Salon of Polish Women Composers


Salon of Polish Women Composers

Salon of Polish Women Composers

Magdalena Lisak/ piano [Pleyel 1842]

ACD 246

The emergence of salons is considered by sociologists as a key aspect of the revolution from which modern culture was to arise. Proust describes, for instance, the salon of Mme Verdurin. Salons were something more than merely a meeting place for the ‘society’. Today we would call them institutions operating in the art market. It was in salons that new works were commented upon, artists – judged, and leading trends in music were established. Salons run by women played a special role in the 19th century. One of these was the Petersburg salon maintained in 1827-1831 by the famous Polish artist Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), official court pianist to the Tsarinas Maria Feodorovna and Yelisaveta Alexeievna of Russia. Szymanowska’s guests included music-loving Russian aristocrats such as Sergei Prince Golitsyn, Alexei Lvov (Maestro of the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg) and eminent artists and scholars, such as poets Alexander Pushkin and Pyotr Vyazemsky, fabulist Ivan Krylov, historian Nikolay Karamzin, composers Mikhail Glinka, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and John Field, as well as Poles: Adam Mickiewicz, Walenty Wańkowicz, Józef Oleszkiewicz and Aleksander Kokular – author of the famous pianist’s popular portrait. By the time she settled in Petersburg, Szymanowska was already an acclaimed composer. Her music, published in 1819-1820 in six volumes by a leading German publisher, Breitkopf und Härtel (with support from Józef Elsner, close acquaintance of Szymanowska’s parents), was well received in the professional music circles. The publication comprised brief piano pieces and songs rooted in the classical style, but at times foreshadowing the early Romantic emotionality; simple in structure, with attractive textures – evidently influenced by her practice as a concert pianist. They included numerous polonaises, immensely popular in Central Europe and Russia at that time, which in the tsarist empire played the role of characteristic ceremonial courtly dances (such as those written by Glinka). Maria Szymanowska’s polonaises contain echoes of similar compositions by Osip Kozlovsky and Michał Kleofas Ogiński. The themes carry a strong emotional charge, the textures are subtle but spectacular, the accompaniments – distinct and dance-like. Our CD programme opens with Szymanowska’s Polonoise in F Minor from Dix huit Danses de différent genre pour le Piano-Forte, a collection dedicated to Princess Vyazemskaya.

Breitkopf’s edition of 1819 also comprises Szymanowska’s Vingt Exercices et Préludes pour Le Pianoforte, dedicated to Princess Zofia Chodkiewicz, which is one of this composer’s most frequently performed and discussed collections. Commentators note elements of the early Romantic stile brillante, though the virtuosic aspect of the music is not as prominent as in Chopin or Mendelssohn. Szymanowska succeeded in endowing her traditional piano textures (as developed since Clementi’s time) with individuality, charming and unpretentious forms, as well as a lyrical and sometimes sentimental colouring. In some places the music breathes intense emotionality derived from from complex, nearly Beethovenesque harmonies. In his 1836 review of a reissue of Szymanowska’s selected preludes and études, Robert Schumann praised the Polish composer’s professionalism. “This is the best of what she has written thus far,” wrote Schumann, otherwise notorious for calling women’s compositions “products of the Frauenzimmer” (Frauenzimmerarbeit).

Three years after Maria Szymanowska’s death (or a bit earlier) another woman artist was born in Mława (Mazovia region). It was Tekla Bądarzewska (c. 1834-1861), author of more than a dozen piano miniatures, who gained fame with her Maiden’s Prayer, published in Warsaw in 1856 with the subheading “a melody for piano”. In the three years that followed, the piece was reprinted by as many as 23 German-language publishers from Leipzig, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Vienna, Munich, Mainz, Braunschweig, Dresden, Prague and Cologne. The year 1859 saw the publication of this work in Paris as a music supplement to the “Revue et gazette musicale de Paris” – one of Europe’s most important music periodicals, whose editor was the famous music critic and historian François-Joseph Fétis. Following this publication, the “Revue” started a regular promotional campaign for Bądarzewska. “This charming arrangement demonstrates the composer’s sensitivity,” commented Fétis. The Maiden’s Prayer proved to be the season’s bestseller, selling thousands of copies in France alone (1859). Other pieces by Bądarzewska were also promoted, but they failed to repeat the success of the Prayer, and she is still commonly remembered as the author of this one piece. Musicologists are unable to explain its popularity. They prefer to dismiss it as kitsch and a symbol of petit bourgeois culture, ideal for an auntie’s birthday – but such judgments are far from fair. In fact, The Maiden’s Prayer is a well-written work demonstrating noble invention. The catchy tune, which aptly illustrates a pure maiden’s thoughts rising to God, is accompanied by the jingle of simple passages, which makes the piece easy to perform for non-expert pianists (women included). Expressive attractiveness combined with spectacular piano writing turn Lady Tekla’s little piece into a veritable ‘jewel’, which can stand comparison with Beethoven’s Für Elise or Mozart’s variations on Ah! vous dirai-je, maman.

