Friday, December 21, 2012

On Chopin and Polish Christmas Carols (Vol. 3, No. 13)

Time for Christmas, again...and time to remember "Lulajze, Jezuniu" - the beloved Christmas lullaby that Chopin quoted in his first Scherzo, Op. 20 in B Minor, while staying in Vienna after leaving Poland forever in 1830. The drama of the November uprising and the distance from his beloved family, coupled with anxiety and a foreboding of no return, put the young composer in an emotional turmoil, expressed most poignantly in his famous Stuttgart Diaries.

Like the private journal entries, the Scherzo provides an outlet for outpouring of emotion and is permeated with flights of desperation. The sweet lullaby provides a moment of serenity in the midst of this emotional onslaught. It is a symbol of tranquility of home and familial love that, as Chopin felt in 1830, may have been lost forever...

           Lulajże, Jezuniu

1. Lulajże, Jezuniu, moja perełko,
Lulaj, ulubione me pieścidełko.
          Ref. Lulajże, Jezuniu, lulajże, lulaj!
A ty Go, Matulu, w płaczu utulaj. 

2. Zamknijże znużone płaczem powieczki,
Utulże zemdlone łkaniem usteczki.  
          Ref. Lulajże, Jezuniu, lulajże, lulaj!
A ty Go, Matulu, w płaczu utulaj. 

3. Lulajże, piękniuchny nasz Aniołeczku,
Lulajże, wdzięczniuchny świata Kwiateczku. 
        Ref. Lulajże, Jezuniu, lulajże, lulaj!
A ty Go, Matulu, w płaczu utulaj.  

Hush, Little Jesus

Hush, Baby Jesus, my little pearl
Hush, my beloved sweet-pea doll
   Hush, Little Jesus, hush, do not cry
   And you, dear Mommy, comfort him now

Close your tiny eyelids tired of crying
Close your little mouth faint of sobbing
   Hush, Little Jesus, hush, do not cry
   And you, dear Mommy, comfort him now

Hush, our beautiful cherub so sweet
Hush, our graceful bloom of the world
   Hush, Little Jesus, hush, do not cry
   And you, dear Mommy, comfort him now

(trans. Maja Trochimczyk)


Poles around the world celebrate the beloved holiday starting on Christmas Eve, with a formal "Wigilia" dinner, that though sumptuous and featuring 12 different dishes, like the 12 apostles, is supposedly a "fasting" meal, without meat or meat products. When the first star is seen on the horizon, families sit down to a dinner with one empty place setting left for Divine Presence, or an uninvited guest who might show up on the doorstep on this most holy of nights.

Polish composers of carols and Nativity-themed polyphonic music in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance included Cyprian Bazylik (1535-1591), the author of "Mądrość Ojca Wszechmocnego" (the Wisdom of the Almighty Father). Wacław z Szamotul (or Szamotulski), Wacław of Szamotuły (Venceslaus Samotulinus, Schamotulinus, Samotulius, 1520-1560) wrote a carol, Pieśń o narodzeniu Pańskim (Song about the Lord's Birth) among many sophisticated polyphonic compositions. Mikołaj Zielenski (1550?-after 1616) composed magnificent, large-scale polychoral pieces that have little in common with the humble carols, except the sentiment of praising the birth of Christ ("Adoramus Te") and the love of his dedicated Mother ("Magnificat" and "O Gloriosa Domina").

The dinner on a white tablecloth covering a bit of hay, starts with sharing best wishes for the next year, breaking a white rectangular wafer called "oplatek" and with the Christmas carol, "Wsrod nocnej ciszy..." (In the Silence of the Night). The dishes include pickled herring, pumpernickel, kapusta wigilijna (sourkraut stewed with dried mushrooms, prunes, and raisins), various mushroom and fish dishes, beet soup with mushroom-stuffed pierogi and "uszka" (mini-pasta), a variety of gingerbread, shortbread, and poppy-seed desserts, and "kompot wigilijny" (a compote made with several kinds of dried fruit).

The Polish Christmas carols provide a unique soundtrack to this celebration and having these carols along with early Polish music provides an unforgettable atmosphere at the Wigilia table. "Lulajze, Jezuniu" (Hush, little Jesus), though dating back to the 17th century, is not the oldest Polish carol. It belongs among a genre especially popular in Poland, that of tranquil Christmas lullabies, that include also "Gdy sliczna Panna" (When the Lovely Virgin), "Jezus Malusienki" (The Tiny Baby Jesus), "Mizerna cicha stajenka licha" (The Poor, Still, Humble barn), and "Oj Maluski" (Oh, the Tiny One), the latter one in the "gorale" dialect of the foothills of Tatra Mountains.

Songs about Nativity retelling the various stories from the Gospels, have been sung since the introduction of Christianity to the kingdom; and rose in popularity in the 15th century, thanks to the efforts of Franciscans following in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi who made the first Nativity Scene and wrote several carols.
In Poland, Christmas-themed songs are divided into koledy (carols) and pastoralki (shepherd's songs), the latter with humorous or sentimental texts bringing the Nativity home to poor shepherds of Polish villages. The word "koleda" comes from the Latin Calendae, the "first day of the month".

"W Zlobie Lezy" (He Lies in a Manger), dating back to the fifteenth century, is one of the earliest Polonaises. Its text is attributed to the Polish Jesuit and famous patriotic preacher, Piotr Skarga, while the melody resembles the coronation polonaise of King Wladyslaw IV Waza.  The most famous of Polish carols - Polonaises is the magnificent "Bog Sie Rodzi" (God is Born), with text by Franciszek Karpinski dating back to 1792 and the melody reputedly used for the coronation of Polish kings back in the 16th century. These two Polonaises and "Lulajze Jezuniu," as well as many other Polish carols are in a lilting triple meter that suffuses Polish folklore with its characteristic flowing and graceful rhythm.

Not all the carols are in triple meter, of course. Here's a stately "march" about the angel and the shepherds:

The officially approved religious carols were gathered in a variety of Church Songbooks, for instance in the early 19th-century songbook "Śpiewnik kościelny" (Church Hymnbook, 1838-53) edited by Michał Marcin Mioduszewski. The very first recorded Polish Christmas carol was "Zdrow bądź, krolu anjelski" (Hail, the Angelic King) from the 14th century.

Other earliest koledy were based on Latin melodies with texts adapted into Polish. "Chwalmyż wszyscy z weselem" (Let Us All Praise with Joy) and "Pieśń o narodzeniu Pańskim" (Song about the Lord's Birth) were both based on the melody of the Latin "Dies est laetitiae." The Polish carol "Ojca niebieskiego" (Of Heavenly Father's) used a melody known in the whole Europe. "Dzieciątko dostojne z błogosławionej Dziewice Maryjej" (The Honourable Child From Blessed Virgin Mary) was based on Latin carol "Salve parvule." "Narodził się nam dziś niebieski" (Today, the Heavenly Lord was born unto us) was a version of medieval "Angelus Domini ad pastores." "To-ć czas wdzięczny przyszedł" (A Graceful Time Has Come) was a variant of the Latin hymn of praise of angels, "Ave hierarchia."

We should not forget the "Melodie na Psałterz Polski" (Melodies to Polish Psalter), a pearl of Polish Renaissance music by the Protestant Mikołaj Gomółka (1535 - 1591?), though these lovely pieces are not carols at all... A very popular evening prayer by Waclaw of Szamotuly, "Juz sie zmierzcha" (Already it is Dusk) inspired Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki (1933-2010) to write his first String Quartet, extensively quoting from the tranquil Renaissance melody.

Stanislaw Niewiadomski (1859-1936), Feliks Nowowiejski (1887-1946), and Stanislaw Wiechowicz (1893-1963) made choral arrangement of Polish traditional carols that are popular until today. In 1946, in newly "liberated" and completely devastated Poland, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) made an arrangement of "Dwadzieścia kolęd" (Twenty Carols) for voice and piano. Forty years later, in 1984-89, he arranged these carols for soprano, female choir and chamber orchestra; this version often graces the concert stages around the world.

Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki used echoes of "Silent Night" in the ending of his String Quartet no. 2 (1991). Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) extensively quotes "Silent Night" in his Second Symphony, subtitled the Christmas Symphony and marking his return to neo-Romanticism after cutting-edge experiments of the earlier years.

There are many more Polish carol settings by classical composers, and multiple versions of carols by popular musicians, including even such giants of Polish jazz as Urszula Dudziak, or of Polish rock as Slawomir Krajewski (who wrote several carols to texts by Agnieszka Osiecka that became classics in their own right).

Merry Christmas, everyone!



I'm quoting the titles of the earliest Polish carols from an outstanding website Completorium Polish Early Music Collection, created by Boguslaw Krawczyk and featuring Polish earliest Christmas Carols. This site is included in the Kunst der Fuge international site on Medieval and Renaissance Music.

 More in-depth studies and comments on Polish music may be found on the blog of Prof. Adrian Thomas,
"On Polish music and other Polish topics."

For a study of "Religious Folklore in Chopin's Music" by Jan Wecowski, including the incipit of the "Lulajze Jezuniu" carol copied above, see the article in the Polish Music Journal of 1999.

Academic studies of Polish carols include: Polskie kolędy i pastorałki by Anna Szweykowska (Krakow: PWM Edition, 1985), in Polish, out of print.

Photos and stories from family albums of Maja Trochimczyk

Monday, November 26, 2012

Chopin at the AMS/SMT Conference in New Orleans (Vol. 3, No. 12)

References to Chopin's music abounded during many sessions of the Joint Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Society for Music Theory, and Society for Ethnomusicology held recently in New Orleans, LA.

Special AMS Session on Chopin's music was scheduled for Thursday, November 1, 2012. Chaired and organized by Prof. Jeffrey Kalberg (University of Pennsylvania), the sessionw was called "Chopin Revisited" and featured three papers by Chopin scholars:

1. Nationalizing the Kujawiak and Constructions of Nostalgia in Chopin’s Mazurkas - Halina Goldberg (Indiana University)

"Chopin used the slow mazurka—the kind widely but anachronistically called kujawiak—to summon nostalgia for the spatially and temporally distant—and mythical—Poland. But rather than referencing his homeland through the supposed identity of this dance, Chopin invokes it through musical styles and gestures typical of then-popular characteristic pieces typically marked by the adjectives pathétique, elegique, lugubre, triste, or mélancolique." (Halina Goldberg)

2. Ferruccio Busoni and the “Halfness” of Fryderyk Chopin: A Study about Gender Perception and Performance Interpretation - Erinn Knyt (University of Massachusetts)

"My analysis of a previously unpublished and un-translated essay by Busoni, “Chopin: eine Ansicht über ihn,” in conjunction with analyses of recordings, concert programs, and recital reviews, connects Busoni’s unconventional Chopin interpretations to an idiosyncratic perception of Chopin’s character. Busoni’s essay shows that he too acknowledged a “poetic,” “feminine,” and “emotive” side in the music commonly attributed to effeminate perceptions of Chopin at the time. Yet he simultaneously perceived “half- manly” and “half-dramatic” elements in the music and in Chopin’s character—that is, a heroic monumental side—as well. What he strove to portray in his interpretations was the “whole” of Chopin and his music. He sought to distance himself from the gendered “halfness,” as he called it, which informed contemporaneous interpretations. In so doing, he became a pioneer of Chopin programming and interpretation." (Errin Knyt)

3. The Institution of the International Chopin Piano Competition and Its Social and Cultural Implications -
Tony Lin (University of California, Berkeley)

"By examining the competition’s founding, sponsorships, participants and public reception, I show that what began as an effort to understand Chopin’s music better became much more than a musical affair. I argue that Poles continue to appropriate Chopin for political purposes, as they did in partitioned Poland, where cultural artifacts such as Chopin’s music were critical because they came to constitute the “Polishness” for which the Poles were desperately searching. .. Even though Chopin is now a household name internationally, his music was less popular both inside and outside of Poland prior to 192 7. The competition has played an instrumental role in strengthening the image of Chopin as Poland’s national “bard” while exporting this image to the wider world." (Tony Lin)

Also on November 1, 2012, the Society for Music Theory featured a session on "Schumann and Chopin" with two papers on Chopin:

1. Sonata Form in Chopin: An Evolutionary Perspective - Andrew I. Aziz (Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester)

2. Modeling a Physical Dominant Transformational Relation in Chopin—the Handnetz - James Bungert (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Another session, on "Gesture and Music", held on November 2, 2012, started from a paper about Chopin by Margaret Britton (University of Texas at Austin): Four Gestural Types in Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, no. 3.

Those who wanted to hear Chopin played, instead of listening to scholars talking about him, had a treat on Saturday, November 3, 2012. The noon Lecture Recital by Sezi Seskir (Bucknell University) was entitled "Stolen Time: Temporal Shaping through Musical Markings in the Nineteenth Century." The lecture-recital used examples of tempo rubato in the music of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms.

"After 1828 Chopin started using the term rubato in his scores, yet this was not the only license he gave the performer in matters of flexible time. Similar to Schumann and later Brahms, he provided a richer vocabulary of markings in his scores to inform the performers more precisely about his musical intentions. A close study of these markings in light of treatises from the early nineteenth century reveals indications not only about change of dynamic and touch but also about a flexible treatment of time that can help the performer shape music expressively, enabling moments of intimacy to be created in a threshold of regular pulse. The fantasy as a genre welcomes the use of tempo rubato more than any other, owing to its looser, more flexible form. The Polonaise-Fantasie, op. 61 of Frédéric Chopin,  the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, op. 17, and Seven Fantasias op. 116, nos. 1 and 4 of Johannes Brahms offer interesting examples of the rich and detailed use of accentuation markings that serve to inspire the player to use a subtle amount of flexibility of time." (Sezi Seskir) 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On the Gifts of Krakow – Hejnal and Krakowiak (Vol. 3, No. 11)

The Marian Basilica, Krakow, Poland, photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Hejnal Mariacki

The silver tones of the trumpet brighten the crisp morning air. The trumpeter, unseen, plays from the top of the tower of the Marian Church in the Main Square of Kraków, Poland. It is still foggy and the streets are almost empty, save for delivery trucks and the most courageous flower sellers filling their vases with water in the market. The melody is called “Hejnal Mariacki” and named after the Marian Church where it is played four times at every hour from tower windows opening to the four directions of the world. The Hejnal flows and echoes off the rooftops until it suddenly ends, as if interrupted. This abrupt end, repeated each hour, every day (96 times per day, if all repetitions are counted) is a memorial of sorts.
A legend has it that during a Mongol invasion in the 13th century the Hejnal, played as a warning by the town’s guard, was cut short by an arrow that killed the trumpeter and the melody has been played the same way ever since. Actually, as documented by historian Jerzy Dobrzycki (Hejnal Krakowski, Kraków: PWM, 1983), there is no historical proof of that story and the first record of the melody’s existence dates back to 1392; it was initially played at dawn and dusk, to mark the opening and closing of the town’s gates. It has sounded daily since 1810, and the performances were institutionalized in 1873 when the professional Fire Brigade was created in Kraków and the firemen were given the task of playing the Hejnal. Since 1927, the Polish Radio has broadcast the noon performance nationwide. During my Polish childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, the noon performance was broadcast by Polskie Radio 1 (“Jedynka”); it is still on air daily.

The four repetitions of the melody, separated by the steady steps of the trumpeter walking from window to window, appear after the 12 strokes of the bell announcing noon. The bell, the steps, the squeaking windows, and the trumpet melody are all part of the performance on air. I regularly heard it only during summer vacations at my grandparents’ houses, since we did not listen to “Jedynka” at home, in Warsaw. I have always liked it, with its overtones of freedom and fun of the summer, with its air of mystery – What was that noise? Who’s walking?

