Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chopin's Death, Mortality and Halloween (Vol. 1, No. 12)

October in America is filled with the excitement of Halloween. Now, that’s a strange celebration! People dress up as zombies. They scatter eyeballs, skeletons, and torn, bloody limbs around their houses. They convert their gardens into makeshift graveyards… All to scare death away. The spiritual roots of Halloween are in Druidic rituals of the Winter Solstice, a holiday of darkness, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year. What if the night won and the sun never came back?

Monsters, ghouls, and horrible, terrifying, dangerous creatures of the dark are supposed to be roaming the world that night, saying “trick or treat” – “bribe me, or I’ll kill you.” In a highly commercialized current version of this celebration, a wild party-season culminating on October 31, we conquer our fear of death by dressing up like the dead and dressing our children like cute little ghouls and monsters, to cheat and trick death, pretending we are already dead. There is more to it, of course, beyond the candy giveaway and all-night, carnival parties. To me, this is a day dedicated to fear and rejection of death. We want to live forever. We mock and deny the power of death, by ridiculing it in the most atrocious way possible. People love Halloween. I’m deeply conflicted about it. As a mother, though, I made my share of costumes…

I remember going to a cemetery on October 31, during my first year in Canada, two months after coming from Poland. It was a culture shock. There was nobody there, the place was abandoned. In the city, stores and yards were full of make-believe tomb-stones, with sculls scattered around and zombies’ hands sticking out of the ground, but nobody went to bring candles and flowers to real graves. In Poland, at this time of the year, we used to visit the grave-sites of our grandparents, great grandparents, or soldiers, or victims of the war. We used to bring candles to these gravesites and monuments. In the rain, in quickly falling darkness of a late autumn evening, cemeteries and war memorial sites were shrouded by the warm glow of thousands of candles. People wanted to remember their dead, their fore-bearers. They wanted to reflect on the past, think about their own mortality.

The All Souls’ Day, October 31, is a melancholy, yet comforting remembrance of our ancestors and a time for reflection on our own place in the dance of generations. In Warsaw, where we had no family graves to visit, we went to the monuments of the fallen: the Unknown Soldier, the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. (A handful of underground Home Army soldiers held out for 63 days before being defeated by the Germans, while the Allies waited for the city to bleed to death). We walked through the alleys of Powazki, the oldest cemetery in town, visited the graves of famous Poles. We brought lots of candles; children ran around and made sure all the candles were burning. They had fun: played with fire, skipped over puddles, collected dry, colorful leaves. Adults walked with their umbrellas, and said “shh, shhh… be quiet, this is a cemetery, a place of peace and eternal rest.”

The Chopin tombstone at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and the memorial tablet at the column in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, where his heart is enshrined are surrounded by fresh bouquets of flowers year-round. The gifts of flowers, pictures, or piano keys are especially profuse on his death anniversary, October 17, 2010. Admirers of his music post photographs on various Facebook groups. There is a wonderful sequence with interviews carrying gifts to the shrine of their beloved composer in Ophra Yerushalmi's documentary, Chopin's Afterlife.

A life cut short in his 39th year, a creative talent destroyed by an incurable illness, the most romantic “consumption”—all these elements featured prominently in the poetic and artistic responses to his music. Liszt’s narrative of the last days and hours of the dying pianist established this literary trope of mortality/morbidity. Many other essayists and writers, including Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868-1927), sought to identify the spiritual quality of art created at the threshold of death. Przybyszewski and Polish composer Zygmunt Nowskowski (1846-1909) elaborated on the topic of the “typically Slavic” feeling of the unspecific, yet overwhelming, “sorrow” (“żal” or “żałość”) and nostalgia permeating Chopin’s music.

In Chopin iconography, angels of death appeared quite often. I found a couple of vintage postcards of the most famous theme from this thread, Chopin's last hour, without a crowd of well-wishers and mourners surrounding the dying musician, but with angels waiting to snatch the soul of the consumptive virtuoso. There's a white angel and a dark one, bringing to mind a line from Rilke...

