Sunday, August 20, 2023

What is Music? An Essay Just Because... (Vol. 14, No. 3)

Bell at Mission San Juan Capistrano, photo by Maja Trochimczyk

What is music? Depends on who, depends on where. When the composer and violinist Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) went to India in 1956 with the government delegation of the Polish People's Republic to perform Karol Szymanowski's beautiful violin works, the audience expressed some disapproval after particularly beautiful phrases, much to the concern of the performers. [1] It turned out after the concert that the listeners had a grudge against the musicians, because they did not repeat to them, in new variants, such beautiful and lavishly praised phrases, melodies, motifs... 

Karol Szymanowski, The Spring of Arethusa from Myths Op. 30, played by Mark Andre Hamelin and Lara St. John:

Here, the European concept of a "musical work" with the dimensions of a sculpture fixed in sound and time as if in stone, which the philosopher and art phenomenologist Roman Ingarden described in detail, collided with the Indian concept of improvised music, always different, flowing like waves, accelerating and slowing down with the flow of "lived time," thus able to extend a moment, and allow the listeners to enjoy its charm... Recall Rainer Maria Rilke's (1875-1926) poem "To Music," where a European musical work, a marble sculpture made of sound and time (excerpt):

"Music: / the breath of the statues. / 

Maybe: /silence of images./ 

You speech, where speech ceases. / /

Time that you stand upright / 

in the way of disappearing hearts. / Feelings to whom? / /

Oh, you feelings / transformation into what? /

 Into an audible landscape? / You foreign land: music."

Already in the first verse, the proximity of the dynamic and fluid music to the stone sculpture is striking. Here, time has stopped on the border of abstract feelings, transferred to the plane of universally audible soundscapes. Let us recall that in the Western European tradition of "serious" music, composers recorded their musical visions as precisely as possible in scores, full of signs, not only rhythmic and melic, but also expressive, dramatic, timbral... and even the location of musicians in space, as in Persephassa (1969 ) by Iannis Xenakis, where the drummers enveloped the audience in a liquid magma of percussive tremolos and glissandi.[2]

Iannis Xenakis: Persephassa for Six Percussionists:

The musical vision recorded in such a precise way, divided into voices, was then interpreted by musicians who passed on traditions about performance practice and interpretation conventions to each other for generations. [3] The notation allowed the musicians some room for originality and individualism, but there was no possibility of introducing variations and repeating favorite phrases  expected in Szymanowski's The Spring of Aretusa heard in India ...

The Western tendency to record and permanently record one perfect version of a "musical work" eventually led to its evolution to record, in the form of analog or digital recordings, works perfectly fixed for eternity. It started with classical music, but this departure from the co-creation of "live" and "improvisational" music was perfected especially by popular music, composed once and for all in one recording, which could no longer be interpreted or changed in any way. The voices of the performers, the details of additional sounds "sampled" and digitally processed - merged into one, unchanging whole of the once and for all fixed artefact.

 Five pianists play the Chopin Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57 (Michelangeli, Rubinstein, Moravec, Ashkenazy, Pollini)

One could only listen to such recordings passively - becoming recipients of a one-meaning and one-way message. The multipolarity of the "aesthetic experience" linking the composer with the performer and the listener, as postulated by Roman Ingarden, has disappeared.[4]  Such petrified music could neither be interpreted nor co-created. Although we must be grateful for preserving the great voices of Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) and Patsy Cline (1931-1963) for history. The greatest of these recorded tracks are integrated LPs of rock bands like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, or Queen with the memorable Bohemian Rhapsody... captured in perfection of unique voices and sonic details for an eternal keepsake. Unfortunately, recently, at a few "classical" concerts, I heard transcriptions of this Rhapsody for solo cello or harp, poorly evoking distant echoes of Freddy Mercury's extraordinary voice. This is how "serious" musicians become "frivolous" in the pursuit of fame and audience.

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody (original video):

This brings to mind Roland Barthes' famous reflection on "the grain of the voice" ("le grain de la voix") from 1972, although understood and interpreted in many ways, in each version talking about the role of an individual, unique embodiment of the voice, which color and roughness adds more and more meanings to the fixed text. As Anne Kauppala stated in 2020, [5] here the concepts of connotation and denotation, geno-singing and pheno-singing, and multi-layered semiotic word-conceptual games collide - let me just add that they lead readers and researchers to intellectual spheres very distant from the physical embodiment of the voice, sound, music...

As Anna Szlagowska wrote in the article "Modernist dialogue between poetry and music in the works of Rilke", the poet believed in the theory of correspondence of arts, which had been described earlier by Baudelaire or E.T.A. Hoffman. [6] The correspondence of the arts was only one dimension of understanding the whole world as a unity, a harmonious cosmos-universe, which is indivisible and always divine, without the possibility of separating the spheres of the sacred and the profane. In such a sphere, where God is everywhere, everything is Divine, or to be precise, there is nothing that is not God - as Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) proved in his monumental treatise on mathematics, logic, theology and philosophy, hidden under the title Ethics (1677, Ethica ordine geometrico demonstrata).

Music is the Cosmos and the Cosmos is music. So we return to the music of the spheres and cosmic harmony. Music is even where it is not heard... because, as Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) calculated in Harmonica Mundi (1616), all planets and the sun, moving in their orbits and circling in space, are elements of cosmic and harmonious music. "Musica Universalis" is known to us as the music of the spheres. []

As observed by Kepler, an excellent astronomer and astrologer, supporter and promoter of the heliocentric Copernican theory, the entire solar system is a gigantic choir that has been singing beautiful chords since its inception, in which the Sun and Jupiter are basses, Mars is a tenor, Venus and Earth are altos, and Mercury is a soprano, resonating in perfect harmony from the beginning of creation... Thus, musical vocal polyphony - says Kepler - this unique invention of Western culture - is an ideal reflection of such cosmic harmony, shortening eternity to an hour... Let's listen to the Palestrina Mass, the Offertories or the Magnificat of Mikołaj Zieleński.

Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, by Tallis Scholars:

Mikolaj Zielenski, Viderunt Omnes:

Mikolaj Zielenski, Magnificat for three choirs, played with instruments:

Such music, as Rilke wrote, is "another side of the air, / pure, vast, / no longer inhabitable." Although Kepler's calculations were not accurate and oversimplified the shape of the orbits, velocities and the pitches of the planets he postulated, it is worth recalling his theory at a time when the world's music disintegrated into thousands of dialects and languages, like humanity in the Tower of Babel. At the same time, European music lost its heavenly harmony of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony - after the introduction of more and more instruments, tuned more and more "evenly." In the chromatic division of the octave into 12 equal semitones, pure and beautiful fifths and fourths were lost, thirds became out of tune... And so, step by step, from Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (fugues and preludes composed from 1722), we moved further and further away from the pure harmony of resonating strings or columns of air, studied since the time of Pythagoras. Today you can listen to such beautifully tuned voices at a capella concerts of early music and even "barbershop" concerts of women's choirs in the "Sweet Adeline" style popular among American women - where 120 women aged 20 to 70 sing with great joy beautifully even, saturated and harmonized chord arrangements of songs from the swing era, "Fly me to the moon..."

There are no recordings that can mimic that experience, so let's listen to Frank Sinatra singing Fly Me to the Moon, instead, "the grain in the voice..."

Before we swing to the moon, let's remember when the attack on music as the harmony of the Cosmos, and the harmony of man in the Cosmos, led to the global crisis of "serious" music and its disintegration, and dethronement in favor of digitally and mass-produced entertainment. Since I have little space for my reflections, let me simplify this story to three elements:

 a) replacing the natural, "pure" harmony with a chromatic tuning, in which all keys sound equally impure, but you can have great fun with the transitions from key to key; 

b) replacing beautiful, deeply resonating consonances resounding in space and in the bodies of musicians and listeners with a dense mass of rapidly changing and increasingly sharper dissonances; 

c) replacing participation in the creation of the human Cosmos in the Cosmos of the universe by jointly performing and singing harmonious music, passive listening to other people's recordings, in isolating the private space of headphones, the space of the "head."

From Wikimedia Commons: By Hyacinth, CC BY-SA 3.0,

During its evolution towards Schoenberg's dodecaphony, recognized by Theodore Adorno and other German aestheticians as the apogee and teleological goal of the development of European music, relentlessly striving towards its peak, classical music moved further and further away from its roots in modality and tonality. Its foundation of remembering throughout the work about the "center" or base in the form of a tonic, affirmed by departures and returns, dissonances and their resolutions. The “decentralized” dodecaphony was created during the First World War and triumphed throughout the world of Western culture – the culture of choirs and symphony orchestras, string quartets and piano recitals – after the Second World War. Not by accident, but on purpose to reflect the tragedy and chaos of both anti-human, murderous wars in its inherently chaotic and anti-humanist format. 

Chart showing distance of equal temperament notes from their natural, "pythagorean" equivalents, up -higher, down - lover, and red circles notes that are the same  - only octaves. From:

We remember the experiments of Boulez and Stockhausen, we remember the shock of Warsaw Autumn Festivals' dissonances - Penderecki, early Górecki, Szalonek. However, already in the 1970s of the last century, composers got tired of tormenting the audience and musicians so much - Górecki wrote the Third Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Aarvo Part - the Passion, American minimalists returned to the basics of rhythm and repetition. Away from dissonances that make your ears hurt. Fortunately, composers like John Tavener (1943-2013), Morten Lauridsen (born 1943) or Eric Whiteacre (born 1950) started to write consonant music that can be sung again... Or played with joy, like the surreal music of Hanna Kulenty (born 1961).

Second Movement from Gorecki's Third Symphony, by Dawn Upshaw and London Sinfonietta:

Unfortunately, the avant-garde and experimental artists of the 1950s and 1970s went further - after rejecting tonality and consonance as the basis of musical matter, they also rejected the very concept of a "musical work", stating how John Cage in his conceptual and extremely destructive vicious circle (circulus in probando), created from a misunderstanding of Buddhism that music is anything that a musician does, while a musician is someone who produces music! So everything is music, and thus, nothing is music. Reductio ad absurdum. Instead of becoming the avant-garde of the musical army, this stray, self-important and deluded movement ended up on the sidelines of history, nurtured in the greenhouses of academic composition departments by lovers of chaos and originality at all costs.

It is good that the fashion for Cage and his imitators did not last too long and composers returned to writing music suitable for both playing and listening. Only that this episode of composers' wandering astray into dodecophanic dissonances and absurd happenings caused the audience to move away from classical European music. It was no longer so respected, because it was far too serious about itself, too aggressive for the mind, exhaustive for the mind, and numbing for the heart. It became almost completely devoid of a sense of humor. Nature abhors emptiness, so contemporary compositions written only for competition with academic colleagues were replaced by dance and film music. Today, popular music triumphs even in concert halls, where orchestras enthusiastically play John Williams's film scores while Renee Fleming (with a microphone! O, horror of horrors!) sings pop songs by Korngold or Cohen, equating them with art songs by Faure or Debussy.

Wanda Landowska in Lwow in 1937, By  Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny - Archiwum Ilustracji - Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe, , Sygnatura: 1-K-6618-2, Public Domain,

Let's be glad that the trend of early music has survived: since Wanda Landowska started playing baroque pieces on the harpsichord instead of the piano, more and more musicians seek solace in the world of "real" music from their beloved and idealized eras. The styles of their interpretations change over the years, bearing witness that their world is not free from fashion and sheep following in a daze behind the leader... It doesn't matter too much, for as long as they play and sing, "their" music will live in a constantly renewed tradition. It's good that the classical composers of the 18th and 19th centuries still have their admirers - although they managed to "untune" the harmony of Pythagorean consonances, they replaced them with the sublimation of emotions into art! They built kaleidoscopes and feasts of feelings with fascinating harmony, melody, rhythm... 

That's why the whole world loves Chopin! Really! I have been writing about him for 13 years on the poetry and music blog Chopin with Cherries; I edited two books, followed its reception among composers, in film, and on the Internet.[7] Strange! The music of a 30-year-old tuberculosis, bitter exile without relatives and home warmth in Paris - despite having a French father, Polish homeland enchanted him for life - delights millions! It awakens the carefully dormant sphere of emotions among rushed, alienated people from China and Korea; it appeals to both Americas, and of course triumphs in the Slavic sphere. (The flow in the opposite direction is limited: I don't know many sincere admirers of the classical Chinese opera, for instance, though taiko drumming from Japan has many followers...)

Lang Lang plays Chopin's Prelude in D-flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15 (slower than most!)

