Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chopin and the "Polish Race" - National Ideologies and Chopin Reception, Part I (Vol. 5, No. 4)

The focus of Chopin’s followers and devotees in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rested on his usefulness for their causes, not on a full understanding of his musical achievements.  Thus, Fryderyk Chopin held an elevated position in the national pantheon as a poet-prophet [wieszcz] whose musical statements equaled in significance the poetic proclamations of Adam Mickiewicz, expressing the true spirit of the nation.  Jan Kleczyński (1837-1895), Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909), Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921), Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927), Jarosław de Zielinski (1847-1922), Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), Stanisław Niewiadomski (1859-1936), and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) were preoccupied with demonstrating the ways that identified Chopin and his oeuvre as truly and fully Polish.  Their essays contributed to a Polish tradition of constructing Chopin’s identity, a tradition that evolved through distinct stages of Polonizing the composer, based on shifting definitions of the essence of nationality.

In this essay I will trace the evolution of nationalist views of Chopin’s musical and personal Polishness, views of an increasingly all-embracing nature, connected to the Romantic idea of the “Polish spirit” (primarily expressed in Chopin’s music) and to the notion of the “Polish race” (exemplified by Chopin himself).  The conceptual background for this evolution is provided by ideas put forward by such European writers on nationhood and the arts as a German Romantic philosopher and critic, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), whose well-known idea of the “spirit of the people” i.e. Volksgeist, influenced the texts by Kleczyński, Noskowski and Żeleński; and a French philosopher and historian of social-Darwinist orientation, Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), whose theories of artistic expressions of the nation-race had an impact on writings by Przybyszewski, Niewiadomski, Zielinski, Paderewski, and Szymanowski.  The gradual replacement of the older German notion of the “national spirit” (Herder) with the more modern notion of the “national race and milieu” (Taine) is evident in the argumentation used in texts about Chopin’s place in Polish musical culture until the outbreak of World War II.

 Defining National Traits

In the process of depicting Chopin as Poland’s paradigmatic national composer, his followers expressed their beliefs about national messages that Chopin supposedly conveyed in his music.  Initially, their definitions of national identity, inspired by Herder’s notion of the Volksgeist, envisioned it as a spiritual phenomenon, centered on the experiences and productions of the Folk, i.e. the inhabitants of the countryside enjoying spontaneously creative lives in a close connection to nature, the pristine and enchanting fields and meadows of Poland.  In this interpretative tradition, Chopin’s music was valued not in and of itself; instead, its quality was construed as stemming from its closeness to Polish folk song and the landscape.  The Chopin essays, however, feature a wider variety of arguments while explaining the composer’s Polish identity and his significance for Polish culture.  It will be informative to briefly review the main criteria, or markers, for ethnic/national identity that recur in Polish writings addressing the national identity of Chopin and other composers and might be relevant to our discussion.

Selected Criteria for Defining the Polish Identity of Composers

A. Biographic Criteria
(personal identity,
background, and choices, defined by self and others)

1) “name”  – Polish forms of the first and last name
2) “family-of-origin” – Polish family background, typically patrilineal and at times connected to the notion of the “Polish race”
3) “psychosomatic identity” – being the embodiment of Polish traits in the whole person, body and spirit (given, not self-defined)
4) “emotional and patriotic identity” – having a “Polish heart” and displaying a deep attachment to Poland (chosen, self-defined)
5) “official identity” – with a Polish national identity and citizenship
6) “native language” – using Polish as the native language
7) “community” – engaged in the Polish community, through the place of residence, membership in organizations, and charitable activities for Polish causes

B. Musical Criteria
(traits chosen by the composers or ascribed to their works by others)

1) “language” – the use of Polish texts and titles in works
2) “genre” – the use of Polish genres, e.g. the mazurka or polonaise
3) “quotation” – citing from Polish folk music, national songs or anthems
4) “style” – the presence of various melodic and rhythmic elements definable as ‘Polish’, especially originating from Polish dances
5) “content” – Polish subjects in explicit (defined by the composer) or implicit forms, the latter ‘heard’ by reviewers; themes borrowed from Poland’s history, mythology, literature, religion and customs, climate and geography, etc.
6) “spiritual content” – expressions of the “Polish spirit” in general terms, or in the form of a predominant character trait ascribed to the whole nation, such as “sorrow” [żal], or “arrhythmia”
7) “music community” – Polish performance and programming contexts, e.g. festivals of Polish music, concerts for Polish causes; the music being understood by Poles alone