Church Towers in Krakow, Poland, by Maja Trochimczyk
Krakow rooftops, with towers of Marian Basilica, by Maja Trochimczyk

In Kraków’s Main Square at 7. a.m.

The trumpet’s silver notes
Glisten in morning sunlight
Scatter over the rooftops
Cascade to the cobblestones
In waves of bejeweled music

Arise! This is a lovely day
Wake up, wake up with a smile
Give thanks and remember...

The crowned church towers
Fingers grasp clouds in the sky
Conceal the pattern of gold stars
Painted on indigo ceiling
Inside the gothic interior

In an ancient Basilica
Wit Stwosz’s medieval altar
Shines among incense and shadows
The forest of columns stretches
Back and forward in time

The trumpet’s silver notes
Glisten in morning sunlight
Scatter over the rooftops
Cascade to the cobblestones
In waves…

Ceiling of Marian Basilica, Krakow, Poland, by Maja Trochimczyk
Ceiling of the Marian Basilica, Krakow, (c) 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk


Chopin and Krakow

It is not clear if Chopin ever heard the Hejnal. He was from Mazowsze and the mazurka, not the krakowiak was close to his heart. When emigrating in 1829, he traveled via Krakow, but without stopping for long, he moved on to Vienna…By that time, the melody was played several times per day.

The best known of Chopin’s Krakowiak’s is Rondo à la Krakowiak in F major, Op. 14 for piano and orchestra. composed in 1828, with quotations from Paganini’s Caprices and  its virtuosity featuring stile brillante ornaments. The "Albosmy to jacy tacy" Krakowiak is quoted here. Stylistically similar is the krakowiak in the last movement of the Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 (written 1830, published 1833), as in the Rondo, it sparkles with stile brillante and youthful bravura.

There is only one study of Chopin krakowiak’s – “The Problem of the Krakowiak in Chopin’s Oeuvre” by Ludwik Bielawski (Problem krakowiaka w twórczości Chopina), published in The Book of the First International Musicological Congress devoted to the Works of F. Chopin: 16-22 II 1960 in 1963, edited by Zofia Lissa (Warszawa: PWN). Since the article takes only four pages (100-103), the topic is not exhausted.

Krakowiak or the Cracovienne

Krakowiak is a Polish dance from the region of Kraków, the old capital of Poland (used by the Piast and the Jagiełło dynasties) and the center of southern part of the country, called Małopolska (Little Poland). The common name used in English is cracovienne (from the French); in German the dance is known as Krakauer Tanz. The term refers to a group of dances from southern and central Małopolska, which are known by their places of origin (proszowiak from Proszów), or by the particular figures used in their choreography. According to the entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 ed.), "in its origins, the krakowiak seems to be connected with courtship ritual." The dance dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries when it was included in organ and lute tablatures, as well as songbooks, under such titles as Chorea polnica or Polnish Tanz

However, the first time that the name itself appeared in print was in Franciszek Mirecki's 1816 piano album, Krakowiaks Offered to the Women of Poland (Warsaw, 1816). In the mid-19th century, the krakowiak became a popular ballroom dance in Austria and France and grew to be regarded as a "national dance" of Poland (it competed with the polonaise). For Poland, this was the time of partitions and the unsuccessful uprisings (1831, 1848) which sought to regain the country's independence. The krakowiak, polonaise, and even mazurka, appeared in the Parisian salons as symbols of solidarity with the oppressed nation. At the same time, the krakowiak became a choice of composers who transformed it into an extensive and even virtuosic form, beginning from Fryderyk Chopin's Krakowiak (grand rondeau de concert) for piano and orchestra (op. 14, 1828; including a quotation of the popular "Albośmy to jacy tacy"), and including pieces by Zygmunt Noskowski, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and Roman Statkowski. As the result of this increased artistic stature, even the ballroom form of the dance grew in scope and the dance was transformed into a three-part form, with the music featuring a contrasting central section, and modulations to other keys.

Krakowiak woodcut by Zofia Stryjenska
The krakowiak is a fast dance in duple meter; it uses a characteristic syncopated pattern of short-long-short (or eight-note - quarter-note - eight-note) which allows one to recognize the dance form quite easily. Another variant is an eighth-note followed by an accented dotted quarter-note; both are illustrated below:

This pattern alternates with the simpler rhythm of two eighth-notes, plus one quarter-note (or: short-short-long). The phrases are symmetrically arranged in pairs of four measures each, though the texts of songs used in the krakowiak are grouped in four lines of six-syllables each. The melodies feature a great variety of patterns, with added extra notes, dotted rhythms, and passages based on triads.

The great popularity of the krakowiak among the American Polonia has antecedents in its widespread presence in American popular music since mid-19th century. A famous Austrian dancer, Fanny Elssler, presented the Cracovienne for her debut in New York: dressed in red boots, blue shirt, white jacket and velvet cap, she delighted her audiences and secured the position of this dance in the American popular repertoire. Aleksander Janta lists 32 Cracoviennes, 4 songs Cracovian Maid, and 5 Krakowiaks in his inventory of Polish dances composed in the U.S. at that time (A History of Nineteenth Century American-Polish Music, p. 114-124).

The krakowiak is set for several couples, among whom the leading male dancer sings and indicates the steps. According to the description in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the krakowiak is directed by the leading man from the first pair. As they approach the band, "the man, tapping his heels or dancing a few steps, sings a melody from an established repertory with newly improvised words addressed to his partner. The band follows the melody, and the couples move off in file and form a circle (with the leading couple back at the band). Thereafter verses are sung and played in alternation, the couples circulating during the played verses." There are several figures which appear in the different stages of the dance: the invitation phase, the running, the shuffling, the passing, etc. The three most characteristic steps are: the galop (fast running forward), the hołubiec (jump with clicking the heels and stamping; pl. hołubce), and the krzesany (this term is used as a name of a separate dance in the Podhale area, but here refers to a sliding motion of the feet with stomping).


The description of "Krakowiak" is from my entry on this topic on the Polish Dance in California website and in the Polish American Encyclopedia, McFarland, 2011.

The impressions from Krakow and listening to Hejnal appear in brief articles in the Ecomusicology Newsletter and the PAHA Newsletter (Fall 2012).

Photograph of Krakusy in Krakow, 1996, courtesy of Krakusy Polish Folk Dance Company.
Zofia Stryjenska "Krakowiak" - postcard from Maja Trochimczyk collection.
Kosciol Mariacki by Maja Trochimczyk, May 2012.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Living in the Present with Chopin, Pianists, and Poetry (Vol. 3, No. 10)

The three studies of Chopin's endless lists of relatives, friends and close of kin, that I selected for my summer reading, have completely exhausted me, so instead of finishing the third book (Chopinowie: Krag Rodzinno-Towarzyski, in Polish [The Chopins: A Familial-Social Circle] by Piotr Myslakowski and Andrzej Sikorski, wyd. Familia, 2005), I decided to write some poetry. 

The first poem is about poets and pianists, and is dedicated to the ghost of Fryderyk Chopin, hovering above the fingers of all aspiring pianists and haunting their dreams... The poem recently appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly Vol. 55 (Fall 2012).

