Delfina PotockaWarsaw, 1960. The International Chopin Congress. A scandal has broken out; there's a shouting match between English musicologist Arthur Hedley and Mateusz Gliński of the Canadian International Chopin Foundation. The Congress organisers set up a committee to investigate the background to the argument. But why did they fall out so spectacularly?
To answer this question, we have to travel back in time more than 20 years. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, a woman named Paulina Czernicka approached Polish Radio's Vilnius broadcasting station with a proposal to make a programme based on some hitherto unknown letters that Fryderyk Chopin
supposedly wrote to Delfina Potocka. The war put a stop to the plans, but in 1945 Czernicka resurfaced in Poznań and her idea came to fruition. But who was this nobody Czernicka, and how could she have got hold of Chopin's letters? She claimed that she was distantly related to the Komar family; Delfina's maiden name was Komar.
But when something concerns Chopin, every detail matters. Having signed a book deal on the strength of the letters, Czernicka suddenly found herself under pressure: unsurprisingly, everyone wanted to see the originals. She failed to produce them, claiming that they were in France. She then said they were in the US, or Australia. She promised, however, to come up with photocopies of the originals. The very day of her appointment with the board of editors, the photocopies were, apparently, stolen! By this time, Polish scholars were in unanimous agreement that the "letters" must be a hoax. In them were sentences that were openly erotic in character, a sharp contrast to the reserved, discreet style of Chopin's authentic letters. But first, let's get the facts straight - Chopin and Potocka were not lovers. When Chopin naively thought his relationships with Wodzińska or Sand were a secret, Paris was already alive with gossip about them. The fact that there were never any rumours about about Fryderyk and Delfina is proof that nothing happened between them.
When the great composer Tadeusz Szeligowski claimed "Czernicka is definitely a madwoman", it was a statement both brutal and, alas, true. In 1949 she committed suicide, following in the footsteps of her mother and both her brothers. Her son was later treated for a nervous disease.
Why, then, did the argument come flooding back in 1960? The West became acquainted with the apocryphal texts through Kazimierz Wierzyński's biography of Chopin - this was translated into many languages, most notably English. While the International Chopin Congress Committee had quickly concluded that these texts were not written in Chopin's style, and furthermore, certain words and idioms were not used in Polish before 1900, these nuances are lost in translation, so for the Western reader the irregularities of style are not obvious.
Szeligowski strongly opposed the authenticity of the "letters" (as did Hedley). But, when he died in 1963, there was an extraordinary twist to the tale: among his personal effects were apparently, the actual photocopies of Czernicka's texts! The discussion was resurrected once more. Adam Harasowski, whose sister was Szeligowski's widow, became a devoted advocate of the authenticity of the "letters" - at least the ones that were photocopied. In 1973 Music and Musicians published the photocopies, and immediately became the subject of an investigation. Lucjan Fajer, an expert witness, and Ryszard Soszalski, a specialist working for Civil Militia (the CSI of its time), conducted two independent research projects. Both came to the same conclusion: the photocopies were a hoax. The texts were a cut-and-paste job and Soszalski was able to identify the source material: three authentic letters reproduced in Chopin na obczyźnie ["Chopin Abroad"], a book published as late as 1965 (which explains why Czernicka never presented the photocopies).
Alas, even 10 years into the 21st century, these texts are still being quoted in the West as the authentic words of Chopin. This is surprising, because almost every sentence is utter nonsense, an absurdity or just plain wrong:
"The horn player complained about poor phrasing in the finale of my [Concerto] in F minor… I know that I am an idiot when it comes down to the orchestra…" (1835).
Could Chopin have written that? For Heaven's sake, no! First, the horn player of the National Theatre Orchestra, Goerner, never complained about the bars in question, and played them with skill. Second, the last performance of the Concerto in F minor took place in 1834, so why should Chopin report it as fresh news a year later? Third, during Czernicka's lifetime it was still believed that the Concerto in E minor was performed in 1834. Fourth, the performance took place during an evening organised by Berlioz, and Chopin received good reviews: one even put Chopin's orchestration (hear! hear!) above that of Berlioz! Fifth, Chopin did not play the finale at the occasion, only the middle movement… Once and for all: the author of the above quoted sentences must have had little knowledge of Chopin and his activities. "In my written works [?] the beauty often lies in accompaniment. Remember…that in my music the accompaniment is always equal to the melody and often it has to come out to the fore." A very interesting quote, especially considering Chopin said exactly the opposite in his Sketches for A Piano Method. It is worth noting that the "Sketches" surfaced only recently and Czernicka could not have known of their existence.
The hoaxer also writes about a "kozak" (a Ukrainian national dance) in the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth! And, that in Chopin's music "the most important things are in the last few bars", that Beethoven's finales are just meaningless noise. Such remarks reveal that their author was a complete amateur, someone who did not understand the essence of the art of music. Further evidence that these words could not have been written by Chopin.
"I talk less and less about music," writes "Chopin" and then covers the paper with the most incredible remarks upon the subject. Hold on! Chopin - the real one - could not talk about music "less and less", as he hardly ever talked about music anyway, as reported by a disappointed George Sand, who was much more responsive to words than to music.
It is beyond any reasonable doubt that the unfortunate Paulina Czernicka must have been the author of the "Letters to Delfina". But who doctored the photocopies - and why - we will never know.
Author: Krzysztof Komarnicki, October 2010.
The article comes from the "Chopin Express" gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition
by Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone.
View the audition recitals online at chopin2010.pl/en/competitions/xvith-chopins-competition.html
Other articles of interest in Chopin Express 09:"This Competition Is Very Special" - Interview with Marta Argerich