REVISITING HISTORY: MARIA SZYMANOWSKA – THE POLISH PIONEER

by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)

Acknowledged by the Grove Dictionary of Music for occupying ‘an important position in the history of Polish music before Chopin’, the name of Maria Szymanowska (OBM) may be familiar to students and teachers of today.  Born in 1789,  she carved out a career for herself as a professional concert pianist and a composer, and from 1815 sustained a successful performing career totaling around 100 concerts until three years before her death in 1831.  She travelled extensively, socialized, and performed amongst the cultural elites in various European countries.  However, her roots were somewhat humble.

Coming from a working class Polish-Jewish family with her parents being owners of a brewery, she was educated at home.  She received her piano training under private tutors in Warsaw and never attended a music conservatory.

Following a few years of piano lessons, Szymanowska’s musical talents shone through, and her name began to be recognized and circulated within the cultural circles of Warsaw.  She is known to have performed in private salons and homes.

Originally known as Maria AGATA Wołowska, she married JÓZEF Szymanowski (OBM), an estate owner in 1810.  It appears that her career took flight after the marriage, which is highly unusual considering the dominant gender roles of the day. After officially becoming Maria Szymanowska, she entered motherhood bearing three children – two daughters and a son.  In 1812, her name first appeared in the Polish press, and she became known to the public.  In 1815, she started her international concertizing career as possibly the most successful professional female pianist before Clara Schumann (OBM).  During Szymanowska’s lifetime, she became associated with two of the major literary figures of the time: the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (OBM) and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (OBM).  She is famously known as the dedicatee of Goethe’s Aussöhnung (Reconciliation to Fate) verses, in which he laments the suffering caused by passion and juxtaposes the pain by depicting angelic qualities of music, no doubt inspired by Szymanowska’s playing when the former became a close friend of the pianist.  Other major figures she encountered include Alexander Pushkin (OBM) and Mikhail Glinka (OBM) during her years in St. Petersburg and Moscow after emigration to Russia as the prestigious “First Pianist to the Russian Court,” a title bestowed on her by Tsar Alexander I (OBM).  Information from sources are divided as to whether she studied formally with the Irish composer John Field (OBM), yet it is without doubt that they were friends with each other and spent time together in Russia.  As for her relationship with Chopin (OBM), although there is no account of their correspondences or meetings, he was nevertheless familiar with Szymanowska’s name since he wrote in a letter to a friend that he had plans to attend Szymanowska’s recital at the National Theatre in 1827.   As two top ranked musicians living in Warsaw, with Szymanowska, being the established artist, and Chopin, the talented, emerging artist, it is highly possible that they did meet each other despite Chopin being 22 years her junior.  Other major composers of the era including Hummel (OBM), Field, and Cherubini (OBM) – all dedicated works to her.

As Maria Szymanowska had no formal compositional training, her works appear to be more creative and less confined by the strict rules of compositional structures and styles.  Despite being relatively more active as a pianist, by no means was she an underachiever in the compositional realm.  She signed and negotiated a contract with the German publishing firm Peters. Another German publishing firm – Breitkopf and Härtel – published her entire body of work.   John Field’s recommendation letter addressed to the firm is well documented.  She has been the subject of many recommendation letters by distinguished musicians of the day.  The majority of her compositions were written between 1815 and 1820.  They include etudes, mazurkas, polonaises, nocturnes, and songs.  These genres are immediately recognizable as the ones, in which Chopin later excelled.  Among Szymanowska’s output, her Vingt Exercises et Preludes are widely acknowledged as her most successful piano compositions and thus provide the modern pianist with a glimpse of technical capabilities and her musical language.  Polish pianist Sławomir Dobrzański (MGBH), author of the book Maria Szymanowska, Pianist and Composer, dedicated an entire chapter recounting the similarities between Chopin and Szymanowska’s works in terms of keys, figurations, and musical idioms. Although Chopin, without a doubt, pushed the boundaries of technique and pianism further, Szymanowska can be regarded as a pioneer who first composed etudes in a musical style, which can be performed as concert pieces.  Robert Schumann (OBM) once referred to her in Music and Musicians: Essays and Criticisms as “the feminine [John] Field” and commented that her compositions have “much in them that was new and extraordinary,” a testament that she was indeed an innovator.

