Monday, March 24, 2014

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

Chopin’s Music and Traits of the Polish Spirit

(Continued, second part of an abridged version of an article published in Halina Golberg, ed., The Age of Chopin, 2004).

In an essay welcoming the publication of Chopin’s posthumous works in 1856, Józef Kenig (1821-1900) lauded Chopin’s music for its the contribution of the distinct Polish voice to the “concert of the nations.” The composer himself was seen as the founder of the future national school of music, and a musician-poet who may be compared to “an Aeolian harp on which the nation plays, breathing all of its sorrows, all of its delights; at times [he is] the tool of Providence, suitable for moaning only.” The emphasis on sorrowful aspects of the Polish national spirit was politically motivated since it reflected the emotional response to the plight of the nation without a state. Over the course of the century, the definitions of the Polish spirit connected to Chopin’s music acquired an increasingly negative valence, shifting from the domain of nobility, energy and spontaneity, to the melancholy realms of sorrow, longing, and despair. The pivotal text in this regard was Chopin’s biography by Franz Liszt, first published in 1852. Liszt’s book—filled with so many factual errors that, according to a comment by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, its title should be changed to “Fantaisie brillante”—established the trope of żal or żałość [sorrow] as the principal characteristic permeating Chopin’s personality, his music, and Polish identity in general.

Despite the growing acceptance of Liszt’s idea, the focus on the sorrowful aspects of Polish national identity was neither obvious not universal. Kraszewski, for instance, considered the melancholy of Chopin’s music as a reflection of his personal painful history, his lost battle with illness, his exile, homesickness and longing. The nostalgia was Chopin’s own and it did not articulate any traits of the national spirit. In fact, according to Kraszewski, it did the opposite: its presence in the mazurkas destroyed the genre’s identity by diffusing the national charactertistics of a “noble strength and energy.” Similarly to Kraszewski’s, the definition of the “Polish type” (i.e. the exemplary personality of the nation) by Jan Kleczynski included an array of positive features: “warmth, zest, politeness, goodness, boisterousness, compassion, naturalness, generosity, elegance.” The writer claimed that these traits permeated Chopin’s polonaises and mazurkas, thus connecting the “genre” and “spiritual content” criteria of Polish identity (Musical Criteria 2 and 6). In addition to this range of national features noted in reference to Chopin’s works, Kleczyński speculated about the general Slavic traits of Chopin’s musical personality, singling out rzewność [tenderness] as the main Slavic characteristic.

The melancholy spirit returned in other studies; for instance Maurycy Karasowski’s monograph of 1882 emphasized the saturation of Chopin’s music with sorrow and nostalgia, which he described as prime features of Polish Romantic poetry. In 1899, composer Władysław Żeleński defined this sorrowful quality as tęskna nuta [a longing tone] and noticed its paucity among Chopin’s predecessors. To him Chopin was the first to use folklore quotation and stylization (Musical Criteria 3 and 4) as well as find a true Polish character (Musical Criterion 6), because he was neither a foreigner, nor a follower of alien inspirations, remaining instead a true, native son of the Polish soil (Biographic Criteria 2, 3, 4). Thus, the purity of the national expression in Chopin’s music is linked to the purity of Chopin’s personal identity as a Pole—both inherited and consciously cultivated. Zygmunt Noskowski concurred with the view of his predecessors that Chopin’s works revealed “the distinct mood, representative only of our people.” Citing Liszt as his inspiration, Noskowski proceeded to identify this national mood as żal [sorrow] and pointed out the purposeful and self-defined aspect of the expression of the Polish spirit in Chopin’s music. The predominant sorrowful mood of Chopin’s pieces—though different from pain, longing, pensiveness, or complaint—was an expression of emotional experiences that the composer cultivated and dwelled upon. In this account, the feeling of sorrow was one of the markers of national identity, differentiating true Poles from foreigners. In addition, Noskowski maintained that Chopin personally was a representative of the suffering Polish nation: “his path of life, i.e., his mental and physical suffering, still amplified this sensitivity which necessarily had to be reflected in his works.”

