Chopin without Piano, conductor Jacek Kasprzyk, director: Michał Zadara. Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego, Kraków. Photo: Natalia Kabanow.
Volume 1

This is Not Chopin

My first exposure to Chopin’s two Piano Concertos was recent: listening to the Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son playing on a nineteenth century Erard piano with Frans Brüggen’s Orchestra of the eighteenth century. I later listened to Artur Rubenstein’s recordings from the late 1950s, and then to Krystian Zimerman’s from 2003. Zimerman, invoking both Chopin and Tadeusz Kantor, conducted as well as played the piano sections. The most immediate connection for me was through Rubinstein. He was, along with Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Wanda Landowska, Józef Hofmann, and Ignaz Friedman, one of the Polish pianists that fascinated my father, a piano restorer. At the height of the Cold War, in the American Midwest, my family heard this music almost daily, which was originally recorded on reproducing pianos in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Chopin’s music for us was always in the foreground. The mass consumption of such recorded performances of Chopin began with the reproducing piano (which made Paderewski a fortune in the United States). By the time I first heard this music (undoubtedly already in utero) most of these pianists, like Chopin himself, were long dead. It was like a séance, a musical counterpart to Kantor’s Dead Class. We were a technologically-mediated mid-twentieth century Polish-American version of Norwid’s larchwood country manor.

Over time, my family had lost the Polish language to the combined forces of Prussian Kulturkampf and American assimilation. By the 1950s, in regard to Polish language and culture we were like someone experiencing total aphasia after a stroke. None of us had ever even seen Poland, so we had no visual memory, either. Our only Polish language, which my father and my brother and I studied assiduously, was the musical dialect of Polish pianism in the Chopin tradition. Which for us did not include Chopin’s two Concerti. The physical presence of the piano (a Steinway), combined with the reproducing player mechanism, the recordings of dead Polish maestros, and Chopin’s solo piano scores, was what we had. We both listened to and practiced this music. Today I can enjoy Dang Thai Son perform Chopin on a period instrument in streaming digital audio on my iPad. Thus we share a common language with the Vietnamese pianist and others: the language, at once Polish and cosmopolitan, of Chopin’s pianism. A paradox: by taking Chopin’s pianism out of the Concerti, Zadara and Kaspszyk render him aphasic as a composer even as they give Chopin speech. That speech may be in Polish—but Chopin’s first language is his pianism.

In Norwid’s poem Fortepian Szopena an act of deliberate cultural vandalism is portrayed: the spectacular physical destruction by the Czarist forces occupying Warsaw of Chopin’s piano, likely the same one on which he composed, practiced, and first performed the Concerti. The destruction of the instrument did not silence Chopin’s music, and the symbolic political act by the Russians was countered by Norwid’s poem. The poem was not a restoration of the lost piano, which was impossible in any case, but filled its absence with new artistic work in another genre. Now there were two voices: Chopin’s music and Norwid’s poetry. There is a perpetual need in Polish culture to replace what has been destroyed by such vandalism—and for the understanding that new cultural production is more meaningful than scrupulous restoration to fill the absence. Zadara and Kaspszyk’s new performance piece using the orchestral score of Chopin’s Concerti risks the accusation of being a new act of vandalism, this time within the very performance of the composer’s work. If we replace the piano with Barbara Wysocka and the score with text, is this another violation, or something else? This proposition is in significant contrast to that of twenty-first century musicians playing on period instruments: Wysocka is quintessentially a twenty-first century instrument and performer.

The banning of the piano from the performance of Chopin’s Concerti is a radical act of cultural blasphemy, in the tradition of Gombrowicz’s Trans-Atlantyk or Grotowski’s treatment of the Polish dramatic canon. Rather than mere provocation, the goal is to renew and transform a tradition that began with precisely such creative rebellion and innovation. The question is how to reanimate the creative principle embodied by Chopin rather than historically reconstruct him.

As with the Czarist forces in nineteenth century Warsaw, this is undeniably also a symbolic political act. It is a critique of Chopin’s pianism as a tool of mutual oppression by Poles, of its associations with nationalism and passéisme instead of as the means of mutual liberation, individual empowerment, and unfettered creativity it represented in Chopin’s day. Understood as a new piece of contemporary theatre, the goal of this experiment is the generation of an unprecedented Polish work, a performative counterpart to Norwid’s poem. Which itself was also a symbolic political act. The political exchange here is between Poles. The creative exchange, however, is between artists. Being Polish is only part of that story—as was the case with Chopin.


Today, we now have little choice but to look at the twenty-year old Chopin who wrote the Concerti retrospectively, through the lenses of the rest of his life in emigration and of 180 years of subsequent history. An inescapable part of that history is Chopin’s death abroad, and the legendary gesture that death included: the surgical separation of the composer’s heart from his body, with his preserved heart sent to Warsaw as a symbolic relic and the rest of his remains buried in Paris. If Chopin’s pianism is inseparable from his Polish artistic identity, then the separation of the piano from the orchestra in his Concerti is a parallel act to the separation of his physical heart from the rest of his body. That body is like the Concerti without the piano, and those Parisian remains are what constitute the focus of Zadara, Kaspszyk, and Wysocka in this piece. The European Chopin in contrast to the Polish one. Each is equally important—but the remains of Chopin in Paris contain his brain, ears, hands, and tongue: his means of expression. Chopin’s disfigured body echoes the wreckage of his piano on the pavement of a Warsaw street.

Chopin here is reconceived to deliver a postmodern “Great Improvisation,” a transgressive and heretical posthumous auto-commentary, scripted and scored, but with the effect of a spontaneous, provocative, and perhaps unrepeatable improvisation with the orchestra and audience. Zadara and Kaspszyk have thus placed Wysocka in a volatile and unprecedented crucible as an actor. It is an agon in every sense of the word. Heroically anti-heroic. Wysocka embodies at once the score, the instrument, Chopin’s voice, and a rival to the conductor. She confronts the body of the dead Chopin, the Parisian Chopin, the hole left in his chest. She stands in for the silenced piano. Zadara, Kaspszyk, and Wysocka together have created a new poem, in two parts. Together they perform in a new theatrical language. With Chopin. Barbara Wysocka is not Chopin. She is a twenty-first century Polish artist, with her own presence, voice, and speech. A new heart.

Allen J. Kuharski is Chair of the Department of Theater at Swarthmore College, where he holds the Stephen Lang Professorship in Performing Arts. He also teaches at Pig Iron Theater Company’s Advanced Performance Training Program in Philadelphia. He is the recipient of the Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Award from the Polish chapter of I.T.I./UNESCO, as well as the Order of Merit in Polish Culture from the Polish Ministry of Culture. His articles, reviews, and translations have been widely published in the U.S., Great Britain, Poland, France, Austria, Norway, and the Netherlands.

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