How Family Shaped the Father of Polish Opera
portrait, How Family Shaped the Father of Polish Opera, Stanisław Moniuszko, iconography by Adolphe Lafosse, photo: www.polona.pl, stanislaw moniuszko ikonografia cbn www polona pl_4877605.jpg
Stanisław Moniuszko is understood, more or less explicitly, as a national bard, a lead Polish composer and the father of Polish opera – but it is his early life and family relations where we can find the illuminating reasons behind his professional endeavours.
Opera master Stanisław Moniuszko was born on 5th May 1819 in Ubiel near Minsk in today’s Belarus. The region where he grew up was so diverse that the discussion about his nationality continues even today – Moniuszko is sometimes connected to Belarusian music by Poland’s eastern neighbours. But it’s easy to end these sorts of disputes by simply pointing to what Moniuszko himself wrote about his origins. The letters he left behind contain a couple of mentions of the Polish ancestry of his family, which supposedly originated from the lands surrounding Białystok. More importantly though, he wrote about what his close family was like, and scholars have followed suit and found out even more about them.
Looking back at the lives and actions of Stanisław Moniuszko’s family, particularly his uncles, we can see role models for the composer’s musical interests and an explanation for his later social and artistic views.
Stanisław Moniuszko Sr: the wiley & pious judge
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The composer’s grandfather was an important figure in the history of this family. Also called Stanisław Moniuszko (1734-1807), he left Podlasie and moved to Wilno (today’s Vilnius), where he began studies at the local university. After graduation, he began his professional and social career among the highest-ranking officials and representatives of the nobility – he was a nobleman himself (under the Krzywda coat of arms). Thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit and his social graces, Stanisław Moniuszko began working with Franciszek Osztorp, the secretary to Prince Michał Ogiński. The two created a partnership supplying the army and renting out the property in Śmiłowicze near Minsk. In light of the necessity to settle his debts, Ogiński was forced to sell his Śmiłowicze estate, which consisted of many smaller villages and settlements. Moniuszko and Osztorp took over these lands in 1791 and divided them. According to the story told by Aleksander Walicki, the first biographer of Stanisław Moniuszko the composer, the artist’s ancestor received the greater part of the estate, including the aforementioned Śmiłowicze.
In addition to his cleverness and entrepreneurial spirit, the composer’s grandfather was, according to the first monographers of the Moniuszko family (Aleksander Walicki and Bolesław Wilczyński), gifted with traits that likened him to biblical patriarchs and steadfast mediaeval knights. The language of these descriptions formulated in the last quarter of the 19th century bears many traces of mythologisation, adding a touch of splendour to the image of the composer. As such, the authors wrote about the heavenly goodness of Stanisław Sr., about his generosity and, most importantly, about his unrelenting devotion to justice, for which he fought his entire life and which he protected like the greatest of virtues. They even went as far as to recall stories bearing witness to the steadfast character of the ‘Śmiłowicze landlord’:
The Śmiłowicze manor is located next to a town populated mostly by Jews, who often benefited from the kindness of the judge. He once learned that some of the Jews, who were particularly well treated by him, betrayed him in some way or harmed him in another. Their ungratefulness bothered him highly. Having summoned the Jews to his chambers and made certain of their ungratefulness, the judge said these words in anger (although he never cursed in other circumstances): ‘May your town be hit by lightning!’ All this happened on 20th July 1798. Perhaps no later than an hour after this curse, the sky went dark, the storm gathered and a lightning bolt hit the town. You could imagine the dread that overtook such a pious man. He was convinced that it was his spell that brought down the thunder. He gathered all the men he could among the people staying in his manor and peasants working in the surrounding fields and ordered them to help the town. But the ordeal was difficult and the strong winds raised the flames and brought the fire towards the judge’s manor. Then, somebody shouted that the threshing floor of the manor had caught fire and suggested that perhaps it would be better to call the townsfolk to save the manor.
‘I forbid it!’ shouted the Judge. ‘Let them save the town. I forbid you to save the floor!’
He was relieved to have received his well-deserved punishment.
Stanisław Moniuszko (the grandfather) started a family in his old age and devoted himself to calm and staid village life. He had ten children – six sons and four daughters. Although later biographers of Moniuszko do not devote much attention to the lives of the daughters, they wrote extensively and in detail about the sons. It is a fact that the uncles of the composers provided ample material for research. Almost all of them had numerous positive qualities of mind and character and the fame of some of them reached far beyond the borders of Poland. They inherited from their father the courage necessary for the fulfilment of their goals, often quite unpopular with other members of society.
