during the 9th International Music Festival
‘Chopin and his Europe’ (from Chopin to Lutosławski)


Previous editions of the festival ‘Chopin and his Europe’ have been programmed in such a way that the centre of attention was primarily the ‘beautiful nineteenth century’ (to refer to the title of Jerzy Wojciech Borejsza’s now classic book), although from time to time – such as last year, when we celebrated Wojciech Kilar’s eightieth birthday – listeners could venture further, deep into the second half of the twentieth century. This year, although the Romantic era will remain uppermost in the planning of the festival (among other things, we will go back two hundred years to the symbolic moment of the birth of two operatic titans: Verdi and Wagner), we will peruse the intricacies of the twentieth-century calendar more intensely, taking in the centenaries of Witold Lutosławski and Benjamin Britten, for example, and the eightieth anniversaries of the births of Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.


We will commence this year’s constitutional through the festival’s labyrinth with a brief survey of events not distinguished by any salient anniversary aspects. In terms of performance, as in previous years, the basic aesthetic dichotomy will be retained: some of the concerts will present works of musical romanticism on period instruments; others – on modern instruments. T hat principle has been traditionally informed by the idea of comparing masterworks of importance in music history with works that are less strongly present in listeners’ awareness, which leads straight to the forging of new, often revelatory, musical contexts. Finally, outstanding artists are invited to perform, both those that might already be termed festival residents (such as Frans Brüggen’s Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, appearing for the eighth time, Nelson Goerner, visiting the Festival for the seventh time, and also Martha Argerich, Dang Thai Son and Jan Lisiecki, who will be present for the sixth time), and also debutants of a sort (of a sort, since those making their Festival bows are not necessarily musicians on the threshold of their careers – such as Nikolay Khozyainov, whom we remember well from the last edition of the Chopin Competition – but also eminent artists, recognised around the world, such as Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Marc-André Hamelin, as well as Piotr Anderszewski, who appears at once with his partner ensemble – and it is a truly explosive combination! – the Belcea Quartet, one of the best string quartets in the world today). Turning attention to the performances of works by Chopin on period instruments, which have become the festival norm, we should particularly emphasise the stature of the interpretations of Romantic Polish music offered to us by world-renowned symphonic and chamber ensembles from abroad that specialise in playing on period instruments. Roger Norrington and the legendary Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will be interpreting Stanisław Moniuszko’s fantastical overture Bajka [Fairy-tale], and the ever-dependable Frans Brüggen will lead his musicians in Karol Kurpiński’s monumental programme symphony Bitwa pod Możajskiem [The Battle of M ozhaysk], which predates by one year its most famous sister, Beethoven’s ‘symphony’ Wellington’s Victory (1813), and might confidently compete with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’ Overture, from half a century later, which illustrates the same murderous trial of strength between Emperor Napoleon and General Kutuzov (Frans Brüggen will also be backing violinist Zbigniew Pilch in the Fifth Concerto by Feliks Janiewicz – the only Pole to whom Mozart dedicated one of his works). During the concerts led by Roger N orrington, we will also hear, for the first time in Poland in its original, historical sound, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. No one who remembers the sensational recording of this work made by Norrington and the London Classical Players from almost a quarter of a century ago will want to miss that concert. To any malcontents who have not yet felt the invigorating breeze of the festival’s performance historicism, we need only recommend the much heralded, ‘revolutionary’ recording of Zygmunt Noskowski’s tone poem Step [The steppe], in a performance by the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées under Philippe Herreweghe, issued by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute.

