), symphonic music, the instrumental concerto, chamber music and piano music.  These chapters are further divided.  The last, for example, consists of an informative introduction and subsections on the etude, sonata, variations, suites and collections of works, romantic salon-style lyrical miniatures (with further headlines for characteristic Polish dances), profiles of three individual composers (Stolpe, Zarębski and Paderewski), and an account of the reception and resonance of Chopin’s music.

The volume begins with an invaluable synoptic table covering over 40pp, tabulating side-by-side the four chronologies of world history and culture, Polish history and culture, European music and Polish music.  Her first chapter succinctly sketches in the historical, cultural and educational contexts within which Polish music of this period existed.

The ten subsequent chapters on genre are designed as a ‘handbook’, synthesising and building upon existing scholarship.  The overview that emerges will be new to many Polish and non-Polish readers.  Despite the obstacles put in the way of cultural activity – in admittedly different degrees – by the three partitioning powers of Russia, Prussia and Austria, there is far more to be discovered in these fifty years than has previously been recognised.  Music history has focused on Moniuszko (opera, vocal music), Wieniawski (music for violin), Paderewski (music for piano), with further reference to Zarębski, Żeleński and Noskowski.  The reputation of Polish music of the period has therefore rested on the shoulders of six or so composers, mainly because their music found its way into print during their lifetimes or, in the case of Zarębski’s Piano Quintet (1885), almost fifty years after his death.  There is still a backlog of manuscripts and performing materials in Polish archives.  There would have been even more had a huge amount not been destroyed during World War II.

What Poniatowska has achieved here is to place a newly widened range of Polish composers and their music in the public eye.  In the chapter on opera, there are outline analyses of plots, numbers and music styles, creating, by the variety and extent of observation, a compelling narrative of the range of output of several dozen composers (I lost count).  The same is true of the other chapters.  While opera was evidently the genre that thrived best in these turbulent decades, symphonic music was ‘most modest’.  That’s putting it kindly.  With no dedicated symphony orchestras, where were the opportunities?  It was a desert for new Polish symphonic music (with a few exceptions) until the turn of the century, so it is understandable that Poniatowska should extend her chronological envelope to 1910 in this chapter to include the symphonies by Paderewski and Karłowicz, though interestingly there is no mention of Szymanowski’s First Symphony (1907).  Yet, in the light of Szczepańska-Lange’s account, it is sad to realise that the moderately active concert life of the period did not extend as fully as it might to the support and development of homegrown compositional talent.

I can testify to the value and usefulness of this book.  I’m currently writing a CD note on three works for piano and orchestra by Żeleński and Zarzycki, a composer who until now has just been a name to me.  I know that I shall be indebted to the information on these composers and their pieces, as there is nowhere else to access it in such a comprehensive and readable compendium.

Musical Life in Warsaw

Szczepańska-Lange’s chronicle of Warsaw in the second half of the nineteenth century is a different kind of book, focused on one city and divided into just two very substantial sections: opera and concert life. These are each subdivided into an introduction and mainly a chronological sequence of smaller periods.  The chapter on concert life also has subdivisions concerned with individual features such as charity concerts and the move towards the founding of the Warsaw Philharmonic.

Szczepańska-Lange marshalls her materials deftly, with plentiful excerpts from newspaper reports bringing the narrative to life.  She has sifted through a wealth of sources (she gratefully acknowledges the friendly atmosphere of the microform reading room of the National Library where she spent ‘hundreds of hours’), and her diligence, perceptiveness and enthusiasm show through.  In particular, she has detailed the vagaries of political pressures from Russia and their impact on cultural organisations.

A measure of how Warsaw more or less managed to keep up with opera houses to the West (Wagner excepted) may be gleaned from the dates of key premieres: Don Carlos (1873), Aida (1875), Lohengrin (1879), Mefistofele (1880), Carmen (1882), Tannhäuser (1883), La Gioconda (1885), Manon (1888) and Otello (1893).  Language for performance became problematic: the Warsaw premieres of Eugene Onegin (1899) and The Queen of Spades (1900) were both given in Italian, symptomatic of the times.  Warsaw Opera was no different from its counterparts in its intrigues, but its repertoire during this period of occupation was surprisingly wide and varied.

Although Wagner’s operas from The Ring onwards were not performed in Warsaw until well into the twentieth century, preludes and excerpts did occasionally appear on concert programmes (the Prelude to Parsifal in 1883). Concert music was a very poor cousin to opera, with no adequate venues, infrequent visits by virtuosi like Wieniawski, and concert-going habits quite different to those which developed later.  The distinguished Polish author Stefan Żeromski wrote in his diary about a concert that Anton Rubinstein gave in 1880:

The hall was overcome by the most remarkable silence in concert history; it was something truly incredible, almost no one was late; and what is even more unlikely, no one ran out for their garments to the cloakroom during the last number; the ladies refrained from conversing aloud; and the gentlemen did not go out after every number for a cigarette!  Verily, one has to be such an Orpheus as Rubinstein to perform such miracles.

Szczepańska-Lange’s overview of the period in her Introduction is a model of its kind, giving accounts of different types of events and their appearance within the chronology.  In the subsequent chronicle, the artistic and organisational comings and goings are effectively woven in with details of repertoire.  The move towards a permanent symphony orchestra began long before 1901.  In 1881, the composer Noskowski created his own orchestra with the specific intention of promoting new works by himself and others, both Polish and foreign, such as Smetana, Dvóřak and Saint-Saëns.  But little concrete happened until the very end of the century, when the conductor and composer Młynarski spearheaded the final drive to establishing not only the orchestra but also the Philharmonic Hall, which remains the home of the Warsaw Philharmonic to this day.

Polish composers had to fend for themselves, usually through teaching or administration.  The few composer-virtuosi – Wieniawski, Zarębski and Paderewski – based themselves abroad.  Zarębski is an interesting case.  He studied with Liszt, toured across Europe and lived and taught in Brussels, died in 1885 in his 30s, and left a modest body of music for solo piano and the marvellous Piano Quintet.  Ponietowska discusses his music in her volume, but Zarębski’s appearances in Szczepańska-Lange’s companion volume are few, indicating how rarely he visited Warsaw (it appears he played there only twice).  There are, however, wonderfully intemperate and sarcastic responses to his appearance in 1879 playing the Mangeot double-keyboard piano.  The interlinking of compositions and performances across these two volumes does not require the mental and physical gymnastics mastered by Zarębski on the Mangeot piano, but it does lead to a hugely enriched and enriching double account of this largely forgotten period of Polish musical history.  I for one am immensely grateful to have this new interlinked resource on my bookshelves as I prepare my CD note on Żeleński and Zarzycki.

What neither of these books does is to engage with aesthetic and philosophical approaches to Romanticism.  This is not for want of knowledge or understanding.  It is simply that these books have a different and more basic goal: to put into print the essential facts about the largely hidden composers and music of this period in Polish culture.  They offer opportunities for the rest of us to explore further, but that exploration will not come to much unless scholars edit and publish the scores so that performers, broadcasters and recording labels can enable us to hear the music.  What has until recently been dismissed as a dank backwater of European music may then be seen and heard to have had a much more intriguing and lively character, if these two volumes are anything to go by.  At that point, issues concerning the term ‘Romanticism’ within the Polish context will come into focus.

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