What has already died and is still dying is the tradition of amateur music-making in choirs and at home; where everyone has their own headphones and their own player - or LP, CD, MP3, iPhone ... and you don't even sing Christmas carols together anymore ... Jolanta T. Pekacz postulated in 2002 that in musicology studies more attention should be paid to various forms of presence music in everyday life.[8] Why? It is occasional, religious, solemn, festive and dance music that builds our world in sounds. If it is harmonious and beautiful, it reflects the beauty of the Cosmos as in a mirror. "As above, so below," claim the followers of hermetic and esoteric sects. Some even believe that the human voice has a unique relationship with the Cosmos: once beautifully sung, a lovely melody carrying a kind Word echoes through the entire universe. Om mani padme hum... Hallelujah! Plato already said that beauty is good, is truth. Indeed...

Om Mani Padme Hum by Dajit Virk and instruments:

New research in the area of psychology of music shows that group singing has multiple positive health, psychological and social effects on its participants.[9] Research into choirs and other forms of collective singing has been conducted for several decades and has focused on the potential health and wellness benefits, particularly for amateur singers.[10] Experimental, quantitative and qualitative research studies show a range of bio-psycho-social and well-being benefits for singers. In one project, the "range of emotional and endocrine responses to singing or listening to choral music" was investigated, proving that active participation in choral singing resulted in "significant increases in positive and decreased negative emotional states." Singing strengthens the specific immunity of the body as well as leads to an increase in positive emotions.[11]

Alleluia Sancte Michael, by Gregorian Chant Academy:

The first scholarly research books about positive psychological states were written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the theory of concentration during creation or intensive work, i.e. the "flow" (1975-1998).[12] The perspective of the “positive psychology” by Martin Seligman (2011) [13] used in vocal music studies identifies the elements of positive well-being, i.e. one aspect of hedonic well-being (positive emotions and joy) and four aspects of eudaimonic well-being (involvement in action, building and maintaining relationships, deriving meaning from action and a sense of achievement, success).[14] Singing together builds up all these elements. 

 Hildegard von Bingen: O ignis spiritus paracliti:

Researchers found that “singing in a group has a better effect on the well-being of participants than singing alone” (Stewart & Lonsdale, 2016).[15] In addition, choral singing improves the "sense of competence and social connection" and the "potential for positive well-being."[16] Ruud (2012) identified four dimensions or categories of quality of life that benefit from active participation in choral singing: vitality (emotional life, aesthetic sensitivity, pleasures), agency (sense of mastery and empowerment, social recognition), affiliation (network, capital social) and meaning (continuity of tradition, transcendental values, hope). In conclusion, "current scientific evidence suggests that singing in a choir or group has a number of health and wellness benefits."[17]

What is music? A measure of harmony? The cosmic glue holding the planets in their orbits? It is a cure for loneliness, alienation, blues. The key to emotions, the secret of the heart. The energy of the sun, light and joy. The glow of infinity.


Written in June 2023 in Polish, for the journal Metafory Wspolczesnosci. Added links to music 

[1] Grażyna Bacewicz, Znak szczególny, Kraków: PWM, 1970.

[2] Maria Anna Harley, "Spatial Sound Movement in the Instrumental Music of Iannis Xenakis." Interface. Journal of New Music Research 23/3 (1994): 291-314; Maja Trochimczyk, "From Circles to Nets: on the Signification of Spatial Sound Imagery in New Music." Computer Music Journal 25/4 (2001): 37-54.

[3]  Maria Anna Harley, Space and Spatialization in Contemporary Music: History and Analysis, Ideas and Implementations. Montreal, McGill University, School of Music, 1994; Maria Anna Harley, "At Home with Phenomenology: Roman Ingarden's Work of Music Revisited." . International Journal of Musicology 6 (1997): 9-24. Reprinted, as Maja Trochimczyk (after name change), in After Chopin: Essays in Polish Music (Los Angeles: Polish Music Center, 2000), 91-110.

[4] Małgorzata A. Szyszkowska, “Reconsidering Ingarden's Contribution to European Aesthetics: Aesthetic Experience and the Concept of Encounter,” 2018. 

[5] Anne Kauppala, “Barthes’s ‘The Grain of the Voice’ revisited” w The Routledge Handbook of Music Signification (New York: Routledge, 2020);  Jonathan Dunsby, “Roland Barthes and the Grain of Panzéra's Voice” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 134/1 (2009), 113-132.

[6] Anna Szlagowska, „Modernistyczny dialog poezji z muzyką w twórczości Rilkego,"Muzykalia IV – Zeszyt niemiecki 1, portal De Musica, 2019; 

[7]  Frederic Chopin - A Research and Information Guide, co-authored with William Smialek.  New Jork, Routledge, 2015; After Chopin: Studies in Polish Music. Los Angeles: Polish Music Center at USC, 2000; "Chopin i 'polska rasa': O nacjonalizmie i recepcji Chopina," revised chapter from The Age of Chopin (Indiana University Press, 2004); tlum. Magdalena Dziadek, Opcje 4 (2006). "Chopin and Women Composers: Collaborations, Imitations, Inspirations."  Polish Review 45/1 (2000): 29-52.

[8] Jolanta T. Pekacz, Music in the Culture of Polish Galicia, 1772-1914. University of Rochester Press, 2002.

[9] Psychological studies cited below were reviewed when I worked on a paper  "Patriotyzm w salonie: tradycje  śpiewu domowego w rodzinie Marii Szymanowskiej" Studia Chopinowskie, Nr. 1-2, 2022:  4-40.  Gunter Kreutz, Stephan Bongard, Sonja Rohrmann, Dorothee Grebe, Hans Günther Bastian, Volker Hodapp,  “Does Singing Provide Health Benefits?” in R. Kopiez, A. C. Lehmann, I. Wolther & C. Wolf (eds.) Proceedings of the 5th Triennial ESCOM Conference 8-13 Sept. 2003, Hanover U. of Music and Drama, Germany; 

[10] Genevieve A. Dingle, Stephen Clift, Saoirse Finn, i in., “An Agenda for Best Practice Research on Group Singing, Health, and Well-Being,” in Music and Science 2 (2019), 1-15; Rachel Heydon, Daisy Fancourt, Annabel J. Cohen, “Singing and Wellbeing: Harnessing the Power of Singing,” in: The Routledge Companion to Interdisciplinary Studies in Singing (Nowy Jork: Routledge, 2020), 1-13.

[11]  Jane W. Davidson, Sandra Garrido, “Singing and Psychological Needs”, in The Oxford Handbook of Singing, 2015.

[12]  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1975);  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper and Row, 1990); Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (Basic Books, 1998).

[13] Martin Seligman, Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them (London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011)

[14]  A. Lamont,  M. Murray, R. Hale, & K. Wright-Bevans,  “Singing in later life: The anatomy of a community choir”, Psychology of Music 46 (2018) 424–439; Eiluned Pearce, Jacques Launay, Pádraig MacCarron, “Tuning in to others: Exploring relational and collective bonding in singing and non-singing groups over time”, Psychology of Music 45/4 (2017). 