Willows in Water, Boston, September 2012 photo by Maja Trochimczyk
Waves and Willows, (C) 2012  by Maja Trochimczyk

The Art of the Fugue

I prefer pianists to poets
passages of fancy on the keyboard
to the wool of words spun out to confuse

the sensuous touch of fingers
the flight of ivory starbirds
airwaves caressing my skin

I tremble when the pianist's chords
ascend beyond his shadow
into the rare, translucent heaven

with words, the passion's distant
conjured up, it lingers
emerging stealthily, an assassin

waiting to destroy indifference
from the crafty magician
of similes and synecdoches

poetry's dangerous to the poet
deluded by power to create
worlds evoked in brilliance

woven into nets of shifting meanings
the black spots on the page
hide a universe of wishful thinking

music is here to last - transient,
immortal, it carries you into yourself
the heartsong of ever now

My most recent project is publishing the same poem about living in the present in the greatest number of languages possible. Memento Vitae so far appeared in several publications in the original English, but was also translated into Serbian by Dr. Mirjana Mataric  (and published in a literary journal Svenske and in a daily newspaper Vecernje Novosti in Belgrade, in July 2012).  Only after the Serbian translation has proven to be such a big hit, I translated it into Polish, while Elizabeth Zapolska-Chappelle made a French version (reproduced below with the English), and Elsa Frausto, an Argentinian Californian of Slavic descent, has worked on a Spanish version. Having a poem, any poem, picked for publication by a major national daily paper is a reason for celebration. And I'd like to celebrate it by spreading the news about this poem and its impact, as a reflection on the meaning of life and the universe and everything... Other translators are welcome.

Water Droplet on a Leaf, Boston, September 2012 photo by Maja Trochimczyk

Memento Vitae

Let’s talk about dying,
The gasp of last breath.
The end - or maybe not,
We don’t know.

Let’s talk about the last day.
What would you do
If you knew?
Whom would you love?
Would you find your dearest,
Most mysterious love?
Or would you just stay
In the circle of your own?
Would you rob, steal
Or insult anyone?
Would you cry?
Burn your papers?
If the fabric of your future
Shrank to one day,
Or maybe an hour?

Let’s talk about living, then.
The next breath,
That will take you
To the next minute,
The next heartbeat.

Just about – now.

(c) 2008 by Maja Trochimczyk

Water Droplet on a Leaf, Boston, September 2012 photo by Maja Trochimczyk

Et si l’on chantait la mort?

Le bruit du dernier soupir ?
Est-il vraiment le dernier ?
Qui peut en être assuré…

Et si l’on chantait l’ultime jour ?
Comment serais-tu devenu
A l’annonce de son arrivée ?
Vers quel amour serais-tu allé ?
Vers le plus beau et l’inconnu,
Le plus mystérieux des amours ?
Ou vers celui qui t’accompagne
Depuis une éternité ?
Aurais-tu envie alors
De blesser, de voler quelqu’un ?
T’effondrerais-tu en larmes
Ou brûlerais-tu tes papiers ?
Si l’étoffe de ta vie entière
Se rétrécissait à un jour
Ou à une seule petite heure ?

Et si l’on chantait donc la vie ?
Avec le prochain soupir,
Qui te rapprochera
De la minute qui vient ?
D’un cœur qui bat à nouveau?

Maintenant. Juste – maintenant.

Translated by Elisabeth Zapolska-Chappelle, September 2012


As for Chopin's family and genealogy, yes, it is important and I hope that the three studies will be translated and published in English. At least a summary should be translated and used by his biographers who have access only to the secondary literature in English. There were so many branches in each family - cousins, people with the same name, and no relation... Previous biographers of Chopin would pick a name and assume because it was the same as used in Chopin's family (Krzyzanowski, for instance), its owners were surely members of Chopin's family as well as his ancestors. As Myslakowski and Sikorski documented these genealogies and family links, over more than 10 years of archival reasearch, it becomes clear that Chopin's family history is both more complicated and simpler than assumed. Let me finish by stating that not everyone is a cousin of everyone else...


NOTE: Photos from Boston's "Swan Lake" Park, September 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Chopin's Family Revealed - Three Books in Polish (Vol. 3, No. 9)

Cover of "Rodzina Matki Chopina" by Sikorski and Myslakowski
During my summer travel to Poland and two conferences on emigration, in Krakow and Gdansk, I met with my academic mentor and advisor, Prof. Zofia Helman of the University of Warsaw. After a light lunch at the faculty club in Kazimierzowski Palace, she promptly took me shopping to the Prus Bookstore across the Krakowskie Przedmiescie street.  My box of books on music has recently arrived with three biographical treasures about Chopin's family and circle of friends:

1. Rodzina Matki Chopina: Mity i Rzeczywistosc [The Family of Chopin's Mother - Myths and Reality], by Andrzej Sikorski and Piotr Myslakowski (Warszawa, Studio Wydawnicze Familia, 2000)

2. "Rodzina Ojca Chopina: Migracja i Awans" [The Family of Chopin's Father - Migration and Ascent] by Piotr Myslakowski (Warszawa, Studio Wydawnicze Familia, 2002)

3. "Chopinowie: Krag Rodzinno-Towarzyski" [Chopins - The Familial-Social Circle] by Piotr Myslakowski and Andrzej Sikorski (Warszawa, Studio Wydawnicze Familia, 2005).

The three books, available only in Polish, are based on decades of intense archival studies by the authors, as well as reports from archival studies by other scholars. They include numerous transcripts and translations of archival documents and debunk myths about the origins and upbringing of Fryderyk Chopin, the scion of French and Polish families that could be described as "lower middle class" today.

The French heritage of Chopin's father, Nicolas, was questioned by patriotic mythmakers in the past. Ideas that he was a descendant of Polish soldiers who settled in France were circulated at the end of the 19th century. Piotr Myslakowski shows conclusively that this, widely abandoned myth, had no grounds in facts. He also reveals surprises in Chopin's lineage.  His forefather moved from a small Alpine village of smugglers living in abysmal poverty to lower, border area of France that used to be a part of the kingdom of Lotharingia and is now called Lorraine region.

Cover  of "Rodzina Ojca Chopina" by  Piotr Myslakowski
Apparently, the great-great-...-grandfather of Chopin left the home village and never looked back. From the underclass of smugglers the family rose to the lower class of peasants and artisans in the village.  One of the Lorraine great-great-grandfathers of Chopin became a wheel-maker and a scribe, rising to a position of note in the community. His descendant, Nicolas, left his family behind at the age of 17 when he moved to Poland where he became first a live-in tutor of sons of noble families, and then a school professor and principal. In one step after another, the family rose from murky and far-less-than-respectable background through hard work, education, and the pursuit of virtues and moral values. The subsequent generations of Chopins in the three locations did not stay in touch. When the artistocrat-of-the-spirit Chopin moved to Paris to hobnob with princesses, he did not look up his aunts and cousins in Lorraine. They were peasants, he was a friend of aristocrats. They had nothing in common. His ample correspondence with his family shows intense affection for members of his immediate familial circle. But he had no interest, nor need to reach out beyond.

Similarly, the family of his mother came from humble roots. Not as humble as the French family: her kin were among impoverished gentry who often disappeared from historical records, as they did not own land or estates. The two scholars traced their history through the records of baptisms - the Krzyzanowski family members could be Godfathers or Godmothers to various children where they lived. Another lively and surprising source of family history was found in the court records of the warring, lawless "less-than-noble" members of the Polish landed gentry, whose pastime, it seems, was to sue each other and, in an absence of an execution of the sentence, raid their enemies and attack, injure or even kill them, while destroying or stealing their possessions. As an employee of such a brigand-noble, one of Justyna Krzyzanowska's forebearers is noted in several court records of this kind. Fascinating reading!

I have not yet started reading the "family circle" part of the three books, but I believe that it would be to the benefit of English-speaking Chopin lovers and scholars to have access to their English translations.  The books are written in a very engaging and engrossing fashion. I read the story about Chopin's father as if it were a murder mystery - and, in fact, a mystery solved it is. The sooner we have English versions, the better for all future scholars of Chopin's life and music.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Chopin's Prelude and the Prometheus, or Music vs. Aliens (Vol. 3, No. 8)

Chopin Portrait, Vintage Postcard from Maja Trochimczyk's Collection
Of all the preludes by Chopin, the one in D-flat Major, op. 28 no. 15, known as the "Raindrop" prelude, has attracted the most attention - among the poets and filmmakers, at least. . . I think it is because it is relatively easy to play; even I could learn it! And I was known in my music-making days as having two left hands on the keyboard. ..

