Thursday, April 10, 2014

Chopin and the "Polish Race" - National Ideologies and Chopin Reception, Part III (Vol. 5, No. 6)

Portrayals of Szopen and Nationalism in Independent Poland

           

After Poland was restored as a sovereign country in 1918, arguments drawn to prove the intensity of Chopin’s Polishness continued to include the fusion of the psychological makeup of one individual, i.e. Chopin himself, and that of a whole nation.  Not surprisingly, the emphasis on the physicality of the connections of his music to the land somewhat diminished: Polish countryside, now within borders of an independent Poland, did not need to be worshiped and idealized.  Simultaneously, sorrow ceased to remain a central feature after its main cause (i.e. grief over Poland’s deprivation of statehood) was removed by the creation of an independent country, Chopin’s purported psychological characteristics became more complex and less unified.  Charles Phillips welcomed the creation of The New Poland with a pean to the virtues of “the Pole himself . . . a puzzling mixture of human contradictions” best exemplified by the personality of Chopin who was “truly and typically Polish,” with the coexistence of “the brilliance, the tragedy, the delicacy, the tęsknota” and the virtues of “a power of concentration, a capacity for tireless work, for infinite painstaking, for detail and sustained effort, unsurpassed in the history of any other artist.”  Similarly to Phillips (and his predecessors, Przybyszewski and Paderewski), Stanisław Niewiadomski described Polish character traits as based on the “opposition of extremes,” swinging back and forth between tragedy and optimism.  In a 1932 essay dedicated to the subject of  “Chopin and Poland,” Niewiadomski regarded Chopin’s music as the sonorous embodiment of these national contradictions. 
            In another article (“Spelling Identity: Ch or Sz?”), Niewiadomski took a lot of trouble to argue away any suspicion of Chopin’s non-Polishness, starting from the spelling of his name (Biographic Criterion 1: name). Actually, his article was a late contribution to a debate about “Szopen” and “Chopin” that erupted in the late 19th century.  At that time, musical periodicals, Echo Muzyczne and Kurier Codzienny, published several polemical articles about the spelling of Chopin’s name. Niewiadomski joined the ranks of those in favor of its Polonization and claimed that foreigners were neither able to understand, nor maintain any interest in Chopin’s life and music: “For whom do we write and discuss Szopen?  Who reads the monographs of Hoesick, Opieński, Jachimecki, and others—foreigners or locals [swoi]?  This is why we should have preserved the Polish spelling. . . Szopen’s music is something as Polish as one can imagine.”  While discussing the connection of the composer to his home country, Niewiadomski mentioned and dismissed some of the composer’s Parisian friends in order to claim Chopin’s whole person as belonging to Poland .  Even the second half of his life was connected less to France, the country of his residence, than to Poland: Chopin was bound to his native land “through ties of love, longing, and duty.”  Niewiadomski’s survey of Chopin’s abundant links to Poland concluded with a statement that, to the composer, “the past, the present, and the future of Poland were not only sacred, but simply part of his flesh and blood.”  Therefore, Chopin’s compositions bear “profoundly prophetic and national features, in which almost every note repeats: ‘Poland, Poland, Poland....’”
            Here, the nationalistic fervor is unmistakable.  It could seem innocuous if we left unexamined its political context.  Perhaps we may see Niewiadomski’s whole-scale Polonization of Chopin it in a different light when knowing that the composer-writer’s relative, Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a fanatical right-wing painter and writer, murdered the first democratically elected president of Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz (1865-1922).  Narutowicz’s 1922 election was supported by the votes of ethnic and religious minorities and strongly opposed by Polish nationalist right-wing parties, such as Roman Dmowski’s Endecja (National Democrats, founded in 1897).  The National Democrats wanted to unify the narrowly-defined Polish nation by drawing their criteria from personal ethnic heritage, especially by excluding Polish Jews; the Christian Democratic Party added Catholicism to this nationalistic equation.  Dmowski’s National-Democratic brand of “enlightened and progressive” (though markedly anti-Semitic) nationalism found ample support among Polish intelligentsia.  In this political option, only Catholics and Slavs could be patriotic Poles and God Save Poland should become the national anthem.  However, as Norman Davies writes in God’s Playground, nationalism was not limited to the right-wing National Democrats: “The political stance of the leading circles was unashamedly nationalist.  Polishness became the touchstone of respectability.... The fires of Polish nationalism were fueled by the fact that the ethnic minorities were so large.”  Therefore, the nationalist fervor was partly based on fear of Otherness; its expressions in music aesthetics do have a disquieting political dimension.
            For right-wing groups, Chopin had to be completely Polonized in order to become a perfect representative of the “Polish race.”  The thicker the nexus of connections between the composer and his country, its landscape, folklore, people and their national character, the more exclusive and racially-oriented definition of Chopin’s personal Polishness.  At first seen just as a “singer of Polish fields and meadows” (Noskowski), Chopin was later transformed into a paragon of Polish ethnicity.  Nationally-inspired writers disregarded and marginalized his French heritage in order to claim—as Niewiadomski did in “Chopin and Poland”—that Poland was enshrined in “Chopin’s flesh and blood.”  These terms were understood literally by those who wished to present the composer as a nationalist composer.
            Niewiadomski worked as a music critic for a newspaper Rzeczpospolita, published by the right-wing Christian Democratic Party [Stronnictwo Chrześcijańsko-Narodowe].  Nonetheless, his concern with defining Chopin as a true Pole and his attempts at describing the essence of the national spirit in music were not as radical as the chauvinistic pronouncements of his younger colleague, Piotr Rytel (1884-1970).  The latter, in his capacity of a music critic for the right-wing daily published by Dmowski’s National Democrats, Gazeta Warszawska, frequently denounced the harmful effects of Jewish-French-Russian modernism on the future of music, an art that—as he believed— should instead return to its roots in the German heritage.  Rytel’s musical xenophobia, while excluding Germans and Italians whom he approved of, extended to other musical traditions.  His statements about national spirit in Poland emphasized the need of its independence of foreign influences, especially of Russian origin: “Polish music should be an expression of the collective Polish soul.  Its liberation from the foreign chains will happen automatically, at a moment when the soul of the nation fully develops.”  Both critics, Niewiadomski and Rytel, were of conservative musical tastes and engaged in vitriolic polemics with the progressive Karol Szymanowski.  It might be surprising, therefore, that the strongest statements about Chopin’s music and the “Polish race” came from the pen of the latter composer, who himself was a frequent object of the critics’ attacks as a radical modernist.  Conservative critics saw Szymanowski as a supposedly crucial element in the Polish expansion of the “international-Jewish-masonic-conspiracy.”  In this context, it may be regarded as a paradox that Szymanowski himself envisioned Chopin as an exemplar of the pure “Polish race” that he defined in opposition to the corrupt and cosmopolitan musical Jewishness.
           