I have not written any poems about Chopin's death, nor about Halloween, but I have written about remembering the dead and angels, entitling a section of my book Miriam's Iris, or Angels in the Garden "Thanatos" - the angel of death. my father, Aleksy Trochimczyk (b. 25 September 1927, d. 11 May 2001). After my parents were shot by robbers in their own home in April 2000, he was in the hospital for the first five months and on blood transfusions and dialysis for the next eight. Then, he died. His last words to me were a joke about his predicament: due to the severity of his injuries, his bone marrow stopped producing blood cells and he lived on transfusions, received every two weeks. He said: “I have become a vampire, I live off other people’s blood.” We laughed, sharing a silly joke. A week later he was dead. My wreath for his funeral was made of white roses and lilies, the color of fresh snow that blankets the earth in winter’s rest:

Thanatos 5

white sun and white clouds
over white valley

white lilies and roses
in a wreath
on my father’s tomb

white yucca flames
burn the hills like candles
of the funeral
in sparse, white air

brides are shrouded
in the white fog of nothing
they dissolve
into the holiness

of their vows

widows’ black
is a solid protection
from the whiteness

of death
that kills colors
of life’s rainbow
slowly fading into the white
skeleton of pain

© 2001 by Maja Trochimczyk

This poem, published in Miriam's Iris, or Angels in the Garden, (Moonrise Press, 2008) came to me on the plane, when I was looking out the window over the vast expanse of whiteness below, suspended in the timelessness of the sky. Clouds look like snow; they are both made of water.

“Thanatos” of the title is the angel of death from ancient Greek mythology. (He is a twin of “Eros” – the angel of desire.) He came quietly to help people fall asleep and go to their rest. In the ancient Greek tradition, their spirits went to Elysian Fields for an eternity of melancholy serenity, gradually forgetting the world of the living. It was not quite the blazing light of glorious Christian Heaven, but a sweet and welcoming place of eternal tranquility. First, they had to pay Charon to be ferried across the dark River Styx, then they drank the water of forgetfulness from the River Lethe, also called “Ameles Potamos” (River of Unmindfulness). That’s why they were buried with coins. Even in 1987, my Eastern-Orthodox, Belorussian (not Greek) grandmother, was buried with coins on her eyelids. This ancient ritual survived the change of religions, the fall of empires.

Ameles Potamos

~ to Taoli-Ambika Talwar

Your sky is from another planet
a parallel universe of dangerous beauty
seducing us with pink’n’orange sweetness
before it, too, dissolves in the infinity
of Elysian fields on the other side of the river
we have to cross after drinking from Lethe,
waters of forgetfulness and freedom

The sky darkens into crimson,
blood clouds thicken, illuminated
by flickering light points and clusters
of a thousand candles in cemeteries
remembering death on All Souls’ Day

- (C) 2009 by Maja Trochimczyk

This poem belongs in a string of Facebook poetic conversations. Taoli-Ambika posted a great photo and a poem about invisible Octobers, Lois P. Jones responded with a poem, Susan Rogers wrote "Longing for October" and J. Michael Walker responded with a poem. This is my response – with allusions to Greek mythology and Catholic rituals. I abhor chain letters threatening me with doom, if I don't forward some weird blessing or prayer (25 years of bad luck? I gave in to pressure on that one.) Yet, this chain of poetry was certainly worthwhile. I felt so grateful for having such talented, inspiring friends.

I'm also grateful for having been raised listening to Chopin. Internalizing the beauty and passion of this music shaped me as a poet and a person. I too, bring him a gift of flowers for his twin tombstones. Many poets in Chopin with Cherries have written about his illness and death. I'll revisit this topic later.


Illustrations: Vintage postcards from my personal collection.

1. Postcard of a model of Chopin’s hand by Augusto Clepenger, France, ca. 1910.

2. Postcard Chopin’s Last Chords, based on a painting by A. Setkowicz, Ostatnie akordy Chopina / Chopinovy Dozvuky / Chopin’s Letzte Akkorde .Kraków, ca. 1900.

3. Postcard with a caption in Polish: “Portrait of Chopin on his death bed, according to a watercolor by T. Kwiatkowski.” Published in Lwów: Nakł. Spółki Wydawniczej “Postęp,” n.d., ca. 1910.

4. Postcard The Last Chords of Chopin, based on a painting by Fr. Klimes, Les derniers accords de Chopin. Published by BKWI (Bruder Kohn) in Vienna, Austria, c. 1900-1910.

5. Photograph of flowering yucca (also known as God's candle) in June, Tujunga Canyon, California. By Maja Trochimczyk

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mark Tardi about Chopin (Vol. 1, No. 11)

One of the poets published in the anthology, Chopin with Cherries, Mark Tardi, sent me his answers to a set of four questions I intended to ask of all the poets who wrote about Chopin. The questions and answers are below.

