The Chopin Festival in Duszniki
Luckily for Chopin the phonograph was not invented during his lifetime. If we could listen to his playing today, it might appear that he was not the best interpreter of his own masterpieces, as was the case with Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky and Karol Szymanowski. This might be the end of one of his mysteries.
Thus attempts to find out what kind of pianist Chopin was – a fascinating task indeed, especially given the fact that his music was both complicated and simple – have to be based on the analysis of the great composer’s works and statements, on his listeners’ opinions and his pupils’ and music critics’ comments, as well as on diaries and letters.
The literature on the subject, some of which was written already in Chopin’s lifetime, is biased by a certain kind of thinking, accepted more or less consciously, but most often subconsciously, that since Chopin was a genius, his playing was by definition remarkably excellent. When taken down from his pedestal, however, Chopin appears to have been quite an ordinary representative of the performing profession, one who – like all other pianists – was not free from technical failings and physical restrictions caused by the build of his hands and the instrument’s action.
Chopin himself pointed out some weak points of his playing: “I am writing unaware of what my pen is scribbling, because at this very moment Liszt is playing my Etudes, carrying me away from reasonable thinking. I wish I could steal his way of playing my own compositions.”
Thus we do not know how Chopin played. The absolutely certain thing is that the spiritual quality of Chopin’s performing art was beyond doubt exceptional. “He could play the same piece twenty times,” wrote his pupil, Peru, “and each time his audience would be equally delighted.” The message he conveyed through the compositions he played must have been so strong, so convincing and so clear that his listeners found it utterly irresistible. The accounts of concerts given by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who gave himself wholly to the music, becoming one with it, may help us understand better this phenomenon.
Chopin was a charismatic musical prophet as his every composition proves. This must have been the hallmark of his playing, too. Thanks to his enormous intellect, Chopin could see the sense, message and concept of each work on many planes. Hence he could play a piece differently each time, conveying it to his listeners as a perfect product. Józef Hofman, too, had this ability. His successive interpretations of a composition differed totally, though in a way that was creative and fascinating, and each interpretation was absolutely correct.
Everything Chopin did has always come to us shrouded in mystery. Despite the efforts of more than a dozen generations of researchers, despite the numerous analyses of almost every note he wrote, despite the attempts to explain the tiniest shred of information about his playing, we have failed to uncover the mystery of his creative and performing art. We have many times thought that we were getting close to understanding Chopin’s mystery, but each time the subject of our research eluded our comprehension, putting the same distance between him and us that had separated us at the very beginning.
In his “Notes sur Chopin” (Notes on Chopin) the French Nobel Prize winner André Gide gives a most beautiful description of the Chopin phenomenon:
“Due to some strange destiny, which no one else has experienced, the harder Chopin interpreters try to know him, the more Chopin eludes cognition. One can interpret, more or less successfully, Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt or Faure without distorting the essence of their works. It is only Chopin’s music that one can falsify considerably, internally; distort it completely.”
It is absolutely true. Chopin still protects his secrets. This will never change. The next generations will want to get closer to Chopin, only to find him as elusive as ever.
Should we then give up our attempts to ferret out even the tiniest of Chopin’s mysteries? No, we should do just the opposite! This is, among other things, what the Duszniki festivals are for.
The Origins of the Chopin Festivals in Duszniki
Chopin celebrations in Duszniki, which have come to be known to the world’s musical community as the International Chopin Festivals, were started in 1946 against a backdrop of the still burning ruins of cities devastated during the Second World War that had just ended. The initiator was Ignacy Potocki, a co-founder of the Lower Silesian Resorts Board. In his letter to Andrzej Merkur of 1994 Potocki wrote: “It was to be the first post-war festival and the intention was to send an important patriotic message to the Polish population, which had just resettled here and did not quite feel at home yet.”
Why was the spa town Duszniki-Zdrój chosen to host the festival? Because Chopin visited the place and immortalised his stay there with a beautiful act of compassion.
Fryderyk Chopin came to Duszniki in August 1826 following his doctors’ instructions and encouraged by Professor Józef Elsner to take a cure at the town’s springs. He left Warsaw on July 28th accompanied by his mother and sisters Ludwika and Emilia. They travelled via Błonie, Sochaczew, Łowicz, Kutno, Kłodawa, Koło, Turek, Kalisz, Ostrów, Międzybórz, Oleśnica, Wrocław, Niemcza, Ząbkowice and Kłodzko.
Chopin felt well in Duszniki. He liked the town and its scenic surroundings. The sixteen-year-old boy’s carefree stay in the spa was marred only by his doctor’s orders to follow strictly the prescribed cure. Fryderyk described his impressions of his stay in Duszniki in his wittily phrased letters to his school friend Wilhelm Kolberg and his professor Józef Elsner.
In a letter to Kolberg he wrote:
“I have been drinking whey and local waters for two weeks now. I look a little better – so they tell me, I have put on a bit more flesh and, as a result, grown idle, on which you may blame the long inactivity of my pen. Be assured, however, that having learnt about my lifestyle here, you will see how hard it is to stay indoors even for a while.
In the morning, at six at the latest, all patients gather at the spring. Here, a brass band of sorts comprising a dozen or so caricatures of musicians, led by a bassoonist, a skinny fellow with a crooked, snuff-soiled nose, scaring ladies who are afraid of horses, plays slowly for the strolling patients. It is like a masked ball, or a fancy-dress party rather because not everyone wears a mask. Those who do not are in a minority, however, because they are the ones who have let themselves be taken for company. This promenade up and down the scenic alley […] usually lasts until eight, depending on the number of cups one is prescribed to drink in the morning. Everyone then goes back for breakfast to their place of residence. After breakfast I usually go for a walk until lunchtime, which is at twelve, because after lunch everyone is supposed to take the waters again. The after-lunch masquerade is even more fancy than the morning one because everyone is dressed up differently for this occasion. Poor music plays lazily again and the crowd keeps strolling until the evening. So do I, and because I drink only two cups of warm mineral water after lunch I go back to the hotel just in time for dinner, after which I go to bed. So when am I supposed to write?