While the presence of sorrow, nostalgia, and melancholy in Chopin’s music was seen in Poland as a manifestation of its purely Polish character, the same traits were construed abroad as expressions of a more general, human quality. It is interesting to note that these Polish (or Slavic) traits of melancholy and over-sensitivity appear as defining features of the most Romantic among the “representative men” described by Hyppolyte Taine, in his Philosophy of Art. Taine envisioned the modern man of the 19th century as being primarily melancholic and considered melancholy to be the main characteristics of the whole period. The “representative man” of the late 19th century was, according to Taine, “the melancholy insatiable Faust or Werther,” who “entertains a horror of cheerful music” and who “will enjoy only the music of Chopin and the poetry of Lamartine or Heine.” According to Taine’s theory, all the arts of a given time embody or portray the main characteristics of their period; sorrow—the emotion of the times—was also the hallmark of the Romantic arts in general. Perhaps for this reason, sorrowful Poland, a nation languishing without sovereignty throughout the century, became such a cause celebré in Romantic Europe: it was a paradigmatic national example of the main personality feature permeating the whole European culture.

“Racial” Nationhood and Art According to Taine

Taine’s thinking about the representative man of the times seems to diffuse the clarity of arguments presenting melancholy as an exclusively Polish or Slavic trait. In contrast, his ideas about inherited national character, based on the notion of ethnicity-as-race, have shaped the conceptual frameworks of art history and aesthetics. His books were translated into many languages and repeatedly reprinted in Europe and North America during the 1870s – 1910s; his theories also reached Poland. Taine’s philosophy emphasizes the primordial unity of ethnic groups, shaped by their genetic kinship, their natural environment, and their location in historical time. The culture of different nations, e.g. ancient Greeks or 17th-century Dutchmen, was supposed to be predetermined by their inherent, genetic characteristics, historical milieu, and the climate and geographic features of their countries. The three interrelated sources of identity included racial background, natural environment, and cultural experiences accumulated over the centuries. Inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution, Taine proposed a kind of environmental determinism based on the notion of the essential character of a country, from which “spring an infinity of peculiarities, summing up the entire nature of the country, not only its physical outlines, what it is in itself, but again the intellectual, moral and physical qualities of its inhabitants, and of their works.

For instance, the essential character of the Netherlands was that of “alluvial plains” and the abundance of agricultural produce made available by the rich soil resulted in the affluence of human life that found its most perfect expression in the paintings of Rubens. Similarly, ancient Greeks made art that possessed a certain quality because they were all “men of the same race, the same education, the same language . . . a remarkably handsome, intelligent race, viewing life in quite a new way.” In addition to these three general characteristics, defining the whole culture of a given nation, Taine discussed the factors that influence an individual artwork that should be never seen in isolation, but always in its proper context. These factors formed three aggregates: of the artist’s own works, the ideas of his colleagues, and the context of the contemporaneous world. This conceptual background surrounds each work of art with a unique aura and predetermines the artistic modes of expression. Simultaneously, it needs to be purposefully addressed and presented.

 The main task of the artist, according to Taine, is to capture and portray the essential character of an object or country. In this activity, however, the artist is constrained by the particular manifestations of the national character. Therefore, “the social medium, that is to say, the general state of mind and manners, determines the species of works of art in suffering only those which are in harmony with it, and in suppressing other species, through a series of obstacles interposed, and a series of attacks renewed, at every step of their development.” Taine’s speculations about the origins of aesthetic traits of a national art in that nation’s racial heritage and geographic-climactic conditions were not questioned by Polish writers who embraced his holistic and simplistic explanations of national identity and extended his ideas into the domain of music.

