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Tradition / Reception / Reception of Chopin / Chopin and his music in literature
Chopin and his music in literature


Taka rozmowa była o Chopinie,
(Który naczelnym u nas jest artystą)

/There was a conversation about Chopin,
(who is a leading artist for us)

- these words from Norwid's Promethidion (1851), well etched in the Polish consciousness, warrant an obvious conclusion here and define the primary fields of reflection. No matter how discourse about Chopin2 is examined and evaluated, for nearly two centuries this was profiled by various kinds of musicological, music criticism and biographical proposals. Yet there is no way to ignore that commentaries of a different sort - literature related to Chopin, has also shaped the discourse for a long time. Their rich history begins with the sonnet Do Fryderyka Chopin grającego na fortepianie (1830)3 by the young Leon Ulrich, currently best known for his Shakespeare's translations. The avalanche of successive literary works began while the composer was still alive (with George Sand's famous "exhibitionist novel"4 Lucrezia Floriani5, 1846, Polish edition 2009, at the forefront). Undoubtedly though, it takes on strength after his death, (recollections, in tribute to the genius, including Bohdan Zaleski's Zaduma i nokturno6, Norwid's Czarne kwiaty and Fortepian Szopena), and later at anniversary years (especially in 19107 and 19498). Nevertheless, many Chopin anniversaries are irretrievably indebted to very diverse works, like Jan Kasprowicz's Pamięci Chopina9, Stanisław Przybyszewski's10Ku czci mistrza, Adam Zagajewski's Deszcz nad Paryżem and - recently - Mały Chopin11 by Michał Rusinek.

Two centuries bring, in fact, an impressive number of various literary works (poetry, novels, essays), which demonstrate the great interest in the composer as a person and in his creativity, as well as the evolution of Chopin's reception instigated by changing preferences and aesthetics. Among these works is Norwid's Fortepian Szopena (1863, 1865). Even today, it remains an unrivaled example of poetic writing about the composer (Przyboś once claimed that poetry about Chopin's music will forever remain in the background by Norwid's poem cited here12), as well as the highly regarded works of Boris Pasternak ([Szopen]13, 1932) and Gottfried Benn (Chopin14, 1948), original "musical-literary" commentary by André Gide (Notes sur Chopin, 1948), in-depth hermeneutic analysis by Ryszard Przybylski based on reading of Chopin's letters (Cień jaskółki. Esej o myślach Chopina, 1995). Nevertheless it can not be denied that an impressive part of literature dealing with Chopin, especially "occasionally produced" poetry, lacks contemporary recognition. Repeated attempts to catalog literary material dealing with Chopin's life and works (the bibliographies prepared by Bronisław Edward Sydow15 and Edmund Słuszkiewicz16), as well as successive studies of poetic selections for anthologies by Mieczysław Żukowski (1910), Franciszek Barański (manuscript), Krystyna Kobylańska (1949), Edmund Słuszkiewicz (1964), Krzysztof Jeżewski (1999), Irena Chyła-Szypułowa (2003), and finally Maria Cieśla-Korytowska (2004)17 not only reveal the profusion of notations about Chopin, but also their predominantly doubtful value.

As is well known, efforts to make literary "translations" out of Chopin's music are the most criticized, including all "translations", "illustrations", "paraphrasings", that were popularized in Polish literature by Kornel Ujejski. His works, Tłumaczenia Szopena (1866, original title, "Poemata Szopena", Dziennik Literacki 1858) which are precisely integrated with the musical compositions, comprise examples of vocal transcriptions (e.g. the work Zakochana /Dzieło 7. Mazurek 2./18), and are reminiscent of the earlier transcriptions performed by Paulina Viardot19. Nevertheless, the most frequent co-existence of literary text with musical text is near impossible, as it requires general references, that we would now call inter-textual (as well as repeated efforts illustrated by the translation of Ujejski's Marsz żałobny by Richard Dehmel Der tote Ton20). Such literary attempts create another poetic trend in the XIX century (related to mazurkas, nocturnes and preludes), and give rise to a conviction about the poetic translation of the music. Włodzimierz Wolski's Melodia, in a later release, bearing the music title Tęsknota. Mazurek op. 6 nr 4, Trzpiotka by Michał Bałucki, Chopin. Preludium no. 15 by Lucjan Rydel, and the poetic preludes of Artur Oppman - are typical examples of the then fabularization of Chopin's music.21 Similar practices are encountered in XX century literature, for example in writings by Jerzy Hordyński (Nokturn Fis-dur Chopina, Chopin: Nokturn Des-dur, Chopin: Etiuda As-dur opus 2522), Krzysztof Jeżewski (Chopin. Etiuda a-moll op. 2023) and Sławomir Tomasik (Deszczowe preludium24).