Now you have some idea of how days pass here, one after the other. They pass so quickly that despite having been here for so long, I have not seen everything yet.
I walk about the mountains, which surround Duszniki. Impressed by the beauty of the valleys, I come down with reluctance, often tired as a dog. Alas, I am forbidden to go to a place which everyone visits. Not far from the town is a rocky mountain called Heu-scheuer, from where you can admire breathtaking views. However, the air up there is not good for everyone, I being one of those patients who are not allowed there.
But never mind that. I have already been on the mountain called Einsiedelei to see the hermitage. To get there you have to climb the stone steps leading straight, almost vertically, to the very top of the mountain, one of the highest in Duszniki, which offers a splendid view of the town.
There were many Poles in Duszniki, but now their number is dwindling […]. A lady from Wrocław is staying in the same house as we are. Her sons – lively, bright boys – have some French but they tried to speak Polish. One of them, my peer, said: “ood morning.” “Good morning,” I replied and because I liked him I taught him to say “good evening”, too. He got it all wrong the next day and instead of “good morning” he said, “morning evening”. At first I could not figure out what he tried to say and it took me quite a while to explain to him that it should be either “good morning” or “good evening”.
But I really needn’t have written all this. You may have better things to do than read my scribble. I will finish then and be off to the spring to get two cups of water and a biscuit. Affectionately yours as ever, F. Chopin.”
In a letter to Józef Elsner, written in a much more serious tone, Chopin made the following observations about Duszniki:
“Since our arrival in Duszniki I have kept in mind that I should write to you. The cure has kept me busy, however, and I have been unable to do this until today. I have a few moments to spare so I can have the pleasure of talking to you […]. Your kindness and your keen interest in me give me reason to believe that the news of the state of my health will not pass unnoticed. Fresh air and the whey which I am only too eager to drink have helped me get so much better that I am quite a different person from the one I was in Warsaw. The wonderful Silesian landscapes enchant and delight me. And yet I miss one thing for which the attractions and beauty of Duszniki cannot compensate – a good piano. You will find it hard to believe but there is not even one good instrument here. Those I have seen made me unhappy rather than happy. Fortunately, my misery will soon be over. The moment of saying goodbye to Duszniki is drawing near. We have decided to leave on the eleventh day of next month. Thus before I have the pleasure of seeing you again please accept my assurances of true respect. F.F.Chopin.
Ma sends her warmest regards. Please remember me to Mrs Elsner.”
There is no mention in the two letters dated August 18th and August 29th respectively, excerpts of which are quoted above, of Chopin’s concerts in Duszniki, which the young pianist, driven by compassion, gave for the benefit of a local smith’s orphans. Whether it was his modesty or dissatisfaction with the poor quality of the instrument, about which he wrote to Prof. Elsner, is hard to establish as no sources are available.
We know about Chopin’s concerts in Duszniki from the press and from the official document of the Duszniki municipal office bearing a later date. On 22 August 1826 The Warsaw Courier wrote:
“We have received a dispatch from the Silesian town of Kudowa […] proudly reporting about a young Polish artist Fryderyk Chopin who is taking a cure at Duszniki […]. This is where, after a couple of children were orphaned by the death of their father who had come to take the waters, Monsieur Chopin, encouraged by persons who knew of his talent, gave two concerts for the orphans’ benefit, an act which met with great acclaim and helped the poor creatures.”
The date of the first concert was recorded in the municipal office’s document dated 17 March 1892: “Fryderyk Chopin gave his first public concert on 16 August 1826 in the Kurhaus.”
The date of the other concert remains unknown. What is known, though, is that more than seventy years had elapsed before a monument commemorating Chopin’s charity concerts was erected by Wiktor Magnus of Warsaw and another fifty before a music festival dedicated to the great composer was established in this spa town.
The First Festival
The first Chopin Festival in Duszniki, which back then did not yet have this name, was held on 25 and 26 August 1946 to mark the 120th anniversary of Chopin’s concert in the spa town. Two pianists appeared then – Zofia Rabcewiczowa and Henryk Sztompka.
It was Wojciech Dzieduszycki who persuaded the celebrated artists to take part in the Chopin celebrations in Duszniki He travelled to Milanówek near Warsaw to see the seventy-six-year-old Zofia Rabcewiczowa and then to Cracow to talk to Henryk Sztompka.
The 120th celebrations marking Chopin’s stay in Duszniki began on August 25th at 1 a.m. with a solemn meeting during which Dr Zdzisław Jachimecki, a prominent musicologist and professor at the Jagiellonian University, delivered a paper on the Polish composer. Before the meeting a commemorative plaque was unveiled and flowers were laid at the Chopin monument.
Zofia Rabcewiczowa appeared later that day, at 6 p.m., at the Chopin Theatre. She performed Sonata in B minor, Nocturne in C minor op. 48 no.1, Ballade in F major, 4 mazurkas and 4 etudes, including the A-minor Etude op. 25 no. 11 (one of the Twelve Grand Etudes), with which she ended her recital. In the intermission Paulina Czernicka read Chopin’s salacious letters to Delfina Potocka, which twenty years later were found not to be authentic.