One striking feature of this year’s Festival will be instrumental concerts with ‘a deliberate dearth of forces’ – if it may be termed thus. Dina Yoffe will be presenting both Chopin’s concertos in the very rarely performed – yet countenanced by the composer – version for solo piano (without orchestra and without any accompaniment whatsoever). A sort of correspondence with that event will be struck up by Cyprien Katsaris, performing – Oh neckbreaking task! – his own transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, also without orchestra (a year ago, he played his similarly ‘individualistic’ arrangement of Liszt’s Second Concerto). But also relating to the recitals by Y offe and Katsaris – although this will be a correspondence à rebours – will be an ‘ensemble’ composed of actress Barbara Wysocka, director Michał Zadara and musicians of the Polish Radio Orchestra conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk. This unusual équipe, bringing together artists from different artistic disciplines, will risk not just – like Katsaris – ‘breaking necks’, but the wholesale wrecking of the entire ‘skeleton’ of a composition. Their bold project will involve presenting Chopin’s piano concertos without their very ‘spine’, namely the part of Fryderyk’s beloved instrument, which is replaced here by a verbal ‘translation’, delivered by the actress against the background of the orchestra part, which will be ‘rendered’ by the musicians and conductor. Of this year’s events in ‘Chopin and his Europe’ that will surprise us with unusual historical contexts, mention should be made of the recital by Tobias Koch, currently one of the best performers of Romantic music on period piano, whose musical partners include Andreas Staier, in piano duet. During this concert, the music of Chopin will be confronted with works by his mentors and predecessors (Elsner, Kurpiński, Lessel), his peers (Dobrzyński, Wagner) and his pupils (Karol Mikuli). Particularly striking in this programme may be the announced performance of Wagner’s Sonata in A major, proving beyond doubt that in 1831 Chopin was separated from Wagner by the distance of a dozen composition classes or so, far beyond Fryderyk’s 38-month advantage in age (we will return to this motif later).

It might prove equally interesting to hear one of the repertoire revelations of recent years – the Second Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 17 by Józef Nowakowski, one of Elsner’s first pupils, the ‘good old Nowak’ familiar from letters written by Chopin, his junior by ten years. Nowakowski’s work will be directly juxtaposed with Schubert’s famous ‘Trout’ Quintet, and – although it may seem barely credible – it is by no means a foregone conclusion that it will be overshadowed in such company! The top-notch pianism of Nelson Goerner, backed by outstanding ‘bowers’ mustered specially for the occasion, guarantees a masterful creation, which – who knows? – may even measure up to the memorable festival interpretation of Juliusz Zarębski’s Quintet in G minor with Martha Argerich (released on DVD in the Fryderyk Chopin Institute’s series ‘Concertos frozen in time’).

Doubtless sounding more traditional as a context to two Chopin nocturnes will be Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs without words’, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and S chubert’s Op. 90 Impromptus, proposed by Sebastian Knauer, although he will be dedicating the first part of his experimental recital to historical piano and the second part to a modern instrument. Meanwhile, one of the greatest virtuosi of our times, Marc-André Hamelin, playing solely on a twentieth-century instrument, will seek counterpoints to Chopin’s Third Sonata in B minor in Ferenc Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses and in increasingly played compositions by Charles-Valentin Alkan, with whom Chopin performed excerpts from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in a transcription for two pianos and eight hands. Utterly unconventional, in turn, will be the presentation of Chopin’s cycle of Preludes in a pianoorchestra ‘recomposition’ by Zygmunt Krauze, one of the most interesting representatives of the Polish avant-garde of the 60s, who devised a highly original concept of musical unism, inspired by the art of Władysław Strzemiński. Difficult though it is to believe when beholding his versatile compositional and organisational work, in October this year Krauze will be celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday. Himself a splendid pianist, he has never concealed the fact that the interpretation of works by such masters as Chopin and Brahms provides him with daily mental pabulum, as well as physical pleasure derived from the very act of playing music pro domo sua.