Literary writing about Chopin's music frequently comes down to a description of musical performances, namely accounts of imagined or actual concert realities (poems: Artur Oppman Koncert Chopina, Czesław Miłosz Na małą Murzynkę grającą Chopina, Roman Brandstaetter Improwizacja pastoralna; a story by Kornel Filipowicz Koncert f-moll); a description of specific performers (Witold Małcużyński gra Chopina w sali senatorskiej na Wawelu by Jerzy Hordyński), or a series of descriptions, as in the novel by Krystyna Berwińska Con amore in connection with the preparation of two figures to participate in a Chopin Competition.25 Another literary use of Chopin's music involves references to specific compositions using an allusion, as in the situation of the first poem of prose by Stanisław Przybyszewski, Totenmesse (1893; where on the title card of the Berlin first edition is the inscription: "Motto: Fismoll-Polonaise Op. 44. Friedrich Chopin"), or that short story collection Widmokrąg (2004) by Wojciech Kuczok, where four "interludes" link four Chopin Preludes from opus 28. And there is no way to forget the casual commentaries here, for example, scattered in successive volumes of In search of lost time by Proust and in Claude Lévi-Strauss's remark in the essay, Tristes Tropiques, concerning the meaning of the "melody of Etiude no. 3, op. 10 "26. At the same time, here it would be difficult to speak of Chopin's music functioning only as a literary pretext, suggested, for instance, by Jeffery Deaver and written out by many authors of the thriller The Chopin Manuscript (2007; pol. publication 2009).

A significant portion of the literary Chopin works concerns the life of the composer, largely arising under the aegis, as the contemporary expert of autobiographies Philippe Lejeune would say, of a "novel pact", as well as essay writing. The life chronicles, comprising a biographical mosaic, cover the times of Chopin's childhood (the legend of Teodor Goździkiewicz Fryckowe lato, 1960, original title: Fryckowe czasy, 1949; the novel by Peer Hultberg, Præludier, 1989, pol. release 2002); the period of his growing up and Warsaw youth (novel by Adolf Nowaczyński Młodość Chopina, 1939; Gustaw Bojanowski's Tydzień w Antoninie. Opowieść o Chopinie, 1956; archaizing "stylizations"of Janina Siwkowska, Tam - gdzie Chopin chodził na pół czarnej..., 1959); the situation of the tragic departure from Poland (novel by Janina Siwkowska, Pan Chopin opuszcza Warszawę, 1958), the long years spent in emigration, including among others, the trip to Majorca (poem by Eugeniusz Żytomirski, Chopin na Majorce27); the stay in Nohant (play by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz Lato w Nohant, 1936); the moment of death (Czarne kwiaty and Fortepian Szopena by Norwid). Attempts at "panoramic" perspectives include the novel by Jerzy Broszkiewicz Kształt miłości (1950-1951), Kazimierz Wierzyński's essay Życie Chopina, the poetic series of Roman Brandstaetter Pieśń o życiu i śmierci Chopina, Cień jaskółki. Esej o myślach Chopina by Ryszard Przybylski. Among these written accounts, the literature for children and youth has a category of its own, including narrations by Wanda Chotomska Tam, gdzie był Chopin (1990) and also the rhyming stories for the youngest by Michał Rusinek Mały Chopin (2009).