Zofia Rabcewiczowa was a beautiful woman and a great Polish pianist. Her teacher was Anton Rubinstein. Many famous composers of the day, including Anton Rubinstein, Alexander Glazunov, Anton Arensky and Anatol Lyadov, dedicated their works to her in the hope of having her play them. She was a remarkable artist and an excellent Chopin interpreter. Prof. Jan Sierpiński wrote: “A unique facility for learning any composition, great artistic intuition, an excellent musical memory and a simplicity of playing were the hallmarks of her talent. She was not one of those pianists who enjoyed a good thump on the piano, nor was she one who would excessively sentimentalise musical lyricism. Her playing was resonant and vibrant; she found large musical forms, works with a broad sweep, the most suitable for her. She boasted a huge repertoire covering the best and most valuable compositions of each major musical genre. She only avoiding playing modern music, which apparently did not suit her disposition.”
Henryk Sztompka gave a recital on August 26th, at 6 p.m., in the Kurhaus. It included Fantasia in F minor, both opus 27 Nocturnes, Polonaise in E flat minor, Scherzo in C sharp minor, some selected preludes (nos. 1, 2, 3, 6, 8, 17, 23, 24), 2 mazurkas, Polonaise in F sharp minor, Waltz E flat major op. 18 and the B-flat-minor Scherzo.
Henryk Sztomopka studied with Antoni Sygientyński, Józef Turczyński and Ignacy Jan Paderewski. In 1927 he received the Polish Radio award for the best performance of mazurkas in the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He was one of the greatest Chopin interpreters of his generation in Poland, and a musician by vocation. Regina Smendzianka wrote: “He shunned showing off and sham brilliance, and never tried to dazzle a superficial sensations seeking audience with meaningless virtuosity […].”
The pianist has deservedly gone down in the history of Polish piano playing primarily as an outstanding interpreter of Chopin’s music, who placed special importance on stylistic finesse when interpreting the mazurkas. Indeed, as regards this genre, Henryk Sztompka has been a model pianist for many generations of Polish and foreign Chopin interpreters.”
The Second Festival
The 1947 celebrations marking the 121st anniversary of Chopin’s stay in Duszniki lasted two days. On August 16th, at 10 a.m., at the Chopin Theatre, the Reverend Hieronim Feicht PhD delivered a speech, actor Henryk Ładosz recited poems about Chopin by Kazimierz Wierzyński and Cyprian Kamil Norwid, and Henryk Sztompka played the Polonaise in E flat minor, Nocturne in F sharp major, 3 mazurkas, Impromptu in F sharp major and Ballade in G minor.
The following day (August 17th) saw the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on the Chopin monument (at 12.00). At 6 p.m. in the Kurhaus Prof. Sztompka played a recital comprising Sonata in B flat minor, the opus 27 Nocturnes, Scherzo in B flat minor, Barcarolle in F sharp major, Lullaby in D flat major, the opus 41 Mazurkas, Waltz in A flat major op. 34 no. 1 and Polonaise in A flat major op. 53. Amid warm applause the appreciative audience gave the pianist a bunch of flowers. Prof. Sztompka thanked them with a few encores in the form of beautifully played mazurkas.
The Third Festival
The third festival in Duszniki, held in 1948, was a four-day event (20-23 August). There were six concerts featuring five pianists and a singer, the famous soprano Aniela Szlemińska, who sang Chopin’s songs to a piano accompaniment provided by Jerzy Lefeld.
The first to appear was Władysław Kędra (August 20th, at 6.00 p.m., The Chopin Theatre) who played Nocturne in C minor op. 48 no.1 followed by 2 waltzes, 2 etudes and 2 mazurkas.
At 3 p.m. on the following day Regina Smendzianka, Zbigniew Szymonowicz and Aniela Szlemińska appeared at the Theatre, and at 6.30 p.m. the famous and much acclaimed Chopin interpreter Raul Koczalski performed Sonata in B minor and all Preludes opus 28.
Two concerts were held on August 22nd. The first, at 12.30, was a popular event featuring Aniela Szlemińska, Regina Smendzianka, Władysław Kędra and Zbigniew Szymonowicz. At 6.30 p.m. Władysław Kędra gave a Chopin recital, however, an unusual one as it included Chopin’s Variations in B flat major on a Theme of Mozart op. 2 and Fantasy on Polish Airs in A major op. 13 with Jerzy Lefeld at the second piano instead of an orchestra.
Raul Koczalski closed the Chopin celebrations in Duszniki. He played Fantasy in F minor, Impromptu in C sharp minor, Nocturne in E flat major op. 9 no.2 and Polonaise in A major op. 40 no.1.
The festival’s brightest star was Raul Koczalski, the direct inheritor of the great Chopin tradition – he was a pupil of Chopin’s pupil, Karol Mikuli. This Warsaw-born pianist first appeared in public at the tender age of four. A child prodigy, in 1889 he went on his first tour of Europe, amazing the Spanish king, the shah of Persia and the Turkish sultan with his playing. Three years later Edward Hanslick, the prominent Viennese music critic, wrote the memorable words: “Which of the concert virtuosi has achieved the greatest triumph and recognition? The smallest one, Raul Koczalski.”
