Elisabeth Zapolska Chapelle: Women Composers Worked in Isolation
default, Elisabeth Zapolska Chappelle, photo: Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Polska / CC, center, #000000, elisabeth_zapolska-1.jpg
The singer and researcher of music composed by women in the 18th and 19th centuries discusses her search for these forgotten creators of culture. Who were they, what did they compose and why do we know so little about them?
Elisabeth Zapolska Chapelle, who passed away on 26th September 2020, was also the producer of the record album Romance à Josephine: Women’s Songs in Maria Szymanowska’s Time – on which can be heard works by Maria Szymanowska, Kazimiera Wołowska, Sophie Gail, and Fanny Hensel, amongst others.
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Filip Lech (FL): You deal with the performance, study and promotion of the works of women composers active in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their histories, or rather herstories, are often known only to musicologists, serious music lovers and those passionate about the history of music. How do you locate their compositions? What sorts of difficulties do you face in this endeavour?
Elisabeth Zapolska Chapelle (EZS): I think that nowadays, the question of the absence of women, over thousands of years, in fields where their intellectual potential and artistic talents might have been utilised directs our attention to the fact of their handicapped existence in the patriarchal civilisation in which we, after all, continue to live. You’re right in saying that very few people indeed have even heard of the existence of even a few of these composers. Or they’ve heard of them, but have never encountered their compositions, for they were deliberately not intended for the broader public; no one saw to their publication. This is the cause of one of the fundamental difficulties with which we must struggle today: where do we look for written traces of these works?
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Let’s recall here the curious information, repeated over years by prestigious libraries, that most of Maria Szymanowska’s compositions were published in six volumes (the so-called Livraisons) in the years 1819 to 1820 by the renowned Leipzig publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel. I examined the catalogues of their publications: they didn’t publish women’s works, as the very concept of a ‘woman composer’ simply did not exist. The one, lone exception to this was when they issued – a few years earlier – the Romances of the Dutch Queen Hortense Beauharnais, the daughter of Empress Josephine. Maria Szymanowska was only able to count on some limited interest on the part of European publishers once she had attained the title of Court Pianist to the Russian Czar, in 1822, and had achieved international fame with her performing tours – so actually, some four or five years after the suggested dates.
So women composers were forced to resort either to copying their works by hand or to having them printed at their own expense. In order to select songs for my album Romance à Josephine: Women’s Songs in Maria Szymanowska’s Time, I had to wade through dozens of manuscripts, albums with transcripts of notes, and rare editions held in hard-to-access media collections or archives. In this exhausting, but exciting work, I was financially supported by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, for which I am immeasurably grateful.
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FL: The search for source material is often like conducting an investigation with very few initial clues, but sometimes you can come across something entirely by accident. In the course of your research, did you happen upon any unexpected discoveries? Do you recall any interesting anecdotes from your work in the archives?
EZC: I was able to establish the authorship of the texts of three of Maria Szymanowska’s vocal compositions which had until now been considered anonymous. I included these three works in the album of scores of her songs that I compiled and which was published two years ago in Germany by the Furore Verlag. One of them – Romance à la Nuit – comes from a work whose title completely shocked me: Les Femmes, Leur Condition et Leur Influence dans l’Ordre Social Chez Différents Peuples Anciens et Modernes (Women, Their Condition and Their Influence on the Social Order Amongst Different Peoples of the Ancient and Modern Ages), which was written by one Joseph-Alexandre de Ségur (1759-1805) and published in Paris in 1803. In addition, that author was a military man and a member of a famous Paris club, exclusively male and rather antagonistic towards women, called ‘Les Diners du Vaudeville’... In this case, the book’s title didn’t reflect the expected content, but it undoubtedly testifies to the type of books that drew Maria Szymanowska’s attention.
FL: What sort of woman could become a composer at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries? What sort of social conventions did female composers have to break through?
EZC: There were no professional women composers at the time, in the sense that we understand those words today. There were amateur composers, usually from the uppermost spheres of society: aristocrats, princesses, queens... or women from wealthy bourgeois families. Composing was a kind of supplement to their skills at playing – sometimes even genuinely virtuoso playing – keyboard instruments. A candidate for a proper wife was expected to know how to play well so as to entertain her husband, or when she was alone, to keep her idle hands from doing things they shouldn’t... Many music lovers of this type would organise artistic salons at home in their palaces or mansions during which they could show off their talents before a limited number of people.