The list of this year’s world-famous celebrities – a trademark of ‘Chopin and his Europe’ – is as impressive as ever. Employing the unjust rigours of the alphabet, let us name but the best known among the soloists and conductors not mentioned above: Nicholas Angelich, Gautier Capuçon, Robert Cohen, Nikolai Demidenko, Barry Douglas, Akiko Ebi, Nelson Freire, Benjamin Grosvenor, Ruth Killius, Nikolai Lugansky, Xavier de Maistre, Antonio Meneses, Marek Moś, Leszek Możdżer, Gerhard Oppitz, Maria João Pires, Mikhail Pletnev, Wojciech Świtała and Thomas Zehetmair. The phenomenal singer - will first be performing in a joint recital with Ewa Pobłocka (those two artists will render works by Chopin, Karłowicz and Brahms), and then singing with orchestra Grzegorz Fitelberg’s transcription of Karol Szymanowski’s youthful masterwork Three Songs (to words by Jan Kasprowicz). The latter concert, in which Nicholas Angelich and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under its new artistic director Alexander Liebreich will also be performing Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto, will be symbolic in a way: Szymanowski took the melodic-textural leitmotif of rot being scattered by sinister birds seated on the cross from Brahms’s Rhapsody in B minor. Incidentally, the late output of Brahms, born 180 years ago, consisting for the most part of pearls of musical ‘melancholy’ strewn about his last piano opuses, will return in various configurations beneath the fingers of Nelson Freire, Maria João Pires and Ewa Pobłocka.

To commemorate perhaps the most electrifying event of last year’s Festival – the performance on 28 August 2012 of Beethoven’s First and Third Piano Concertos by Maria João Pires and Martha Argerich – let us single out this year’s appearances by those two great artists. Maria João Pires – besides a chamber concert with Antonio Meneses, during which we will again hear music by Brahms – will interpret Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. With her peerless rendition of the Third Piano Concerto in C minor from last year – an A pollonian model for the rendering of that work – still in our memories, we will be anticipating another great musical celebration this summer. It is particularly worth noting that Pires will be performing with the Aukso Chamber Orchestra of Tychy, under the baton of Marek Moś. Martha Argerich, meanwhile, will be performing Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, which she has not played in Poland before! And she will also be present as the protagonist of a biographical film. In that unusual role, the Argentinian star will be followed through the camera lens by her own daughter, Stéphanie; the extended episode from the Warsaw festivals included in that film will offer us a glimpse of the special place that Chopin’s music occupies in this great pianist’s life.


Let us now go back in time to the end of 1933. On 23 November, in Dębica, the intellectual family of a future lawyer welcomed into the world a son: Krzysztof Penderecki. That very fact alone might suffice to make the year 1933 an almost key date for Polish music of the second half of the twentieth century (and for the whole of the European avant-garde of the 60s). Yet barely fourteen days later, on 6 December, in the village of Czernica, near Rybnik, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was born into the family of a worker on the state-owned railways, who was also an amateur musician.

Both these future angry young men of the European avant-garde, Penderecki and Górecki, were bonded with the music of Chopin from childhood, but with time they developed different attitudes towards it. Krzysztof Penderecki’s relationship began to resemble a sort of allergy, triggered as a child by piano lessons during which some ‘nasty red-haired woman’ would rap the sensitive boy on the hands with a ruler for even the smallest slip. Fortunately, however, that was not an incurable affliction. Today, the composer of the Polish Requiem, who among Fryderyk’s works most cherishes the ballades, sonatas and scherzos (but not the mazurkas!), is the composer of a large cycle of orchestral songs – written in response to a request from the Fryderyk Chopin Institute – to words by Polish poets, entitled A sea of dreams did breathe on me… Songs of reverie and nostalgia, marked in the mournful third movement by the rhythmic-melodic stamp of Chopin’s funeral march (these songs were premiered in January 2011, under the direction of Valery Gergiev, to mark the end of over twelve months of celebrations of the bicentenary of Fryderyk Chopin’s birth). During the Ninth Festival, we will hear one of Krzysztof Penderecki’s newest works, the Double Concerto for violin, viola and orchestra, and also the ‘Resurrection’ Piano Concerto (dedicated to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York), which aroused extreme emotions more than a decade ago.