The Chopin interpreter’s triumphant tours across Europe lasted until his sudden death. Koczalski died on 24 November 1948 in Poznań. Thus his appearances in Duszniki were among his last. Regina Smendzianka speaks about them with great reverence. Wojciech Dzieduszycki had his impressions published in the press:
“Raul Koczalski’s first recital was nothing but remarkable […]. The elderly pianist played from music, inter alia, the 24 Preludes op. 28. When he was at Prelude no. 6 in B minor the lights went out – power cuts were a frequent occurrence in Duszniki at that time. The pianist, who until then had been looking at the written music, did not as much as bat an eye. He continued playing, undisturbed, a charming melody in bass against the chords of the right-hand eighths. He played one prelude after the other as if nothing had happened, paying no attention to the lady who quietly lit some emergency candles only when he was playing the nocturnal Prelude F major no. 23, the second last in this wonderful musical sequence. It turned out that the written music was there for decorative purposes only because the elderly pianist’s memory was as good as ever.”
The Festivals Held in the Next Decades
Over more than sixty years of their annual existence the Duszniki festivals have undergone a beautiful evolution. Initially they promoted the music of Fryderyk Chopin and other Polish composers only. In this sense the Festival was a national event of great significance because it provided a forum for Polish virtuosi for demonstrating how they perceived Chopin’s music. Duszniki witnessed the clashing of aesthetic views and pianistic preferences, but also the crystallisation of the interpretative style.
The artists who have appeared in Duszniki have found it a specific and demanding stage. Here everybody is an expert on Chopin. Music reviewers and seasoned music lovers attending the Festival every year discard everything they feel desecrates Chopin’s music. Subjected to critical assessments, performers cannot count on any leniency on part of the audience. Even celebrated pianists have been known to yield under the pressure of the place and play beneath themselves. Duszniki audiences have seen breakdowns but also moments of a wonderful surge of inspiration, such as Stefan Askenase’s appearance in 1983. At one o’clock in the morning the eighty-six-year-old pianist gave a sensational performance of Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor and Mazurka in C major. The next day he played a wonderful recital featuring works by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Albeniz and Chopin, to end it with three encores, the last being the Forgotten Waltz by Liszt.
The highlights of the Duszniki festivals have been recitals by Vlado Perlemuter, who delivered unequalled interpretations of Ravel’s Sonatina and Miroirs; by Malcolm Frager, who boasted a great gift for languages, including Polish, and who, paralysed by the prospect of performing in Poland, later rejoiced his great success; by Stanislav Neuhaus, who presented a reflective approach to music and virtually sang on piano; by the titanic Michael Ponti, who had a great facility for dealing with insurmountable difficulties; by the aged Louis Kentner, a winner of the 2nd Chopin Competition in 1932, who, seated on a low bench he travelled everywhere with, brought out the unknown colours of the popular works by Chopin (Sonata in B flat minor) and Liszt (La laggierezza, Feux follets, La campanella); by the modest, ascetic-looking, passionate Spanish pianist Joaquine Achucarro, who enchanted the audience with his inspired interpretation of Chopin’s Sonata in B minor; by the elegant, charming French pianist of Bulgarian descent Youri Boukoff; by the elderly dame Edith Picht-Axenfeld, a winner of the 3rd Chopin Competition in 1937, who, armed with the wisdom of her age, played the pure music of Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Chopin’s Barcarolle in F sharp major; and by the unrestrainedly spontaneous Svatoslav Richter, who got wonderfully carried away while performing Liszt’s Sonata in B minor during a recital held before the Chopin Festival, whose date he had set. Many beautiful memories, however, not only of foreign pianists’ performances…
Polish pianists, too, have presented memorable interpretations. Apart from the previously mentioned piano masters of an older generation, the pianists deserving a mention include Halina Czerny-Stefański, who many times appeared in Duszniki as a soloist and a chamber musician; Lidia Grychtołówna, filled with the joy of playing; Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, who delighted in fast tempi and a vibrating sound; Regina Smendzianka, who brought out the composers’ crystal clear artistic intentions; Marta Sosińska, who was remembered for her noble playing; Klara Langer-Danecka, who boasted a great facility with the keyboard; Piotr Łoboz, a student of Egon Perti’s assistant, who was always in a hurry and played without any preparation much better than the pianists who needed a year to laboriously master their repertoires; the very young Adam Harasiewicz (before he won the top prize in the 5th Chopin Competition in 1955), who delighted his audience with his sensitivity and ultimate piano art; the excellent Jerzy Godziszewski, who underestimated himself rather than was underestimated by his listeners; Józef Stompel, whose artistic potential inspired respect; Tadeusz Żmudziński, an insightful interpreter of Szymanowski’s works; Piotr Paleczny, a virtuoso par excellence; the moody, excessively sensitive Janusz Olejniczak, and a great many other pianists.
The abovementioned names clearly do not exhaust the list of the artists whose musical interpretations have deeply moved many a listener. Duszniki is a place where anything is possible. One profoundly emotional, beautifully played phrase is worth more than an impeccably executed repertoire.
Until 1954 only Polish artists performed in Duszniki. The first foreign pianist appeared at the Duszniki Festival in 1955, the year of the 5th International Chopin Piano Competition. He was Fou Ts’ong, a Chinese pianist educated in Warsaw, the winner of third prize in the 5th Chopin Competition, who has since gained international renown. Two years later the festival audience applauded the blind Hungarian pianist Imre Ungar, the winner of second prize in the 2nd Chopin Competition in 1932, and Vladimir Ashkenazy of Russia, who won second prize in the 5th Chopin Competition. In the following years the number of foreign pianists appearing in Duszniki grew steadily, however, most of them where from the so called socialist bloc countries – Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria. The first pianist from behind the Iron Curtain who performed in Duszniki was Bernard Ringeissen from France, a laureate of the 5th Chopin Competition (fourth prize), a favourite of the Polish audience and a great friend of Poland. He made three appearances in 1962 – in Polanica, to play Chopin’s F minor Concerto with the Wrocław Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and in Duszniki and Kudowa, where he gave Chopin recitals. It is important to note here that for many years some festival events were held in other spa towns located in the Kłodzko Valley – Polanica, Kudowa and Lądek.