Even such a superficial review of literary Chopin works28 shows, that the topic of Chopin and his music in literature today requires subtle comment as well as the revision of certain views, if we want to avoid the often duplicated mimeographed diagnoses and repetition of circular arguments (stereotypic picture of Chopin, low artistic level of most works, inadequate literary position in terms of the phenomenon of pure music, etc.). In reality, it turns out that Chopin's literary reception is not homogeneous, and it would be difficult to limit "Chopin's legend" to two motives: on the one hand loneliness, alienation, suffering of the artist (along with the "morbidezza paradigm", probably most strongly accented in the first of the four Portraits de musiciens by Marcel Proust /"Chopin, mer de soupirs, de larmes, de sanglots"29/); on the other hand, patriotism, longing, nostalgy, which lead to a programmatic treatment of Chopin's music (an extreme example is the successive positions of Stanisław Przybyszewski: study of a "creative individual" Chopin und Nietzsche, 1892; Szopen (Impromptu), 1900; Szopen a Naród, 1910). Stated differently, the two stereotypes, "the sick, neurotic and over-sensitive artist"30 and the "Polish national stereotype"31, do not convey the complex phenomenon of Chopin. Of course, the second of the two remains particularly important in Polish literature until the regaining of independence (series by Artur Oppmann, Z chopinowskich pieśni; the poem by Jerzy Żuławski Fryderyk Chopin32). The first, despite absorbing the imagination of authors writing about Chopin since the very beginning, presents one possibility of writing about this composer-artist by combining the temptations of portrayal with depictions of his psyche, expressing the artist's individuality. Undoubtedly, André Gide's thinking is situated outside the two referenced stereotypes, for the writer remains an adherent of the non-program interpretation of the Polish composer's music ("Chopin - as a perfect artist - starts from music", "to truly taste the music I don't feel the need to mediate it through literature or painting, and I don't care much for the "significance" of the work"33). On the other hand, he doesn't hesitate to compare this in his Notes sur Chopin with Baudelaire's Flower's of Evil34.

In my estimation, the here-to-fore paradigms of judging, namely the bipolar reflections, seem insufficient, which cause the literary works dealing with Chopin to be either under-appreciated, meaning they are acknowledged as worthless from the viewpoint of both musicology, as well as literary studies. It is enough to refer to the extremely critical commentary of Alejo Carpentier, incidentally written on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chopin's birth: "Chopin has to be freed from this excess of literature, and poorly created for this by tendentious biographies, novels, films and even politics35, or excessively overrated (the result of pursuing, among others, topical criticism). The gesture of the compromise is unavoidable today: Maciej Żurowski, stating that texts similar to the Ujejski notations turn out to be "just as unreadable", immediately adding that they are "evidence of the limitations of poetic language" and documents "of feeling Chopin"36. Hence, in the case of literary works dealing with Chopin, we should not so much look for compliance to musical-literary anthologies (here I mean not only translations), rather look to examine specific works in the wide inter-textual perspective, as one direction to musical verbalization, not so much convey collector's topical criticism and follow the statistics37, rather to thoroughly interpret the selected notations in the network of cultural affiliations. Chopin's place in literature, from an anthropological aspect, essentially demonstrates the overwhelming need for a transgression38, the need for literary talk about a great composer, and even though marginal in the scheme of other discourse, to talk about music.


Andrzej Hejmej

English translation: Philip Stoeckle



1 C. K. Norwid, Promethidion. Rzecz w dwóch dialogach z epilogiem, Paris 1851, 11.

2 See I. Poniatowska, „Historyczne przemiany recepcji Chopina", in Chopin - w poszukiwaniu wspólnego języka, ed. A. Szklener, Warsaw 2001, 37-52.

3L. U., „Do Fryderyka Chopin grającego na fortepianie", Pamiętnik dla Płci Pięknej (Warsaw) 1830, vol. 2, 59-60.

4 K. Wierzyński, Życie Chopina [1949], preface by A. Rubinstein, Białystok 1990, 252.

5 The story first appears in excerpts in Le Courrier Français (from 26 June 1846), later in book form (Paris 1846). Its autobiographical dimension is evident, suffice to say, that the 1853 release contains illustrations by Maurice Sand, in which Karol de Rosewald is pictured in a manner reminiscent of Fryderyk Chopin, while the 1981 release - contains Chopin's portrait by Ary Scheffer.

