Roman Statkowski Piano Pieces
Roman Statkowski Piano Pieces
Magdalena Lisak/ piano
‘With his profound intelligence and a heart that was forever young and fervent, he understood that, in the history of art, it is only form that changes – and change it must, indefatigably following the complex paths of human development. The essential content, however, always remains the same. It is a content born of the sense of life’s depth and mystery, through relentless and dedicated work, in the name of a selfless ideal.’ Karol Szymanowski wrote these words about his elder friend and colleague, with whom he shared the same space of values as well as long and frequent conversations. They had similar views on that vital and life-giving current in art that shunned fashionable formal and stylistic boundaries. This album, dedicated in its entirety to the music of one composer who falls outside any rankings of progress in music composition, and whose works bear witness to the genuine nobility and cheerful nature of his spirit – is an unquestionable achievement of one of Poland’s most outstanding pianists, Magdalena Lisak. The artist has biographical links to the composer, since Lisak’s grandfather Zbigniew Dymmek, a distinguished pianist, conductor, and composer once attended Roman Statkowski’s class at Warsaw’s Conservatory. Lisak restores to present-day repertoires the output of a composer who has unfairly been relegated to the margins of Polish music history.
Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz used to say that ‘the secret of time that Roman Statkowski’s works exude lies in the harmony of the mind and the heart’. In his epitaph for the composer, printed in Wiadomości literackie in 1925, he commented that between the previous generation (born around 1860) and the group that first made its appearance twenty years before the moment of writing (the Young Poland movement in music), ‘a star of the first magnitude shone in the narrow horizon of our music – namely, the talent of Statkowski. Unfortunately, the telescopes of that time, and of the one that followed, were dimmed either by clouds and mists of foreign influence, or by the glimmer of improvisatory ignorance – and so the star failed to gain appreciation. This is very likely the reason why the man who began with Filenis gave us nothing more apart from Maria – which is already a lot!’ Statkowski – an artist who played a major role in the generation between Stanisław Moniuszko and Karol Szymanowski, who had greater achievements to his name than Władysław Żeleński and Zygmunt Noskowski – was, throughout his life, a tormented introvert, constantly forced to choose between finding fulfilment in artistic creation and the toil of an educator’s life. This image of the composer has been confirmed by his pupils and by contemporary music critics. In a commemorative speech delivered at a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of Statkowski’s death, Michał Kondracki recalled his teacher as one of ‘the victims of the hard conditions and material necessities that the beleaguered composer had to face on his thorny artistic path’. ‘Once he dedicated himself to teaching, he focused entirely on work with the musical youth, which left no time for himself,’ added Felicjan Szopski, who wrote about ‘quiet unimposing work, unpublicised despite its value’.
Let me recount a few facts from the rich biography of Roman Statkowski. A long-time Warsaw resident, he was born in 1859 in Szczypiorno (now part of the city of Kalisz), in the family of a customs officer loyal to the tsar. The artist later became a landowner in Pskov province (he inherited the estate from his paternal uncle, who had died childless). In 1872–1878 Statkowski learned harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Władysław Żeleński at Warsaw’s Music Institute. The composer also graduated in law from the Imperial University of Warsaw, but for his composition studies (1886–1890) he went to Petersburg. Originally, he had planned to study in the West. What brought him to Russia was the need to secure his legal interest in the landed estate. His teacher was Nikolai Soloviev, a rather minor but highly regarded composer representing the folklorist trend. He also graduated with a distinction from the instrumentation class of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and had consultations with the head of Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein. That latter composer, eminent if rather conservative, was highly acclaimed as a pianist and teacher, and had once taught Pyotr Tchaikovsky himself, whose music fascinated Statkowski at that time. It was also at that time that Statkowski developed his Slavophile outlook, in which a brotherhood of nations was opposed to the strict and ruthless tsarist policies. After his studies and a short period of journeys across Western Europe in 1897 (which took him to Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and London), subsequently – an attempt to take up teaching in Kyiv and a brief sojourn on his (soon to be confiscated) estate at Mali Zherebky (Volhynia), Statkowski started his five-year collaboration with the Moscow branch of the well-known Warsaw piano seller Herman & Grossman, of which he became the director (thus putting his legal knowledge to practical use). In his Moscow years, Statkowski composed two operas, Filenis and Maria, whose success in two competitions for composers (in London and Warsaw) earned him a job at Warsaw Conservatory as teacher of aesthetics and music history (1904–1918), later also of declamation (a prototype opera class).