[15]  N.A.J. Stewart  & A. J. Lonsdale, “It’s better together: The psychological benefits of singing in a choir,” Psychology of Music 44 (2016): 1240–1254.

[16]  Elizabeth Brown i in., “Singing Your Troubles Away: The Experience of Singing from a Psychological Standpoint—Contributions From a Heuristic Research”, The Humanistic Psychologist 43/4 (2015): 395-408.

[17]  Dingle, et al. 2019, op. cit., 10.   Pearce, E., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. M. The ice-breaker effect: Singing mediates fast social bonding, Royal Society Open Science  2 (2015); M.L. Gick, “Singing, health and well-being: A health psychologist’s review”, Psychomusicology: Music, Mind and Brain 21/1-2 (2011): 176–207.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

On Kocyan and Sadej, or the Charisma of Musicians and the Magic of Live Music (Vol. 14, No. 2)

After two years of capricious and arbitrary bans on live performances, that caused huge damage to the cultural lives of many countries, destroyed cultural institutions and hurt artists' careers, in the fall of 2022, we were finally able to organize and attend live theatrical performances with live classical music. I will not dwell on reasons for the lockdowns of whole societies and countries, for which the idea was imported from China along with the virus that purportedly caused these lockdowns (see book by Michael Sanger on this topic). 

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder"... so after an extended period of relying on Zoom for substitute in-person meetings and on video recordings of theater and concerts, as well as films for cultural experiences, we could realize that the magic of live performance with live music is completely irreplaceable and any substitute is a failed simulacrum.  As in "bad coin replaces good coin" law of monetary circulation first defined by Nicholas Copernicus, who also stopped the Sun and moved the Earth, in detailed observations that ushered in the heliocentric view of our cosmic neighborhood: the "bad coin" of recordings replaced the "good coin" of live performances.  

My readers can guess here that I much prefer live classical music concerts to recordings. I must admit that I do rely on recordings during my long drives on California freeways; these are much better than listening to the radio, for I decide what I want to hear and how many times. I do get stuck on some Chopin etudes (as recently The Aeolian Harp, Op. 25 No. 1);  I spent a good six months with a collection of Chopin nocturnes... and enjoyed my time with Anonymous Four' the Sacred Harp CD, Rachmaninoff's Second (not Third) Piano Concerto, Bulat Okudzava, Rachel & Vilray, and Dominika Swiatek singing poems by Zbigniew Herbert... not necessarily in that order... But if I want to completely focus on an artwork, a piece of music, I have to hear and see it live. 

On March 18, 2023, in a midst of a very busy Polish events season in California, I attended a Recital by mezzosoprano Katarzyna Sadej accompanied by Wojciech Kocyan, extraordinary pianist, professor at Loyola Marymount University. I had previously organized a concert for Sadej for the Modjeska Club - a celebration of 100 years of Poland's regained independence through important songs marking each decade, event or era.  The recital took place in a private mansion in Beverly Hills, with an audience of 100, and accompaniment of Basia Bochenek. The magical voice filled the salon to the brim, resonated in each heart. I called it then "the voice of the century" - so rich, flexible, sonorous, and so well used by musically endowed and beautiful singer. 

If we lived in a different era, where the color of skin, eyes and hair did not decide who got the main roles in the big opera houses, and if we did not have the forced shutdown of all joy-bringing activities, such as going to the beach, or a concert due to some machinations of social engineers bringing in their nefarious plans for humanity under the guise of health care - SADEJ would be a household name in the classical music world, and her portraits would be on covers of all classical music magazines. With luscious, extra long blond hair, blue eyes, classic regularity of features, and perfect model's figure (her father was a judo trainer), Sadej looks like a Goddess of Music... But we live in the reality of this world, so we have to collect our gems of delight where we find them, not on the grand opera stages, but in college recital halls... 

The recital of Kocyan and Sadej was a jewel of music-making, and a worthy addition to my collection of the best concerts ever.  Hearing Messiaen's Turangalila in Avignon in 1987 was one such event; Xenakis's Persephassa for six percussionists surrounding the audience with mobile clouds of sounds, glissando, tremolo, a primordial force - heard in Warsaw, was another; Ivo Pogorelic's Chopin at the second stage of the Chopin Competition in Warsaw from which he was promptly kicked out, but only after the whole audience listened to his piano pianissimo with bated breath - was yet another moment of musical magic. At Loyola Marymount's Recital Hall I came for an unforgettable experience, due to the quality of music selected for the program and the incredibly beautiful renditions of these classic songs. 

I came to hear Karol Szymanowski's Kurpie Songs, but there were only three on the program, selected from a set of 12 songs op. 58.  These original arrangements of folk songs and dialect texts are among the most important compositions of Polish 20th century. Of course, these were sung well, with proper inflection and gusto. After all, both musicians are Polish.  The Loyola Marymount University's website described them as follows: "Renowned Polish-Canadian-American mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sadej's ... international, eclectic career spans concert, opera, film, chamber music, oratorio, recital and voice over. Her solo appearances include the National Arts Center Ottawa, L.A. Opera, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the National Theater in Taipei, to name a few. Sadej is joined at the piano by Dr. Wojciech Kocyan, world renowned pianist and Clinical Professor of Music at LMU. He is a laureate of several international piano competitions, including F. Busoni and Viotti, as well as a special prizes winner of the XI International Chopin Competition and the First Prize winner of the Paderewski Piano Competition." The concert was presented by the LMU Department of Music and the Paderewski Music Society where Prof. Kocyan serves as Artistic Director. 

The recital started from six Gypsy Songs op. 55 (Cigánské melodie) by Antonin Dvorak, one of which was also used as an encore ("Songs My Mother Taught Me"), of delightful and flexible melody that you'd hum long ago after the concert. Indeed, this is the most famous of all these songs, and it was transcribed for various instruments to become a lovely salon piece.  Sadej enriched this song with the intensity of her voice and sweetness of expression.  It was such a treat to hear it twice! 

Other songs from this set had more lively folksy rhythms, as appropriate to a set of poems by Czech poet Adolf Heyduk idealizing the nomadic life of the Gypsies. The songs were originally written for a male voice (tenor), but were entirely suitable for the mezzosoprano.  The only issue I had to struggle with during this part of the program was to see Kocyan as an accompanyist instead of a soloist. He had to subdue his formidable technique and talent, in order to play simple arrangements and let the singer shine. I expressed that regret after the concert, saying that the recital should have included at least two solo pieces from the period to show off Kocyan's talent, but he dismissed my concerns, stating that it was a Vocal Recital! 