 

As a concert artist, she travelled extensively throughout Western Europe and later settled in Russia.  There are numerous reviews of her performances, and a review published in the Kiev press described her as a “genuine virtuoso pianist.” However, not only was she a virtuoso, the Dresden review reported that “she possesses a magnificently strong touch on her instrument, combined with delicacy and much expression.”  Another review, which appeared in Leipzig in 1824, noted that “skill and musical spirit are equally strong in her.”  With her busy traveling schedule and performances all over Europe, Szymanowska became one of the first Polish pianists to reach audiences outside of her native country, which is an achievement in itself, especially when considering the confinements of travel in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  As a successful female performing artist, she was one of the first in the field.  She appealed to the audience of the day with her feminine grace, as recounted in the Weimar Literary Newspaper in 1823, “she gains insight into the spirit of a musical composition with a subtle female delicacy of feeling.”  The London Courier review of 1824 described her playing that possessed “grace and spontaneous charm…the biggest attributes of the female sex.”  Through these reviews, it is apparent that her playing, somewhat different amongst the leading male pianists of the time, brought about a breath of fresh air to audiences and critics, which was much appreciated.  At her recital in Poznań in 1823, she performed her own composition Caprice sur la Romance de Joconde by memory and stunned her audience with yet another pioneering feat.   Aside from solo concerts, she performed the Concerto for Two Pianos by Dussek (OBM), with Hummel (OBM), the leading piano virtuoso of the day, demonstrating her possession of comparable pianistic abilities.

 

In 1820, an important event occurred in her life.  Szymanowska divorced from her husband and took up the role as the sole breadwinner of the family through her concerts and compositions.  For a woman to divorce her husband at that time was  groundbreaking as far as gender roles are concerned. A woman possessing a flourishing career was almost unheard at the time, let alone a divorced woman retaining her married name.  Moreover, she was battling through a new frontier as a concert artist since the concept of a public concert was just beginning to be developed.   As a divorcée in the 19th century, Szymanowska made a bold move and immigrated to Russia with her three children, establishing a salon, which became a musical center at St. Petersburg, welcoming both local and visiting artists.

 

The story of Maria Szymanowska deserves far more attention than it is currently receiving.  Prior to the 1980s, her name had fallen into oblivion in the English-speaking world due to extremely limited sources and texts in English.  Until this time, information about Szymanowska was mostly documented in Polish and Russian texts.  Only since the 2000s had two books had been published by Anne Kijas (MGBH) and Sławomir Dobrzański respectively.  In 2013, Dobrzański has also released in Poland a CD album of her complete piano works.  Most of her works are available for printing at www.imslp.org

 

Szymanowska’s role in history demands further investigation because her influence in the realms of music and gender roles are threefold.  She was at the forefront of groundbreaking piano performance practices, before Franz Liszt changed the piano solo recital forever and her concert played by memory was certainly a novelty at the time.  Her compositions planted the seed of the beginning of Romanticism and her etudes played a part in propelling the advance of piano technique.  Lastly, she transcended traditional gender roles and social class divisions by appropriately utilizing her musical talents and became one of the first independent career women in classical music history. Szymanowska died suddenly at the age of 42 from cholera in Russia.  If it were not for this premature death, there may have been further pioneering and influential acts by this courageous and ambitious Polish musician.

 

REFERENCES:

 

  1. Azoury, P. H. Chopin through his contemporaries: friends, lovers and rivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.

 

  1. Dobrzanski, Slawomir. “Maria Szymanowska and the Evolution of Professional Pianism.” Chopin Foundation of the United States. N.p., n.d. Web.

 

  1. Dobrzański, Sławomir, Maja Trochimczyk. ….Maria Szymanowska: pianist and composer. Los Angeles, CA: Polish Music Center at USC, 2006. Print.

 

  1. Grove, George. A dictionary of music and musicians. London: Macmillan, 1902. Print.

 

  1. Interactive, SUPERMEDIA. “Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). Kobieta Europy.” Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). A Woman of Europe – Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

 

  1. Sadie, Stanley, George Grove, and Alina Nowak-Romanowicz. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. London: Macmillan, 1980. Print.

 

  1. Swartz, Anne. “Maria Szymanowska and the Salon music of the early nineteenth century.” The Polish Review 30.1 (1985): 43-58. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

 

  1. TROCHIMCZYK, Maja. “Szymanowska and Chopin in Paris .” Chopin with Cherries. N.p., 12 Nov. 2011. Web.

 

 

REVISITING HISTORY: JANE STIRLING – CHOPIN’S MOST DEVOTED STUDENT

by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)

Jane Stirling’s (OBM) name has long been associated with Chopin’s (OBM) whenever discussions occur regarding his teaching and the final period of his life. In Western music history, she is known as an ardent supporter of her teacher, arguably the most popular classical music composer of today, and she is credited to have provided financial and professional support for him during his most desolate days. The Fryderyck Chopin Museum in Poland entitled their special exhibition in 2011 with the following words from the famous pupil, “I trust that there will always remain something to be done for him.” Her tireless devotion to Chopin is evidenced by her multiple roles as Chopin’s pupil, secretary, agent, business manager, concert organizer, benefactor, and the first “musicologist” of his music.