In any case, this sublime melody (or rather, the sostenuto themes appearing in the A-sections of the ABA form) has recently been used in a new sci-fi film by Ridley Scott, "Prometheus." This pre-quel to the alien trilogy, focuses on the attempts of totally evil, poisonous alien creatures, both grossly slimy and supremely intelligent, to take over and destroy humanity.

Apparently, Ridley Scott has loved this melody for a long time and decided to use it both in the film and in the final credits as a symbol of what matters. Chopin's miniature becomes here the most delicate sign of our shared humanity, threatened and attacked by unbearable screeches of the alien life-killing life forms. [An account loosely based on an article in the Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2012]


Let's listen to the Prelude played by pianists who did not have two left hands:

  • Arthur Rubinstein: Prelude in D-flat Major, op. 28 no. 15, a tad too fast to my taste...
  • Martha Argerich: Prelude in D-flat Major, op. 28 no. 15, with amazing rubatos!
  • Maurizio Pollini; Prelude in D-flat Major op. 28 no. 15, this one is a concert encore, a great way to end an evening...

  • ________________________________

    Chopin's Room at Valldemosa, Mallorca, Vintage Postcard, Maja Trochimczyk Collection
    The "Raindrop" Prelude has been surrounded by stories and legends since its creation. Chopin wrote some of it during the fateful stay in the Monastery on the island of Mallorca, the city of Valldemosa in 1834. He got really sick and was suffering from hallucinations, nausea, and fevers. Some modern scholars claim that these were the symptoms of his poisoning with carbon monoxide, from a heater he had in the closed space of the cold cell where he was composing all day.

    George Sand wrote in her Histoire de ma vie that Chopin had a very peculiar vision or dream, while playing the piano and working on this prelude:

    He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds."


    Before the cosmic battle of Ridley Scott's aliens, film-makers used the Prelude in a variety of contexts, as listed on Wikipedia by anonymous sribes (thanks for all the work!):

    • In the 1979 James Bond movie Moonraker, villain Sir Hugo Drax plays the Raindrop Prelude in his chateau on a grand piano when Bond comes to visit.
  • The raindrop prelude is also featured on the soundtrack of the 1996 Australian film Shine about the life of pianist David Helfgott.

  • The prelude appears in the "Crows" section of Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams.

  • The prelude plays a pivotal role in the 1990 film version of Captain America. The piece is played at a childhood piano recital by the young prodigy who would become the Red Skull, and a recording of this incident is later played by the titular hero to delay the now-70-year-old Red Skull from detonating a nuclear bomb that would destroy all of Southern Europe, the detonator for which was also concealed in a grand piano.

  • The dramatic bridge of the prelude was used in an elaborate pre-release commercial for the video game Halo 3 as a part of the $10 million "Believe" ad campaign. The piece plays over close-up footage of a highly detailed diorama of an historically pivotal battle in the game's universe.

  • The piece appears in the John Woo film Face/Off in a seduction scene between Castor Troy and Eve Archer.

  • The prelude appears in the fantasy video game Eternal Sonata, where Chopin's music plays a major part.

  • The piece is studied as a 'Set Work' in the English exam board Edexcel's GCSE in Music.

  • The piece is used in the film Margin Call, as Kevin Spacey's character sleeps in his office but is then woken up by the prelude's climax.

  • The prelude is used in the English trailer for the Japanese film Battle Royale.

  • In addition, a music blog, The World's Greatest Music, mentions yet another TV appearance of Chopin's Prelude, in the credits of a 1980s show, Howard's End.

  • If you know of more ways to "kill" this perfectly beautiful piece of music, let me know...


    The Prelude No. 15 has long been a favorite of poets. In the anthology "Chopin with Cherries," there are no fewer than ten poems inspired by or mentioning this particular prelude. Christine Klocek-Lim goes back to the story by George Sand.  

    Prelude in Majorca  

    Christine Klocek-Lim  

    The wet day carried rain into night
    as he composed alone.
    With each note he wept
    and music fell on the monastery,
    each note a cry for breath
    his lungs could barely hold.
    Even as his world
    dissolved around him
    “into a terrible dejection,”
    he played that old piano in Valldemosa
    until tuberculosis didn’t matter;
    until the interminable night
    became more than a rainstorm,
    more than one man sitting alone
    at a piano, waiting
    “in a kind of quiet desperation”
    for his lover to come home
    from Palma.
    When Aurore finally returned
    “in absolute dark”
    she said his “wonderful Prelude,”
    resounded on the tiles of the Charterhouse
    like “tears falling upon his heart.”
    Perhaps she is right.
    Or perhaps Chopin “denied
    having heard” the raindrops.
    Perhaps in the alone
    of that torrential night
    he created his music simply
    to hold himself inside life
    for just one note longer.

    Prelude No.15 in D-flat Major, Op. 28. Quotes from Histoire de Ma Vie (History of My Life, vol. 4) by George Sand (Aurore, Baronne Dudevant).


    Another contemporary poet, Carrie Purcell thought about her music lessons...  

    Prelude in D-Flat Major, Opus 28, No. 15  

    Carrie A. Purcell  

    You have to
    my teacher said
    think of that note like rain,
    steady, but who,
    my teacher said
    wants to hear only that?
    On Majorca in a monastery
    incessant coughing
    covered by incessant composition
    and everywhere dripping
    sotto voce
    move the rain lower
    let it fill the space left in your lungs
    let it triumph
    We die so often
    we don’t call it dying anymore

    Friday, June 8, 2012

    On Hypnotic Modernism of Maciej Grzybowski (Vol. 3, No. 7)

    Maciej Grzybowski in Santa Monica, 2012 Photo by Maja Trochimczyk
    How can you tell if a pianist is good enough to be worth the effort of driving on our congested freeways to attend his concert on a Friday night, if you have never heard his name before? Hard to tell… perhaps, you should believe what others say about him.  You certainly should watch for the name of Maciej Grzybowski, an extraordinary Polish pianist, who recently visited Los Angeles upon the invitation of the Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club. On May 11, 2011, he performed a solo piano recital at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica.  From there, he went on to play for the Polish Arts and Culture Club of San Diego and then to appear in a recital in Montreal, Canada. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to state that as the President of the Modjeska Club I personally invited him to L.A., while his tour was sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute of Poland and supported by the Polish Consulate in Los Angeles). 

    The specially crafted Santa Monica program included music by Polish composers (Paweł Mykietyn, Witold Lutosławski, Paweł Szymański, and Fryderyk Chopin) juxtaposed with Western classics – Johannes Brahms, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. Some of the best music of the world, played by one of the best pianists you can ever hear…

    Born in 1968 and educated in Warsaw, Maciej Grzybowski is the winner of the First Prize and the Special Prize at the 20th Century Music Competition for Young Performers in Warsaw (1992). He made numerous phonographic, radio and television recordings as a soloist and chamber musician and collaborated with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by such conductors as Jan Krenz, Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki. From 1996 to 2000 Grzybowski was a co-director of the "NONSTROM presents" concert cycle in Warsaw. He took part in numerous music festivals in Poland, such as the Warsaw Autumn, Musica Polonica Nova, Witold Lutosławski Forum, Warsaw Musical Encounters, and the Polish Radio Music Festival. He also performed at the Biennial of Contemporary Music in Zagreb, Hofkonzerte im Podewil, Berlin and festivals in Lvov, Kiev, and Odessa (Ukraine). In March 2005, Grzybowski’s recital at the Mozart Hall in Bologna was recognized as the greatest music event of the 2000s. After Grzybowski’s U.S. debut in New York, in August 2006 EMI Classics released his second solo CD with works by Paweł Szymański (b. 1954). He also appeared in three concerts at the critically acclaimed Festival of Paweł Szymański's Music in Warsaw. In February 2008, Grzybowski premiered a Piano Concerto by an unjustly forgotten composer, Andrzej Czajkowski (Andre Tchaikovsky).