Having thus returned to his native country after nearly a quarter of a century, to the provincial, profoundly backward and envy-ridden environment that was hardly favourable to creative work, he dedicated himself to teaching since his two operas did not win any particular success on the stage. From 1909 until the end of his life, he taught Warsaw’s composition class (taken over from Zygmunt Noskowski after the latter’s death), as well as general history of music, and subsequently also counterpoint and instrumentation. Ten years later he was appointed deputy head of Warsaw Conservatory. His pupils in Warsaw included such excellent artists as Zbigniew Dymmek, Michał Kondracki, Szymon Laks, Jerzy Lefeld, Jan Maklakiewicz, Piotr Perkowski, Bronisław Rutkowski, Bolesław Szabelski, Stefan Śledziński, Kazimierz Wiłkomirski, and Victor Young (one of the greatest US film music composers). Statkowski was universally respected by the conservatory students, despite his dogmatic emphasis on classical rules of harmony and counterpoint (coupled with brilliant planning of musical form). The majority of his pupils (only Kazimierz Wiłkomirski and Bolesław Szabelski remained sceptical) valued Statkowski highly for his solid foundations, his opposition to clichés and banality, his passion for community work, noble and tolerant attitudes, his kindness and love of art. When a heart disease rendered him no longer capable of teaching, pension was denied to him. Karol Szymanowski’s intervention with Felicjan Szopski only secured him a sickness benefit. In 1925 Statkowski died in poverty in Warsaw.
Roman Statkowski’s oeuvre comprises 40 opus numbers, including two orchestral works (Polonaise Op. 20 and Symphonic Fantasy in D Minor Op. 25), the cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, two operas (Filenis and Maria), six string quartets (two of which have been lost), 20 songs, violin miniatures, and, finally, piano works, which constitute the bulk of his output (around sixty pieces; those that remained in manuscript are now lost).
Statkowski wrote piano pieces throughout his life, starting with the period of his composition studies in Russia. 1884 saw his debut in this field, the Mazurs for piano published in the Echo Muzyczne, Teatralne i Artystyczne weekly. A large proportion of his piano works (mainly sentimental pieces with salon-style titles such as Valse triste, Fariboles, etc.) was composed in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. He continued to write for the piano in his Warsaw years, till the end of his life (1925), as a kind of substitute for his unfulfilled operatic ambitions. Already his Moscow compositions demonstrated, as Stanisław Niewiadomski concluded, ‘an excellent knowledge of the instrument’. Though Statkowski never envisaged himself as a concert pianist, he did take piano lessons with the highly regarded pianist and music critic Antoni Sygietyński, professor of the Music Institute, who had been a pupil of Rudolf Strobl and Carl Reinecke. It was probably in that period that he became acquainted with a number of issues which make his piano works so perfectly suited for that instrument. Statkowski composed for the piano in a way that indeed reflected the instrument’s complete technical and expressive spectrum, which made his music ideally tailored to the skills and needs of a pianist. The formal perfection of his miniatures, nobility of style, simple and sincere expression – were emphasised by critics from the very beginning, ever since he published his first opuses for the piano. His melodies, as Józef Reiss pointed out, are tuned to a profound expression of feelings, often pensive in a melancholy fashion, but invariably refined in their mellifluous lines and framed in delicate harmonies. It is the spirit of Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Moritz Moszkowski (particularly his models of counterpoint), and the Russian Romantics that speaks through Statkowski’s piano music.