1. What is your earliest or most intense memory associated with Chopin's music?

Both my earliest and most intense memory of Chopin stems from an episode of Woody Woodpecker I watched when I was 7 years old. It was the early version of Woody, where he was scarier and far less cute than the later version, and Woody basically terrorized Andy Panda during a piano recital. Andy was heroically determined to play Chopin's famous polonaise while Woody tried everything he could to derail his efforts: jump on his hands; pull the piano away from him; hack up the piano with an ax, and eventually set it on fire. I remember that Andy struck the final chords of the polonaise just as the flaming piano collapsed into cinders.

I loved everything about the cartoon: the passion, determination, music, chaos. Years later as a high school student I was working at a supermarket and a friend gave me a compilation of somebody named Chopin. I went home and played the CD and when I heard the polonaise I said out loud "That's the guy from Woody Woodpecker!" Of course it turns out he had something of a career long before then.

2. Why do you like Chopin's music and what does it mean to you?

The short answer would be that I connect with his emotional register. There are no giveaway silences in Chopin. And his unparalleled commitment to coax out every hum of possibility in the piano, the singular vulnerability, is one of the most beautiful and intimate gestures in the history of music.

3. What is your favorite piece by Chopin and what do you like about it?

Though it's difficult to single out, his nocturnes are deeply important to me -- and so many of them are incredible. But if pressed, probably I'd say Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72, No. 1. The relentless desolation, breathless insistence, the tragic advance and recede envelopes me to the core. The variable emotional texture of the piece, so much nuance and turn, and the little nods to Schubert . . . it all leaves me devastated and grateful.

4. Do you like cherries, if not what is your favorite fruit?

I do like cherries, but I'm not sure I'd call them my favorite fruit. My favorite fruit would either be white peaches or blood oranges.


Mark Tardi is the author of Euclid Shudders, a finalist for the 2002 National Poetry Series that was published by Litmus Press. He also wrote two chapbooks Airport music (Bronze Skull, 2005) and Part First-----Chopin’s Feet (g o n g, 2005). Recent work of his can be found in Chicago Review, Van Gogh’s Ear, and the anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Millennium. He is on the editorial board of Aufgabe, an international literary journal, where he is coordinating a project devoted to the work and influence of Polish poet Miron Białoszewski on contemporary poetry. He was the 2008/2009 Senior Fulbright Lecturer in American Literature & Culture at the University of Łódź, and his Airport Music is forthcoming from Burning Deck Press.

His contribution to our collection was prefaced with a quote from Witold Gombrowicz's Diary: "I much prefer the Chopin that reaches me in the street from an open window to the Chopin served in great style from the concert stage."


NOTE: Illustrations from vintage 19th-century postcards. Maja Trochimczyk Collection.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Chopin Songs in South Pasadena, 10/10/10 at 6 p.m.

The wonderful and colorful Polish Festival Los Angeles (September 25-26, 2010) had its share of Chopin's music and poetry, thanks to Karolina Naziemiec who invited us, poets Mira Mataric, Susan Rogers, and Lois P. Jones, and over 10 amazing pianists, from age four, to professionals with the highest academic credits. We will post some photos and comments here soon. Time to look ahead, though, at an event that's scheduled for next weekend.

Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club in Los Angeles invites all music lovers to a free Concert of Romantic Music by Polish musicians based in New York, mezzosoprano Marta Wryk and pianist Adam Kośmieja. They will perform a recital of romantic songs, celebrating the 200th birth anniversary of Fryderyk Chopin, including songs and piano works by Chopin and songs by Antonin Dvorak. The concert will take place at the elegant South Pasadena Library Community Room (1115 El Centro St. South Pasadena, CA 91030) at 6:00 p.m., on Sunday, October 10, 2010.


  • Antonin Dvorak - Gypsy Songs, Op.55
  • My Song of Love Rings Through the Dusk / Má píseň zas mi láskou zní
  • Hey, Ring Out, My Triangle / Aj! Kterak trojhranec můj přerozkošně zvoní
  • All Round About the Woods are Still / A les je tichý kolem kol
  • Songs My Mother Taught Me / Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala
  • Come and Join the Danci / Struna naladěna, hochu, toč se v kole
  • The Gypsy Songman / Široké rukávy a široké gatě
  • Give a Hawk a Fine Cage / Dejte klec jestřábu ze zlata ryzého

  • Fryderyk Chopin - Music for Piano
  • Mazurka in B Major, Op. 56 No. 1
  • Mazurka in C Major, Op. 56 no. 2
  • Etude in C Minor, Op. 10, No. 12, "Revolutionary"