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, unlike his peer from Dębica, always had an almost pious respect for Chopin, as is evidenced, for example, in the third movement of his famous Third Symphony (‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’), in which we note an almost direct reference to the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4. To put it more precisely, Górecki’s attitude to the composer of the Polonaise-Fantasy was marked by a carefully proportioned mixture of mysticism and an utterly sober, ‘technical’ approach to the question of compositional inspiration and craftsmanship, which can be grasped, for instance, in a passage from one of his last interviews:

Let’s take Chopin. The question has long been bothering me as to whether, had he not left Warsaw, he would still have been the same great Chopin or would have become some provincial Kątski? After all, he was taught very little. What could good old Żywny have taught him? An ordinary, average musician. But at the same time an incredibly judicious chap who saw in an instant the diamond he was dealing with and decided ‘only’ so much: to not hinder the lad in his natural development. And what could Elsner have taught Chopin? I ask therefore: how and ‘from what’ could Chopin have dreamed up those mazurkas, ballades and sonatas of his? We can digress ad infinitum as to why Beethoven proceeded in a particular sonata as he did and not in some other way. No Sikorski, Chomiński or Feicht will ever explain that to you. We can always break something down into its component parts, but to answer where ‘it’ came from? Why this or that composer employed a particular modulation and not another? Or – oh, exactly! – are you disturbed by the lack of the first subject in the first movement reprise of the B flat minor Sonata? But it was exploited so comprehensively in the development![1]

The music of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki will manifest itself just twice during the Ninth Festival, but in a forceful way. We will hear the Piano Concerto, interpreted by Leszek Możdżer, our gracious king of Polish jazz, and the Third String Quartet (‘…songs are sung’), one of the most important of the late works. In this elegiac composition, consisting of four adagios and a centrally situated scherzo, a quotation from the first movement of Karol Szymanowski’s ‘highland’ Second Quartet comes to the fore, allowing us to see in Górecki’s composition a sort of epitaph for Podhale (in 2008, the composer lamented that the Tatra highland region, due to the process of globalisation, was ineluctably doomed to lose its unique character).

It is worth noting that this quartet concert was programmed most originally, since it will begin with Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (in a Largo tempo), performed on the piano, in isolation, but corresponding with the opening of the Third Quartet. Before that, however, we will hear Lutosławski’s String Quartet. Let us add that the Polish performers of this concert – the musicians of the Royal String Quartet, consistently pursuing a wonderful career abroad, thanks to a recently released disc featuring Lutosławski’s composition – are now among its pre-eminent interpreters.


The year 1913 is often perceived – as, for example, in Jean-Michel Rabaté’s splendid book 1913. The Cradle of Modernism, published a few years ago – as the beginning of a genuine eruption of artistic modernism. The advent of musical modernity is undoubtedly marked by the evening of 29 May 1913, which went down in history as the moment of the scandal – perfectly orchestrated by Serge Diaghilev – during the Parisian world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Mikhail Pletnev, perhaps perversely distancing himself from this year’s fashion for The Rite of Spring, has chosen for one of his festival programmes The Firebird, a ballet written by Stravinsky three years earlier).