Ignacy Moniuszko: the philosopher soldier
The oldest son of the judge was Ignacy Moniuszko (1787-1869). He studied philosophy at the University of Vilnius and was the only one of the siblings to have a great interest in politics. He also served in the military – during the Napoleon campaign of 1812, as a representative of the Temporary City Council, he was part of the committee that welcomed Marshal Davout to Minsk. Later on, Ignacy Moniuszko joined the Temporary Government (which was later replaced by the Administrative House of the Minsk Department). After Napoleon issued a decision allowing the citizens to form military units, Ignacy funded and created the 21st Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, where two of his younger brothers served under his command.
One of the soldiers serving in the regiment was Ignacy Abramowicz, a figure important for the development of Stanisław Moniuszko’s artistic career. Abramowicz later became the president of Teatry Warszawskie (the association of Warsaw theatres) and it was him who appointed the composer as the director of the Polish opera in Wielki Theatre in Warsaw.
After the end of the military operations, Ignacy Moniuszko settled down in the countryside and devoted himself to his family. It is said that he was an avid reader up until his death and that his education motivated him to stay in touch with the philosophical and political trends from all over the world. Enlightenment ideals which he picked up during his studies at the University of Vilnius, encouraged his unwavering support for the idea of progress and constant development.
Dominik Moniuszko: radical pioneer of worker empowerment
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Dominik Moniuszko (1788-1848) was the second son of the judge and the most important among all of the composer’s uncles. Similarly to Ignacy, he too graduated from the University of Vilnius, but he did so with a PhD ‘in both laws’. He also took part in the 1812 campaign, serving in the 3rd Regiment of Mounted Riflemen and later in the unit of his older brother. He retired from the military in 1816, having achieved the rank of major.
But the chief domain of Dominik Moniuszko’s activities turned out to be social experiments, which he conducted throughout his adult life with unusual determination. As Aleksander Jelski scrupulously documented, it is thanks to Dominik Moniuszko’s involvement that the idea of enfranchising peasants was put in practice in the region – ideas which were put into law a couple dozen years later (by the order of the Russian tsar in 1863).
At the beginning of the 19th century, this Moniuszko conducted an experiment on his lands. He divided his estate among his serfs and encouraged them to build their own farms which they could manage. Dominik gained the knowledge necessary for the organisation of such an enterprise during his stays in Germany and France where he ended up after the retreat of the Napoleonic army. He visited many educational institutions there and observed the ways in which Western societies functioned.
After he returned home and officially divided his estate, he took care of the education of the peasant children. He obligated the parents to send their children to school during the winter months when fieldwork was not possible due to the weather. There were two schools operating within the lands of Dominik Moniuszko – one, in Radkowszyzna, for boys and another, in Pocieczoło, for girls. The curriculum in Dominik’s schools was designed on the basis of the Western methods of Pestalozzi and Lancaster and spanned over a two year period during which children learned to read in Polish and Russian, and practised calligraphy, arithmetic and drawing. As they came from and lived in the countryside, they also learned gardening, farming, foresting, beekeeping, animal husbandry, toolmaking and other crafts useful in farming. Dominik made sure that his schools employed only teachers who were well prepared to do their jobs.
Dominik’s enfranchisement experiment at first shocked those around him but in time found its allies. Czesław Moniuszko, the father of the composer and one of Dominik’s younger brothers, was among those who remained an opponent of the project. He wrote in his diaries about his brother’s revolutionary ideas and described them as energy and money wasted on something that was doomed to fail.
Truth be told, Czesław’s pessimism turned out to be prophetic. The schools operated for some time following Dominik’s death, but they were later closed and the entire experiment came to an end. But before that happened, Dominik successfully oversaw both the complex of private farms and the schools he established. Word of the experiment spread to many far places, reaching even St. Petersburg and Tsar Nikolai, who delegated General Strogonov to examine the actions of Dominik Moniuszko. After his arrival in Radkowszczyzna, Strogonov visited the schools and inspected the farms. In the end, he gave a positive review of the entire endeavour and praised its mastermind.