 Both categories of this list include issues that composers have a degree of control over by consciously choosing to be Polish and compose Polish music filled with national traits.  Simultaneously, the list of biographic criteria includes characteristics that pre-date the composers’ birth and pre-define their identity as Poles in ways transcending the intentions of the composers’ themselves.  Furthermore, the composers’ lives and music may be depicted as far more Polish than those originally intended, especially when viewed from a posthumous perspective of “late grandchildren” who have the freedom of interpreting the composers’ biographical background and achievements without taking into account their wishes.  This openness to fanciful and arbitrary interpretations characterizes particularly the criteria of family-of-origin, psychosomatic identity and community in the area of biography, and the criteria of style, community, content, and spiritual content in the domain of music.  
The essays about Chopin have provided partial and contradictory answers to the following questions: Was Chopin a Polish composer?  Was Chopin a purely Polish composer, without a trace of French identity?  Was Chopin’s music entirely Polish and if so, why?  What Polish traits did Chopin capture and express?  What is the definition of being Polish in music?  Numerous thematic threads have been intertwined in these texts that could be given a collective subtitle of “How Polish was Chopin?” On the basis of scattered references in Chopin’s letters we might note that the composer’s self-definition during his years in Paris was as an exiled Pole.  Moreover, Chopin seemed to believe in distinct national emotional and personality traits, pointing to the essential character differences separating a Slav from a Scandinavian or a Spaniard.  

Yet, Chopin’s personal beliefs in this matter were immaterial for the authors of texts about him, texts that straddle the areas of music aesthetics, music biography and national ideology.  These narratives follow a twisted path through the list of criteria: the issue of Polonizing Chopin’s name came to the forefront of discussions in the 1930s (though it was initiated at the end of the 19th century; see the comments on Niewiadomski’s essays), while the awareness of the presence of a vaguely defined “Polish spirit” in Chopin’s music permeated the literature of this subject from its inception (see my comments about essays by Przybyszewski, Noskowski, and Paderewski, and chapter 10 in this collection).  Relying on the criteria described above to provide a general framework for conceptualizing the Polishness of Chopin’s music, I will follow a roughly chronological trajectory.  This approach will allow me to highlight the appearance of significant concepts and interpretations, in particular, the charged notion of the “Polish race.”

The Rise and Fall of the “Polish Race”

The tendency to circumscribe the national identity to common genetic origin and shared personality traits and define art as an expression of such narrowly described features increased in the Western world towards the end of the 19th century.  Europeans and Americans habitually described spiritual essences of their nations in terms of their shared genetic heritage.  Such descriptions permeate the aesthetic writings of Hyppolyte Taine which greatly influenced generations of Polish music critics and historians.  The concept of race itself was developed much earlier in Germany (by Johan Blumenbach, 1752-1840) and France (by Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, 1816-1862).  From its inception, it served to provide arguments about the supposed inequality of the world’s peoples and the superiority of Europeans, or, in particular, the French or the Germans.  Different genealogies were compiled for various national races and their hierarchies reflected the nationalistic and political views of the writers.  

The term “Polish race” referred to people of inherited Polish ethnicity, i.e. those who were born to Polish parents, who, in turn, were children of Polish parents, etc.  The chain of origin extended indefinitely back in time to the nation’s mythical birth from several Slavonic tribes who “dwelt from time immemorial” on the vast plain “between the Baltic sea and the Carpathian mountains.”  One could be Polish only when sharing the Polish genes; this heritage was thought to engender common psychological and spiritual traits of the Polish nation.  These racial definitions of Polishness were found in self-definitions proclaimed in Poland and abroad, as well as in descriptions offered by outsiders.   Jakob Riis saw “the thrifty Polish race” (1890) among impoverished emigrants to America; James W. Gerard mused about the great future of “the splendid Polish race” in its own, independent country (1918).