The second part of the program started from the most famous set of Trois Chansons de Bilitis by Claude Debussy, to poems by Pierre Louÿs published in 1894 with a claim that they were ancient verse found in Greek ruins. In 1897, Debussy took three of these poems - The Flute of Pan, The Hair, and the Tomb of Naiades - and set them as a melancholy and expressive portrayal of deeply felt emotions. Sadej and Kocyan rose to the occasion in their interpretation of this often heard classic, creating an unforgettable musical gem. The resonance of Sadej voice permeated the recital hall, in an electrifying moment of musical magic. One has to revert to "purple prose" to describe moments such as this one. 

The next two love songs were by 20th century composers, American Tom Cipullo and Roman Ryterband, a Polish Jewish musician who became a citizen of Switzerland and Canada before settling in Palm Springs, California. They were both pretty, but after a month, I cannot recall them at all.  Nice, but not extraordinary! There is a reason these composers have not reached the levels of recognition of the grand masters. But minor masters are good to hear too... if only to let the masterpieces shine.

The recital concluded with three songs by another French composer, Henri Duparc, Chanson triste, I'invitation au voyage, La vie anterieure. I previously knew them only from a recording while studying music history - Jessye Norman sang Chanson triste with pianist Dalton Baldwin, with ethereal high notes. There are few more beautiful sounds in the world than those made by opera singer singing in a high register quietly, so the otherworldly voice spreads out and reaches, it seems, to the end of cosmos. Hard to experience this fully while listening to recordings. What a treat it was to hear this effect live, so beautifully rendered by Katarzyna Sadej! Her voice sounded richer, more saturated, more resonant than Norman's but then I listened to Norman only on recording, so I cannot tell. But definitely in the same class. . . 

Sadej beautifully rendered I'invitation au voyage, with its effortless leaps from low to high register. For a weak singer such alternations of pitch are a disaster, bridged with heavy portamento, and marked by drastic change of timbre. But a fantastic singer like Sadej or Norman can make these alternations and melodic shifts sound natural and inspired - evoking deep, dramatic emotions in a large arc of melody supported by incessant arpeggios of the pianist. Bravo!  

All classical music fans know the name of Jessye Norman. Let them also know the name of Katarzyna Sadej! She let her voice shine and resonate, and definitely touched the listeners' hearts. The last song, with its steady introduction and ultra-dramatic central part, provided a suitable conclusion to the recital. Oh, how I love this music... time for some more "purple prose." Or not. Better still, find another concert of Katarzyna Sadej and hear her live. I've met an opera fan with deep pockets that travelled around the world following his favorite singer for ultimate aesthetic experience. If I had deep pockets and more time, I'd definitely do the same... Here's the Dvorak's Gypsy Melody "Songs My Mother Taught Me" as an encore of the concert.

The collaboration of two master musicians was extraordinary as well, but it was to be expected. Next time, though I'd like to hear some more Debussy for solo piano by Kocyan... However, he is more and more interested in artistic collaborations, as he stated: "It was such a pleasure and an unforgettable experience to play with Katarzyna - that's why we are musicians, for those moments in life. On the other hand, I am more and more inclined to do mixed recitals, like the 19. c. kind: a few solo pieces, some arias, some songs , maybe some chamber music." So, if you are in the Los Angeles area, keep your eyes open for announcements of Kocyan's concerts! 

Special thanks to EWELINEB® fashion studio for dressing the singer for the performance in an elegant black and white gown.  The gown is from the special EWELINEB collection  inspired by the film Memoirs of a Geisha and Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. The  a black embroidered dress with a white lace cape was called by a reviewer "the pièce de résistance" of the entire collection, that "is exotic, yet subtle, elegant and sublime." I borrowed all photos for this post from Ms. Sadej's Facebook page, where she wrote: "Thank you to the amazing pianist Wojciech Kocyan for this wonderful musical collaboration! Juan Antonio Espino I am so grateful for your fabulous photography of our event, and to  EWELINEB®   - Thank you for making me feel fabulous in these gorgeous gowns since 2018!!"

More information about Katarzyna Sadej, whose "Earth Singing Project" is an inspiring adventure outside of the concert hall, into stunning natural landscapes, is found on her website: Let's hope to hear her often and see her star in operas and recitals worldwide. And let's hope that the misguided social engineers and insane, power-hungry officials that shut down our concert halls for over two years and denied us access to life-affirming beauty and healing inspiration, will never get a chance of destroying our lives again. 

And here I am with flowers... 

Friday, February 3, 2023

Reflections on National Survival and Self-Sacrifice in Patriotic Songs (Vol. 14, No. 1)

Pozegnanie Powstanca /Farewell to a Freedom Fighter by Artur Grottger (1837-1867)

Last summer, I was commissioned by the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute of Poland to write a scholarly article for publication in the Studia Chopinowskie research journal on the topic related to Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), an eminent pianist and composer, and an important fore-runner of Chopin. I decided to write about the handwritten patriotic songbooks found in the archives of Museum Adama Mickiewicza in the Polish Library in Paris that were written by two of Szymanowska's children, her daughter Helena Szymanowska-Malewska and son Romuald Szymanowski. I had earlier written on Szymanowska's patriotic songs in the collection of Historical Chants (Spiewy Historyczne) by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz and had noticed these small notebooks while reviewing Szymanowska-related documents in the Polish Library in 2015. In the conclusion I compared the two visions of Polish patriotism and preserving Polish identity during the 123 years of partitions, when the country was divided between and ruled by three of its neighbors, Russia, Prussia and Austria (1795-1918). 

Page 3 from "Patriotic Songs" notebook by Helena Szymanowska and Romuald Szymanowski,
Polish Library in Paris, manuscript no. 956 from Adam Mickiewicz Museum collection

The first option favored self-sacrifice through participating in violent military actions against the foreign troops. The November and January Uprisings in 1830 and 1863 brought temporary freedom and bloody repression, including exile or deportation to Siberia of a whole generation of Polish nobility, whose lands were confiscated while they were sent far away.  This military option was documented in a multitude of patriotic songs from the period of the November Uprising in 1830-31 copied by Helena and Romuald. The second option was the road actually taken by Helena and her husband, friend of Adam Mickiewicz and a former member of the Zwiazek Filomatow, Franciszek Malewski. They lived in St. Petersburg in the heart of the Russian empire where Malewski was sent to exile, but later became a civil servant of the Tsarist government. They practiced patriotism, passed on the language and culture of Poland at home, not in public.  