Józef Moniuszko: theatre-for-all enthusiast
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According to the biographer Aleksander Walicki, Józef Moniuszko (1789-1840) ‘did not stand out in any unusual way’. He lived in Skuplin, where he led a quiet domestic life. But, importantly for Stanisław Moniuszko’s artistic development, Józef loved theatre and often staged amateur plays in his manor. Unfortunately, no detailed information about them survived. Some authors write, however, that Józef invited not only his family and neighbours to see the performances ‘but also his peasants, who were seated at the table together with other guests’. As such, this seemingly unexceptional uncle might have had a double influence on the future composer. On the one hand, he offered him a possibility to become familiar with theatre and perhaps even fostered Stanisław’s interest in this form of art. On the other, Józef was yet another family member who was open and friendly towards the peasants.
Kazimierz Moniuszko: the enlightened educator
Stanisław Moniuszko had two more important uncles. The fourth son of the judge was named Kazimierz (1795-1836), and similarly to Dominik and Ignacy, he was yet another small-scale great person. Just like them, he also graduated from the University of Vilnius’s law department where he stayed a bit longer to defend his doctoral thesis entitled De Probatione Judiciali Per Testes (1817). Following a reportedly remarkable defence, he left the university with a doctorate in both civil and criminal law (much like Dominik).
Kazimierz devoted his professional life to education. He began by curating the schools in the Igumen region – in recognition of his great work, Prince Adam Czartoryski ended up entrusting him with the task of supervising the schools in Lithuania and Volhynia.
What made Kazimierz stand out even more were his many-sided humanist and botanic interests. He is believed to have had a very expansive library in his Śmiłowicze estate, which consisted of classic works of European literature and important scientific treatises on law, philosophy, medicine and biology. The last discipline was especially interesting for Kazimierz, who is said to have created a sizeable arboretum in which he grew, grafted and reproduced unheard of species of trees and shrubs. He was famous for gifting saplings of rare plants to his guests and encouraging them to take care of their own gardens.
Witold Rudziński, the greatest Polish specialist on Moniuszko, discusses Kazimierz Moniuszko as the person who helped form little Stanisław’s literary taste and fostered his national identity and patriotic spirit. The legend says that toward the end of his life and suffering from tuberculosis, Kazimierz introduced his nephew to the work of Adam Mickiewicz:
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It was on a spring afternoon when uncle Kazimierz came to the lakeshore with a small inconspicuous book. Visibly moved, he sat on a rock and began to speak about how he insulted Mickiewicz when he accused him of exaltation, overt exaggeration and incomprehensibleness. Because now, when the nation, it seemed, has become silent in its pain, the great poet found words that fill hearts with hope and show the beauty and value of living. Wise is the hand of a man who heals painful open wounds and shows that everything is alive, changes and grows. The nation, too, is alive and if we have to look at the past with sadness, we cannot forget that we cannot rest. The road is long and tiring, but it is bound to lead to a victory. Yes, he is a great poet, because he does not simply look for rhymes and compose lines, but he lives and breathes what is dearest to his nation and describes it so clearly that every word seems to be coming from your own heart – the only way to describe how you feel, but at the same time such a simple way. A great artist should be like that, and you too, little Staś, should be just like that.
As Kazimierz recited fragments of Pan Tadeusz in an emotional tone of voice, the boy saw right in front of his eyes the familiar and ever dear images of the fields, forests, sunsets, cloudy skies and quiet ponds. As they sat in front of the lake, which seemed to them to have sprang out of the new book, secretly and illegally imported from far away France, they relived the disputes over greyhounds and hares, they went mushroom picking and watched with keen interest how two young men fought a furious bear. And suddenly, there came the Wojski Concert! When Kazimierz stopped with the words ‘And it was only the echo’, Staś felt that he had really heard the hunting horn and that its sound was now carried from the lake to the garden and further on, to the darkening forest. They sat with closed eyes, focussed and listening.
Following the death of Kazimierz, who never married and had no children, Stanisław inherited almost the entire library – the desires of other family members to receive some valuable books were taken into consideration during the division of the estate.
Kazimierz Moniuszko’s education, social graces and open mind led to many of his achievements in different scientific disciplines and non-professional fascinations. He also made friends among the most important people of his time. After his death, the Moniuszko family received condolences from the doctor and natural scientist Jędrzej Śniadecki and Prince Adam Czartoryski. In a newspaper, the Romantic poet Julian Korsak published a poem devoted to the memory of his friend Kazimierz.
The spiritual and educational development of his nephew was important to the enlightened uncle. Kazimierz wanted the future composer to be in contact with true art, so he took him to Vilnius multiple times. He not only sparked Stanisław’s interest in opera and theatre (the future composer was able to see the performances of Szmidkoff’s theatre troupe, which was based in Vilnius at that time), but he also directly influenced the composer’s private life. During one of their trips, the two stayed in the house of the Müller family at Niemiecka Street. It is where Stanisław met Aleksandra, the daughter of the hosts – she would become his wife four years later.