    After the 2004 release of Grzybowski’s first solo CD, Dialog, juxtaposing works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Alban Berg, Pawel Mykietyn, Arnold Schönberg and Pawel Szymanski, (Universal Music Polska), critics raved:
    ·       “His interpretations of Bach, Berg, Schönberg, Szymański and Mykietyn show the touch of genius! There are certainly none today to equal his readings of Bach! (...) How refreshing and exciting it is to be in the presence of such great art of interpretation, akin to a genius!”   (Bohdan Pociej).
    ·       “The performance of Berg’s youthful Sonata and Schönberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke could easily stand alongside the recordings of Gould or Pollini.”  (Marcin Gmys).

    Maciej Grzybowski performs at First Presbyterian Church, Maj 2012
    These exorbitant expressions of praise were seconded by attendees of the Santa Monica recital including composer Walter Arlen, the founder of the music department at Loyola Marymount University and for 30 years the most influential music critic of the Los Angeles Times. After the concert, he stated, “this was the best pianist I have ever heard in my life.” His praise was seconded by another listener, Howard Myers: “Maciej is a phenomenon, a marvel, a miracle, a special kind of genius.” The belief in Grzybowski’s exceptional talent is shared by the Director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Paweł Potoroczyn: “He is more than just a talented pianist – he is both a virtuoso of the highest order and a great musical personality.  The resultant unique combination is that of an uncommon musical genius that fully justifies comparing him with such masters as Glenn Gould or Maurizio Pollini.”

    While admitting to a personal bias towards someone who has dedicated years of his life to the music of Paweł Szymański, one of the greatest Polish composers who ever lived (as it will become apparent in 50 years, when the dust settles and musical diamonds will be found in the sea of ashes), I had no doubt that by bringing Maciej Grzybowski to California, I offered our audiences a special treat.  His recital exceeded even my already sky-high expectations. First the program: arranged in two distinct parts, pairing composers of different generations in a surprising dialogue of musical ideas.

    The youngest of the composers featured by Grzybowski was Paweł Mykietyn (b. 1971), his colleague and co-founder of the Nonstrom Ensemble where he has played the clarinet. In an entry on the Polish Music Information Center’s website affiliated with the Polish Composers’ Union, Mykietyn’s style is described in the following way:  “The composer ostentatiously applies the major-minor harmonies, introducing tonal fragments interspersed with harmonically free sections. He also makes use of traditional melodic structures, transforming them in his own individual manner. Mykietyn could be described as a model postmodernist, deriving his inspiration as well as material from all the available sources without any inferiority complex.” These words could well be applied to the virtuosic and wistful Four Preludes (1992) that opened the program with their contrasting moods, textures and tempi.

    Maciej Grzybowski with Howard Myers and Prof. Walter Arlen
    Grzybowski with Howard Myers and Prof. Walter Arlen.
    Grzybowski followed the postmodernist Mykietyn with Twelve Folk Melodies by the dean of Polish composers of the 20th century, Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994). Commissioned by PWM in 1945, and elevating folklore to the realm of high art (in a preview of the official ideology of „socialist realism“ of 1948) these little gems show how unimportant is the ideology or context for a great compositional talent. The popular melodies of Hej, od Krakowa jadę [Hey, I come from Cracow], Na jabłoni jabłko wisi [An apple hangs on the apple tree], or Gaik [The grove] were set to music in a sophisticated harmonic style, reminiscent of Bèla Bartók.

    Under Grzybowski’s fingers, these charming miniatures sparkled with a caleidoscope of colors and rhythms. The pianist brought out the complexity of inner voices in seemingly simple pieces and endowed folk melodies with an aura of nostalgia and drama.  In a stroke of genius, Grzybowski followed the folk arrangements with an entirely hypnotic and modernist reading of Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117 by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). A standard in every music theory textbook on Schenkerian analysis, Drei Intermezzi could be heard as small interludes only in comparison with Brahms’s majestic symphonies.  Composed in 1892, the intermezzi (No. 1 in E-flat major, No. 2 in B-flat minor and No. 3 in C-sharp minor) transverse cosmic landscapes of feeling evoked in Rainer Maria Rilke’s timeless poem, An Die Musik.

    Cover of Maciej Grzybowski's CDYet it was the piece that followed, Two Etudes by Paweł Szymański(1954), written in 1986 and available on two Grzybowski CDs, that elicited the greatest enthusiasm of the audience.  It is a work of genius, unparalleled in music in its hypnotic effect on the listeners. The Etudes, played without a break, contrast the slow emergence of music in the first etude with the titanic flows of sound in the second.  The piece arises from silence in what appears to be a series of random, repeated notes and chords, but there is nothing random in Szymański’s music, everything is carefully constructed.  Sometimes called a “neo-Baroque” composer (due to his frequent inspirations with the music of that period, and talent for creating complex polyphony), Szymański refers to his style as “sur-conventionalism” and thus describes his main approach: “The modern artist, and this includes composers, finds himself tossed within two extremes. If he chooses to renounce the tradition altogether, there is the danger of falling into the trap of blah-blah; if he follows the tradition too closely, he may prove trivial. This is the paradox of practicing art in modern times. What is the way out? However, there are many methods to stay out of eclecticism despite playing games with tradition. An important method for me is to violate the rules of the traditional language and to create a new context using the elements of that language." Thus, Szymanski draws from traditional tonal and harmonic language by playing with the conventions of musical styles and with the listeners’ expectations. This game of cat-and-mouse was apparent in the stretching and constricting of time in the two Etudes. The irregularity of recurring chords and notes piqued the listeners’ interest and intensified their expectations. Thus, the music grew and expanded in scope in the first Etude, to reach monumental proportions and then dissolve in massive complexities of the second.

    Grzybowski performs in Santa Monica, May 2012The second half of the recital started with a series of unusual readings of Fryderyk Chopin’s four mazurkas (in A Minor, Op. 7, No. 2; E Minor, Op. 41, No. 1; F Major, Op. Posth. 68, No. 3; G-sharp Minor, Op. 33, No. 1). The originality of the pianist’s interpretations rendered these well-known gems of the repertoire almost unrecognizable.  More angular and modernist than usual were also three Preludes from the second volume of impressionistic masterpieces by Claude Debussy (1862-1918): II  ...  Feuilles mortes, VI  ... „General Lavine” eccentric; VII ... La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune.  These terraces were lighted less by effervescent moonlight than by the brilliant focused light of Grzybowski’s intellect.  Again, they were so different from what I was used to hearing that I would need to hear these preludes again, to render an opinion. Yet, the rest of the audience was hypnotized into a complete silence and immobility: no slow, tortuous opening of candy wrappers at this recital! 

    Grzybowski with the Modjeska Club Board
    Grzybowski with the Modjeska Club Board
    The finale was indeed “grand” -  a monumental rendering of Valses nobles et sentimentales by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). In 1906, Ravel started his “waltz” project, culminating with the 1919 publication of the orchestral suite, La Valse. Inspired by the noble and sentimental waltzes by the Viennese Franz Schubert, Ravel published a suite of eight pieces for piano in 1911 and followed them with orchestral versions a year later. The waltzes are not separated into distinct “noble” and “sentimental” sections; it is up to the listener to decide what is what.  The pieces, in contrasting tempi, span the whole expressive trajectory for which the words are too limited to give the music full justice.  An unusual selection to close a solo recital, the suite ended in a slow tranquil dissolution into silence. 