 A fascinating genealogy of the “Slavic or Slavonic race” precedes an account of musical achievements of the “Polish race” in a 1902 essay by an émigré composer and pianist, Jaroslaw de Zielinski (1847-1922).  The Slavic race includes Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Servians, Croatians, Carinthians, Illyrians, and Vends, but excludes the “Muscovites,” who claim to be Great Russians but—according to Zielinski—in reality are a Tartar race.  In this narrative, the Slavs’ history unfolds as a struggle against their neighbors in the south—Byzantine, and the west—Germanic.  The Germans, in addition to frequent military confrontations, crowded Poland as craftsmen, merchants, and teachers, thus having the opportunity to wreak havoc with national identity by prejudicing “their pupils against the Polish language.”  The theory that Poland had two enemies, Russians and Germans, stemming from the historical facts of Poland’s partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria at the end of the 18th-century, is given here a racial justification.  Similarly to Zielinski, Charles Phillips (1923) rhapsodized about the perennial “racial competition”—based on the principle of the “survival of the fittest”—between the races of the German (i.e. Teuton who was “steady, powerful, ponderous, self-righteous, self-satisfied, static”) and the Pole (“dynamic, flexible, un-self-satisfied, self-critical, idealistic and tenacious of his ideal”).

The notion of the “Polish race” appeared in various Polish-American writings; for instance in the amended 1914 Charter of a para-military youth association, The Polish Falcons of America whose main objective was “to regenerate the Polish race in body and spirit and create of the immigrant a National asset, for the purpose of exerting every possible influence towards attaining political independence of the fatherland.”  While the unabashed patriotism of the Polish Falcons seems praiseworthy, their goal of renewing and unifying the nation through strengthening its youth resembles the objectives of totalitarian organizations in various (actual or imagined) political systems, from Plato's Republic to Nazi Germany.  In this context, it is important to note that the concept of the “Polish race” found its demise at the outset of World War II, when the hard-won sovereignty of Poland was again under attack from Germany seeking to expand its territories.  On August 22, 1939, a week before the invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II, Hitler addressed his military commanders ordering them “to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish race or language.” Therefore, the term acquired a genocidal connotation which rendered the notion of the “Polish race” unacceptable, banishing it from respectable nation-building discourse.

Before it disappeared, though, the “Polish race” played an increasingly more prominent role in constructing the Polish identity of Chopin and his music.  In 1923 Charles Phillips ended his list of positive characteristics of the “dynamic and idealistic” Pole: “Chopin is an example.”  Let us begin the examination of this topic with a review of national traits associated with Chopin’s music.

Musical Evocations of Polish History and Landscape

The quest for Polish subjects in Chopin’s solo piano works (Musical Criterion 5: content) is a recurring topos in 19th-century responses to his music.  Romantic writers provided fantastic descriptions of historical subjects hidden in purely instrumental compositions.  For instance, Marceli Antoni Szulc envisioned the Polonaise Op. 53 in A-flat major as an image of a national procession of hetmans and voivodas, colorfully costumed in precious garb of Polish 17th-century noblemen (see also Kleczyński’s interpretation of this piece in chapter 10).  Writing in this vein, Stanisław Tarnowski (1837-1871) sought a connection between Chopin’s compositions and Polish poetry.  Not surprisingly, he found a direct patriotic inspiration in numerous pieces, including the Preludes Op. 24, many Mazurkas, and the Funeral March from the Sonata in B-flat minor.  Tarnowski saw the latter work as a “funereal conduct of the whole nation watching its own funeral.”  

A similar patriotic vision is captured on a late 19th-century postcard depicting pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski—a foremost Chopin interpreter of his time (see Figure 1).  Here, a solemn procession of Polish kings and noblemen arises above bluish light emanating from the keyboard; Paderewski’s outstretched hands and intensely focused face indicate that these great heroes of the past have been brought to life by his music.  This image reveals the role that music played in the cultivation of Polish culture and identity after Poland’s loss of sovereignty.  The postcard also illustrates a statement from Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s famous speech of 1910 that Chopin’s compositions truly contain “the spirit of the land of his fathers, the spirit of his nation."  Paderewski thus described a ghost-filled scene evoked by Chopin’s music: “Finally . . . spectres fulfill their shadowy rights. What ghost was that?  Whose spirit there went past?  Was this Żółkiewski?  Or Czarniecki’s noble shade?”