Until 1960 only Chopin’s music was played at the Duszniki festivals. This changed in 1961 when works by other composers were included in the festival repertoires. In that year the symphony evening in Duszniki, in addition to Chopin’s concert works performed by Władysław Kędra and the Wrocław Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Adam Kopyciński, featured Józef Elsner’s An Overture to the Opera Leszek Biały (Prof. Elsner was Chopin’s teacher). In 1965 the festival programme was enriched by Józef Krogulski’s Piano Concerto in E major, performed by Regina Smendzianka, and Jan Ladislav Dusik’s Piano Concerto in E minor, played by Zdenek Kozina. Three years later (1968) the festival audience heard a solo violin in Josef Slavik’s Violin Concerto in A minor. The next edition of the Festival featured Mozart’s, Schumann’s and Rachmaninoff’s duets for piano played by Janusz Dolny and Janina Baster.
On 10 August 1976 the Wrocław Philharmonic Chamber Choir Cantores Minores Wratislavienses under the direction of Edmund Kajdasz performed songs by Stanisław Moniuszko only. This first concert, which did not feature Chopin’s music, definitely put an end to the former practice to the contrary. The breaking with tradition soon became a common practice because a year later (1977) the well-know soprano Zofia Janukowicz-Pobłocka sang Karol Szymanowski’s songs to the piano accompaniment by Ewa Pobłocka. The first to give a piano recital not including a single piece by Chopin was Joaquin Achucarro. On 15 August 1981 the pianist played works by Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, Debussy, Granados and Albeniz.
Since the inception of the Chopin Festival in 1946 lectures, papers and talks delivered by celebrated Chopin experts have accompanied the musical events. The programme of the 4th Festival in 1949 included a commentary-and-music concert hosted by musicologist Tadeusz Mark. Pianists Wanda Wiłkomirska and Paweł Lewiecki and singer Waleria Jędrzejewska provided the musical illustration to Mr Mark’s commentary. Twenty two years later this concert formula became an extremely popular late night event referred to as the Nocturne.
The Nocturne is a very unique concert. Candlelight, elegant evening dress and wine provide a setting similar to that of the 19th century drawing room. The audience listens to all pianists appearing at the Festival present their best interpretations, while the evening’s host (a musicologist, a lecturer) discusses an issue related to the Polish musical genius. Frequently an actress reads poetry. In 1981 the musicologist Jan Weber familiarised the audience with the rudiments of Chopin interpretation and actress Barbara Paleczna recited poems carefully selected for the occasion.
Festival organisers have always believed that holding additional events in order to diversify the programmes is a worthwhile idea. Hence the exhibitions of paintings, sculptures, posters and photographs, plays, para-theatrical and operatic events, musical film shows, and lectures illustrated with music, which were held by the Wrocław chapter of the Polish Artists-Musicians’ Association and dedicated to Chopin related issues, e.g. “Chopin-Szymanowski”, “The Chopin Legacy”, “Chopin and Debussy”, “Great Peers – Chopin Admirers”, scientific sessions on Chopin, the National Courses in Interpreting Chopin’s Works (since 1977), performances by winners of national piano competitions and courses, the Young Performers’ Presentations held in the morning, the Duszniki Debuts, open-air performances of folk ensembles, debates with the participation of celebrated artists, jazz and CD/DVD concerts.
Over the sixty years a number of administrative and cultural institutions have been responsible for the Chopin Festivals in Duszniki. Lena Kaletowa, a keen chronicler of the Festivals, wrote: “In 1946 when the Polish state was organising its structures in the so called Recovered Territories, and each initiative linking them with the rest of the country was considered to be of national importance, the Chopin Festival came under Deputy Premier and Minister for the Recovered Territories Władysław Gomułka, first governor of Lower Silesia Stanisław Piaskowski and first Polish rector of Wrocław University, Prof. Stanisław Kulczyński. In the Stalinist period the honorary committee was enlarged to include przodownicy pracy [the hardest-working and most efficient representatives of the working class – tranlator’s note], Minister of Culture and Art Stefan Dybowski [in no way related to the author of this text – author’s note], composer Witold Rudziński and general Vsevolod Strazhevsky, chief of the Silesian Military District.”
In the 1946-1972 period the Duszniki Festival received artistic an musical advice from the Fyderyk Chopin Institute, which soon afterwards was renamed The Fryderyk Chopin Society of Warsaw. The concerts at Duszniki were initially organised by the State Artistic Events Enterprise ARTOS (a kind of national impresario’s office), later the Chopin Society was put in charge of concert organisation.
As organising the Duszniki festivals from Warsaw was not a good idea, in 1973 the Wrocław-based Musical Society of Lower Silesia took over. It soon appeared, however, that from the point of view of the Festival, this arrangement did not work, either. In 1975 the administration of the newly created Wałbrzych province was established. Its Department of Culture and Art and the Duszniki Zdrój Municipal Office were made responsible for the Festival. Two years later the Organising Committee was set up comprising the Duszniki Zdrój Municipal Office, the Wałbrzych Province Culture and Art Department, the Board of the Kłodzko Valley Spas based in Polanica Zdrój and the Fryderyk Chopin Society located in Warsaw.
Initially teams of office workers ran the consecutive Festivals. They made decisions about their organisational and artistic formula. When the Musical Society of Lower Silesia was put in charge of the Festival in 1973, it appointed Jerzy Jankowski, a pianist from Wrocław, its Artistic Director.