    After a well-deserved standing ovation, the pianist relented and added a melancholy and thoroughly modern version of a Scarlatti’s sonata as an encore to the evening’s inspired and inspiring program.  One thing is certain: the name recognition problem mentioned at the beginning should be resolved, once for all, in the case of Maciej Grzybowski: just go to every concert of his, and if you cannot go, buy his CDs.

    Thursday, April 26, 2012

    Chopin at Midnight, Chopin Behind Bars (Vol. 3, No. 6)

    Midnight Fire - Diamond Rose Brooch on Black Velvet, for Poem by Maja Trochimczyk
    I listen to Chopin when I drive. My most recent find - all the etudes recorded by Louis Lortie (You Tube recording of Lortie ). The three dramatic ones at the end of Op. 25 are, as a set, a particular favorite. His timing is impeccable and the drama in the music well balanced with the classical perfection of form.

    Another favorite CD that I recently returned to is of the two Piano Concerti with Krystian Zimerman at the keyboard, conducting his specially assembled orchestra - Polish Festival Orchestra. The clarinetist from that orchestra, Jan Jakub Bokun, has told me about the experience of rehearsing and playing with the Maestro. It was very strenuous, but immensely rewarding. One phrase, one detail, would take a long time to polish - sometimes aggravatingly long time. It had to be done to perfection... and it was. Just listen to the miraculous details - bringing out inner voices, phrasing, expression... Zimerman's Chopin is a true romantic, quickly moving from one emotional extreme to another, from enchantment to torment. An astounding vision of grand proportions. These are not little pieces of "stile brillante" provenance, ornamental, made to please. These are powerful expressions of the soaring human spirit.

    OK, let's leave it at that. The spirit... What about the spirit? First, let me reflect on the spirit of Polish pride. To welcome the year 2010, just as I was finishing the "Chopin with Cherries" anthology that gave rise to this blog, I went to friends' house for a New Year's Eve Party. I never spent that time with this particular family and wanted to do something different, something I had not done before. It was interesting - filled with children and games, not serious adult dinner conversation and dancing.

    Young Chopin Vintage Postcard from Maja Trochimczyk's Collection
    But one dance captured my attention and remained in my memory: Chopin's Polonaise in A Major, Op. 40, nicknamed "The Military" (the link points to a YouTube recording by Maurizio Pollini). Yes, the same Polonaise that gave its first notes to a signal of the British broadcasts to occupied Poland during World War II. And here we are, dancing? Just after midnight all the guests at the party lined up in a long line of couples, the host sat at the grand piano and off we went. Around the living room, out onto the patio, up and down the steps, out one door, in another, all over the house... The moon was unusually bright that night, surrounded by an enormous halo, a portent of things to come. I felt a rush of pride, elation even, when we moved along with dignity, in triple meter: one long step with bended knees and two short ones. Down, up, up, down, up, up, around the house, around the world... It was so incredibly moving - a small group of Poles and their international rag-tag bunch of friends dancing to music written almost two hundred years ago and heard in so many homes, on so many concert stages. Welcome the new year, the year of Chopin! That was two years ago - and the tradition of dancing that particular Polonaise at midnight continues.

    On the way back home, I drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood and saw boys playing with a bonfire on the front lawn of their small house. It was a working class neighborhood with tiny houses squished in neat rows on streets leading up to the hill of the Occidental College. The moon, the fire, the dance - I was inspired to write a haibun about it. It was recently published in an Altadena anthology, Poetry and Cookies, edited by Pauli Dutton, the Head Librarian of the Altadena Public Library:

    Midnight Fire

    In the golden holiness of a night that will never be seen again and will never return… (From a Gypsy tale)

    After greeting the New Year with a Chopin polonaise danced around the hall, I drove down the street of your childhood. It was drenched with the glare of the full moon in a magnificent sparkling halo. The old house was not empty and dark. On the front lawn, boys were jumping around a huge bonfire. They screamed with joy, as the flames shot up to the sky. The gold reached out to the icy blue light, when they called me to join their wild party. Sparks scattered among the stars. You were there, hidden in shadows. I sensed your sudden delight.

    my rose diamond brooch
    sparkles on the black velvet -
    stars at midnight

    © 2010 by Maja Trochimczyk

    I wrote more verse about the Polonaise itself, but all the descriptions fell short of the delight I felt that night, so it was reduced to just an introduction to a story that has no end. The contrast of warm flames and icy moonlight was unforgettable. I added the romance, of course - poetry is not supposed to be real, though, when rooted in an actual experience it touches a nerve in listeners. After one reading I was asked by an eager member of the audience: "So what about the man who gave you that brooch? Where is he now?" "There was no man. This is my brooch, I got it for my daughter and it returned to me," I said. There was nobody lurking in the shadows. . . The poem sounds better this way, though.

    Fast forward two years, and I'm playing recordings of Chopin in jail. This is the path that I took, and this is where it is going. . . forward. My students are inmates who have completed the Sheriff's Education-Based Incarceration program, and are approaching dates of their release after completing their sentences. I do not ask what they are in for, it does not matter. What matters is that once released they never come back. Jailing them is a huge cost to society and committing crimes does not help them or anyone else. It is just not the right thing to do. But many offenders keep returning to jails, keep doing the same thing that they were always doing. My approach to changing their thinking, their image of self and the world, involves classical music. Chopin, in particular. Due to his serious illness, dying of TB, composing between fits of coughing and spitting blood, he can be an example of heroic courage. William Pillin expressed this idea very well, in his poem "Chopin" (included in the Chopin with Cherries anthology):


    (excerpt from a poem by William Pillin)

    White and wasting he dotted
    with splashes of blood his lunar pages,
    carrying death like a singing bird
    in his chest, his tissue held together

    by dreams and bacilli. “I used to find him,”
    wrote George Sand, “late at night at his piano,
    pale, with haggard eyes, his hair almost standing,
    and it was some minutes before he knew me.”

    In Majorca, the doctors
    shuddered at his blood-flecked mouth,
    burned his belongings, compelled him
    to take refuge in a former monastery.

    “My stone cell is shaped like a coffin.
    You can roar — but always in silence.”
    When it stormed he wrote the ‘raindrop’ prelude
    and from the thunder he fashioned an étude.


    “I work a lot,” he wrote to his sister,
    “I cross out all the time, I cough without measure.”
    With death’s hand on his slender shoulder
    he created ballades, études, nocturnes.

    Chopin had what it takes to succeed against all odds. He used his time well - he created something lasting that speaks to us two hundred years later. They can do it too. It is heroic courage that is needed to succeed when you leave jail with a felony record, no friends to turn to (because those you had would bring you straight back to jail and those you hurt would not speak to you again), no home, no job...

    America is very punitive. Not only does it have the highest rate of incarceration in the world: one in thirty one adults is under correctional supervision, well over 700 people per 100,000 adult residents. The second highest rate is in the second most punitive country, Russia. There, about 500 inmates are locked up per 100,000 of adults. Other countries have a fraction of that. The "war" of imprisonment was clearly won by the U.S. There are serious societal costs associated with that dubious victory. The stigma of having been once in prison or jail remains and permanently marrs the record of an individual who has virtually no chance for redemption. Job applications feature a box: have you ever been incarcerated, or committed felony, or misdemeanor? Once you check the box, the application lands in the garbage bin. I tell my students behind bars that they have to be really tough to ignore the rejections and insults that will come their way. Their sentences are finished but the stigma is there and will bring them back if they do not fight it by having the courage to be good.

