"Chopin Under the Microscope" - Interview with Irena Poniatowska
no-image, "Chopin Under the Microscope" - Interview with Irena Poniatowska
Marcin Majchrowski talks to Professor Irena Poniatowska on the science of Chopin...
Marcin Majchrowski talks to Professor Irena Poniatowska on the science of Chopin
Marcin Majchrowski: Madam Professor, does Chopinology exist?
Irena Poniatowska: It does, mainly thanks to the Poles. Academic research on Chopin's work and biography intensified after the Second World War. The three Chopinology Congresses, the first held in 1960, played an important role here. Chopin's correspondence, edited by Bronisław Edward Sydow, was published in 1955, and enables us to learn more about the composer's personality; for example, his view on patriotism and on art overall. Currently, three people, Zofia Helman, Zbigniew Skowron and Hanna Wróblewska-Strauss, are conducting research in this regard, working on documents discovered in the meantime. It is important for new translations of this correspondence to be published because the current foreign-language translations are imperfect, including the French, even though it was done under the eye of Sydow, as well as the English, completed by Arthur Hedley.
MM: So, research on Chopin is also going on outside of Poland, then?
IP: There are several Chopinology centres. Outside Poland, the English one is the most prolific; extensive research is being conducted and a release of Chopin's works, different from our National Edition, is being prepared. Both of the editions have considered all available sources, but their views on these sources differ slightly. The Polish team focuses primarily on the work's aesthetics, the aesthetics of the sound. Meanwhile, you could say the "aesthetics of the source" are of primary importance to the English team. They analyse all source materials and decide which best corresponds to a given composition, for example the French first print, and then that one becomes authoritative. Nothing may be changed there, aside from obvious errors.
MM: Do any secrets remain undiscovered about Chopin's life and art?
IP: A year ago, I was working on the album "Chopin – The Man and His Music", in a Polish-English edition. Recently, I was working on its Polish-French counterpart, and had to make corrections. For instance, I always thought the Chopin family moved to Warsaw, into the right wing of the Saski Palace. In fact, they actually first moved to Krakowskie Przedmieście 411 (currently No. 7), and then into the Saski Palace in 1812. Until recently, we were convinced that when Chopin stopped in Poznań when returning from Berlin, he paid a visit not only to Archbishop Teofil Wolicki but also to Prince Antoni Radziwiłł. Now, that is uncertain because much evidence supports the fact that Radziwiłł was not in Poznań at that time. Those two facts, which I had to correct in this book, illustrate how much of our knowledge about the composer may still change. We have learned many new details from the French book about Pleyel, e.g. that Chopin performed in Tours in 1833. I initially thought he played with an orchestra, but it turns out that while an orchestra played there, it did not accompany Chopin.
MM: Is it possible that we will discover some more of Chopin's hitherto unknown correspondence? Maybe even originals?
IP: I happened to be at the Fryderyk Chopin National Institute when a woman from Germany called, claiming she had an original letter from Chopin to Julian Fontana. I don't know if this letter has been seen before or not - we will see. Nonetheless, I think when it comes to Chopin's correspondence, new things will certainly be discovered, considering that a letter from Constanze to Mozart's father appeared 200 years after it was written.
MM: Which book about Chopin would you recommend to someone who is fascinated by Chopin's music and would like to learn more about the man?
IP: Cień jaskółki – esej o myślach Chopina ("The Shadow of the Swallow: An Essay on Chopin's Ideas") by Ryszard Przybylski, which is a wonderful book. It is an introduction to the era, to the thoughts of the age from a literary and philosophical aspect. It is not limited to Poland, because the author also comments on what Chopin might have taken from French philosophy. For example, his famed words: "Today I completed the Fantaisie, and the sky is beautiful, and my heart is sad, but that doesn't matter. If it were otherwise, my existence wouldn't be of use to anyone." But you have to read on:
"Let us save ourselves until after death. NB not in the sense of Le Roux – because then the younger you commit suicide, the better you are". Chopin learned Pierre Le Roux's philosophy through George Sand's circles. That philosophy claimed each successive life leads us closer to perfection. You could then assert that whoever commits suicide enters the next, far more perfect life. But Chopin continues in his letter to Fontana: "Take no malevolent thoughts from here", referencing Le Roux, "I'm off to lunch!" That amazing humour of his that always comes up in letters and is mentioned by other people, that wonderful irony! I often say that no one has edited these letters from the philological point of view. They are a treasure-trove of the Polish language: the archaisms and neologisms, macaronic phrases, various phonetic spellings of foreign languages, e.g. English, from the point of view of a Frenchman – excellent material for a linguistics PhD thesis. As you can see, Chopinology is a living science.