• Echoes of Poland (2010)


Echoes of Poland

This was a pre-concert talk given before a piano recital of music by Chopin, especially his mazurkas.  The pianist was Cédric Tiberghien, who played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 19 January 2010.

…….

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this talk before Cédric Tiberghien’s piano recital, which forms part of the International Piano Series at London’s South Bank Centre to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Chopin.  While there are several of Chopin’s larger-scale work’s in tonight’s programme – the first half is framed by the first two Scherzos, with the First Ballade in the centre, and the evening concludes with the Polonaise-Fantaisie – all the other pieces are from a single, smaller-scale genre, the mazurka.

In total, Tiberghien will be playing 18 mazurkas plus the Impromptu à la mazur.  Eight of the mazurkas are by Chopin, the others by the Russian composer Aleksander Skryabin and by two Poles – Karol Szymanowski and Aleksander Tansman.  Tansman, like Chopin, but a century later, lived in France for much of his life and wrote his 36 mazurkas outside his native Poland.

These three – Skryabin, Szymanowski and Tansman – are the greatest contributors to the mazurka since Chopin, although there have been many others along the way.  These include Glinka (in his opera A Life for the Tsar, 1836), Liszt (Mazurka brillante, 1850), Balakirev (seven examples), Debussy (1882), Fauré (1883) and Léhar (in his operetta The Blue Mazur, 1920).  Evidently, Chopin’s reinvention of what previously had been a genre of modest dimensions and ambitions led to great fascination, not only on the part of non-Polish composers for whom the mazurka was part of the ‘exotic other’, especially in the nineteenth century, but also of Polish composers.

I propose this evening to divide my comments into three short sections: firstly, how Polish composers since Chopin have embraced and developed the genre; secondly, how the written word has been used in response to Chopin’s music; and, thirdly, how two of Poland’s most imaginative musicians, one of them an outstanding jazz pianist, have radically appropriated one of tonight’s mazurkas, Chopin’s op.17/4.

What I am not proposing to do is to pre-empt Tiberghien’s recital by talking very much about the pieces that he will play, except to say that the term ‘mazurka’ is a very broad one.  If you look in a Polish dictionary, musical or otherwise, it is the word mazur which usually heads the entry.  This is often followed by its diminutive, mazurek, rather than ‘mazurka’, which is more familiar in the English-speaking world.  If you delve deeper, sub-categories appear, including dances such as the kujawiak (generally slower) and oberek and obertas (faster, often in 3/8 rather than 3/4 and with a smoother rhythmic profile).

Liszt on Chopin

I had wondered if I should demonstrate the dance steps of the mazurka myself, but decided against it.  Instead, I am going to read you part of a wonderfully colourful account of the Polish mazurka by Franz Liszt.  Liszt wrote a literary portrait of Chopin within a few months of Chopin’s death in 1849.  In it, he describes a mazurka danced at a ball, rather than in the peasant environment in which it originated:

The man shows he is proud of her whose favor he has been able to win; … At the last moment she seems to proffer this approval formally by darting towards him and resting on his arm.  It is a movement which, above all others, is capable of a thousand nuances, from outbursts of passion to the most aimless abandon, that are governed by feminine wile and charm.

And what varied manifestations there are, too, in the turns around the ballroom!  Beginning at first with a kind of shy hesitation, the lady tenses like a bird about to take flight.  A long glide on one foot alone and she skims like a skater over the ice-smooth floor; she runs like a child and suddenly bounds in the air.  Like a goddess of the hunt, with eyes wide open, head erect, and bosom high, she sails in nimble leaps through the air like a boat riding the waves and seems to disport herself in space.  Then she re-enters her dainty glide, surveys the spectators, directs a few smiles and words to the most favored, raises her lovely arms to the knight coming to rejoin her, and resumes the agile steps …

In a leading chain all the couples first clasp hands.  Forming a great circle that briefly whirls around with dazzling effect, they weave a crown wherein each woman is a flower unique of her kind, while the standard costume of the men, like dark foliage, sets off the shifting colors.

And so Liszt continues.  This is the aristocratic scene, but the movements are closely related to the mazurka danced elsewhere.