Though this is part of the piano repertoire that filled the space of the then salons, it represents the beneficial transformations of salon culture from the 1860s and 70s onwards, the time when composers turned towards Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt. The backward sentimentalism of mostly domestic, bourgeois music-making suited to less sophisticated tastes (characterised by miniatures with French, typically programmatic titles) was thus enriched and transformed using the major tools of advanced piano technique. The first steps in this direction were taken by Ignacy Krzyżanowski and Aleksander Zarzycki, while Władysław Żeleński, Eugeniusz Pankiewicz, Roman Statkowski, and Zygmunt Stojowski are responsible for the ennoblement of this style. All these innovations notwithstanding, Statkowski’s piano music still functioned in the territories of former Poland as popularising works for the general public. Polish national dances are frequent in his output, from the polonaise (Trois piécettes polonaises, Deux Polonaises, Op. 26) to the oberek (Op. 9, Op. 22), cracovienne (op. 23) and mazurkas (Trois Mazurkas, Op. 2, Polonica, Op. 24). There are also waltz stylisations (Deux Valses, Op. 5), programmatic miniatures (Six Pièces, Op. 16), as well as autonomous forms (Six Préludes, Op. 37, Toccata, Op. 33). In a letter from Moscow dated 1903, the composer wrote: ‘In order to feel powerfully, one needs to love strongly, and one loves most readily what one stems from, all those things that have contributed to the making of one’s nationality. This is why the greatest creative spirits are at the same time embodiments of their respective nationalities…’ This explains the marked presence of forms derived from Polish folklore in Statkowski’s oeuvre.
Magdalena Lisak’s monographic CD opens with Deux Valses, Op. 5: Valse flottante, Valse-Caprice, whose models (a form made up of short waltzes) look back to Chopin, fit into the sentimental trends of that time. They introduce a dreamy atmosphere and tristesse. Oberek, Op. 9 No. 2 comes from the cycle of Trois piècetes polonaises (Three Little Polish Pieces) (publ. Berlin 1893). Irena Poniatowska classifies this collection as lyrical salon pieces belonging ‘to the sphere of national themes from various countries, which are only represented in a superficial, decorative manner’, but not in their essence.
Six Pièces, Op. 16 were published in late 1894 by Berlin’s Ries und Erler, a company with which Statkowski then maintained lively contacts and which printed most of his piano works. The cycle’s title, rather popular in Polish piano music in that period, suggests salon character, which was already passé at that time. Jan Kleczyński, however, praises the ‘refined form and a certain wealth in the passages that is far from trivial’. On this album, the pianist has decided to include the last three pieces from the collection. No. 4, All’antico, is close in texture to Paderewski’s Minuet. This similarity is also reflected in the type of articulation (arpeggios and trills, stylised on the mature Classicism and the era of the French harpsichordists) and the lucid tripartite structure, in which the central trio is modelled on the carillon. Numerous motif repetitions with a characteristic anacrusis root this composition in the past. Nevertheless, this subtly stylised tale of the past times never turns literal. No. 5 Alla burla, is a rather fast little march that sounds more like a fragment from Schumann’s Kinderszenen than a ‘mocking piece’ (from the Italian burla – ‘mockery’). No. 6 Auprès de la fontaine (By the fountain), which closes the cycle, is characterized by a shimmering texture, brilliant fingering, delicate melodies and colours. Despite its salon character, this miniature (albeit very tentatively) foreshadows impressionism.
Immortelles Op. 19 is a cycle of six works printed in two fascicles. Three pieces came out earlier, in 1886 and 1895 as a supplement to Warsaw’s EMTA. For this album, the pianist chose the other three, contained in fascicle 2, which were published by Willcocks & Company in London (1900). Immortelles are preludes with lucid melodies and rich textures, at times resembling Mendelssohn’s songs without words. In his EMTA review of 1900, Stanisław Niewiadomski stressed the artistic value and spectacular virtuoso qualities of this music, which earned it a place among the best salon pieces. The cycle’s splendour, as the critic claims, is somewhat moderated by its origins. The composer referred to it as pages intimes, and its expression justifies calling this music ‘subtle poetry’ (Józef Reiss). Of note in this cycle is the precise application of classical harmony and counterpoint.