Chopin evokes memories of Poland by Jan Styka. Vintage Postcard.



Szymanowski’s Chopin and the “Polish Race”
            In Karol Szymanowski’s texts about music, the terms rasa [race] or rasowy [racial] appear 28 times—according to the number of entries in the index in Karol Michałowski’s critical edition of Szymanowski’s writings. Usually the context is national and includes references to either Chopin, or folk music, or both.  Even the music of Igor Stravinsky is seen through the lenses of race: according to Szymanowski, Stravinsky resembled Chopin in an effort to draw from musical “racial features that have been accumulating through the genetic inheritance for generations.”  In dealing with the Bartokian approach to using folk music as a source of material for modernist compositions, Szymanowski defined folk music as “supra-historical and the most direct expression of the spiritual properties of a race.”  The composer concluded this essay about relationships between folklore and contemporary music with opinions about the inherent Polishness of all of Chopin’s music.  Here, Szymanowski claims that these “racial” subtleties are “far easier to understand by us, Poles, than by foreigners.  This perhaps explains why the Polishness of Chopin is not properly understood even by his greatest enthusiasts abroad.”  This trope of Poles alone being able to properly understand Polish music (Musical Criterion 7: community belonging) is strongly articulated in articles about Chopin by Paderewski and Niewiadomski.
            In Szymanowski’s first article published after his return to Poland in 1919, “Remarks Concerning the Contemporary Musical Opinion in Poland,” Chopin becomes an essential Polish composer who created “great, Polish, national music” permeated with expressions of the “soul of the nation [lud], in its fathomless racial depth.”  During World War I Szymanowski rejected his earlier lack of interest in national issues and musical patriotism; he started composing songs for the Polish troops and thinking about expressions of Polish identity in music.  The turn to the figure of Fryderyk Chopin as a model was a natural choice.  In the important and often reprinted essay on Fryderyk Chopin (written in 1922 and first published in 1923) Szymanowski discusses the Polishness of Chopin as transcending the choice of the forms of the polonaise and mazurka or the representation of national events and personages: “As a Pole he did not aim to reflect the tragic events in the history of his nation, but, instinctively, sought to express the supra-historical essence of his race which lies beyond national history.”  In another Chopin-themed article of 1924, “Fryderyka Chopina mit o duszy polskiej” [Chopin’s myth about the Polish soul] celebrating the 75th anniversary of Chopin’s death, Szymanowski used even more florid and lofty language to express his views on Chopin’s relationship to Polish identity.  The text centers on a thesis that Chopin dealt in his music with “the power and profundity of the Polish Soul” and that his works bear the traits of an “unchangeable Polishness.”  According to Szymanowski, Chopin’s found himself at the apex of national identity because “in tranquility and concentration he listened to the mysterious whisper reaching him from the profound and bottomless soul of the nation.”  In the manuscript, the “soul of the nation” is a later replacement of the original expression, “the abyss of race” [otchłań rasy].  Therefore, for Szymanowski, these terms were synonymous.  The replacement of the one by the other in 1924 does not mean that Szymanowski abandoned racial vocabulary in his later essays.  The term “race” returns in 1930 in Szymanowski’s lecture on Chopin where the composer’s Polish identity is described as “joyous, proud, invincible” while his music, based on folksong, is a harmonious “expression of race.”  Notice the absence of morbid melancholy in this description of uplifting national characteristics.  In a 1930 essay about “Fryderyk Chopin and Contemporary Music” Szymanowski claimed that Chopin should serve as an excellent, unsurpassed model for creating the new musical style, a “faithful reflection of racial characteristics and distinguishing traits.”  Other texts by Szymanowski include references to the “creative genius of our race” [le génie créateur de notre race], i.e. the Polish nation (1931), or the “racial properties of a given nation” (1930), or the “racial features of other national groups” that have to be lifted to the highest spiritual level of musical values (1927).