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Here, I have to mention the Marchioness Hélène de Montgeroult, who became the first woman to be a de facto piano professor at the Paris Conservatory in the years 1795 to 1798. She was the author of an exceptionally rich and modern anthology of études and sonatas for the improvement of piano playing (Cours Complet Pour l’Enseignement du Pianoforte [A Complete Course for Teaching the Pianoforte]). The fact of her holding a paid position was almost certainly a cause of some discomfort for her: it was beneath a noblewoman such as her to hold a job or to ‘sell herself’ in public. Maria Szymanowska knew her well, valued her work and used it when she permanently relocated to Russia.
Fanny Hensel, the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn, was a phenomenal pianist and composer, but, when she married, she was forbidden to create any longer. Her life’s goal was supposed to be limited to looking after the welfare of her household. Only Felix had the right to a career. Had Fanny been able to develop her creative potential equally with Felix (the two of them had received an identical musical education), she would likely have become one of the greatest composers of the 19th century.
FL: In the course of your work, did you have a chance to work with the composers’ private papers – correspondence, diaries? What can be learned from them?
EZC: I looked through many documents of that kind. I am first and foremost fascinated with the letters of Maria Szymanowska. How beautifully she expressed herself in Polish and in French! How much humour, sincerity and deep thoughts were in her correspondence! She always wrote to the representatives of European culture whom she came to know (Goethe and his family and friends, Thorvaldsen, Ogiński) with great respect, but simultaneously, she shared with them her joy in performing concerts and asked them for news about themselves and about their families – which attests to a certain intimacy without ever becoming overly familiar. She never wrote about subjects that might hurt her or that were unpleasant.
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Maria Szymanowska’s multilingual correspondence – that is, she only wrote in Polish and French, but responses came to her in various languages – is voluminous and scattered amongst libraries, archives and private collections. It required reading, transcription, translation and digitisation, which was a colossal undertaking. I want to cite one fragment from the letters already available, which confirms my statements about the non-existence, at the beginning of the 1820s, of publications and promotion of Maria Szymanowska’s scores and those of other female composers.
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It’s a letter to her father, dated 4th November 1823, which was written in Weimar after her concert at the great Stadthaus Hall:
In the hope that my compositions might spread a bit around the world, I asked Mr Peters in Leipzig – who is now the editor-in-chief – that he would take my music on consignment and send it around Germany. Out of great respect for me, he agreed to do so.
So I ask you, Papa, with the help of Staś and Teoś, to pack up all the music from my trunk and, as soon as you can find a wagoneer or a coachman, to send it to Leipzig to the address of M. Peters, Éditeur de Musique. While the transport will be costly, it will be covered by the sale of my music which is in demand here.
Peters doesn’t want ‘Romances’ or ‘Le Départ Romance’, because they don’t sing in French in Germany. Well, maybe six copies of each. In the trunk, you’ll find... new ones, which you should substitute for the ones with a price on them, because I can’t send out the [marked] copies.
If corrections have to be made on the new copies, let Staś make them according to the corrected copies.
You can exchange the marked copies for clean ones from Klukowski or Glukberg.
By contrast, Fanny Mendelssohn’s letters always project a sense of bitterness and frustration due to her inability to spread her wings in the art of composition, which was certainly the greatest passion of her life. Especially interesting are also her reactions to ‘well-wishers’ (men, of course) who, in their letters or published texts, authoritatively opined as to how she should compose and perform certain types of works. Sometimes, they would correct the women artists’ ‘mistakes’...
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Let’s consider, for instance, Robert Schumann’s comments on Maria Szymanowska’s Twelve Études and on the work of his own wife. From his comments about these Polish women, we see that the very fact of women playing études was something extraordinary and that their composing of them was seen as nigh on miraculous! According to him, Szymanowska’s études were pioneering and constituted the most important achievements to date of what he called ‘the world of women’. Everything that was pathbreaking in those études (over 35 years before) has since become the ‘daily bread’ of pianists.
He notes many imperfections in his wife’s works, especially suggesting that there is a need for modifications to her songs, failing to understand that her ideas might actually be ahead of their time. He also doesn’t believe that Klara had a right to play in her own individual way (I would refer you here to Prof. Irena Poniatowska’s observations on the dependence of the rubato tempo on the heartbeat of the musician) and that the poetry that appealed to him might not appeal at all to his own young wife.
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For understandable reasons, I always focussed more on vocal music rather than only instrumental music. Many times, the so-called ‘specialists’ (both theoreticians and performers) surprised me with their conservatism. Why, for example, in songs composed at the beginning of the 19th century, were syllables expected to adhere faithfully to the melodic line and be accented and combined as in normal speech? When one deliberately takes a breath in the middle of a word or when one disproportionately stretches out a syllable, one can get an entirely different, very suggestive effect (crying, laughter, surprise, etc.). There are quite a few such elements not only in Szymanowska’s work, but also in the work of other women composers of the era. For me, this is proof of a search for a new relationship between the word and the sound, yielding a new kind of theatricality of music.
