The Lesser Known Faces of Stanisław Moniuszko
small, The Lesser Known Faces of Stanisław Moniuszko, Photos promoting ‘Halka’, pictured: Janina Korolewicz-Waydowa portraying the main character, and the singer Władysław Floriański,, halka_polona_1953_1908.jpg
Every Pole knows Moniuszko composed ‘Halka’ and ‘The Haunted Manor’, that he was the father of Polish opera, and that his face decorated the 100,000 PLN banknotes for a while. But there are so many other unanswered questions about this legendary artist. Culture.pl is here to help.
Many 19th and 20th-century musicologists called Stanisław Moniuszko a genius composer, ‘second only to Chopin’. They described his life and work in the same way people often describe the romantic bards. In the collective imagination, he functions as a symbol as much as an artist, even though, paradoxically, his vast work is not really that well known. Only two of his operas and a couple of songs found a permanent place in the repertoires of theatres and musicians – not that many, if we remember that Moniuszko wrote around 300 pieces of music! This includes nine operas (one unfinished), three ballets, eight operettas, five masses and 268 songs. Nevertheless, Moniuszko’s presence in the history of Polish music is monumental, so could there be a better way to present his legacy than to start with monuments?
Where are his monuments?
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The most famous statue of Moniuszko can be found at Warsaw’s Teatralny Square, right in front of the Wielki Theatre. The creator of the sculpture was Jan Szczepkowski, who also created the exterior decorations of the Polish Sejm and the funeral mask of Marshal Józef Piłsudski. In 1936, he constructed the statues of Moniuszko and Wojciech Bogusławski (another monumental artist and the father of Polish theatre), which were placed in front of the most important theatre in the capital. In 1944, the original monuments were destroyed by the Nazi Germans. The unveiling of their reconstructions took place in 1965, a year after the death of the sculptor.
It was not the first statue of Moniuszko in Warsaw. In the 1870s, Cyprian Godebski, a Polish sculptor living in France (and creator of the Adam Mickiewicz statue on the famed Warsaw street Krakowskie Przedmieście, the tombstone of Hector Berlioz in Montmartre, and the Monument to Independence in Lima) created a white marble likeness of Moniuszko. The monument stood inside the All Saints Church at Grzybowski Square and was also destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising.
The 10-feet high pedestal supports a feminine figure holding a lute and a laurel in its downward-reaching hands. The lowered head, covered by a falling veil, seems to express in its eyes both a heart-rending pain and unbending self-sacrifice.
Juliusz Faustyn Cengler in ‘Przegląd Rzeźby za 1874 Rok’ (1874 Sculpture Review)
Sculptures of Moniuszko can also be found in Katowice (the statue was unveiled in 1930, even though the composer had nothing to do with Silesia – it was an attempt to promote Polish culture there when the city was part of Germany), Toruń, Częstochowa, Racibórz and Łódź.
But there are also some of his statues outside of Poland. The square in front of St. Catherine’s Church in Vilnius has housed one since 1922 (it was designed by Boleslovas Balzukevičius). As recently as 2016, a monument to Moniuszko and Wincent Dunin-Marcinkiewicz (the author of librettos to some of the bard-composer’s operettas) was unveiled in Minsk. Moniuszko was born in Ubiel near Minsk and at the beginning of the 1830s, he moved to today’s capital of Belarus and lived and composed there for 20 years.
Where did he travel?
For somebody living in the 19th century, Stanisław Moniuszko saw quite a large chunk of the world. He lived in Minsk, Vilnius and Warsaw. Over the course of four years, he studied in Berlin under Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen. He travelled to St. Petersburg, where he received permission to publish his Śpiewnik Domowy (Household Songbook) after the Vilnius censorship office blacklisted it. He also applied for a conductor’s position there, but he lost to Wiktor Każyński, a Polish composer born in Vilnius and the author of the melody of the famous children’s song Wlazł Kotek na Płotek (A Kitten Climbed a Fence). Through help from the Polish aristocracy, Moniuszko later went to Paris where he tried to have his operas performed. He was unsuccessful, but he reportedly returned with a postcard sent to him by the great Gioachino Rossini himself. During a short visit to Prague, he met Bedřich Smetana, the so-called father of Czech music. He also visited Moscow and Bratislava.
How did he earn a living?
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Moniuszko was a descendant of a noble family. His father Czesław and his uncle Ignacy served in Napoleon’s army. Other uncles were accomplished scholars: Kazimierz was a lawyer (and an amateur botanist) and Aleksander studied classical philology. His uncle Dominik Moniuszko was, if you could call it that, a social experimenter – he divided his estate among the group of peasants that had worked on it, giving every one of them a plot of land, and built village schools he later financed on his own. This was all frowned upon by his peers and he did not find anybody willing to follow in his footsteps. He died in 1846, 16 years before the abolition of serfdom in the Kingdom of Poland.
In a way, Stanisław Moniuszko resembled his uncle Dominik the most, at least when it comes to breaking social norms. At the beginning of his career, he worked as an organist in a Vilnius church. The nobility considered this a burgher profession, unworthy of their stature, especially since church organ players were rarely virtuosos and Moniuszko had just graduated from his studies in Prussia. He also gave piano classes and worked with amateur singing groups. These activities influenced his later life quite a lot. He left us many pieces of organ music and the first performance of Halka (or at least its shorter, two-act version, called the Vilnius version) was prepared by his half-amateur musical friends.
After he moved to Warsaw, he got hired as the director (which basically meant the conductor) of the Wielki Theatre. Life in Warsaw was not easy for him, as the city’s intelligentsia considered him as a composer from the faraway Lithuania, the periphery of the country. The support of local patrons of the arts was indispensable for him.
Where (outside of Poland) were his operas performed?
Before his death in 1872, Moniuszko had his operas (or Halka, to be exact) performed in Bratislava, Moscow and St. Petersburg. The global popularity of his works (Halka and The Haunted Manor) was due to Maria Fołtyn, who was an opera singer until 1974 when she became a director after she lost her voice. It all started with the performance of Halka in Havana. After that, Fołtyn travelled with Moniuszko’s operas to the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. Her productions most often employed local singers dressed in Polish folk costumes.
Fołtyn’s story inspired Cezary Tomaszewski’s staging of Halka during the Opera Rara Festival in Kraków in 2017, while her travels with Moniuszko’s work convinced Paweł Passini to stage the opera in Cazale on Haiti, a village inhabited by the descendants of Polish legionaries brought there by Napoleon to suppress the uprising of the local people.
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Readers searching for more complex materials on the lesser-known parts of Moniuszko’s life would do best to look into the publications of Dr Agnieszka Topolska, the author of Zupełnie Inna Książka o Moniuszce (An Altogether Different Book on Moniuszko, Warsaw, 2016) and a monograph entitled Mit Wieszcza: Stanisław Moniuszko w Piśmiennictwie Lat 1858-1989 (Myth of the Bard: Stanisław Moniuszko in the Writings from the Years 1858-1989, Poznań, 2014).
Originally written in Polish, Feb 2017; translated by MW, Apr 2019