            Thus, references to racial traits and characteristics abound in Szymanowski’s musical texts until his death (including those in German and French); the majority of them appear in the context of defining Chopin as a national composer.  A different aspect of the theory of Chopin’s racial Polishness emerges from Szymanowski’s self-definition as a Polish composer, triggered by a 1922 incident when his name appeared in a review of a new music concert held in New York.  In this review, published in The New York Tribune, the influential critic Henry E. Krehbiel listed Szymanowski among Polish Jews who—along with Russians—were transforming the image of contemporary music.  The composer was disturbed by this reassignment of his identity and wrote a letter to the critic explaining his purely Polish heritage.  This mistake, as well as later attacks by Polish radical nationalists of conservative musical tastes (Niewiadomski and Rytel cited above) equating Futurism and Modernism with Jewish influences in music, put Szymanowski on a path towards defining Chopin’s Polish identity in terms of the “Polish race.”  According to Kornel Michałowski, first drafts of his earliest and most extensive text about Chopin were probably written during his stay in New York (two trips in 1921 and 1922).  At the same time, Szymanowski worked on versions of “The Question of Jewry” that contained disturbingly anti-Semitic ideas.  The character of his unfinished essay can be gauged from the first sentence in the notebook: “If the Jews did not so mercilessly hate us, Aryans, and if they did not fill their lives to the brim with this hatred —they would probably die of disgust with themselves.”  The earlier draft includes further speculations about “Pan-Semitic” and “Pan-Aryan” worlds that are irreconcilably separated and opposed, and a peculiar criticism of Mahler, whom Szymanowski construed as an exemplar of a melancholy, amoral musical Jewishness.  Finally, he defended modern music from charges of its close connection to Jewish composers by accusing them of a lack of a true creative spirit: “Futurism is a purely Aryan invention.  It is a manifestation of an Aryan genius—that always casts itself with courage into yet unexplored domains; [these domains are] later exploited in a more or less honorable fashion by the Semitic talent.”  The vehemence of anti-Semitic sentiments in this essay is especially startling in context of Szymanowski’s life at the time: his travels to New York were organized and sponsored by his friends, pianist Artur Rubinstein and violinist Paweł Kochański, both Polish Jews.  In other writings, diaries and letters, Szymanowski praised musical talents of both performers and enjoyed their company, yet he was able to condemn all of their compatriots.  Obviously, in a twisted manner, emblematic of those who embrace racial ideologies, he differentiated between the despised race and its individual members.
            The simultaneous emergence of the incomplete and unpublished text of “The Question of Jewry” and the first in a series of essays on “Fryderyk Chopin” in which the concept of the “Polish race” plays an important role, provides a proper—if disturbing—context for Szymanowski’s ideas about Polish racial nationality.  His attitude towards Jews was both anti-Semitic (general, towards the whole race) and philo-Semitic (personal, towards eminent individuals).  The negativity has been downplayed in scholarly interpretations of his views, for instance by Teresa Chylińska and Zofia Helman,with the rationale provided by later, much milder references to Jews in Szymanowski’s texts.  In 1930s the composer left his Viennese publisher, Universal Edition; at the same time he started to jokingly describe himself as being supported by “the international Jewish masonry.”  By doing so he parodied his critics of a right-wing nationalistic orientation who used such arguments to attack this Modernist composer.  With the rise of Nazi ideology, Szymanowski moved away from speculations about the “Polish race” and the concept of race-as-nation; in an essay about the future of music he ironically pointed out that even Beethoven was not of a “pure race.”  Yet, the depth of his earlier involvement with this subject needs to be noted as it reveals the pervasiveness of racial concepts of national identity in inter-war Europe. 