 In the first half of the 20th century, Taine’s racial terminology, so jarring today, was used without remorse or apology by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Karol Szymanowski, Stanisław Niewiadomski, Piotr Rytel, and Mieczysław Gliński. Szymanowski’s search for “the deepest and most essential aspect of Polish soul, national soul, or the depth of the race” discussed in the closing segment of this chapter indicates an awareness of Taine’s ideas of the essential character of a nation, based on inborn “racial” characteristics that distinguish one nation from another. The presence of racial terminology in musical studies from the first half of the 20th century discussed in the remainder of this article highlights a disquieting connection of music aesthetics to the most extreme form of racial nationalism. While the intentions of Polish composers turning to race in their nationalist project could be described as noble, rather than criminal (as had been Hitler’s), the results had harmful ramifications for the definitions of national identity and acceptance of ethnic minorities within the Polish nation.

Towards the all-Polish Chopin: Przybyszewski, Zielinski and Paderewski

In the process of asserting Chopin’s Polish identity at the beginning of the 20th century, an awareness of his double cultural and personal background was replaced by a belief in his fully Polish origins. This transformation may be perceived with the greatest clarity in two texts about Chopin by a fin-de-siecle writer, known for his charismatic personality, Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927).

Przybyszewski’s first study of Chopin and Nietzsche (1892) placed the composer half-way between Polish and French cultures, emphasizing the presence of both heritages in his personality and musical output. In this text, Przybyszewski considered Chopin as an exemplar of a Nietzschean super-hero and described the composer’s personality as “a product of an crossing of two races and two cultures—Slavic and Gallic.” According to Przybyszewski’s interpretation of Chopin’s psychosomatic and emotional identities (Biographic Criteria 3, 4) the composer’s Slavic features included: a delicacy of feeling, refinement, inclination to alternate between the extremes of contrasting emotional states, melancholy, and “a sublimated egotism” that reduces all experiences to a focus on oneself. Gallic traits in Chopin’s personality included a certain light-mindedness, seductiveness and feminine characteristics, as well as a joy of life and the emphasis on reason. Already in this text, however, Przybyszewski gave a priority to Chopin’s Polish heritage and claimed that the composer’s personality revealed a predominance of a “Slavic inclination to morbidity.”

In order to transform Chopin into an unambiguously national composer his background had to be rewritten and the Latin element removed. Chopin’s music could fully epitomize the Polish nation if he were completely a part of it in his body and soul. This transformation took place in Przybyszewski’s second essay on the subject, Chopin and Nation (1910). Here, Przybyszewski returned to the theory of one predominant characteristic of the national spirit introduced by Taine and applied to Polish music by Żeleński and Noskowski (Musical Criterion 6: spiritual content). This tone, “the most primal unit in the makeup of the soul. . . colors all the feelings, impressions, experiences, with all of his characteristics.” In accordance with Taine’s thesis about the three defining factors of national identity in art and the significance of geographic milieu for the structuring of national traits, Przybyszewski maintained that the Polish soul was united with the native landscape of Mazowsze: “broad plains” filled with the “blossoming rye” and the mournful sounds of “the wind wailing in the bare steppe.” For the writer, the Polish spirit was suffused by “the tone of insufferable despair” and “filled with curses and mutiny.” Since there are no steppes in the densely populated Mazovia, Przybyszewski’s description would have been more appropriate for the barren Russian landscape. Similarly, the endless despair and darkness of Przybyszewski’s typical Pole better suits the stereotypes of the nostalgic Russian soul, not the Polish one. While emphasizing the melancholic morbidity of Chopin personality (Biographic Criteria 3 and 4: psychosomatic and emotional identities), Przybyszewski describes a dire, soulful landscape that finds a perfect musical expression in Chopin’s music (Musical Criteria 5 and 6: content and spiritual content).