Polonica. Album pour le piano (around 1899) is a three-album collection of national dance stylisations. It opens the mature, German-Russian phase in the composer’s work, characterised by a greater role of chromaticisms and sound colour, as well as the use of tonal elements taken from outside the major-minor system. The cycle, comprising four obereks (Op. 22), five cracoviennes (Op. 23), and four mazurkas (Op. 24), was published in 1899 by Ries und Erler. Despite being conceived as salon music, these pieces follow in Chopin’s footsteps. They are not simple folk-inspired onomatopoeias, but little dance poems featuring subtle colours. The cracoviennes are especially virtuosic. The one in D-Flat Major, Op. 23 No. 5 resembles Paderewski’s Cracovienne fantastique.
Polonaises, Op. 26 (No. 1 in F Minor, No. 2 in E Major), whose manuscripts were found at the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Research Centre (now the I.J. Paderewski Centre for the Documentation of 19th– and 20th-Century Polish Music) at the Institute of Musicology of Cracow’s Jagiellonian University, have been recorded on this album for the first time in phonographic history. They are dedicated to that great pianist, with whom Statkowski jointly served on the steering committee of the assembly of Polish musicians from all the three parts of partitioned and occupied Poland, held in 1910 in Lviv to mark the centenary of Chopin’s birth. Stylistically these lyrical salon miniatures do not imitate the monumentalism that characterises the polonaises of the latter Polish bard. With their endless modulations (particularly in Polonaise in E Major) they are akin to the polonaises from Tchaikovsky’s stage works.
The posthumously published Toccata in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 33 opens the most mature and individual period in Statkowski’s piano output, which coincides with the climax of his work in Warsaw (1904–1925), featuring elements of musical language proper to 20th-century composers. The piece represents proto-neoclassical tendencies in Statkowski’s oeuvre, derived from the German High and Neo-Romanticism. It consists of four movements, the third of which repeats the first, while the fourth is a slightly modified version of the second. In accordance with the rules of the genre, movements I and III are based on fast figurations similar to those in French harpsichord miniatures, whereas II and IV feature longer chords that unfold into a particularly epic and expressive theme against the backdrop of fast passages. This toccata can serve as a genuine showpiece for a virtuoso pianist.
6 Preludes, Op. 37 (posthumously published by Gebethner & Wolff in Warsaw), with which this album ends, refer to Chopin’s music. Despite their humble dimensions, their compact form of artistic expression brings a diversity of moods and means. The noble melodic invention, complex technical and textural problems, as well as advanced harmonies make Six Preludes into one of the most original cycles in Statkowski’s entire piano output. Each section is different, contrasted to the others in tempo and texture. The cycle was once successfully performed in Russia by the highly regarded Polish pianist Lucyna Robowska, pupil of Aleksander Michałowski. No. 1 has some impressionist characteristics in its individual chromatic writing and the use of second intervals. Nos 2 and 5 demonstrate Chopin-like colouristic qualities. In its violent character, No. 2 brings to mind Chopin’s Prelude in G Minor, Op. 24 No. 22. No. 3 carries echoes of the early Scriabin. No. 4 is suggestive of Rachmaninov (Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 3 No. 2 The Bells of Moscow). No. 5 is a kind of chorale akin to those from Chopin’s nocturnes and late Brahms. No. 6 again brings to mind Chopin in its type of narration and the figure in the left hand’s accompaniment.
‘Statkowski was reluctant to abandon the noble line and tone for the sake of exceedingly powerful expression. What he shunned most of all was cheap, exaggerated means of attaining superficial pseudo-dramatic quality. Where, however, he could express himself in a profound and convincing manner, with much calm – he felt perfectly at home, and he performed his job in a lofty and aesthetic manner’ – wrote Felicjan Szopski in his posthumous tribute printed in Kurier Warszawski a year after the composer’s death. Now, thanks to the album recorded by Magdalena Lisak, this ‘classicising’ Romantic – representative of the opposition that characterised the Polish national ethos in the 19th century – can again speak for himself and earn a place in the common cultural awareness.