The first vision of Polish patriotism if faithfully implemented leads to national annihilation and to the loss of the braves and brightest future leaders of the nation. The second approach of hiding the national sentiments at home while being publicly involved in the activities of the "oppressing" nation ensures biological survival, but may lead to the loss of the nation's soul and cultural identity. Either way, the situation is extremely difficult and we can only praise those who decided to fight and die and those who decided to hide and live, while preserving Polish culture and traditions in the homes during the partitions in the heart of the Russian Empire. 

The patriotic texts of songs and poems copied by Helena and Romuald Szymanowski shame those who refuse to fight, praise bravery and self-sacrifice, going to fight even against overwhelming military power of the enemy, even when the defeat is almost certain and the uprising would end in a river of blood. They are often cheerful, focus on the present joy of being alive and the future joy of having died for the nation. The same ideology of brutal self-sacrifice has survived the 19th century of partitions and uprisings, all the way through the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, now idealized and idolized as a symbol of true patriotism and valor. 

Let's review one example that continued to inspire youth to sacrifice their lives on the altar of national independence. "Polska mlodziez niechaj zyje" - found on p. 3 of manuscript 956 from Muzeum Adama Mickiewicza collection at the Polish Library in Paris, was later found in a songbook published in 1919 in Poznan, and used in the Silesian Uprisings.

Polska młodzież niechaj żyje, / Nikt jej nie przesadzi,

Bo jej ręka dobrze bije, / Głowa dobrze radzi.

Pognębieni, zapomnieni / Od całego świata,

Własnych baliśmy się cieni, / Brat unikał brata.

Long live Polish youth, / No one will surpass them,

For their hands fight well, / Their heads think well.

Depressed, forgotten / By the whole wide world,

We were afraid of our own shadows, / Brother avoided brother.

Ledwie polskie bronie błysły, / Polskie wstały dzieci!

Więzy nasze, jak szkło prysły, / Złota wolność świeci.

Każdy dzień żołnierza rodzi, / Mnożą się obrońcę:

Świetna zorza – po niej wschodzi / Najświetniejsze słońce!

As soon as Polish weapons flashed, / Polish children arose!

Our bondage broke like glass / Golden freedom shines.

Every day a soldier is born, / The defender multiplies:

Great aurora - after it rises / The most brilliant sun!

Niech do boju każdy biegnie! / Piękne tam skonanie,

Za jednego, który legnie, / Stu mścicieli stanie.

Zawsze Polak miał nadzieję / W mocy Niebios Pana;

On w nas jedność, zgodę sieje, / A przy nas wygrana.

Let all rush to the battle! / Beautiful dying there,

For each one who falls, / A hundred avengers will come.

Poles always had hope / In the might of Lord's Heavens;

He sows unity, harmony among us, / And Victory is with us. 

Polish text copied from:   Spiewnik pracownic polskich, wyd. 5 powiększone, Poznań, 1919, s. 65, 66. Translated by Maja Trochimczyk

Juliusz Kossak, postcard illustrating Piesn Legionow
Polish national anthem, a.k.a. Dabrowski Mazurka

Is "the most brilliant sun" of national freedom a complete delusion? Are these youth encouraged to die for nothing? Is God involved in any wars? Does God personally fight on the battlefields?  What would happen to a youth who failed to respond to this call to action and throwing his life away? Would that person be branded a traitor or a weakling.... a total failure? 

Let's recall how Fryderyk Chopin was torturing himself in Sttugart when the news about the end of the November Uprising in 1831 reached him, while he was on the way to Paris. He recorded his distress in the so-called Stuttgart Diary, a part of an album from 1829-1831, that, quite fittingly to our story, was destroyed in 1944 after the defeat of the Warsaw Uprising by Germans; now it is only known from photographs. The young composer also poured his distress and grief out into music, to mention the Étude, op. 10, no. 12 (“Revolutionary”), the Nocturne, op. 15, no. 3, and the Funeral March from the Piano Sonata, op. 35.  Chopin had left Poland on 2 November 1830, but his friends went back to fight, as he wanted to. However, he was urged on to an international career as a pianist and composer. Would we be better off if he never composed anything after turning 21 and instead returned to Poland and died in battle, as so many young men did? Eugene Kissin plays the Revolutionary Etude as an encore Maurizio Pollini plays the Revolutionary Etude

January 1863 by Jakub Rozanski.

Thirty years later, the January 1863 Uprising was an even greater national tragedy, and the reason why so many Poles could be found on all continents: after the defeat by Russians, they were exiled to Siberia, or sent abroad without a right to come back, while their estates and property were confiscated.  A contemporary painting by Jakub Rozanski illustrates the discrepancy of military power symbolically, showing Polish insurgents in red square hats, with sabres or scythes, fighting a gigantic unhuman robot, a symbol of impersonal, powerful and merciless Russian army. 

As Piotr Szafranski writes: "The results were dismal. Russia military (mainly) made small work with the insurgents. Pretty much every single Commonwealth gentry family and their dog were either wholesale, or partly deported to Siberia, hanged, or sent into slave labour in Russian mines. Shock, across that society layer, was unprecedented. All females of that generation, those who managed to stay in Poland, wore, rest of their lives, black dresses, black jewelry etc." Death in battle, deportation to ice-cold Siberia, or exile were the choices faced by Polish participants of this failed Insurrection.

Na pobojowisku from "Polonia" cycle by Artur Grottger 

In a collection of short stories about young lives sacrificed on the altar of national independence while defending the nation, entitled Najwyzszy Lot (The Highest Flight) in Polish and published in 1925 by Ferdynand Ossendowski, we find many examples of this ideology. Ossendowski decided to honor the teens and young adults who went to fight for Poland during WWI, in the 1920 war against Soviet invasion, and in other battles for the Polish cause. His advocacy led to the construction of a monument to the teen heroes at the Military Cemetery in Warsaw in 1929. 

To humanize those who were thus honored, he found true stories of heroic youth who died on the battlefield, were murdered by Soviets, or caught and deported to Siberia to work in what was earlier called "katogra" (forced slave labor) and later "gulag" (penal camp). He transformed these vignettes into vivid short stories, filled with patriotic fervor and gratitude for their sacrifice. Ossendowski was right when he claimed that it was thanks to such selfless self-sacrifice of youth and others that in 1920 the Miracle of Warsaw took place and the Soviet armies were crushed by greatly outnumbered defenders. Thus, the communist ideology did not flow all over Europe and its march west was stopped and reversed.  So we have to be grateful. But then, what a loss of life! So hard not to grieve for the dead and for their tragic families, mothers and fathers who lost their sons...