The transformation of Chopin into an “all-Polish” composer and a national symbol in person required the Polonization of his whole family. This step was taken in a legend about Chopin’s French forefathers as actually being Polish, introduced by Oskar Kolberg and reported by Marceli Szulc (1873), Maurycy Karasowski (1882), and Ferdinand Hoesick (1904), as well as Jaroslaw de Zielinski in 1902. Zelinski was commissioned by Ignacy Jan Paderewski to write an article on “The Poles in Music” for The Century Library of Music, edited by the Polish pianist. The “Chopin” section of Zielinski’s study is dedicated in its entirety to proving that Chopin, indeed, was an all-Polish composer (Biographic Criterion 2: family-of-origin). Here, instead of summarizing the nature of Chopin’s contribution to Polish music—the topic of entries on all the remaining composers—Zielinski cites a fictitious genealogy provided by Oskar Kolberg and meant to dispel any doubts that Chopin was a real Pole. According to this account, Chopin’s French forefathers included the descendants of courtiers of the Polish king Stanisław Leszczyński, who left Poland after a reign of five years (1704-1709) and settled in the duchy of Lorraine, France. Apparently, Leszczyński’s courtiers included two “natives of Kalisz, Jean Kowalski and Nicholas Szop” whoc changed the names to “Ferrand and Chopin” and settled at Nancy in Lorraine. Nicholas’s son, Jean Jacques, marrie a widow Desmarets (or Desmarais) and became a teacher; of their four children the youngest, Nicholas, moved back to Poland to become the father of Frédéric.

In the article, Zielinski described a set of musical characteristics that he defined as typically Polish, or “characteristic of the Slavonic type” and including: the common occurrence of “forbidden progressions of intervals, such as augmented seconds, diminished thirds, augmented fourths, diminished sevenths, minor ninths, etc.,” harmony with “successions of chords presenting no logical contradiction, and yet at variance with established usage,” melodic features “exactly the reverse of that practised in other lands” and a general trait of “a freedom of form and variety of rhythm exclusively Slavonic and particularly Polish.” The rationale for this creative freedom stemmed from personality characteristics, as Zielinski claimed “the temperament of the Slav does not tolerate oppression nor even constraint.” It would be impossible to locate a profusion of harmonic means listed by Zielinski in the national operas by Karol Kurpiński, Józef Elsner, or Stanisław Moniuszko. In fact, of the Romantic composers, only Chopin fits the pattern of “freedom of form” and harmony filled with “forbidden progressions’”—his unique approach to chromaticism and harmony has often been commented upon, for instance by Ludwik Bronarski and Maciej Gołąb.

 Thus, it appears that Zielinski derived his list of Polish musical characteristics from the oeuvre of one composer who—due to his French family background—was not even fully Polish. The fanciful Polish genealogy of Chopin’s family was meant to solve that problem. A focus on Chopin’s whole oeuvre as a repository of the “Polish spirit” and on Chopin himself as an ideal Pole, permeates texts by pianist-composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), especially his speech on the occasion of 100th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, given in 1910 during a festival in Lviv (then known as Lemberg) and published in English translation in 1911 as Chopin: A Discourse. The speech articulates the existence of a strong link between the country, the “Polish race” and Chopin’s art. Paderewski envisions Chopin’s music as a true expression of the Polish spirit (Musical Criterion 6), claiming that in his works one may hear “the voice of every generation, the voice of a whole race, and the voice of the very earth which brought them forth.” This statement directly reflects the three criteria of musical identity provided by Taine: race, history, and milieu. Paderewski’s text features other, well-known Romantic interpretative tropes, as it associates Chopin’s music with the evocations of the heroic, mythical past and the images of Polish nobility (some of these associations have been mentioned earlier). Moreover, Chopin’s music is supposedly filled with a pastoral imagery of the Polish fields, forests, rivers; it depicts a peaceful landscape, sorrowful in the fall, joyous in the spring, a musical countryside that is permeated by the sounds of folk music and Nature (Musical Criteria 3-5: quotation, style, content). In contrast to Przybyszewski’s preoccupation with bleak landscapes as signs of Polish despair and morbidity (and similarly to Noskowski’s idyllic vision), Paderewski portrays Chopin’s works as evocations of Poland’s idealized past, replete with festive celebrations and pastoral scenery.