Liszt is also sensible to how such scenes relate to Chopin’s non-choreographic development of the mazurka as a piece for piano solo:

Chopin released the poetic unknown which was only suggested in the original themes of Polish Mazurkas.  He preserved the rhythm, ennobled the melody, enlarged the proportions, and infused a harmonic chiaroscuro as novel as the subjects it supported – all this in order to paint in these productions (which he loved to hear us call easel pictures) the innumerable and so wildly differing emotions that excite the heart while the dance goes on, …

I shall return to the literary response to Chopin shortly.

The Mazurka in Polish Music

But what of other mazurkas?  As a dance rhythm in triple time, with its split first beat (presented as even notes, a dotted rhythm or triplets) and its accentuation at different times on the second and third beats, the mazurka predates Chopin by some decades.  The two dozen mazurkas by the largely forgotten Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) are miniature gems, some lasting less than half a minute.  No. 20 in F major is particularly intriguing because of its unexpected harmonic-metric phrasing.

CD 1: Maria Szymanowska, Mazurka no. 20 in F major    Nancy Fierro (piano), AMP 2001

After Chopin, Polish music was dominated by two types of musical activity: opera and instrumental virtuosity.  In opera, Stanisław Moniuszko was pre-eminent, and Polish dances featured prominently, as in his two most famous operas, Halka (1847/57) and The Haunted Manor (1862).  The flag of Polish instrumental virtuosity was carried by the violinist Henryk Wieniawski and Liszt’s pupil, Juliusz Zarębski.  Zarębski’s Mazurka de concert (c. 1880) is more like a fantasia than the conventional ABA structure and it later develops in a much showier way than any written by Chopin.

CD 2: Juliusz Zarębski, Mazurka de concert op.8    Karol Radziwonowicz (piano), Selene 9505.28

In the twentieth century, Szymanowski did something quite remarkable.  He brought together two totally different Polish musical traditions.  To Chopin’s home territory around Warsaw – the flat lands of Mazovia – he added the folk traditions of the jagged Tatra Mountains to the South.  Put simply, Mazovian music was largely in triple time, while mountain music, especially in the foothills known as Podhale, was predominantly in duple and had very different melodic patterns.

Szymanowski also led the way in highlighting the faster cousin of the mazurka, the oberek.  The finale of his Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra (1932) is a rousing oberek, and several later Polish composers followed suit in their finales.  Notable among these was Grażyna Bacewicz, as in her Second Piano Sonata (1953).

CD 3: Grażyna Bacewicz, Piano Sonata no.2/III    Krystian Zimerman (piano), Olympia OCD 392

In the difficult post-war decade when Poland, yet again, had been effectively imprisoned and deprived of contact with Western culture, another composer was making brilliant use of folk music.  In his Little Suite (1950), Witold Lutosławski echoed one of Chopin’s early mazurkas, op. 68/3, with his evocation of a shepherd pipe over a developing drone base.

CD 4: Witold Lutosławski, Little Suite/I    Polish Radio National SO/Antoni Wit, Naxos 8.553169

While the opening of Little Suite is innocent enough, Lutosławski’s next major work, and still his most popular – the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) – uses the same oberek rhythms to conjure up a much more sinister world, far removed from a bucolic peasant dance or Maria Szymanowska’s delicate compositions.  Here is the opening ‘Intrada’, the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1986.

CD 5: Lutosławski, Concerto for Orchestra/I    BBC SO/Lutosławski, BBC MM 288

Notably, both of those pieces by Lutosławski use original Polish folk tunes, a quite different practice from that normally followed by Chopin or Szymanowski.

Chopin in Poetry on the Centenary of his Death

This brings me to the central, literary portion of my talk.  This year, 2010, we are celebrating the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth.  In 1949, Poland celebrated the centenary of Chopin’s death.  This was at the height of the restrictive communist policy known as ‘socialist realism’, hence the recourse to folk sources as a means of reaching out to ‘the broad masses’.

One venture along this path was the publication of a weighty volume called Fryderyk Chopin, natchnieniem poetów (Frederic Chopin, the inspiration of poets), edited by Krystyna Kobylańska.  In this tome are 197 poems, plus reproductions of paintings of, or inspired by, Chopin.  The contents are almost exclusively by Polish poets and artists, although there are portraits by Delacroix and Courbet and, somewhat unexpectedly, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley entitled Chopin’s Third Ballade.  There’s also a poem called In Memory of Chopin, by an unnamed author, published originally in England on 9 November 1850 in The Lady’s Companion!  I’ll be reading from the Polish poems in this volume in a moment.