 While the Polish character of Polish dance genres, such as mazurkas and polonaises, could not be doubted (Musical Criterion 2: genre), these works themselves have been taken to a second level of Polishness by being read as programmatic representations of Polish landscape and village scenes (Musical Criterion 5: content).  Fifty years after the composer’s death, Zygmunt Noskowski took for granted a thesis that “Chopin’s melodies are poetic transformations of the sights that the master absorbed in his youth . . . From many a mazurka one can guess the color and light filling a landscape that the master saw with the eyes of his soul while writing his beautiful poem.”  Noskowski proceeded to associate particular images with individual mazurkas, impromptus, sonatas, and ballades.  The Impromptu in F-sharp Major was assigned the most elaborate program.  Noskowski interpreted this work as an extended “Sunday-in-a-village” scene, replete with “the voices of church bells calling to the service” over summer fields “covered with newly ripened wheat, gently swaying under a slight breeze.”  The commentator concluded: “Nature in its entirety is praying in this moment... and the holiday sentiment pervades everything.”  Thus, in Noskowski’s nationalistic/religious interpretation of Chopin’s piano compositions, a pastoral idyll arises from the music that perfectly captures the serenity of a people united with their land.  The music is important—and Polish—because it portrays the landscape of Poland and the religious moods associated with it.

The language of description used by Polish composers and music critics in the 19th and early 20th centuries often employs figures of speech equating folk song with field flowers.  The trope that Chopin’s folk-inspired music is, as it were, permeated with “the fragrances of delicate flowers of Polish meadows” first appears in Józef Sikorski’s article of 1849.  Sikorski discussed the national traits of Chopin music (seen in the use of genre, style and quotation; Musical Criteria 2-4) and his inspiration with Polish folk songs.  For Sikorski, these songs were elevated, charming and simple, while remaining as fleeting and ineffable as the “fragrance of a violet.”  This synaesthetic reference articulates a widespread belief that folk music belonged to the utopia of cultivated nature, the idyllic and serene “national garden of Eden.” 

Similarly, Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883), characterized Chopin (“a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent”) as someone who “knew how to gather field flowers, without shaking off even a slightest drop of dew, or a smallest speck of dust from them.” Norwid’s reference to folksong as “field flowers” articulates the connection between the beauty of Polish countryside and the music created by its inhabitants.  The association of Chopin with the lost paradise of the native country recurred in an essay by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812-1887) where Chopin himself (not just his music, but the whole person) became a “phenomenon, as it were, straight from our fields and meadows, those of old, those that blessed our evenings with a marvelous fragrance of the breath of our beloved soil.”  Zygmunt Noskowski also penned a noteworthy passage equating folksong with field flowers and describing Chopin as someone who “brought a breeze of fresh air” to the “atmosphere of exotic fragrances” of the Romantic salon.  The freshness and originality of Chopin’s music stemmed from his closeness to Nature, “his first mistress [whose] brilliance and beauty entranced him and left their traces deep in the soul.”  Finding inspiration in folk music, like painting landscapes outdoors, meant choosing the natural over the artificial.

Folk art as nature might be an environmental trope, rather than a national one, however in the Polish context it has strong nationalistic overtones.  Through the 19th century Poles were a nation without sovereignty over its territory, a nation reduced to the status of an ethnic minority in three different countries.  Since they lived under a constant threat from the occupying nations and struggled to regain ownership and control of their land (the Prussians being particularly eager to remove Poles from their farms and/or Germanize them), their attachment to the ancestral land was an expression of their patriotism.  These difficult circumstances engendered the myth-making process that transformed Chopin into “a singer of Polish fields and meadows” praised by Noskowski for the accuracy and authenticity of his musical landscape depictions.  The ecological nationalism of most “flower”-references reveals a dependency on Herder-sanctioned connection of a people to the land they inhabit.  In this style of nationalistic readings of Chopin’s music, both Polish folk song and Chopin’s music based on it have a straightforward link to the benevolent and nurturing Nature.

In other nationalistic interpretations, the same music may be seen as vehicle for conveying the national spirit and expressing the traits of the nation’s personality (Musical Criterion 6).  Arguments used in this area increasingly take Chopin’s personal characteristics and heritage into account (Biographic Criteria 2-4, pertaining to the family of origin, psychosomatic identity, and emotional identity of the composer).  Thus, through the 19th century, nationalistic writers gradually shift their attention from generalized and colorful rhapsodizing about the Polish content of Chopin’s music (Musical Criteria 5-6) toward statements about his personal relationship to the “Polish race” and its musical manifestations.  Let us first examine the varieties of musical expressions of the Polish spirit.

............... to be continued

Excerpts from Maja Trochimczyk, "Chopin and the Polish Race" 
chapter in Halina Goldberg, ed.  The Age of Chopin: Interdisciplinary Inquiries,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, 278-313.

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