Let's be kind and honor their sacrifices by remembering some of their names: Wladyslaw Sosnowski, Jan Surzycki, Henryk Kossowski, Boleslaw Dekanski, Jan Rotwand, Seweryn Marcinkowski, and many other high school students who followed the path of their forefathers and gave their young lives to defend their homeland from communist scourge. Ossendowski spent time in Siberia himself, first working as chemical engineer for the Tsarist government prior to WWI, then on the run from Soviet troops during the 1917-1919 revolution. He managed to escape through India and return to Poland, but remembered and commemorated the exiles that he met as they starved and froze to death while trying to escape. An earlier example of this fate is the family depicted in the paining below.  

Death in Siberia by Aleksander Sochaczewski (1843-1923), who participated 
in the January uprising and was exiled to Siberia until 1883.

Professor Andrzej Targowski, honorary president of the association of Children of the Warsaw Uprising and a child participant in the Uprising himself takes an exception to this idea and believes that not fighting a losing battle with an overwhelmingly stronger opponent is a better, smarter option, since those who would have died would then live, instead. 

Targowski writes (email of July 12, 2022):

 "Throughout the period of the People's Republic of Poland, the truth about the Uprising was covered up in order not to pour water on the propaganda mill. However, in the Third Polish Republic it was said that as long as the insurgents were alive, it was not appropriate to talk about this truth. I guess we can today and it doesn't stop us from glorifying the Uprising's heroes. But we also have to remember the civilians because they died at a rate 9 times higher than the insurgents. Innocent, scared, killed, wounded, expelled and robbed (of their possessions buried in the cellars) and without hope of living due to demolished or burnt houses and flats. Widows with children without profession and without means of livelihood. People with bad "papers", i.e. members of the Home Army. My Mother, an 85% war invalid and a graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology, received a disability pension in the amount of PLN 182 per month, because the government found out that she was in the Home Army. This was less than $2 on the black market. My Father did not return from Dora, where he sabotaged the production of V2 until the last days. He was hanged 3 days before the liberation of this camp. Why was he doing it? According to the recent trend of the Institute of National Remembrance, such defeats are a victory. Are they?"

"And what if there was no Uprising? 1) 200,000 would not have died, 200,000 would not have been wounded and seriously ill, and 600,000 would have been expelled; 2) Warsaw would not be destroyed; 3) The government would be a coalition a la Czech Republic; 4) Perhaps we could even have had the status of Finland, because Stalin was "afraid" of the Poles, i.e. that they would have blown up the Soviet Union from within, 5) the Soviet occupation by proxy would be easier to bear, and 6) the next generations of the old intelligentsia would grow up and help build Poland; this generation is missing even now, in the Third Polish Republic." 

Translated by Maja Trochimczyk from the Polish. A full version of this text has appeared in Polish in "Biuletyn Stowarzyszenia Dzieci Powstania 1944" and was entitled SYNDROM POWSTAŃCZY A SAMO-ROZBIÓR MENTALNY (The Insurgent's Syndrome and the Mental Self-Analysis).

One of hundreds of monuments to civilians shot by Germans during the Warsaw Uprising.

I agree with Professor Targowski's ideas. Brave insurrections and selfless sacrifice for the nation are not the best for the national interest.  But in the Polish national mythology, framed by multiple failed uprisings and insurrections against much more powerful adversaries, this myth of self-sacrifice as the best option for expressing patriotism has become deeply embedded, and melded with the cult of suffering and sorrow. The latter is fed by Christian theology of the Crucified Christ, and Mater Dolorosa, the tortured son and sorrowful mother.  So Poland is covered with monuments to the dead, like the cement cross reproduced above, and the monument that Ossendowski built for the children fighting in the defense of Warsaw against the Soviets in 1920.

What if we discarded this onerous burden? And focused on Life and Joy instead? One reason I'm against blind faith in military action, the cult of violence and suffering is because hate breeds hate, violence breeds violence. Only Love is the solution.  If you focus on Life and appreciate being alive as the ultimate gift, you will love yourself and all around you.  You will not be able to kill them, and if they kill you, you will just die, go to rest, and reincarnate again. After all, we are all ONE, members of one humanity. But the nations are important and should be preserved, with their distinct cultures, languages, histories, areas of  land... It is a complex issue and I cannot solve it here, or figure out a workable solution for my own worldview. 

Yet, I'm still grateful for the sacrifices of those who chose to fight, like my Mom's friend Barbara Wysocka, whose entire family perished in the Uprising and she never married. After her death, her medals went to my Mom, and after she died in 2013, I donated these medals to the Polish Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. Here is this story:

Medals of Barbara Wysocka donated to the Museum of Warsaw Uprising in 2013.

So can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we praise and thank those who died for the homeland, fighting against much stronger and better equipped enemies, while also understanding that their sacrifice was a tragic loss and it would have been much better for the nation, if they did not fight and did not die? 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Chopin with Cherries Poems at Chopin Festival in New York, November 17, 2022 (Vol. 13, No. 5)

"Chopin with Cherries" poems found their way into the program of the 24th International Festival Chopin and Friends held in New York in November 2022. The festival featured 6 concerts and ended with “Grand Finale: Polish Frescoes” at the Polish Consulate in New York on November 17, 2022.   Hosted, by actress Weronika Wozniak, host, the program featured an AV Installation "Where is Chopin" by Jaroslaw Kapuscinski (Professor at Stanford University). 

The program of November 17 Gala Concert included Franz Liszt - Liebestraum A-flat No.3 played by Matthew Pulick - piano; Fryderyk Chopin - Ballade in G Minor Op.23, Antoni Kontski - "L'lsolement". Meditation op. 47 and Marcel Chyrzynski - Reflection no.8 for Piano (American premiere) played by Slawomir Dobrzanski - piano with poetry readings by Weronika Wozniak of poems by Maja Trochimczyk inspired by the music of Chopin. After the intermission Fei-Fei played Claude Debussy's Suite Pour le Piano " Bergamasque": Prélude, Menuet, Clair de lune, Passapied and Fryderyk Chopin's Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise in E-flat Major Op.22.

Photo by Elżbieta Popławska from her review in Nowy Dziennik.