    Poster for Polanski's The Pianist
    Chopin helps here. How? We listen to a Nocturne and then to the same Nocturne played by The Pianist's Adrien Brody in an old-fashioned suit. The camera pans out to show the engineer's booth. This is a live broadcast of the Polish Radio in Warsaw. This is September 1939. Soon the bombs begin to fall, the pianist initially refuses to stop playing but has no choice. He falls off the bench, the building is destroyed by German bombs, and his odyssey begins. The astounding, true story of survival against all odds - the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, as told by Roman Polanski (another Holocaust survivor) leaves the incarcerated men I'm speaking to visibly shaken. The stellar beauty of the soaring Nocturne melody is cut down by the noise of explosions. War is evil, always evil. What did the musicians do to deserve their fate? What did the residents of Warsaw do to deserve being killed by German bombs? Nothing. War is a calamity that has to be survived. Living with the stigma of incarceration requires survival skills too. It requires a lot of courage - shown by the pianist in the film and the character's real-life model. It requires a persistent clinging to life, the good life.

    I pan forward to another favorite scene in the film: the famous Ballade that Szpilman played for the German officer. This has to be one of the most famous music scenes in the whole history of film-making. When the can of pickles falls down from the pale, think hands of the starving musician and rolls to the feet of the uniformed German officer... when the gaze of the emaciated, long-haired pianist dressed in rags meets the eyes of the proud soldier... Then, the pianist begins to play and the Ballade takes them both on a journey. Away from destruction, away from hunger and suffering - somewhere else.

    Here, courage and humanity triumph. The officer has to break his laws and his orders if he wants to save the life of the starving pianist. He does so, moved by Chopin's music that brought him back to the time when there was no war, only life and happiness. He must have heard such beautiful music at home, before the tragedy began. The extraordinary courage of the pianist, the compassion of the "enemy" and the drama of the music speak directly to the heart. Would the lesson stick? I do not know, I can only try to share it.

    Is it worth my time? I hear comments: "lock them up and throw away the key." Not everyone behind bars committed, serious violent crimes and those who did would have been sent to the prisons, not jails. Once they did something wrong, paid the price for it and returned to the society "rehabilitated" - their sentences are supposed to be over and a new life is supposed to begin. But more often than not, it does not. They cannot find jobs, cannot earn a living, cannot function. Some are willingly returning to drug dealing or stealing. Others feel cornered, feel they have no option. If they do it the second time, the sentence will be longer, the return to the "narrow path" harder. I do not write it to excuse them. But it is important for them to know that they can stay on the "narrow path" of honest life, if they make some sacrifices, just like Chopin had to make sacrifices in order to continue to compose. What other option do we have?

    Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    Chopin's Revolutionary Etude in a California Jail (Vol. 3, No. 5)

    Sunset over a desert stream in Tujunga Wash, Photo (c) by Maja TrochimczykOn March 26, 2012, I started a new adventure - teaching a class on art and ethics to inmates of Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, CA. I designed my four-part class as lessons in connecting feelings to thoughts, to teach virtues by using artwork, music, and poetry - a full range of artistic experiences. I called it EVA, or Ethics and Values in Art.

    The core framework is provided by the Four Cardinal Virtues - courage, justice, wisdom or prudence and moderation, or temperance. Known since antiquity and used to teach moral values and character through over two thousand years of Western history, the virtues have largely been forgotten. Their presence in the lives of artists and their artwork is very strong, from Rembrandt to Chopin... In planning the classes I associated each virtue with an emotion - grief, shame, joy and calm - and with a moral action - compassion, forgiveness, generosity and gratitude...

    While designing the curriculum, I thought I would be teaching women, so I was quite surprised when I was assigned to a men's institution. At Pitchess, they have been given a chance to think through their decisions and change their lives. The group I'm working with has decided to do exactly that. They enrolled in and graduated from the MERIT-WISE program, a part of the Sheriff's Education-Based Incarceration project. In some ways, these men have the best chance for a successful life after completing their "time out" to rethink their life choices and orientation.

    In order to get ready for the challenges ahead, they participate in various workshops and classes taught by volunteers like me. The majority have never been to an art museum or a classical music concert. My goal is to help them find their way to the Hollywood Bowl . . . That and not to return to jail. How does one do that?

    The Cornerstone

    Do what's right, what's fair.

    Keep smiling. Grin and bear.

    Don't take more than your share.

    Choose wisely. Think and care.

    Find yourself deep in your heart
    In the circle of cardinal virtues
    The points of your compass
    Your cornerstone.

    Once you've mastered the steps,
    New ones appear:

    Faith: You are not alone . . .
    Hope: And all shall be well . . .
    Love: The very air we breathe
    Where we are.

    Desert plants among rocks, Photo (c) by Maja Trochimczyk, 2011The framework I designed and teach right now is non-religious and, therefore, I skip the three Theological Virtues mentioned at the end of my poem. There is enough material for discussion, though, in the paintings of the Prodigal Son and Tobias by Rembrandt, Guernica by Picasso, City Whispers by Susan Dobay... There is enough inspiration in the Revolutionary Etude by Chopin and the Ode to Joy by Beethoven. If I put my own poetry in this context, am I acting grandiose and, as someone once called me (to my immense delight) - a megalomaniac? The point is to find yourself in your own words. I may "know" what's out there or what I've been taught, but I truly know only what I have experienced myself. I have to go deep inside, to the truth about me, to express a vision of the world that is both deeply personal and unique in my poetry.

    Non Omnis Moriar

    Only the best will remain.
    Startled by beauty
    I fly into the eye of goodness.

    Only the best . . .
    Wasted hours, words, signs,
    Sounds and fake symbols.

    Blue torrents of feeling
    Crystallized in empty space
    Twisted above our heads
    Where light freezes
    Into sculpted infinity


    If I could be there



    If only... To open their eyes and ears to new worlds, I take my students in blue prison garb on a wild tour of the most astounding creations of the human mind. The very first piece of music they hear is the "Revolutionary Etude" - Op. 10 No. 12, a lightning strike of a piece, designed to shake up and awaken... There applause at the end is intense. The majority has never heard anything like it.

    Last Photograph of Fryderyk Chopin, 1848One man said, "thank you so much! This is my most favorite piece in all music, in all the world." He had asked for Chopin in the previous class and was beyond himself with delight when his unspoken wish was answered. I asked him to explain the piece to the class and put it in context. He knew enough to talk about Chopin's rage at the war, Poland being attacked by Russia, the composer's loneliness in Paris. He also thought about expressing anger and other powerful emotions in art as a positive way of responding to something that is overwhelming and destructive. From the feeling of despair at the unfairness of the world and Poland's tragic defeat to an unprecedented masterpiece.

    I did not ask, why, if he was so educated and knew so much, was he there, sentenced to jail... Everyone makes mistakes. Some more serious than others. My presence among the inmates is to help them use their time as a turning point, find a new path for the future. I use classical and romantic masterpieces to show criminals that they can and should remake themselves and live a different life. How different? Are they going to learn to play the piano and become Chopin experts? Not really, but they can learn from his courage, his fortitude. He composed while spitting blood, sick with TB since the age of 16. Suffering all his mature life, he died prematurely, but left for us timeless treasures.

    Etudes are, in essence, practice exercises; they are designed to learn certain skills, solve particular technical problems - arpeggios, chordal patterns, layering of melodies, the use of specific fingers. Practice makes perfect. After 10,000 hours of practicing a skill, we may become experts in it, as Malcolm Gladwell assures us. That is another lesson for offenders serving their sentences. Moral character takes time and effort to develop. Even the least educated inmates in the Los Angeles County jail may be inspired by the perfection of Chopin's art, transforming a humble exercise into a perfectly structured and intensely emotional artwork that has and will survive the ravages of time.

    Versions (Pollini's is my favorite):

    Svatoslav Richter: extremely fast and apparently transposed a halftone higher, the image does not go with the sound

    Stanislaw Bunin: not technically perfect, but immensely popular, 2:33

    Janusz Olejniczak: The phrase endings are somewhat rushed, but the drama is immense! 2:33

    Maurizio Pollini: as dramatic and tender as it has to be, with great climaxes, and a score to follow, 2:49


    Photos from Big Tujunga Wash (c) 2012 by Maja Trochimczyk

    Chopin's last known photograph - daguerreotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1849.