But I want to take as my starting point a brief polemic written just before Lutosławski finished Little Suite and began the Concerto for Orchestra.  A short while ago, in an antiquarian bookshop in Kraków, I came across a pile of old concert programmes.  Among them was one for an orchestral concert given in Kraków on 4 November 1949.  In it was a polemic – more of a diatribe, in fact – by a well-known aesthete, critic and former acquaintance of Szymanowski, Jerzy Waldorff.  Waldorff was always good value for money.  I take the liberty of reading most of his piece, which is called ‘Instead of a poem’ and which takes as its starting point the volume of poems and illustrations that I mentioned a moment ago:

It turned out that in a volume of over 400 pages, apart from several good poems, led by Norwid’s Chopin’s Piano, the rest is – a pile [the Polish word here, kupa, also has scatological associations] of scribbling, this scribbling, over the space of a hundred years, having been signed by some of the best poetic pens, both our own and foreign.  Having merely touched the genius of Chopin, each of the most talented poets immediately started to ramble on about white fingers on the keyboard, willow trees weeping, reveries, longings, processions of wistful spirits etc..

What can one expect from poets of the older generation and of bourgeois origin, if in 1948 a contemporary young peasant poet, Bronisław Majtczak, in the periodical ‘Chłopska droga’ (The Peasant Way), pours out the following inspiration:

NOKTURN

The park sings a familiar melody
On the piano of lofty spruces.

The sun’s rays cradle the song
With white fingers on the keyboard.

To the autumnal notes and quiet rains
I offer my shivering soul.

A gust sways the tree tops –
It is not the park humming –

It is Chopin playing!…

There is something utterly wrong with the poetry written about Chopin up till now. It seems to me that it is obsolete and that present-day poets write about the great composer’s music like the way it was interpreted by salon virtuosi half a century ago. The centenary is an important anniversary, prompting reflection and reappraisal. So let our poets read Kobylańska’s anthology and think it over.  Let them follow the example of pianists who long ago rejected Chopin with the obligatory icing of mawkishness.  For the time being, however, the existing poems about Chopin must not be disseminated.

Waldorff had a point.  There is a high degree of dross in this anthology, including several poems by one of Chopin’s friends, Kornel Ujiejski (1823-97), in which he attempts to match poetic metre to the rhythms of specific mazurkas.  There are notable exceptions, as Waldorff acknowledged.  I have my fingers crossed that a new anthology, to be published in the United States this year, will avoid any comparable lapses into mawkish sentimentality. It’s called Chopin with Cherries – not exactly encouraging – and will consist of over 100 poems from contemporary authors across the world.

Chopin with 19th-Century Polish Eyes

I would like to sketch in some of the landmarks – good and not so good – in poetry written about Chopin, and the mazurka, over the past two centuries (including examples from the 1949 volume).  There is only one place to begin, and that is with one of the nineteenth century’s greatest ballads, Pan Tadeusz (Mister Thaddeus, 1834).  Pan Tadeusz was written by Chopin’s friend and fellow exile in Paris in the 1830s and 40s, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855).  At the climax of this monumental poem (concerning the wedding between the two main young characters), a Jewish dulcimer player, Jankiel, recalls through his music the heroic and disastrous deeds in recent Polish and Lithuanian history.  One of these events, in 1797, concerns the Polish legions in Italy, and their commander General Dąbrowski, who is present at the wedding.  Here is how Mickiewicz gives Jankiel the persuasive, thunderous power of a full orchestra, although he is playing only his small dulcimer:

… the master’s fire
Blazed out in music that was stronger, higher;
He changed his measure and proclaimed a theme
As different as daylight is from dream.
Once more his eye looked down, the strings to note;
Then suddenly he joined his hands and smote
With both the hammers: such a skilful blow,
So powerful, that from the loud strings flow
Great brazen trumpet-tones in which is given
A well-known song that mounted to the heaven,
A march of triumph: “Poland is not yet dead;
March, march Dombrowski, at our legions’ head,
To Poland!”  And all clapped and cried in chorus:
“March, march, Dombrowski, to our land, before us!”

Many of you will know this music.  Since 1926, it has been the Polish national anthem.  And while Mickiewicz calls it a march, it is in fact the best-known mazurka of all.