  • Fryderyk Chopin - Selected Songs, Op. 74
  • A Wish / Życzenie
  • Where he likes / Gdzie lubi
  • A Lithuanian Song / Piosnka litewska
  • A Lovely Boy / Śliczny chłopiec
  • A Sorrowful River / Smutna rzeka
  • A Soldier / Wojak
  • A Wild Party / Hulanka
  • My Darling / Moja Pieszczotka
  • Melody / Melodia


    Born in Poznań, Polish mezzo-soprano Marta Wryk has been active as a recitalist and opera singer performing in Europe and the United States since 2004. Recently Ms Wryk won the first prize in the 15th International Voice Competition in Gorizia, Italy, where she was the youngest participant. Last year the young artist had her debut at the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater where she performed Prince Orlowsky in Die Fledermaus. This year she appeared as Mirtillo in Handel`s Il Pastor Fido, also at the Manhattan School of Music, and she was praised for her clear sound and assured presence. This summer Ms. Wryk was covering Gondi in Maria di Rohan in prestigious Bel Canto at Caramoor Festival.

    While attending voice classes at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music In Warsaw, Ms Wryk appeared in many operas and operatic ensembles, in roles including Dorabella in Cosi Fan Tutte, 3rd Lady in Der Zauberflöte, Idamante in Idomeneo Re Di Creta, and Ms. Quickly in Falstaff.

    Ms Wryk performed at the Caramoor Music Festival in New York, International Festival Art-Connection in Rotterdam, First International Baroque Festival in Warsaw and IVth Forum of Baroque Music in Warsaw. She also sung for Henryk Wieniawski Music Society in Poznan, Kammeropere Schloss Rheinsberg in Germany, Kosciuszko Foundation and De Lamar Mansion in New York. This spring brought Ms. Wryk to Albuquerque where she performed a recital with great American instrumentalists Kevin Kenner and William De Rosa and to Toronto where she performed arias from Carmen with Toronto Sinfonietta. Her future concert engagements include recitals in Symphony Space in New York,Chopin Foundation in Miami and in Teatro Comunale in Ferrara, Italy. In her still young career, she has been selected for master classes by such artists as: Franc Corsaro, Ileana Cotrubas, Tom Krause, Helena Łazarska, Alison Pearce, Simon Standage, Wiesław Ochmann and Jerzy Marchwiński.

    Ms. Wryk graduated with distinction from the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music In Warsaw. In 2004-2007 she was studying in the College of The Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in the Humanities at Warsaw University. She majored in musicology and was under the tutorial of legendary Polish musicologist Michał Bristiger. Currently she is studying Voice at the Manhattan School of Music under Maitland Peters.

    In addition to her musical performances, Ms. Wryk is also active as a musicologist, poet and writer. She has won numerous competitions for young poets and writers. Her poems and essays were printed in important Polish literature journals and magazines such as Zeszyty Literackie, Gazeta Wyborcza and Arkusz. Currently she is publishing her music reviews and articles in Przegląd Polski of Nowy Dziennik.

    During summers she also serves as a tutor for Polish Children’s Fund, teaching class about opera. In appreciation of her numerous achievements in both music and humanities, Ms. Wryk has been awarded scholarships from Polish Children’s Fund, the Ministry of Education, the Prime Minister of Poland, Business and Professional Women`s Club, Leszek Czarnecki Foundation and Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union. Ms. Wryk is a also a recipient of the Manhattan School of Music Scholarship.

    Adam Kośmieja was born in Bydgoszcz, Poland, started playing piano at the age of six, and first performed with orchestra at the age of eleven. For 13 years, he studied with Dr.Ludmiła Kasyanenko, at The Arthur Rubinstein High School of Music in Bydgoszcz, Poland. He currently studies with Solomon Mikowsky at the Manhattan School of Music, New York. At the same time he is a student at the Feliks Nowowiejski Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz, Poland in Jerzy Sulikowski's class. A first-prize winner at the Chopin Piano Competition at Columbia University, New York (2010) he also received First Prize at Mieczysław Munz Piano Competition, New York (2009). He performed in the U.S., Poland, France, & Sweden.

    I hope that all poets and lovers of Chopin's music will join us for this wonderful celebration of his 200th Birth Anniversary in South Pasadena. For more information about the organizers, Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club in Los Angeles, visit the organization's Website or my ModjeskaClub Blog.


    October 14-21, 2010: The 11&1/2 Polish Film Festival Los Angeles is around the corner, and the festival organizers look forward to celebrating with you the achievements of Polish filmmakers from October 14 to 21, 2010. The exact program will be posted on the Festival's website, Polish Film Festival 11 1/2.