This music, tender and tempestuous, tranquil and passionate, heart-reaching, potent, overwhelming: this music which eludes metrical discipline, rejects the fetters of rhythmic rule, and refuses submission to the metronome as if it were the yoke of some hated government: this music bids us hear, know, and realise that our nation, our land, the whole of Poland, lives, feels, and moves, “in Tempo Rubato.”

Paderewski’s claim about Polishness of Chopin’s music was supported by detailed claims of a full congruence between the “national spirit” and the stylistic and spiritual properties of Chopin’s music (Musical Criterion 6: spiritual content). He also used an argument based on Musical Criterion 7 (performance context): Chopin’s music is all-Polish because his Polish listener understands it as such, “he understands all, feels all, because it is all his, all Polish...” A Polish listener hears in Chopin’s music “the voice of his whole race,” because Chopin himself, “by the grace of God, was spokesman of the Polish race.” Nonetheless, for Paderewski “Polish” was not equivalent to “Catholic.” In contrast to writers who wished to inseparably connect the Polish spirit and imagery of Chopin’s music to Catholicism (see Noskowski above), Paderewski referred to a variety of Slavic, pagan deities evoked in Chopin’s works: “the wild frolics of demi-god and goddess” in the Scherzos, the “deathless song” of the Queen of Love, Dziedzila and the thunderous voice of the mighty Perun in fast, dramatic movements.

Similarly to de Zielinski who struggled to exclude the Russian “Muscovite” from the Slavic family of nations, Paderewski contrasted the Polish spirit of Chopin (“his grace and charm, his wealth of colour, of lights and shades”) with the “somber and monotonous although clever Russian muse” which reflected the “withering despair which blows towards us as a blast frost-laden, across steppes immeasurable, boundless, hopeless…” It is interesting to note that, for Paderewski’s contemporary Przybyszewski, such boundless despair and steppes were the hallmarks of Chopin’s Polish identity. In constructing this image, Przybyszewski accepted negative German stereotyping of Poles-as-Slavs that Paderewski rejected.

Paderewski’s concept of the “Polish race” was not elucidated in any more detail in other texts. Nonetheless, the scope of his ideas of Polish nationhood may be gleaned from his speeches given during a campaign for Poland’s independence that he undertook during the World War I, touring the U.S. with Chopin recitals and patriotic appeals. The composer sought to recreate Poland as a great, multinational country, modeled upon the U.S. and called “The United States of Poland.” The homeland that Paderewski wanted to resurrect would guarantee freedoms to all its inhabitants; his conception of Polish statehood was not based on racial exclusivity and hatred. Yet, the invocations to the Polish race and the mysterious, timeless national spirit that permeate Paderewski’s Chopin lecture were absent from his speeches and appeals directed at non-Polish audiences in America. Thus it seems clear that the narrowly nationalist rhetoric of Chopin and the “Polish race” could only be accepted by those preoccupied with ethnically exclusive definitions of Polish identity.

The tone of narratives about Chopin’s Polishness changed after the country regained its independence. The emphasis on the all-encompassing expression of sorrow disappeared and so did the focus on the musical evocations of the Polish land. Of prime importance in the new country was the independence of spirit, heroism, creativity and strength of character of its citizens. During the inter-war period Stanisław Niewiadomski and Karol Szymanowski provided new interpretations of Chopin’s relationship to the “Polish race.” The review of their ideas will bring this study to the brink of World War II and the demise of the notion of “Polish race” that created room for modern concepts of Polish identity and Chopin’s relationship to it.

(.... to be continued)


This text is an abridged version of a chapter in Halina Goldberg, ed. The Age of Chopin (Indiana University Press, 2004).

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