For Polish music, a more important date than 29 May would appear to be 15 January 1913, when Karol Szymanowski, in Vienna at the time, saw a production of Stravinsky’s Petrushka (also signed by the Ballets Russes), which triggered the process of the Polish composer’s rapid emancipation from the influence of post-Wagnerian German music, which was already proving injurious to his further development. Interestingly, although purely by coincidence, born exactly ten years after Szymanowski’s entrancement with Petrushka was Witold Lutosławski, a composer who, many years later, and certainly from 1981 onwards – the time when the late lamented Andrzej Chłopecki* (1950–2012) delivered his memorable bid to ‘reclaim’ Lutosławski with a paper entitled ‘The Greatest before Lutosławski. Questions about Szymanowski’[2] – would be perceived as the most outstanding Polish composer since Chopin, nudging the composer of King Roger into the background with each successive premiere of one of his works. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that this year we will be hearing something like a retrospective of Lutosławski’s music, which will comprise the lion’s share of those compositions hailed in their time as masterworks: Musique funèbre, Concerto for Orchestra, excerpts from the Five Songs to words by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna, String Quartet, Livre pour orchestre, Cello Concerto, Preludes and Fugue, Piano Concerto (in two readings: by Gerhard Oppitz and Ewa Pobłocka) and finally the most wonderful symphonies – the Third and Fourth. There is no doubt that, were it not for Lutosławski’s profound experiencing of Chopin’s music from the times of his youth, these works would have taken a different form to the one we know today, although it is difficult to indicate passages attesting a direct inspiration from Chopin (probably most easily in the Piano Concerto, which may boldly compete for the epithet of the greatest twentieth-century masterwork in the genre with the Third Concertos of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Bartók).

In the text ‘Returns to Chopin’, the almost sixty-year-old Lutosławski stressed that Chopin’s music had emerged victorious in his life from the most important and conclusive examination – the test of time:

Still to this day, I return to his music every so often. I play through my favourite etudes, preludes and mazurkas, as well as the larger works. I peruse them and study them, continually discovering in them something that is new or unusual for me, but above all finding in them always something incredibly close and revered. These returns to Chopin of mine are particularly dear to me during the difficult moments in life. They give me a boost of life-giving strength and reinforce my conviction of the existence of an ideal, better world, the imaginary world of creative artists.[3]

It is highly likely that one magnet (certainly not the only one) drawing Lutosławski to Chopin was – passing over a few exceptions from the latter’s oeuvre – the autonomous character of his piano scores. We cannot forget, however, that Lutosławski, who emphasised the absolute character of his music every step of the way, was not always able to disregard the universal tradition of musical rhetoric. The climax to the slow movement of his First Symphony, built on a self-quotation from the student piece Lacrimosa and six portentous sounds of the ‘death-bearing’ tam-tam, the endless sequence of bleak tritones in the Musique funèbre written to commemorate the death of Béla Bartók, the suggestive imitations of swinging bells in the Five Songs (‘Dzwony cerkiewne’ [Orthodox church bells]) and the ‘figure of the soul taking flight’ combined with bird calls (often symbolising the soul in music) in the String Quartet are just some of the spectacular manifestations of the ‘rhetoricity’ of Lutosławski’s scores. But the most extreme manifestation of this type of approach is one of the greatest works of ‘late’ Lutosławski: the Fourth Symphony (1992). This is a composition that is literally chock-full of signs, continually directing the listener’s attention towards critical matters: among other things, we find there a rhythmic figure of death in petrified silence beaten out on a solo kettle-drum, followed a moment later by the return of the figure of a soul taking flight (familiar from the String Quartet), associated with avian ‘concerts’; we must also mention the ma cantando section, with its ‘chorale’ concealed beneath the ‘cantilena’ of the strings, culminating in a dramatic fanfare with clearly exposed tritones and sounds of the tam-tam, and finally the chamber-like segment of the ending, with the violins’ sigh motives strung on the hypnotic, quasi-chant chords of the vibraphone and marimba, additionally rounded off, as if in embarrassment, by a ‘sprightly’ coda, which the composer added at the last minute (also ‘darkened’ by the tam-tam’s rumblings). For a 22-minute work by a declared autonomist, there are many such signs. A great many. And we still have to mention the phenomenally lovely adagio opening of the Fourth, a creative response to the First Symphony in E major of Scriabin, one of Lutosławski’s favourite composers. Within the context of the Chopinian modes of motivic integration discovered a decade or so ago by Andrzej Tuchowski in the opening bars of Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony, the reference to the opening of the Russian composer’s First Symphony, the finale of which consists of an exalted vocal-instrumental hymn to art, takes on particular weight and depth, although – thank heavens! – it is difficult to put in words. A similar symbolic significance may be borne by the fact that our next great musical autonomist, Paweł Szymański, when writing his incredibly moving orchestral Sostenuto for the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth, makes a single reference, with a prominent six-note motif in the cellos towards the end of the work, to one of the strings’ first cantilenas in the Fourth Symphony. Then the ending of Sostenuto, forcibly ‘jamming’, and the subsiding recitativo of the double basses, sounding like an unanswered question, appears to allusively invoke the motif with a multiple repetition of a single note that is so characteristic of many of Lutosławski’s compositions…