FL: Do you know of cases of women composers who – and I know this was nearly impossible – inspired each other’s work? Do we know of attempts by women artists to establish contact with one another?
EZC: I don’t think that any composer would want pointed out how many of other people’s ideas he or she used in their work, with the possible exception of variations on the theme of some well-known work by another author. Women composing in Maria Szymanowska’s times tended to work in isolation, and their compositions were often consigned to a desk drawer, so any sort of exchange of commentary or inspiration seems unlikely to me.
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The title page and the first note of the song ‘Le Départ’ (The Departure) by Maria Szymanowska, text from Cervantes's ‘Don Quichotte’ in French, translation by Florian, photo: promotional materials / www.maria-szymanowska.eu
On the other hand, we know of many cases of entire masses of their ideas being usurped by male composers, who – with no compunctions – passed them off as their own. There comes to mind at once Hélène de Montgeroult, whose work was completely unknown for many years. Nowadays, when we listen to her work, we hear bits of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn... but those are composers who only lived in her grandchildren’s generation! It’s the same with Maria Szymanowska and Chopin. This doesn’t only refer to the similarity of certain specific musical motifs of theirs, but also to a general approach to the art of the piano: Should the piano ‘sing’ or ‘speak’? How does one increase its clarity and colour palette? Women composers of those times contributed significantly to the development of modern piano art, composing many extraordinary études (Maria Szymanowska was a master of them), but even today, they are still not included in the curricula of music schools.
FL: What stories of women in music history are most inspirational for you? Whose biography is the most unusual?
EZC: Of course, the person and life of Maria Szymanowska are the most precious jewels for me: she was like someone from another era, from our era! In that world, which was so unreceptive to talented women, she managed to live according to her own choices and even to find support in the most privileged circles of society in almost all of Europe and Russia – to which she would never have had access were it not for her musical talent, supported by her titanic efforts and multi-layered strategy. Remarkably, not only did she not shock anyone, but she was respected, even adored. Her creation of an image of an independent and fascinating woman played out before the eyes of her contemporaries.
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FL: What needs to be done so that Clara Wieck, Maria Anna Mozart, Anna Magdalena Bach, Fanny Hensel, Maria Szymanowska and, no doubt, dozens of other women can enter into the canon of music and cease to be just a footnote in the biographies of the men whom they accompanied?
EZC: That question should really be a subject of discussion and consideration in any number of forums on the subject of the development of our civilisation, don’t you think? By itself, it can’t be answered definitively... For my part, I can only say above all, we need to change certain categories of assessment and to give up on gigantism. Beauty doesn’t lie solely in large formats. Miniatures can also be sources of deep emotion and aesthetics.
FL: When did you first find out about the person and creations of Maria Szymanowska? What was it about her that so fascinated you?
EZC: I don’t actually remember that. I think it was in primary school when we first learned about Adam Mickiewicz and his writings. Along with him, there was also Maria Szymanowska, the post-mortem mother-in-law of the writer. There was Celina Szymanowska, his wife. Talented women were supposed to function in our consciousness as wives, daughters, relatives or friends of some significant male figure. They weren’t entitled to a history of their own. Mickiewicz’s ballads – especially The Nixie (originally: Świtezianka) and Pieśń o Wilji (Song to Wilja), to which Maria composed her first music – were sung at events celebrating him. Sometimes a mazurka or other dance melody of hers might be heard on the radio.
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My fascination started at a 2009 recital in Donaueschingen, to which I was invited in the context of a season dedicated to creative women. I really wanted to introduce some Polish works into the program, and at that point, I remembered Maria Szymanowska. I began to look for scores, existing recordings and publications about her, and it was like the surprising discovery of a new horizon: a breeze of freedom blew, some remarkable beauty of life, a conviction that what we so desire is happening. In addition, there was complete artistic harmony, a preference for short forms, a broad palette of colour and imagination, theatrical elements, humour and volcanic bursts of emotion.
FL: We know what Goethe and other greats of the time said about Szymanowska. But what did the composer say about herself?
EZC: What you want to know is what she thought of herself? I think that, on that question like many others, she didn’t have the time to reflect on her own ego. It is what it is, you just need to go on – she must have thought. She had to fulfil her domestic obligations day by day! She always had to be well-behaved and wisely prepared; she had to play piano beautifully; she had to look elegant; she had to maintain the support of important people, her family and friends, to seek new perspectives for development and well-paying work. It was exceptionally rare for her to express her deepest convictions and desires. Sometimes her language was enigmatic – sometimes she spoke like a top-flight diplomat, all the while keeping in mind the welfare of her children.