Chopin beyond the Polish Spirit and Race

            The range of arguments put forward in order to claim Chopin’s music for Poland is simply astounding.  The definitions based on musical criteria of genre, quotation, style, or content have been well known and researched by numerous scholars.  I gathered the most significant points in an introductory overview in order to reveal the antecedents of the racial concept of Polish identity applied to Chopin’s music and person.  With a French last name, French father, and a French city of residence for most of his adult life, Chopin’s personal identity posed an obstacle for those who assumed that only someone born Polish could be Polish and create music fully expressing the “Polish spirit” or the “supra-historical essence of the race”—to borrow a phrase from Karol Szymanowski.  Hence, writers of a nationalist orientation engaged in efforts to rename Chopin—Szopen, to reclaim and rewrite his past by adding a Polish Szop to his French ancestors, and to suffuse his whole world and personality with the traits of the “Polish race.” 
            The particular characteristics of the supposedly eternal national spirit changed according to the political and ideological needs of a time: from sorrow and melancholy (in late Romantic texts, e.g. by Noskowski), to arrhythmia and spontaneity of a nation that lives in tempo rubato (in Paderewski), to the “vitality, joy and pride” (in Szymanowski).  The constant elements in the evolving definitions were Chopin himself and the Polish nation, into the history of which he has been so inseparably inscribed.  In the process, the concept of the “Polish race” was introduced and rejected.  Composers and musicologists stopped discussing aesthetic issues in terms of genetically inherited racial features (Szymanowski) or “the voice of our race” (Paderewski).  The cultural insecurity that had required the introduction of a Polish spelling of the composer’s name or the affirmations that “the past, the present, and the future of Poland were not only sacred, but simply part of his flesh and blood” (Niewiadomski) was replaced by a fuller awareness of Chopin’s lasting and undisputable presence in Polish culture.  The nationalist speculations about the nature of the Polish spirit and Chopin’s embodiment and expression of it have been abandoned for the sake of comprehensive historical and aesthetic studies of his involvement in, and influence upon, Polish music. 
            The twin notions of the “Polish spirit” rooted in Herder’s Volksgeist, and the “Polish race” shaped under the influence of Taine’s philosophy belong among categories of nationalist discourse that outlived their usefulness.  I, like the philosopher of culture, Julia Kristeva, “am among those who dread and reject the notion of Volksgeist, ‘spirit of the people’ which stems from a line of thinkers that includes Herder and Hegel” and that results in the emergence of a repressive and exclusive nationalism (“a repressive force aimed at other peoples and extolling one’s own”)—the source of murderous ethnic conflicts in the late 20th century.  Kristeva’s misgivings about Volksgeist-nationalism provide a useful insight for the analysis of attempts to Polonize or nationalize Chopin.  The questions of “how Polish was Chopin” and how useful his music could be for defining Polish racial identity stemming from common genetic heritage and national character traits reflect a tainted framework of 19th-century racial and nationalistic ideologies.  Such issues are best supplanted by the question of “how great was Chopin” as an individual of a unique, complex background and talent.




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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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