Aleksander Moniuszko: the classical linguist
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The last uncle of Stanisław Moniuszko was Aleksander (1801-1836), who came to be recognised during his short life as an exceptional scholar in humanities. Following his philological studies, which of course took place in Vilnius, he devoted his life to science. As a classical philologist, he spoke ancient languages exceptionally well, but rumour has it that he knew several modern ones as well. He also showed interest in visual arts, although according to Walicki, ‘he did not demonstrate his talent in painting’. He was more attracted to the family life he led while living in Śmiłowicze. Following his marriage to Aleksandra Rzewuska, the Moniuszko family became related to another group from the nobility, the Rzewuski family, which included the writer and historian Henryk Rzewuski. Stanisław Moniuszko’s later Warsaw patron, Maria Kalergis, was deeply satisfied with this family relation.
Czesław & Elżbieta Moniuszko: parents of a composer icon
It is finally time to take a look at Czesław Moniuszko (1790-1870), the father of the composer, who, interestingly, is portrayed by scholars in a more negative light. Nevertheless, they too noticed he had some positive traits and exceptional talents. More importantly for the subject of this article, Czesław was the only one of the judge’s ten children to have a son – the future national composer, who was named after his grandfather. History repeated itself and Stanisław Moniuszko Jr. fulfilled an almost identical plan to his grandfather – he did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfathers who devoted themselves to their passions in the quiet countryside, but similarly to his grandfather, he was attracted to big city life and raised a large group of children.
Coming back to Czesław, we could invoke some critical commentaries made by scholars who accuse him of backwards mentality, conservatism and megalomania. Czesław was not as educated as his brothers and he did not have many memorable talents. He was, however, proud of his passion for drawing and many of his drawings survived until today. He sketched and drew his family and he often portrayed his growing son. Among Czesław Moniuszko’s most well-known drawings, there is the image of Stanisław playing on the clavichord in the company of his mother and another of the future composer laying on a sofa with a book in hand.
All the scholars agree that Czesław was an unmatched storyteller. He passionately shared stories of his wartime adventures, of his travels with Napoleon’s army, and of his contacts with French officers. Little Stanisław was especially fond of these stories and his father used them to impart some historical knowledge and foster his son’s love for Poland. The people who studied the Moniuszko family agree that Czesław’s actions contributed greatly to the development of the composer’s patriotic spirit.
Stanisław’s mother Elżbieta (née Madżarska) had similar goals in mind. She is said to have played the clavichord and sung quite well. Many articles on the development of Moniuszko’s musical interests are devoted to her, as it was she who introduced the boy to music by playing and singing to him songs based on Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz’s Śpiewy Historyczne (Historical Songs). Using these rhymed tales about Poland’s kings she not only trained her son as a musician, but, as many scholars admit, also fostered his patriotic feelings.
Czesław Moniuszko had literary ambitions and he also served as the family’s main chronicler. In addition to diaries and writings designed to be gifted to his son in the future, he also wrote a long poem entitled Rok 1812 (Year 1812) – a rhymed tale about the Napoleon campaign. It is not the best work artistically, but it has undeniable historical value due to its thorough descriptions of Czesław’s wartime experiences and the political and cultural landscape of that time.
The biographers do not have much sympathy towards Czesław, nor give him much credit in raising his son as a national bard. They believe that Stanisław’s mother and, more importantly his uncles Kazimierz and Dominik had a lot more influence and they blame Czesław for backward-mindedness and lacking skill in managing the estate.
Looking back, one can see that the family had multi-faceted interests. There were no professional musicians among Czesław’s many siblings, but their well-rounded education gave them a sense that a comprehensive, humanist upbringing was vital for Stanisław. Enlightenment ideals, utilitarian worldview, well-developed work ethics and a positive outlook on the countryside and peasants later undeniably found their expression in Moniuszko’s music – especially in his operas and songs.
Originally written in Polish by Agnieszka Okupska, May 2011; translated by MW, April 2019
Sources: ‘Stanisław Moniuszko’ by Aleksander Walicki, Warszawa 1873; ‘Album biograficzne zasłużonych Polaków i Polek XIX w.’ by Aleksander Jelski, Warszawa, 1901; ‘Moniuszko’ by Witold Rudziński, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, Kraków, 1957.
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