6 B. Zaleski, „Zaduma i nokturno", in Wieszcze oratorium, Poznań 1866, 88-89.

7 Inter alia: W. Bełza, W setną rocznicę urodzin Fryderyka Chopina, Lwów 1910 (text published on 4 pages, without pagination, Ary Scheffer's portrait of Chopin); K. Makuszyński, „Prolog", Kurier Poznański 1910, no. 42 (presented on 22 February 1910 during celebrations in Poznań of the 100th anniversary of Chopin's birth); S. Przybyszewski, Szopen a Naród, Kraków 1910.

8 Inter alia: J. Hordyński: „Chopin", Stolica 1949, no. 42, 12; „Chopinowi", Ruch Muzyczny 1949, no. 16, 3; M. Jachimowicz, „Przy Chopinie", Twórczość 1949, no. 5, 33-34; J. Iwaszkiewicz, „Chopin", Przekrój 1949, no. 221, 10; K. Wierzyński, The Life and Death of Chopin, New York 1949 (Polish release: Życie Chopina, 1953).

9 J. Kasprowicz, „Pamięci Chopina", Tydzień, literary suplement to the Kurier Lwowski 1899, no. 44, 345.

10 S. Przybyszewski, „Ku czci mistrza", Życie (Kraków) 1899, no. 19/20, 351-356. Later release : „Szopen (Impromptu)", in Na drogach duszy, Kraków 1900, 87-104.

11 M. Rusinek, Mały Chopin, Kraków 2009.

12 J. Przyboś, „Preface", in Wiersze o Chopinie. Antologia i bibliografia, collected and compiled by E. Słuszkiewicz, preface J. Przyboś, „Biblioteka Chopinowska", vol. VII, Kraków 1964, 8.

13 B. Pasternak, Wtoroje rożdienije, Moscow 1932 (see Polish translation by Mieczysław Jastrun: B. Pasternak, Poezje, study and introduction by S. Pollak, Warsaw 1962).

14 G. Benn, Statische Gedichte, Zürich 1948 (see Polish translation by Krzysztof Karasek: G. Benn, Poezje wybrane, selected, translated and compiled by K. Karasek, Warsaw 1982).

15 Chopin w literaturze: Poezja. Proza. Scena i film [bibliography], study B. E. Sydow, in Almanach chopinowski 1949: Kronika życia. Dzieło. Bibliografia. Literatura. Ikonografia. Varia, study K. Stromenger, B. E. Sydow, edited by W. Rudziński, Warsaw 1949, 145-158.

16 Wiersze o Chopinie. Antologia i bibliografia, collection and study by E. Słuszkiewicz, preface J. Przyboś, „Biblioteka Chopinowska", vol. VII, Kraków 1964, 77-148.

17 See: Fryderyk Chopin w świetle poezji polskiej, biographical-critical introduction supplied and published by O. M. Żukowski, Lwów 1910; Chopin w poezji polskiej, study by F. Barański, manuscript of the Ossoliński National Institute Library, no. 6137 I (Mf 6596); Fryderyk Chopin natchnieniem poetów. W setną rocznicę śmierci, study by K. Kobylańska, preface S. R. Dobrowolski, Warsaw 1949; Wiersze o Chopinie. Antologia i bibliografia, Chopin, Szymanowski et leurs poètes / Chopin, Szymanowski i ich poeci, selected and edited by K. Jezewski, translated by C.-H. du Bord, F. X. Jaujard, K. Jezewski, R. Legras, M. Pankowski, D.-Sila Khan, Troyes 1999; Poezja polska w darze Chopinowi, selection and study I. Chyła-Szypułowa, Warsaw 2003; M. Cieśla-Korytowska, „Aneks", in Romantyczne przechadzki pograniczem, Kraków 2004, 229-364.

18 See A. Hejmej, „(D)efekt tłumaczeń Chopina (Zakochana Kornela Ujejskiego)", in Muzyka w literaturze. Perspektywy komparatystyki interdyscyplinarnej, Kraków 2008, 195-225.