A counterpart to the intense presence of Witold Lutosławski on the programme of the Ninth Festival – one that is in some way imposed by historical circumstance – will be three compositions by Benjamin Britten: the youthful Piano Concerto, the String Quartet and the fully mature Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 65 (carrying the same opus number – purely by chance? – as Chopin’s Cello Sonata). It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between these two composers born in 1913: one a declared autonomist, the other the king of European opera (a genre wholly alien to Lutosławski) of the second half of the twentieth century, who also willingly referred in his instrumental works to extra-musical reality. Britten, a consummate expert on Chopin (evidence of the British composer’s ‘Chopinological’ qualifications includes his Mazurka elegiaca for two pianos, with its subtle references, free from slavish imitation, to the Mazurka in A minor from Chopin’s opus 7) and also a composer who, like Lutosławski, rejected the idea of avant-garde for the sake of avant-garde, came into contact with the composer of Venetian Games on more than one occasion. As a result, the Polish composer, captivated during one such contact by the performance art of the famous singer Peter Pears (Britten’s partner in music and in life), composed for him, in 1965, his brilliant Paroles tissées for tenor and chamber ensemble.

Yet the year 1913 will also be inscribed in the chronicles of the Ninth Festival thanks to Jan Ekier. On 29 August 2013, this eminent performer, who wrote an important chapter in twentieth-century Polish pianism, and interesting composer (as few people remember today, since Jan Ekier brought that strand of his work to a close more than half a century ago) will be celebrating his one hundredth birthday. A long life, its fruits worthy of genuine envy: Jan Ekier’s centenary, covering the second half of the reception of the whole of the Chopin oeuvre, will certainly radiate much longer, contributing to the ever more splendid presence of Chopin’s music in world culture. And all of this by the intermediary of the epoch-making venture that was the initiating, and bringing to a successful conclusion, of the Polish National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin (Jan Ekier was its editor-in-chief from 1959!). That gigantic editorial project demanded painstaking studies of the compared manuscripts and the various existing redactional versions. But the efforts truly paid off: at long last, Chopin’s music has been restored to posterity in the form that was probably closest to his original intentions.


Of his two great peers (barely three years his junior), Verdi and Wagner, the bicentenaries of whose births are being celebrated today by the entire operatic world, Chopin knew little or nothing. Their talents needed much more time to come to full bloom – time which, unlike for Fryderyk, was fortunately granted those two composers by fate. So when Chopin was dying, they still had their best works before them: admittedly, Verdi had already penned the first version of Macbeth, but no one could yet have had any inkling of Rigoletto or La traviata, not to mention Don Carlos or Otello. Wagner, meanwhile, was only just attempting to break through in Germany with Tannhäuser, and the Paris version of that opera, which would be conspicuously supported by the campaign of Baudelaire, would not be written until 1861. Verdi – discounting the recital of Cyprien Katsaris, who will be bringing together the music of Verdi and Wagner in his own improvisation – will be represented mainly by the Requiem. Not by accident will this work be performed at the close of the Ninth Festival, and at the same time the opening of a new chapter in the history of the Warsaw Philharmonic: the leadership of Jacek Kaspszyk, who will be taking over the philharmonic reins on that very day – 1 September. Kaspszyk’s anointment will be of a highly symbolic character, with a nod in the direction of Kazimierz Kord, who opened many seasons during his tenure of almost a quarter of a century with performances of Verdi’s religious masterwork – precisely on the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II .