Years later Mr Jankowski wrote: “I was working at the Higher School of Music in Wrocław at that time. Because I had studied piano with Prof. Zbigniew Drzewiecki, had been on the staff of the piano faculty chaired by Prof. Jan Ekier and had performed as a pianist and a chamber musician, the Lower Silesian Musical Society asked me to write the programme of the Festival. Back then the world was divided into two political blocs, but art and music defied the existence of the Iron Curtain. Inviting musicians from the United States or France had to be approved by the Minister of Culture and Art, no less. However, when it came to purchasing a new piano for the Duszniki Festival, the authorities were very sympathetic and gave me a foreign currency grant to buy a Steinway […].
For my generation, which had to cope with many restrictions imposed by the totalitarian system, Duszniki was a window on the world, and music was balm to our spirit […]. It is hard to describe the atmosphere of the Festival. You had to be there, to experience it first-hand.”
In the years 1975-1985 the Duszniki Festival’s director was the celebrated conductor Tadeusz Strugała. Eleven years later he reminisced: “When I was appointed Artistic Director I ran the Wroclaw Philharmonic, which at that time was in charge of three major festivals, of which the Wratislavia Cantans and the Polish Contemporary Music Festival were annual events. Also, I was starting Organ and Harpsichord Music Days. I really had much work to do.
But far from declining the offer to run the Duszniki Festival, I accepted it with joy. After many good years the Chopin Festival was on the decline – it was neglected and had become a provincial event. I had been given an opportunity to make a difference.
Let me tell you something that is little known, an anecdote really. Without permission I added “international” to the Festival’s name. Actually, the Festival had originally been intended as such. But the Ministry of Culture and Art’s permission was necessary. I had “The International Chopin Festival in Duszniki Zdrój” printed on the posters and programmes on my own initiative. There were no repercussions only because the best pianists available to us appeared that year – Garrick Ohlsson, Stanislav Neuhaus and Stefan Askenase, who gave a special recital, as well as Kristian Zimerman and every other Polish participant in the Chopin Competition.
The pianists were not quite sure where they were going. Seeing the little spa town and the small concert halls they could hardly hide their surprise and scepticism. But the atmosphere they experienced there was very nice. I hope I don’t sound sentimental but it was genuinely a family kind of atmosphere. My satisfaction was great as I did my best to create such an atmosphere – I personally checked whether the pianists’ lodgings were comfortable enough and what views their rooms provided, I made sure that they had towels and soap […].
I still remember the first reception I gave, at my own expense by the way, for the pianists, music reviewers, journalists, Festival hosts and guests. The atmosphere was really fantastic. And we hit it off. News of the Festival spread far and wide. Many pianists offered to come again, stressing their memorable impressions of Duszniki. I did not accept all offers, though, because I wanted to present new trends and pianists who were unknown in Poland.
I think I succeeded in developing a new artistic formula for the Nocturnes. These concerts had been held before but their unique character was only possible thanks to placing special importance on the scenery and lighting, and on floral arrangements. The Nocturnes had an air of something extraordinary. Pianists who find it difficult to play in the presence of their colleagues had nice things to say about these concerts. The Duszniki “night of music” was considered so special that the Chopin centres in Vienna, Gaming and Ghent replicated it.
A risky move was letting young pianists test their skills against those of world-famous virtuosi. “Duszniki Debuts” was my carefully thought-out initiative. Young Polish pianists had the opportunity to meet piano giants […]. Many debuts have launched young performers on successful careers.
I did my best to secure every venue possible. I remember the first concert in the local church. Seeing listeners walking to the church Duszniki residents did not hide their resentment towards the priest for having allowed such an extravagant thing to happen, and towards us. That attitude changed after the concert, and the town gained another concert hall. […] In Duszniki I got co-operation and friendly support. The local people wanted the Festival and did things which at that time bordered on the impossible to help.”
Thanks to Tadeusz Strugała’s enterprise and ingenuity, the International Chopin Festival in Duszniki became a major point on Poland’s cultural map and gradually came to international attention. If only adequate funds were available, having world-famous pianists appear in Duszniki was no longer a problem, especially as there was no need to persuade anyone that it was worth their while to do so. At the end of his term as the Festival’s director Tadeusz Strugała did not need to explain to anyone in the world how important Duszniki was to art. The provincial musical event intended to cultivate Chopin’s music had become an international tribute to the great composer. The status of the Festival had drastically changed.
Tadeusz Strugała was succeeded by conductors Marek Pijarowski (1986-1987) and Jerzy Swoboda (1988-1992). However, the time was not particularly good for Polish culture as the country was undergoing a dramatic change from a totalitarian system to a market-led economy. In the new circumstances the International Chopin Festival in Duszniki had to find a way to survive and to develop. That was when Andrzej Merkur stepped in. A resident of Duszniki working for the Municipal Office Department of Culture and Art, Mr Merkur had been involved in consecutive festivals for several years and had intimate knowledge of their specific character. With a group of Chopin music lovers he formed the Foundation for International Chopin Festivals in Duszniki. Since 1990 the Foundation has been the sole organiser of the Festival and the body responsible for raising funds. Could the Festival survive if Mr Merkur had not shown remarkable foresight and resourcefulness?
The Last Nineteen Years
To paraphrase the popular lyrics from a TV series soundtrack one might say that “nineteen years have passed as quickly as one day.” Piotr Paleczny may happily hum the song as the proud artistic director of what is the world’s longest-running piano festival and one of the most prestigious events of this kind.
Paleczny’s involvement in the Duszniki Festival started rather accidently. He had known the Festival for twenty years as a guest performer who had scored well-deserved successes there. Taking up the position of its director was an entirely different matter, though. The offer which Andrzej Merkur made the laureate of the Chopin Festival and juror in many international music competitions seemed to verge on the abstract, but after considering the pros and cons Paleczny no longer thought of it in terms of virtual reality.