As journalist Elzbieta Popławska wrote in a review in Nowy Dziennik, “Weronika Woźniak, a Polish actress with great charm and talent, hosted the last evening of the festival. Weronika was born and raised in Poland. She graduated from acting school in New York. He is trying to conquer the New York scenes and break into the acting elite. She has already performed in many New York theaters, as well as in the Teatr im. Juliusz Słowacki in Krakow.” The first pianist was a talented sixteen-year-old student who currently studies music and often appears in concerts in New York.  In addition to  the Ballade op. 23 by Fryderyk Chopin, and a piece by Antoni Kątski, Dobrzanski gave the American premiere of a work by Marceli Chyrzyński, a graduate of the Academy of Music in Krakow, who teaches composition there as full professor since 2020. He holds the full range of Polish academic titles: Prof. dr. hab. In her review, Popławska thus described Prof. Sławomir Dobrzański: “an outstanding Polish pianist who distinguished himself with his playing technique and expressive performance.”

The reviewer reserved the most enthusiastic praise for the pianist of the second half of the program, Fei-Fei of China, who had won Concert Artists Guild competition and was a finalist of the 14th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition. The non-musical aspects of the evening were provided by an  audiovisual installation "Where is Chopin" was prepared by Jarosław Kapuściński, a pianist and composer who studied in Poland at the Chopin Academy of Music and in Paris. He received his doctorate at the University of California and is  a professor at Stanford University.

Chopin Monument in Lazienki, Warsaw, photo by Maja Trochimczyk

As Kapuściński wrote in the program note for his work, "Where is Chopin (audiovisual projection, 2010, 31 min) explores the relationships between facial expressions of people listening to Chopin's Pre- ludes Op. 28 and the artist's re-composition of the music. To carry out the project Kapuściński traveled to 12 cities around the world where Chopin has never set foot but where his music has a meaningful cultural presence. He conducted interviews and performed the preludes in one-on-one sessions with over a hundred music lovers in Beijing, Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Mexico City, San Francisco, Santiago, Seoul, Sydney, Tokyo, and Welling- ton. In each city he collaborated with a local photographer who documented the perceptions and emotions appearing on people's faces as they listened to or spoke about the music. The artist wanted to observe the psychological, perceptual and cognitive processes of music in its greatest human richness. The project shows how emotions emerge from music, how musical structures are interpreted, and what they mean to people around the world."

My three poems from the Chopin with Cherries anthology provided interludes for the music. They were recited by actress Weronika Wozniak, a graduate of Acting Conservatory at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. While still in school, Weronika’s first short film Lost In The Wind dir. by Dan L. Nguyen Phan was screened at Cannes Film Festival. Upon graduation, since 2016 she has performed on numerous Off- and Off-Off-Broadway stages as well as in Hollywood Fringe Festival, Juliusz Slowacki Theater in Krakow, and Polish Theater Institute. Currently, Weronika is hosting a radio program “Trochę Kultury” at Nasze Radio USA – a young Polish international radio that boomed during the pandemic. Aside from acting, Weronika is a deshi at Ken Wa Kan Karate where she’s training for her black belt in Kyokushin/Oyama style.

Veronika Wozniak recites Chopin with Cherries poems

The Chopin with Cherries poems have been posted on this blog, but let’s read them again, while listening to Chopin’s music. They are all based on memories of my Polish childhood, saturated with Chopin's music.

A Study with Cherries

After Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1 and the cherry orchard

of my grandparents, Stanisław and Marianna Wajszczuk

I want a cherry,

a rich, sweet cherry

to sprinkle its dark notes

on my skin, like rainy preludes

drizzling through the air.

Followed by the echoes

of the piano, I climb

a cherry tree to find rest

between fragile branches

and relish the red perfection –

morning cherry music.

Satiated, sleepy,

I hide in the dusty attic.

I crack open the shell

of a walnut to peel

the bitter skin off,

revealing white flesh –

a study in C Major.

Tasted in reverie,

the harmonies seep

through light-filled cracks

between weathered beams

in Grandma’s daily ritual

of Chopin at noon.

Here's the famous Etude in White, Chopin's Etude in C Major, Op. 10, No. 1 played by Maurizio Pollini:

Postcard with Chopin's portrait and his birthplace in Zelazowa Wola.

Harvesting Chopin

 ~ for my Grandma Nina Trochimczyk and father Aleksy Trochimczyk, who took me harvesting

The straw was too prickly,

the sunlight too bright,

my small hands too sweaty

to hold the wooden rake

my uncle carved for me.

I cried on the field of stubble;

stems fell under his scythe.

I was four and had to work –

Grandma said – no work no food.

How cruel! I longed for

the noon’s short shadows

when I’d quench my thirst

with cold water, taste

the freshly-baked rye bread

sweetened by the strands

of music wafting from

the kitchen window.

Distant scent of mazurkas

floated above the harvesters

dressed in white, long-sleeved shirts

to honor the bread in the making

The dance of homecoming

and sorrow – that’s what

Chopin was in the golden air

above the fields of Bielewicze

where children had to earn their right

to rest in the daily dose of the piano –

too pretty, too prickly, too bright

My most popular and most often read poem from the Chopin with Cherries anthology is a recipe for mazurka of emigrants, a recipe - since the word "mazurka" refers both to a cake and the dance.  More information about the anthology is here:

Easter table in Trochimczyk's home in Poland in 1983, Warsaw, Poland.

How to Make a Mazurka

                        After Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4,

                        for my Grandparents, Stanisław and Marianna Wajszczuk,

                        who could play and bake their mazurkas like no one else

          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

            mix it – round and round to dizziness

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

add chopped walnuts, figs, dates

and raisins, pour in some juice

from bittersweet grapefruit

freshly picked in your garden

            mix it – round and round to dizziness


add dark grey of rainclouds in Paris

that took Chopin back to the glimmer

of candles in an old cemetery

on the evening of All Souls’ Day

            mix it – round and round to dizziness

bake it in the cloudless heat

of your exile, do not forget to sprinkle

with a dollop of sparkling crystals,

first winter’s snowflakes at midnight 

Here’s the Mazurka Op. 17 no. 4 played by Helen Grimaud:

A Chocolate Mazurka with Almonds and Candied Orange Peel

After the concert, Slawomir Dobrzanski commented: "Your poems are beautiful! The festival audience in New York City loved them. Dzięki!"  The poems were also noted by Stan Borys and Marek Probosz who both attended the concert. Thank you for the kind words and special thanks to Jakub Polaczyk for including my work in the program. 

He earlier interviewed me, Jarek Kapuscinski, and Marek Zebrowski for his radio program, now available in podcast format.