19 Six Mazurkas de F. Chopin arrangées pour la voix par Mme Pauline Viardot, Paris 1866.

20 R. Dehmel, „Der tote Ton", in Aber die Liebe, Munich 1893, 145-149.

21 W. Wolski, „Melodia", in Poezje, Vilnius 1859, vol. I, 1; M. Bałucki, „Trzpiotka", Opiekun Domowy (Warsaw) 1870, no. 33, 372; L. Rydel, „Chopin. Preludium [op. 28] nr 15" [1891], Biblioteka Warszawska 1893, vol. IV, 141-144.

22 J. Hordyński, Rozmowy z Chopinem, Kraków 1961, 28, 27, 29.

23 K. Jezewski, „Chopin. Etude en la mineur op. 25", in Chopin, Szymanowski et leurs poètes / Chopin, Szymanowski i ich poeci, 98-101.

24 S. Tomasik, „Deszczowe preludium", in Moja muzyka, Warsaw 2004, 56.

25 A. Oppman, „Koncert Chopina", Kurier Warszawski 1926, no. 313, 6; Cz. Miłosz, „Na małą Murzynkę grającą Chopina", in Światło dzienne, Paris 1953, 69; K. Filipowicz, „Koncert f-moll", in Koncert f-moll i inne opowiadania, Kraków 1982, 5-13; J. Hordyński, „Witold Małcużyński gra Chopina w sali senatorskiej na Wawelu", in Pod znakiem wagi, Kraków 1959, 70-71; also in: Rozmowy z Chopinem, Kraków 1961, 32; K. Berwińska, Con amore, Warsaw 1976.

26"For weeks on end, on that plateau of the western Mato Grosso, I was obcessed not by my surroundings, which I would never see again, but a hackneyed tune that my memory deformed still further, the third of Chopin's Etudes, op. 10, which seemed to me - and I well knew how bitter was the irony of it - to summarize all that I had left behind me." (C. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques [1955], translated by J. Russel, London 1961, 375).

27 E. Żytomirski, „Chopin na Majorce", Wiadomości Literackie 1932, no. 2, 2.

28 See also: M. Tomaszewski, „Zafascynowanie sztuk odmiennych", in Chopin: człowiek, dzieło, rezonans, Poznań 1998, 750-754; M. Cieśla-Korytowska, „Wypowiedzieć muzykę", in Romantyczne przechadzki pograniczem, 210-228; K. Maciąg,Legenda Fryderyka Chopina w powieści polskiej i europejskiej. Zarys problematyki", in Z problemów prozy - powieść o artyście, edited by W. Gutowski, E. Owczarz, Toruń 2006, 638-652.

29 M. Proust, „Chopin", in Les plaisirs et des jours [1896], Paris 1924, 137.

30 J. Opalski, „Fryderyk Chopin. Dzieje recepcji literackiej", in Chopin i Szymanowski w literaturze dwudziestolecia międzywojennego, Kraków 1980, 102.

31 E. Boniecki, „Jak pisać o Chopinie? Wokół kontrowersji Szymanowski - Iwaszkiewicz", Ruch Literacki 1991, no. 6, 681.

32 A. Oppmann, „Z chopinowskich pieśni", in Wybór poezji, Warsaw 1900; J. Żuławski, „Fryderyk Chopin", in Z domu niewoli. Poezje, Kraków 1902, 23.

33 A. Gide, Notatki o Chopinie, translated by M. Musiał, Kraków 2007, 31, 53.

34 Ibidem, 27.

35 A. Carpentier, „Chopin w literaturze", translated by M. Dembowska, Życie Literackie 1983, no. 31, 12 (first edition: „Chopin y la literatura", El Nacional (Venezuela), 12 February 1959).

36 M. Żurowski, „Chopin i literatura", Kultura 1989, no. 8, 6.

37 See D. Pistone, „Réception et fiction: Frédéric Chopin dans le roman musical français contemporain", in Muzyka w kontekście kultury. Studia dedykowane Profesorowi Mieczysławowi Tomaszewskiemu w osiemdziesięciolecie urodzin, edited by M. Janicka-Słysz, T. Malecka, K. Szwajgier, Kraków 2001, 117-123.

38 W. Iser, „Czym jest antropologia literatury? Różnica między fikcjami wyjaśniającymi a odkrywającymi", translated by A. Kowalcze-Pawlik, Teksty Drugie 2006, no. 5, 33.




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