“The offer took me by surprise,” admitted Paleczny. “Pursuing a concert career was my basic occupation and here I was asked to engage in something that was totally new to me. However, I had a gut feeling that my friendly relations with other pianists could be of great help in achieving the tasks that lay ahead of me. This is why I decided to take up the new challenge, being fully aware of the responsibility for developing a festival of such renown and long tradition.
A concert pianist myself, I perceive other pianists as partners rather than rivals and I often form friendly relations with them. Hence the motto of the second Festival under my artistic direction, “A Reunion”. In 1994 I invited a group of 8th Chopin Competition laureates and participants. I, too, won a prize in that Competition. It was an artistically important meeting, but also a profound experience for each of us.
Music lovers surely remember the 48th Festival in 1993, to which I had invited the laureates of Chopin competitions held in many countries, which, regrettably, are little known in Poland. During the jubilee 50th Festival we admired a large, fantastic group of top prize winners of the Chopin Competitions in Warsaw. The next Festivals, in 1996 and 1997, were devoted to Chopin’s links with Spain and France. Another edition of the Festival saw the performances by the outstanding teacher and pianist Dmitri Bashkirov and his former students.
The International Chopin Year [the internationally celebrated 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death in 1999 – author’s note] encouraged me to invite pianists from more than a dozen countries on all continents. Thus the Festival’s programme in 1999 confirmed the profound truth of Cyprian Kamil Norwid’s words: “Chopin, a citizen of the world.”
The next festivals, too, had their mottos. In 2000, the year of the 14th International Chopin Piano Competition, Director Paleczny invited to Duszniki the Competition jurors and a large group of young generation pianists, laureates of no less than fourteen largest competitions. The next Festival (2001) celebrated the 175th anniversary of Chopin’s concerts in Duszniki and the 60th anniversary of the death of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the great Polish artist and statesman. The former was celebrated in a very original way with the morning performances of very young and greatly talented pianists, Chopin peers (they were as old as Chopin was when he visited Duszniki). A concert featuring mostly Paderewski’s works marked the latter anniversary. Also in 2001, acting on Andrzej Merkur and Piotr Paleczny’s joint initiative, the Foundation for International Chopin Festivals started a Chopin Centre. Its inauguration took place during the next Festival in 2002. “A new project implemented as part of the Festival,” said Paleczny, “are master classes that will be conducted by celebrated teachers. Six young Polish pianists will have the benefit of consultations provided by piano professors, who have been invited to Duszniki. The classes will be held at the new Chopin Centre.” Profs. Dominique Merlet, Alexei Nasedkin and Yevgeni Mogilevsky ran the classes, which were open to the general public, and which were completed with a lecture on the Polish inheritors of the Chopin tradition delivered by this author.
“Artists of the United Europe,” wrote Piotr Paleczny in the 58th Festival’s programme book, “is the optimistic motto which I used as a reference when developing the artistic concept for the 58th Festival. […] We have just had an EU accession referendum and in a year’s time Poland will be a member state. This is why we will host artists from the fifteen countries that are already EU members as well as from the countries which will soon join the united Europe, enlarging it to 25 members. Their talents and skills, the power of their artistic personalities and their very presence in Duszniki will bring closer to us the concept of a peaceful Europe, united in co-operation and mutual kindness.” Just like a year before, the 58th Festival saw master classes for gifted Polish pianists and their teachers ran by Vera Gornostaeva and Arie Verdi.
“Competition laurels – a moment of happiness or the beginning of a great career?” was the motto of the Duszniki Festival in 2004. Invited to appear at the Festival was a group of young generation pianists from several countries, who had previously scored major successes by winning prizes in 12 important piano competitions. It was a risky confrontation, one that could not end in a triumph for everyone. Piotr Paleczny carefully planned the appearances of young prize-winners and reduced the risk of embarrassment by choosing pianists whom he had seen on stage before. Again master classes were part of the Festival. They were conducted by John O’Conor and Vladimir Kraynev, who also gave recitals.
Thanks to gradual changes which Piotr Paleczny systematically introduced, the International Chopin Festival in Duszniki has consolidated itself and gained a unique formula. At present each edition of the Festival runs along parallel tracks. One features the appearances of piano masters belonging to the world’s elite, another consists of recitals of young pianists – winners of top prizes in major international competitions, still another offers master classes in musical interpretation. There are also the accompanying events, such as the openings of exhibitions, open-air concerts, etc. The Festival offers an impressive range of events.
The 60th and 61st Festivals followed clear, preset formulas. The motto of the former, jubilee festival was “60 years of the Chopin Festival in Duszniki Zdrój – a festival which is young in spirit but great in tradition.” It was the pivot around which the Festival revolved. Dang Thai Son and Bernard Ringeissen conducted the master classes.
The 61st Festival in 2006 celebrated not only the 180th anniversary of Chopin’s concerts in Duszniki, but also the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. After all Chopin is believed to have told his pupil, Mikuli: “Bach was first, then came Mozart.” The question we may ask today is: could Chopin have been born if Bach and Mozart had not existed?
Chopin played Johann Sebastian Bach’s preludes and fugues all his life and encouraged his pupils to study them in depth. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was Chopin’s ideal. At the age of 17, Chopin used Mozart’s musical phrase for composing his remarkable cycle of Variations in B flat major for piano and orchestra op. 2. When he was 39 and very ill, feeling that his life was coming to an end, Chopin requested that Mozart’s Requiem accompany him on his last journey. Thus it would have been hard to imagine the Chopin Festival held in the Year of Mozart without Mozart’s music.