CD 6: Dąbrowski Mazurka     Polish Army Ensemble RZAWP/Szulia, PRCD 125

The significance of Mickiewicz’s evocation of the power of music lies, for us tonight, in the knowledge that Chopin made his own arrangement of the Dąbrowski Mazurka, although only the refrain – the second 8 – survives.  The manuscript is dated 2 September 1835, Carlsbad.  More significantly – and I am quoting here from the preface by the musicologist Mariusz Dubaj to the published score:

We know that Chopin improvised on the theme of ‘Poland Has not Perished yet’ for the first time during the victorious tournament with Ferdinand Hiller and Franz Liszt in the salon of the count and countess Plater in autumn 1831.  [He played the Dąbrowski Mazurka … during his meeting with the Wodziński family in Dresden on 19 September 1835, an event which brought a protest from the Russian embassy.  He presented it also ‘in all the tones, from battle to children and angels’ in Paris on 2nd February 1844] …  It is highly likely that Chopin’s performance, including the Dąbrowski Mazurka, could have inspired the description of the celebrated concert by Jankiel in Pan Tadeusz 

The Dąbrowski Mazurka was to prove irresistible to later composers too, including Zygmunt Noskowski, who concluded his Second Symphony, ‘Elegaic’ (1875), with a subtle reference to it.  The composer and internationally renowned virtuoso pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, wove the theme, now in duple metre, into the finale of his only Symphony, ‘Polonia’ (1909).  By this stage, the drive for an independent Poland seemed to call for such hidden messages.  Even Elgar in 1915 was persuaded to the cause and concluded his symphonic prelude Polonia with a rousing version of the Dąbrowski Mazurka.

By far the best poem about Chopin – Chopin’s Piano – came from the pen of his friend, Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-83), although he was better known in his lifetime as an artist than a poet.  Norwid had seen Chopin shortly before he died, but it was not until 1863 that he felt impelled to write a eulogy to him.  The stimulus came from an event in Warsaw during the 1863 uprising.  Chopin’s piano, in the flat of his sister on one of the main thoroughfares in the city, was seized by Cossack soldiers and thrown into the street.

Norwid’s powerful, mythologising paean to Chopin begins with the words: ‘I was with you in those penultimate days …’.  Norwid subsequently evokes classical parallels with Chopin’s artistry:

And in what the note played – and said – and will say,
Although the echoes will differently be arrayed
Than when you yourself blessed with your Own hand each chord –
And in what the note played, such was the simplicity of Periclean perfection,
As if some Virtue from antiquity, stepping into a rustic wooden dwelling,
Said to herself: I have been reborn in heaven;
And the doorway has become my harp, the footpath my ribbon …

Norwid then takes Chopin on what starts off as a nostalgic tour of Warsaw:

Oh – look, Fryderyk!… There is Warsaw
Beneath a flaming star
Strangely lurid –
Look, the organ in the Church, look!  Your hearth.
Elsewhere noble homes, old
As the Pospolita-Rzecz,
The cobbles of the squares mute and grey
And Zygmunt’s sword in the cloud.

But then the story turns, violently, as Norwid shows his dead friend what happened next:

Look! … from backstreet to backstreet
Caucasian horses tear
Like swallows before a storm
Dashing before the regiments
Hundreds upon hundreds.
A building has caught fire, died down again,
Lit up again – and there by the wall
I see the heads of grieving widows
Beaten aside with rifle butts –
And again I see, though blinded by smoke,
Through the columns of the balcony
How they are lifting some furniture like a coffin …
It is falling … it is falling …  Your piano!

Elsewhere, Norwid used his poetry to create a serious ideal of Polish creativity, notably in his long poem Promethidion (Prometheus’s Child, 1851):

And thus do I see the Polish art to come,
As a banner on the tow’r of human toil,
Not as a plaything or scholarly hum, …

Earlier in Promethidion, Norwid introduces Chopin as a figurehead and keenly posits the two contrasting aspects of the composer’s musical personality:

Such a conversation was about Chopin,
(Who is our foremost artist):
– “As for me, I value his Polish zing,
Not the melancholy of romantic mist, …

The idea of melancholy – żal in Polish (it is a word that Liszt discusses in his memoir) – pervades much of nineteenth-century poetic and prose utterances about Chopin.  In the hands of his contemporaries, it is one thing.  Already in 1830, the year that Chopin left Poland, his friend Wojciech Grzymała saw his genius as being rooted in the Polish countryside and cited the mazur specifically:

The land which gave him life with its song affected his musical disposition.  […] many a note of his music sounds like a happy reflection of our native harmony.  In his hands the simple mazur willingly yields to alterations and modulations yet preserves its own accent and expression.  In order, as Chopin did, to include the beautiful simplicity of native song in his refined compositions of genius he had to feel and to recognise the echoes of our fields and forests, to hear the song of our Polish villages.