In the year of the composition of The Maiden’s Prayer, a would-be mistress of the piano was born in Warsaw – Natalia Janotha (1856-1932), who followed in Szymanowska’s footsteps, giving concerts worldwide and collecting the titles of court pianist. Her father was a professor of piano at Warsaw’s Music institute and brought his daughter up properly. She knew several languages, climbed mountains, including peaks in the Alps and the Tatra. She also had a flair for scientific research and contributed to Chopinology. Among others, she was responsible for establishing Chopin’s birth date as 22nd February 1810 as well as for the edition and recording of his youthful works: the Fugue in A Minor and the Nocturne in C Minor. She added her own commentaries to her German and English translations of Jan Kleczyński’s lectures Chopin through His Best Works. An indefatigable pianist and chamber musician, she specialised in German music and in her repertoire mostly followed the preferences of her teacher and mentor Clara Schumann (Bach, Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Brahms). She also played several pieces by Chopin, though we have no record of her ever performing his mazurkas. Her own Mazurka in A Major Op. 6 No. 2, published in London (in c. 1902) – one of her numerous piano miniatures – directly draws on Chopin’s models, but it treats the folk source with much greater distance and filters it through that kind of sentimentalism combined with a bit of flashiness that characterised all of her music compositions. The style of the Mazurka brings to mind the dance miniatures of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who was her friend and who dedicated to her one of his Cracoviennes.

Leokadia Myszyńska-Wojciechowska (1858-1930), graduate of Warsaw’s Music institute and private pupil of Zygmunt Noskowski, became a very prolific composer. She left behind numerous miniatures, songs, as well as larger-scale works such as sonatas, trios, quartets, and even some orchestral music. Her short pieces came out early in the 20th century in editions prepared by such well-known publishers as Gebethner and Wolff (Warsaw) and Idzikowski (Kiev). The short-lived Warsaw-based printing house “Lira Polska”, which specialised in popular music, granted her its award in 1924 for her lullaby for piano Fable of a Wistful Night. Its opening and closing sections is made up of chord progressions, the faster central movement consists of intricately ornamental passages that might well illustrate some beautiful dream.

Neither the name of Myszyńska-Wojciechowska nor that of Helena Krzyżanowska (1867-1937), nearly ten years her junior, can be found in course books of Polish music history – though they well deserve a place in such publications. Krzyżanowska, a genuine countess born into a Polish family settled in France, graduated in piano and music theory from Paris Conservatoire with the highest distinction (1883). She then resided in the Breton capital of Rennes, where she taught music and engaged in social work, taking care of workers of Polish origin. She took composition seriously, writing great orchestral forms as well as chamber and choral music, and even an opera. She was a member of the French Composers’ Association; her works came out in print in France, England and Poland. She also promoted Polish music; what helped her in this task was the information she personally disseminated, that she was descended from the same family as Justyna Krzyżanowska, mother of Chopin. Her output of compositions includes stylised dances for piano, such as a mazurka, a cracovienne and a waltz. Her Valse-ballet betrays the hand of a brilliant virtuoso; the music is full of panache, nearly symphonic, ‘aristocratic’ in a way.