Many works by the Viennese classic were performed in Duszniki in 2006. Master classes for the chosen few were also held – they had become an permanent item on the Festival’s agenda by then. Profs. Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń (Poland) and Eleanora Wong (China) conducted the open classes, and Prof. Irena Poniatowska delivered a lecture, “From Mozart to Chopin”.
A wonderful recital by Rafał Blechacz, the top prize winner of the 15th Chopin Competition in Warsaw, brought the Duszniki 2006 Festival to a close. It should be noted at this point that a few years before Piotr Paleczny had “discovered” Blechacz and had invited him to Duszniki.
In 2007 Piotr Paleczny posed a question to the 62nd International Chopin Festival: Are the national piano-playing schools still a living tradition or a thing of the past?” In the introduction to the Festival’s programme Mr Paleczny himself attempted to answer this question. “Each national piano-playing school has contributed its own values, although placing importance on different elements of piano art. However, opinions are being voiced that at the time of global communication the national school concept is no longer valid. After all prestigious music schools employ outstanding teachers from many countries. The students in these schools represent an even wider range of nationalities. Thus it would seem that what really counts is the teacher and his/her aesthetic values. They are the ones who define their own piano-playing schools. On the other hand, though, can we ignore the fact that the outstanding teachers’ aesthetic values [….] are still rooted in the tradition of former national schools?”
The pianists from France, Russia, Korea, China, Ukraine and Poland, who appeared at Duszniki that year, were to provide the “key” to the above question. Did the listeners hear the differences in the playing of the pianists of the abovementioned nationalities representing different schools? Leaving Duszniki each music lover had his/her own answer.
The motto of the Duszniki Festival 2008, phrased by Piotr Paleczny in a deliberately misleading way, was: “Returns of great stars”. It was misleading because it implied that great stars are happy to return to Duszniki, whereas many were actually born there, for instance Polish pianist Krzysztof Jabłoński, “discovered” by Piotr Paleczny many years before, and Alexander Gavryluk of Ukraine. Both are currently pursuing international careers and may be considered as piano stars. The programmes of the Duszniki 2008 concerts featured a number of excellent artists, such as Brigitte Engerer, Boris Berezovsky and Arkady Volodos. Talented young pianists, laureates of international competitions, who increasingly often perform in the world’s renowned concert halls, appeared in Duszniki that year, too. The usual master classes were conducted by Joaquin Soriano from Spain and Tamas Ungar, an American of Hungarian descent.
The 64th International Chopin Festival in Duszniki (2009) was held on the 160th anniversary of Chopin’s death. It was started by the famous Cyprus-born French pianist Cyprien Katsaris, whose programme included some rarely performed works by Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Gottschalk. The following days saw performances by the excellent laureate of the Chopin Competition in 1970, Eugen Indjic, and by Lim Donk-Hyek, a laureate of the Chopin Competition in 2005, as well as by Alexander Gavryluk, Krzysztof Broja, Nikolai Luganski and other pianists. A special concert of Felix Mendelssohn’s works marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of the German composer, who also visited Duszniki. An unexpected highlight of the Festival was the recital by Piotr Paleczny, who at a moment’s notice stood in for an ill foreign pianist. Oleg Meisenberg and Matti Raekallio ran the master classes. Gifted young pianists showed their skills.
Director Paleczny has a knack for identifying talents for his festival. For years his efforts to this end have produced excellent results. Music lovers coming to Duszniki from far and wide have had the exceptional opportunity of listening to very young pianists with a bright future, many of whom have embarked on illustrious international careers. It feels good to know that one listened to a pianist who later became famous, and to have their autograph.
How much Poland has changed since the freeing of the spirit of enterprise, which for half a century had been kept in chains, is proved by the success of the festival run by two men of vision who are totally committed to it – Piotr Paleczny and Andrzej Merkur.
Asked by this author about the attendance at the festivals, Andrzej Merkur, president of the Festival Foundation who is responsible for organisational matters replied:
“The level of interest in each Festival is so high that six months prior to it all tickets are sold out. Music lovers usually come to Duszniki for the concerts, but some spend their vacations here with their families. There are also regular guests who come every year. All of them are important to us and we are glad to have them in our town. We are happy when they leave impressed by what they have experienced here.”
Both directors are the masterminds of the Duszniki Festivals, but also they are very much present in body during each event. They are responsible for the atmosphere and smooth running of the Festival and for the remarkable concerts featuring distinguished artists. They make sure that the guests’ impressions of Duszniki, town and festival, are memorable. Their ingenuity regarding the event’s attractiveness seems to have no limits.
For the last dozen or so years a Festival Newsletter has been published. This daily bulletin runs interviews with artists and guests of note, instant opinions on the concerts, descriptions of unusual events, notices, funny and serious photos and some petty details and stories.
A few years ago a PA system was installed in the spa park and, recently, huge monitors have appeared there to enable the strolling patients to watch the pianists on stage. The air conditioning system in The Chopin Mansion has added to the comfort of listening. The stage has been raised higher to offer a better view of the artists. The Artistic Director personally sees to it that the pianists have at least two well-tuned, leading-brand instruments at their disposal. The Steinways are usually brought from Berlin and the Yamahas from Paris. Teams of tuners make sure that the pianos’ sound is of a good quality.
It should be noted that the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, the administrative authorities of the province and Duszniki town, the Artistic Agency Philharmonia and sponsors support both directors in their efforts to run and develop this music celebrating event, one of its kind in the world.
English translation: Jerzy Ossowski