Eugène Delacroix, the painter of one of the most iconic images of Chopin, provides a more rarified, but equally sensual picture in 1842:

From time to time you hear through the window opening onto the garden strains of Chopin’s music, blending with the nightingales and the scent of the roses.

Delacroix’s reference to nightingales and scent resonates (probably coincidentally) with Szymanowski’s comment of 1920:

Polish national music is not the coagulated spectre of a polonaise or mazurka … rather the solitary, happy, carefree song of a nightingale in the middle of a fragrant Polish May night.

As Szymanowski saw it, there was a need to correct the stultifying impotence to which the genres of the polonaise and mazurka had been reduced since Chopin’s death.

Decades earlier, Norwid had also seen the way in which the mazurka had too easily become a vacuous symbol.  As he wrote in a letter in 1867:

Perfect lyric poetry should be like a cast in plaster; the slashes where form passes form, leaving crevices, must be preserved and not smoothed out with a knife.  Only the barbarian takes all this off of the plaster with his knife and destroys the whole, but I swear before you that what Poles call lyric poetry is just a pounding and a mazurka.

Along such lines, we should not ignore the appallingly cloying poetry of the Frenchman Louis Pomey, which the French singer Pauline Viardot – in Chopin’s lifetime and presence – applied to some of his mazurkas.  In his letters, Chopin comes across as extraordinarily tolerant of this development, even though he must have winced at the way in which Viardot felt at liberty to tinker with the music to suit her own expressive ends.

Chopin in American Verse

The taste for sentimental poetry in this country and the United States was huge in the second half of the nineteenth century.  A few examples stand out.  One is the set of four sonnets, under the title Chopin, written by the American Emma Lazarus (1849-87), born in the year of Chopin’s death.  She is best known for having her poem The New Colossus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  In her sonnets, Lazarus sees Chopin as a victim and ends with a barely disguised attack on Chopin’s lover, George Sand:

No pure-browed pensive nymph his Muse shall be,
An amazon of thought with sovereign eyes,
Whose kiss was poison, man-brained, worldly-wise,
Inspired that elfin, delicate harmony.
Rich gain for us! But with him is it well?
The poet who must sound earth, heaven, and hell!

On the other, there are the more typically fey, lyrical musings of another American, Celia Thaxter (1835-94), whose own poem Chopin includes the quatrain:

Lo ! the movement too wondrous to name!
Agitation and rapture, the press
As of myriad waves that caress,
And break into vanishing flame.

Waldorff would have raged even more vociferously had such American verse been included in the 1949 anthology.

T. S. Eliot, at the start of his 1915 poem Portrait of a Lady, cleverly taps into this vein in order to show up the emptiness of society life in his own times.  He also utilises the same device of the reported conversation about Chopin that had been used by Norwid in his Promethidion over sixty years earlier:

We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole
Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger-tips.
“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends—
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”

It is likely that ‘the latest Pole, … through his hair and finger-tips’ was a reference to Paderewski.

Chopin Mazurkas and 20th-Century impressions in Polish Poetry

Without doubt, the most interesting approaches to Chopin are by Polish poets.  Włodzimierz Wolski, who wrote the libretto to Moniuszko’s folk opera Halka, beautifully captures the expressive volatility of the mazurka in his poem Fryderyk Chopin. Fantasia (1859).  This passage moves with startling rapidity from its initial lightness of spirit:

The garland starts with mazurkas,
Apparently coquettish,
Fine, light and strange,
And so sad, and so sad
Like the girl who continues to expect …
Her brother from the war,
And with tears plaits her hair,
And with tears sings her songs –
Her girlfriends invite her to the dance,
And though there’s the will to dance,
The girl’s face inclines sadly,
For how is it possible for an orphan to dance?
Suddenly someone’s arriving on a dun …
The girl runs, claps her hands –
A stranger is leading the horse,
For her brother has died in the war,
Sad, sad are these mazurkas!