In comparison with this piece, Wanda Landowska’s (1879-1959) En valsant and Nuit d’automne, selected from the collection Quatre Morceaux Op. 2 (1897) sound as modest as their titles. Composed in the last years of the 19th century, during Landowska’s studies at Warsaw’s Music Institute, they draw on the stylistic models of Schumann, Grieg and Tchaikovsky. Landowska did not study composition in Warsaw; her early attempts at writing music resulted purely from her personal reflections on the repertoire she herself performed. Polish critics did not take these pieces quite seriously; they underestimated the great ambition and determination of the young artist which her brilliant career was about to confirm: her composition studies in Berlin, the spectacular campaign promoting early music and the harpsichord, the creation of her own educational ‘empire’ at St. Leu-la-Fôret near Paris… Fleeing the Nazis in 1940, she left her music manuscripts behind, and so only the published compositions have survived to our day, including her maiden opus no. 2.

Helena Łopuska (1887-1920) and Jadwiga Sarnecka (1877-1913) represent the Young Poland generation. Their careers proved ill-fated. Łopuska, pianist and composer educated at Warsaw’s Music Institute under Zygmunt Noskowski, attracted attention already during her studies with spectacular performances of her own works at the conservatory’s concerts. The cantata How Sad I Am, My God to words by Juliusz Słowacki was her Warsaw Philharmonic debut in 1909. After an attempt at a career as a concert pianist, she married conductor Adam Wyleżyński and moved with him to Vilnius, where her husband left her for a certain Zofia, a singer. After the outbreak of the Great War she found herself in Russia, left with nothing to live on. She died in poverty in 1920, while Wyleżyński married Zofia and they both worked at Vilnius Conservatory, which he organised after the war. Very little is left of the once sizeable output of Helena Łopuska’s compositions – only the miniatures that she managed to publish while still residing in Warsaw, including Chanson sans paroles Op. 2, another example of music rooted in the Romantic convention after the models of Grieg and Tchaikovsky.

While Łopuska was a Young Poland composer only as a member of that generation, Jadwiga Sarnecka, who lived in Cracow, the Young Poland capital, represented the key qualities of this movement both in her life and works. A suffering rebel, she wrote music as pessimistic as Stanisław Przybyszewski’s writings. She composed fast and abundantly, well aware that she was not going to enjoy a long life. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 36. Her oeuvre consists mostly of piano music: a sonata, ballades, variations and cycles of miniatures, some extremely intense in terms of expression, bordering on hysteria. They are characterised by a great accumulation of virtuosic elements. Stylistically they fall half-way between Chopin and early Scriabin, and are somewhat akin to the early works by Karol Szymanowski. The influence of Chopin is very clear in Quatre Impressions Op. 12 and in Étude in F Minor “quasi un dolore”. These pieces fit very well into the atmosphere of Cracow in those years, when musical tastes were shaped by the hosts of the city’s artistic salons, Stanisław Przybyszewski and Feliks Jasieński, both fervent admirers of Chopin, who willingly showed off giving frantic interpretations of his works. Feliks Jasieński adored Sarnecka. He promoted and published her compositions at his own expense, including the Impressions Op. 12.

Zofia née Iwanowska (Płoszko by her first marriage, Ossendowska by the second) was – like many other women of the interwar generation – daring, self-confident, slightly eccentric, and firmly in control of her own fate. A violinist and composer, she was musically educated with her sister Jadwiga (married surname Zaleska). They started their career as a duo in Warsaw, then left for Petersburg, where the outbreak of World War I found them. During the war they separated. Jadwiga toured in Japan, where her concerts apparently created a sensation, while Zofia performed in Russia and Scandinavia. In 1918 both returned to Warsaw, where Jadwiga founded her own music school, while Zofia, after a period of mourning for her son Karol (who perished in the 1920 war against the Bolsheviks), became a regular salon star, contributing to the projects of Warsaw’s literary and artistic elites as well as holding ‘concerts for high-society women’, during which she also played the piano herself, presenting her own music as well as works by other Polish composers. Other Warsaw artists reciprocated this promotion by performing Ossendowska’s compositions; for instance her songs were frequently sung by Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska. In the early 1920s Zofia Płoszko got married again, this time – to a popular writer and traveller, Antoni Ferdynand Ossendowski, with whom they traversed the Balkans, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, producing travel documentaries which they showed in Warsaw with Zofia’s illustrative music. Her miniature Moudjahid. Danse de guerriers musulmans was originally written as one of those film illustrations. It is an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the Arab countries, with elements of oriental stylisation.

Magdalena Dziadek