Wagner will be modestly represented. First by the above-mentioned Piano Sonata in A major – testimony to the eighteen-year-old German’s laborious grappling with the work of Beethoven (at that time, he was prep aring a piano reduction of the Ninth Symphony), but also evidence that the youngster still understood little of the last Classic’s late style. The Sonata in A major and also Wagner’s first studies of the Ninth Symphony were reflected nine years later in a literary tale entitled Pilgrimage to Beethoven. Its principal hero, in whom – despite the time shift – we easily recognise the feat ures of Wagner himself, sets off from his native city for Vienna, where he meets his adored master and learns about the composition of a new (ninth) sympho ny. Yet the year 1840, when Pilgrimage to Beethoven was written, would be a time in W agner’s creative biography of a fascination with the music of Berlioz, and a reckoning with his own youth and sonata exercises will be the natural course of events, without which the composer of Tristan and Parsifal would never have been born (Wagner’s alter ego in Pilgrimage would therefore write with understandable distance with regard to his neo -Beethovenian output from less than a decade before: ‘with the purpose of obtaining some money, I went to a publisher, offering to sell him a few sonatas, which I had written in accordance with the models of a great master’).

The ‘mature’ Wagner, although always masked beneath the veil of pianistic virtuosity, will be served to us in the form of transcriptions of excerpts from Lohengrin and Isolde’s incomparable Liebestod, the ending to a drama of love that is apt to transcend even the boundaries of death, a drama of peculiar states of mystical transgression, the essence of which is metaphorically traced by the composer with a chain of infinite modulations and progressions, leading right to the most distant frontiers of the major-minor system…


In his lecture ‘Music yesterday, today and tomorrow’, delivered in October 1993, barely four months before his unexpected death, Witold Lutosławski wrote the following about the tonal system that had held sway right till the end of the Romantic era:

Already as it flourishes, that is, during the nineteenth century, one clearly sees signs of a desire to go beyond its bounds. The first blows to that seemingly insubvertible edifice were dealt by Chopin, Wagner and Liszt. All three essentially work within the confines of the tonal system, yet there are moments in their music where, for the blinking of an eye, we glimpse a vision of the future development of the sound system. Just such a prophetic moment – as we all recall – are the opening bars of Tristan and Isolde. A less spectacular, albeit perhaps more unexpected, moment of that kind is the modulation in Chopin’s last Mazurka in F minor, from Op. 68, in which we find an identical harmonic progression to that from the opening bars of Tristan.[4]

After reading those words, which attest a profound knowledge of Romantic music in general and of Chopin in particular, we ought not to be surprised that Andrzej Chłopecki, in his PostSłowie [Afterword], written almost up to the last hours of his life – a remarkable guide to the music of Witold Lutosławski, crowned by the imaginary alphabet of the composer of the Livre pour orchestre – wrote under the letter C the concise, but entirely apt, entry: ‘Chopin – well what else?’

Marcin Gmys

[1] Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, ‘Music? A Visitor from Another World’ (Górecki in conversation with Małgorzata and Marcin Gmys, 15 October 2008, Ząb near Zakopane), tr. John Comber, in: Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (Warsaw, 2008), 51.

[2] Andrzej Chłopecki, ‘Największy przed Lutosławskim. Pytania o Szymanowskiego’ [The greatest before Lutosławski. Questions about Szymanowski], in: Teresa Małecka (ed.), Księga jubileuszowa Mieczysława Tomaszewskiego [Mieczysław Tomaszewski jubilee book] (Cracow, 1984).

[3] Witold Lutosławski, ‘Powroty do Chopina’ [Returns to Chopin], in: O muzyce. Pisma i wypowiedzi [On music. Writings and utterances], ed. Zbigniew Skowron (Gdańsk, 2011), 316.

[4] Lutosławski, ‘Muzyka wczoraj, dziś i jutro’ [Music yesterday, today and tomorrow], in: O muzyce, 425.