Polish pianistic tradition can trace its origins back to... Joseph Haydn. More precisely, back to his Polish students: Franciszek Lessel (1780-1838), piano virtuoso and composer of piano music, and Feliks Janiewicz (1762-1848), a violinist who composed the first ever Polish piano concerto...
Maria Szymanowska, photo: press materialsThe fact that we have Chopin and that we possess our great Polish pianistic tradition is all the favour of a splendidly named Italian: Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731). In 1690, this musical-instrument maker who owned a workshop in the annex of a Florentine palace, began to build a device that would make it possible to control keyboard dynamics. His experiments took several years to perfect and, in effect, the pianoforte was born
Initially known as "gravicembalo col piano e forte", the instrument was first manufactured in 1711 and soon it inspired new chapters in the history of music and performance. According to George Bernard Shaw, the creation of the pianoforte was as much a milestone for mankind as was the 1455 publication of the Mainz edition of the Gutenberg Bible.
Of course, the Cristofori pianoforte and the modern grand piano - the latter with steel strings that literally require fingers of steel - are two totally different instruments in terms of dimensions, weight, structure, volume, range, etc. They do have one thing in common, however: the sound can be controlled by the player who is able, at will, to make the instrument bring out a sound that is either quiet or loud, passionate or objective, melodious or barbaric, brilliant or smooth, erotic or indifferent…
Thanks to these qualities, Cristofori's pianoforte effectively conquered the world. His idea was immediately adopted by almost every keyboard-instrument maker as it seemed so promising in marketing terms. It did indeed turn out to make good business sense as these new instruments were selling widely. Poland didn't lag behind - the internal market was supplied with pianos by Bohdanowicz, Małecki, Kerntopf, Zakrzewski, Krall and Seidler.
At the turn of 19th century, the pianoforte was enjoying widespread popularity. As time went on it became the must-have accessory in the drawing rooms of the aristocracy - even in those of the bourgeoisie. It was played by professional musicians as well as amateurs, even by those with little musical talent. Its equal-temperament tuning and ready-made pitch meant that such a trained ear as in the case of, say, a violinist, was not required - playing the piano took little more than simply seeing and memorising finger patterns on the keyboard. Even if you played your favourite tune with just one finger, making mistakes and adding wrong notes along the way, you could still express your emotions. In this sense, the piano was an indispensable medium. And, notwithstanding the influence of contemporary electronic keyboards, so it continues today.
Polish pianistic tradition can trace its origins back to... Joseph Haydn. More precisely, back to his Polish students: Franciszek Lessel
(1780-1838), piano virtuoso and composer of piano music, and Feliks Janiewicz (1762-1848), a violinist who composed the first ever Polish piano concerto. We have to mention Michał Kleofas Ogiński
(1765-1833), the composer of 26 magnificent polonaises for pianoforte. The first professional Polish woman pianist was Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), mother-in-law of the great Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz
. Goethe was charmed by her music, while Clementi and Hummel dedicated works to her and her playing was admired by, among others, Cherubini, Spontini, Dussek, Paer, Field, Kurpiński, Lipiński, Elsner, Mendelssohn, Rossini and Cramer. Szymanowska had a strong influence on both Polish and European piano music. Chopin
had the chance to attend her performances ("Madame Szymanowska gives a concert this week", he wrote in a letter to his friend in 1827, "…I will be there for sure and will report to you how she was received and how she played"). He was certainly familiar with her compositions - the influence is audible in his own works. According to reviews, "her playing was full of expression and emotion: her soul was present in every touch of the keyboard and she was able to pass her momentary visions to the listener so he could understand them wholeheartedly". We do not know how much of Szymanowska's pianistic style was adopted by Chopin, but it is certain that he liked the emotional aspect of her playing and he admired her technical skill. It is possible that he was working upon those features when he was preparing the works of other composers for public performances.
Chopin, of course, took centre stage in forming the Polish piano tradition; moreover, his individual and visionary approach to piano playing has strongly influenced the past two centuries of world pianism. There was no-one who understood the instrument better than him: it was Chopin who devoted his whole output to the piano and entrusted all his artistic thoughts to the instrument. Moreover, Chopin created a style and canon of musical interpretation; he brought a sui generis law of art into being, a law that is still in force today and remains unchallenged.
The heirs of Chopin's performing artistry were his pupils, all of great importance to Polish piano playing: Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (1817-1894), Karol Mikuli (1819-1897), Zofia Zaleska (1824-1868) and Ignacy Krzyżanowski (1826-1905). They, in turn, were raising their pupils according to the spirit of that great cult of Chopin. Among Mikuli's pupils were Aleksander Michałowski (1851-1938), Maurycy Rosenthal (1862-1946) and Raul Koczalski (1885-1948); all of them were great performers of Chopin's music and all of them made worldwide careers. But the Chopin tradition was created not only by Chopin's pupils and his musical grandchildren; there were other charismatic pianists who intuitively understood the idiom of his music, among them Józef Wieniawski (1837-1912), Ignacy Jan Paderewski
(1860-1941), Józef Śliwiński (1865-1930), Henryk Melcer (1869-1928), Zofia Rabcewicz (1870-1947), Jerzy Lalewicz (1875-1951), Józef Hofmann (1876-1957) and Artur Rubinstein
And there's one name from the above list we should cordially remember these days: that of Aleksander Michałowski, who once came upon the idea of organising a Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw
This article comes from the first edition of the "Chopin Express" gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition
, in coooperation with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and "Gramophone" magazine.
Other articles of interest from the first edition of "Chopin Express": "Waldemar Dąbrowski on the Legacy of the Chopin Piano Competition"
"Mitsuko Uchida - A Grand Comeback"