Monday, July 5, 2010
Making Mazurkas in Exile (Vol. 1, No. 5)
In a beautiful scene from Ophra Yerushalmi’s documentary film “Chopin’s Afterlife” – one of the pianists asked about Chopin reflects on the deceptive simplicity of the opening of Chopin’s Mazurka in A-minor, Op. 17, no. 4. As he says – and I paraphrase the words here, because I do not have a copy of the film - there is an infinity of grief and longing in that first empty octave.. .then, the music hesitantly, shyly emerges from silence, with twists and turns, stops and starts, hope and despair… until the dance starts flowing. This Mazurka is also the favorite piece of Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, the master of sorrow and transcendence, and of so many pianists I lost the count.
I dedicated a poem to this melancholy Mazurka: “How to Make a Mazurka” included in the Chopin with Cherries anthology. The two-part dedication also names my maternal grandparents, “Stanisław and Marianna Wajszczuk, who could play and bake their mazurkas like no one else.”
In Polish, the word “mazurka” – “mazurek” refers both to the dance form and to a type of cake, made for Easter with lots of dried fruit, or chocolate, or other fillings. The “baked” mazurkas are almost as diverse as the “played” ones. My favorites were and are the “chocolate mazurka” and the “royal mazurka.” The first one is made on a shortbread-type crust (“kruche ciasto”), with dark chocolate filling decorated with candied orange rind, walnuts and almonds. The second one, the “royal mazurka,” uses ground walnuts instead of flower in an “angel-cake” type of dough without any fat or shortening, but with lots of chopped dried fruit and nuts that must include figs, dates, prunes, raisins, almonds, and walnuts. It is definitely not the American fruitcake, in case you wanted to try… No artificial flavors, please…
The flavor that exiles live with is the taste of long-lost childhood spent in a dream-like paradise of the past that never existed, for it was remade by imagination and memory into a land of “golden fields” and perfect summer…
Take one cup of longing
for the distant home that never was,
one cup of happiness that danced
with your shadows on the walls
of Grandpa’s house, while he played
a rainbow of folk tunes
on his fiddle, still adorned
with last wedding’s ribbons
My summers were spent at my grandparents’ village houses where I hid in the attic to eat walnuts and rummage through old papers, or climbed trees to gather and eat fresh fruit, or watched Grandma cook her miraculous concoctions, including real rye bread, made from “zakwaska” always sitting in the wooden bread bowl, covered with an old linen cloth… The bowl was carved by my Grandpa, the linen was handmade and ancient. The bread was heavenly. I never learned to make it, nor did my Mother. But Grandma’s recipes for mazurkas and other cakes crossed the ocean and the results grace my table at Christmas and Easter. Remember – do not put too much sugar, nothing in Poland is too sweet…
stir in some golden buzz of the bees
in old linden tree, add the ascent
of skylark above spring rye fields,
singing praises to the vastness of blue
mix it – round and round to dizziness
(The whole poem is published in Chopin with Cherries and also in a set of three poems in Quill and Parchment, Vol. 100, October 2009; if you cannot find it, you can read "A Study with Cherries" in the Cosmopolitan Review 2 no. 1 (Spring 2010), with summer memories from the same house in the village of Trzebieszow.)
Back to Chopin, then. When getting together a PowerPoint for my guest appearance at Don Kingfisher Campbell’s “Upward Bound” class at Occidental College on June 30, 2010, I thought the kids should hear some Chopin. I picked a version by Wladyslaw Szpilman – the original pianist from Polanski's The Pianist, i.e. the Polish-Jewish musician who miraculously survived the war and only told his story at the end of his life – illustrated by his son, Andrzej Szpilman, with photos of ruined Warsaw and of life before the war. You can see this video on YouTube: Szpilman Plays Chopin's Mazurka.
Born and raised in Warsaw, I find pictures of its near annihilation to be particularly touching. I have an album published in the 1950s, about the rebuilding of Warsaw churches: they were all destroyed by German soldiers, on the western side of Vistula, after the Warsaw Uprising fell, all inhabitants were displaced to camps, and the city was systematically and methodically killed, to never rise up again.
But it did; Polish people refused to accept Hitler’s choice. Brick by brick, the rubble was cleared, house by house, the city was rebuilt. Paintings by Bernardo Bellotto Canaletto (1721-1780) served as the “canvas” for the new image of old Warsaw. The reconstruction of the Old Town, the churches, the lovely old streets, and even, 30 years after the war, the Royal Castle, was one of the triumphs of art and life over hatred and willful destruction.
Based on memoirs of Szpilman, The Pianist depicted a WWII survival story of a real pianist, a wonderful musician whose talent could be heard even in a very old recording. I have no idea how the teens at Occidental College’s “Upward Bound” class related to the slides with images of ruins and the music from an old recording – so far away from their daily experience. But they surely could relate to my story: just about everyone in the class raised their hand, when asked whether their parents were born outside of the U.S. Most of them were born here, but their parents were immigrants. First, second, third generation of immigrants, we all have our roots somewhere…
"Lost and Found - Immigrant Experience in Poetry" is a title of a set of poems and recollections by four poets, Linda Nemec Foster, Oriana, Lillian Vallee, and myself, talking about various aspects of exile, emigration, immigration, displacement, and longing, in The Cosmopolitan Review 2 no. 2(Spring 2010). I will end this little story with a fragment of "An Ode of the Lost" included in my set of three poems and originally written for Poets on Site’s “Tour of the World” reading and chapbook edited by Kath Abela Wilson:
Tired exiles in rainy Paris listen to Mickiewicz
reciting praises of woodsy hills, green meadows—
distant Lithuania, their home painted in Polish verse,
each word thickly spread with meaning,
like a slice of rye bread with buckwheat honey.
“Litwo! Ojczyzno moja! ty jesteś jak zdrowie.
Ile cię trzeba cenić, ten tylko się dowie,
Kto cię stracił”—he says, and we, homeless Poles
without ground under our feet, concur,
sharing the blame for our departure.
There’s no return.
(c) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk
* Quotation from Adam Mickiewicz’s national epos, Pan Tadeusz: or the Last Foray in Lithuania: “Lithuania, My country! You are as good health: /How much one should prize you, he only can tell /
Who has lost you.”
** Photos (C) 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk. The first photo includes a collage by Barbara Gawronski, Untitled, with photos of Polish fields seen from a train window. The collage is placed in California desert, Big Tujunga Wash of the San Gabriel Mountains.