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FL: What characterises Maria Szymanowska’s music and especially her songs?
EZC: Yes. As I mentioned, her works are mostly short pieces, mostly for solo piano or piano and voice. Both the first and second, despite their simple appearance (relatively few notes, reprises, often a lack of defined tempo), are very difficult! Most pianists prefer longer pieces in which there’s opportunity for expression, but they aren’t wild about reprises, because they don’t really know how to perform them so as to avoid monotony. They rarely go for études, because they require perfect technique, maximal concentration of energy and modes of expression: sometimes they’re a short outcry or a burst of laughter or sometimes a sudden outburst of tears which one must stanch.
What is most precious in her songs are her carefully selected texts: ballads, some of them about women, patriotic poetry, works inspired by folk songs. The patriotic songs can be authentically moving: the beautiful poems are wonderfully complemented by the music, and in both cases, one can often hear irony and mystery in them. The texts are mostly French, but also Polish and Italian.
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The songs are often repetitive, but with certain variations, and they invite improvisation. Don’t forget that the public in those times expected that sort of repetitiveness. Schubert or Weber composed many such pieces! Declamatory songs or so-called processed songs gradually began to surface (amongst women composers as well), but they still didn’t dominate.
Maria Szymanowska’s entire oeuvre is fantastic to me, because it is like a never-ending cycle of miniatures – requiring of performers a searching and creative posture, as if the composer counted on a complementing of her expression. For instance, you can play or sing the same piece slowly or quickly, but you always have to have some artistic justification for it; nothing can be just boilerplate or indifferent. Her compositions contain very strong emotions and a certain kind of theatricality and declamation, but not every researcher or performer is able to sense them and express them. Performing Maria Szymanowska’s works is, for me, a little like interpreting modern music: artists of the highest calibre are necessary so that those elements which no one knows can make their voices heard and take the public by storm.
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FL: What other women composers should we remember?
EZC: That’s not for me to decide! I am convinced that there were many of them and that each one composed a few pieces of timeless value. Researchers should seek them out and encourage musicians to perform them and media to record them. Maybe it would make sense to create departments in musical universities especially with that task in mind. This would, of course, apply to Polish composers of both genders.
FL: Do you have any other artistic projects planned?
EZC: Under the new circumstances of social life we’re forced into by the current pandemic, I can’t see undertaking any new artistic projects right now. I have, however, taken up a publishing project regarding Maria Szymanowska and her Europe. There are large gaps in history having to do with the role of talented women in culture and in other aspects of public life. Four research seminars which I organised over the last 10 years produced exciting texts, presentations and descriptions. Now I want to present them to Francophone readers in the form of an anthology.
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Elisabeth Zapolska Chapelle was a Polish singer (mezzosoprano) and philologist, born on 17th September 1954 in Warsaw; she died on 26th September 2020 in Paris. She graduated from the Fryderyk Chopin Music Middle School in Warsaw in the solo singing class of Zofia Brégy and w from Warsaw University, with a degree in philological studies. She began her singing training at the Fryderyk Chopin Musical Academy in Warsaw and continued it in France and Austria. Amongst her teachers were Georges Aperghis, Viorica Cortez, Jean-Claude Malgoire, Alain Maratrat, Mady Mesplé, Edda Moser, Aneta Pavalache, Jean-Claude Penchenat, Paul von Schilavsky, Nikita Storojev, and Rita Streich. She began her career in Poland, taking part in chamber concerts and contemporary music festivals (the International New Music Forum, the Poznań Musical Spring), at which she performed a series of premiere performances of Polish composers and others as well (Aperghis, Hoenderdos, Kulenty, Oleszkowicz, Shinohara). She also recorded for the Polish Radio.
She moved to France in 1988, but had debuted on Paris’s Radio France a year earlier. For several years, she promoted Polish culture and women composers. She was the president of the Maria Szymanowska Society, which she founded in Paris, and the author of the project Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), Woman of Europe – http://www.maria-szymanowska.eu.
In 2011, she recorded the world’s first CD recording of Maria Szymanowska’s (Acte Préalable) Ballad and Romances, together with Bart van Oort, who played a Broadwood piano from 1825. In 2019, the duet’s next record appeared – Romance à Josephine. Women’s Songs in Maria Szymanowska’s Time – on which there were, amongst others, works by Maria Szymanowska, Kazimiera Wołowska, Sophie Gail and Fanny Hensel.
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Interview conducted in Polish by email, Aug 2020, translated by Yale Reisner, Oct 2020