In stark contrast is the poem Chopin’s Mazurek, written in 1910 to mark the centenary of Chopin’s birth, by Kazimierz Tetmajer (1865-1940).  Here the protagonist is totally unashamed of using her beauty – and the dance – to lure young men to their death, like the Polish lake-nymph known as Świtezianka (Świtezianka was one of Mickiewicz’s poetic creations):

A young lady, a young lady
Combs her golden hair,
She sings to herself: whoever I want
I shall lead by the nose!

I have a perfect method:
I shall smile first,
Then I will give a kiss, and then
What the lake-nymph does to the lad.

And so on, and so on …
Who can resist me?
It’s true – they called me bad names,
But was I the only one? … …

Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), the towering figure in Polish culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, invokes Chopin in his play Wesele (The Wedding, 1901).  He does so through a character called ‘Nos’ (The Nose), based on the debauched cult of the Polish writer Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927).  Przybyszewski was dubbed ‘the Polish Satanist’ and wrote a book titled Chopin and Nietzsche.  Here ‘Nos’, laconically and a little incoherently, appropriates Chopin to his own drunken perspective on life:

I drink, I drink, because I must,
because, as I drink, I feel a stabbing pain;
then I feel my heart in my chest,
I guess at an awful lot:
So I reckon, in the Polish way, – –
the forest murmurs, the forest roars:
hey, hey, hey.
If Chopin were still alive,
he would drink, –
hey, hey, hey
the forest murmurs, the forest roars.

Of all these Polish items in the 1949 anthology, my favourites are the two epigrammatic contributions by Leopold Staff (1878-1957).  The later of the two, written for the centenary of Chopin’s death that year, recalls the use in earlier times of mythological figures, scent and the countryside to indicate the composer’s impact.  Yet it is quizzically entitled In jest. Nonsense:

Never with a more enchanting song
Was Odysseus lured by the Siren:
If violets and lilies of the valley
Instead of being fragrant knew how to play,
It would be the music of Chopin.

Staff’s earlier poem, Townie, written in 1937, uses Chopin to satirise urban philistinism and its distaste for, and fear of, ‘life outside’.  Its four lines run:

I don’t like peasant music,
With its boisterous refrain.
Its wild rhythm terrifies me:
I am afraid of becoming Chopin.

Two Polish Musicians Not ‘Afraid of Becoming Chopin’

And this brings me to my third, short section, and a return to Chopin’s musical legacy.  It is fair to say that the composers of both my final two examples have never been ‘afraid of becoming Chopin’.  In fact, both revere him, not in a sycophantic way but in the spirit of the best of their poet compatriots.  For them, Chopin is a figurehead, but one whose music is not inviolable but open to substantially new interpretative approaches.  In both examples, the source is the Mazurka in A minor, op.17/4.  Incidentally, one of Chopin’s acquaintances, Wilhelm von Lenz, recalled in 1872 an anecdote relating to op.17/4:

We named the mazurka ‘A Sad Face’ [das Trauergesicht].  Chopin was pleased with this description.

Op.17/4 begins with the following chord sequence, a repeated group of three followed by a descending group characterised by plangent suspensions and resolutions:

PLAY    Chopin, Mazurka op.17/4, opening ten bars

Who would have guessed that a modern composer would take the first two chords of this piece and mould them into something new?  Well, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki did just that in the finale of his famous Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in 1976.  Here’s a recording conducted by Górecki himself:

CD 7: Górecki, Symphony no.3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’/III    Zofia Kilanowicz/Polish Radio National SO/Górecki    PR SACD 2

Górecki complements the iconicism of the opening two chords from Chopin’s op.17/4 with a harmonic reference to Beethoven’s own Third Symphony and with a different mazurka folk melody.

My last example is from the extraordinary jazz pianist Leszek Możdzer, now in his late thirties and by no means the only Polish jazz musician to have reinterpreted Chopin in recent years (the Jagodziński Trio is another fascinating example).  Możdzer’s profound and often challenging improvisations, as on his 1999 CD Impressions on Chopin, include several mazurkas, among them op.17/4.  Here, to conclude this brief talk, is the opening of Możdzer’s poetic response to a composer of mazurkas who, in Liszt’s words:

preserved the rhythm, ennobled the melody, enlarged the proportions, and infused a harmonic chiaroscuro as novel as the subjects it supported.

CD 8: Chopin, Mazurka op.17/4    Leszek Możdzer, OPS 30-263

© 2010, Adrian Thomas, including translations of Polish verse

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