American Council of Piano Performers

white-space

Jane Wilhelmina Stirling (OBM) was a descendent of the aristocratic Scottish clan, “Stirlings of Keir.” The family made its fortune from West Indian Sugar plantations, and Stirling was brought up as a prim Calvinist. She possessed a reputation of unimpeachable purity and was rumored to have turned down over 30 marriage proposals. It is known that Stirling was an accomplished pianist, and Chopin once remarked that “one day you will play very, very well.”  The works she studied with Chopin included his finest and most technically advanced output such as the Etudes op. 10 and 25, the Fantaisie op. 49, the Sonatas and the Concerto No. 2.  Stirling was a well educated noblewoman who spent copious time in Paris.  She was introduced to Chopin around 1842 or 1843 and subsequently became his pupil.  Stirling’s scores, along with annotations in Chopin’s hand had become a treasure trove of insight into his teaching and provided invaluable glimpses into his ideas regarding tempo indications, fingerings, ornamentation and pedaling.  In terms of personal dedications, Chopin wrote two nocturnes in F minor and E-flat major, Opus 55 between 1842 and 1844 for Stirling.  Following his death, she remained in close contact with Chopin’s sister Ludwika Jedrzejewicz (OBM) in order to manage his estate and his manuscripts.

 

Chopin wrote two nocturnes in F minor and E-flat major, Opus 55 between 1842 and 1844 for Stirling.

 

In 1848, Chopin encountered immense financial difficulties.  His teaching of aristocratic students in Paris became unstable due to the outbreak of the French revolution, and his income virtually vanished overnight when nobilities fled the city. In order to alleviate him from debt, and having been informed of his break up with George Sand (OBM), Stirling initiated a plan for Chopin to tour and teach in England.  Upon his arrival in London, Stirling stocked his apartment “with writing paper bearing his initials” and attended to every detail.  However, despite performing in front of Queen Victoria (OBM) and Prince Albert (OBM) and socializing with the upper echelons of London society, Chopin was still “sorely in need of money,” since some pupils failed to pay for their lessons.  Once again, Stirling became aware of the difficulties Chopin encountered and extended an invitation for him to visit Scotland and to pay for his expenses.  He would be a welcomed guest at the Stirling family estate and concerts were organized for him in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Manchester.  Unfortunately, Chopin was not able to acclimatize to the damp, cold British weather, and along with the lack of rest, all these factors took a serious toll on his health.  He wrote to his friends, “my health varies from one hour to the next.  In the mornings there are times I think I’ll absolutely cough myself to death.” (1)

 

However, despite performing in front of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and socializing with the upper echelons of London society, Chopin was still “sorely in need of money,” since some pupils failed to pay for their lessons.

 

While in Scotland, Stirling, along with her sister Katherine Erskine (OBM) the widow, transported Chopin around the Scottish region with countless visits to the homes of aristocracy and clan members.  Due to his inability to communicate and understand English, he was only able to “watch them talk and listen to them drink.”  Clearly this type of daily routine become tiresome increasingly insufferable for Chopin.  He wrote, “one more day here will drive me mad if it doesn’t kill me.” (2)  He found that the English and Scots were not a crowd of audience with the sense of artistic appreciation that he craved.  “I feel alone, alone, alone, although I am surrounded,” he wrote.

 

When Stirling learnt of this news, she bought 100 tickets at half a guinea apiece to distribute to friends in an attempt to fill up the hall.

 

However, in order to maximize his income from the visit and to promote her teacher to the audience, Stirling organized recitals for him, and Chopin continued to stay in the northern region of the British Isles.  Chopin was due to perform a solo recital at the prestigious Hopetoun Rooms in Edinburgh but due to a lack of publicity, ticket sales were poor.  When Stirling learnt of this news, she bought 100 tickets at half a guinea apiece to distribute to friends in an attempt to fill up the hall.  At times, the constant doting from Stirling and Erskine became intolerable for Chopin, and he excused himself to stay with the Polish doctor and his wife – the Lyszczyńskis (OBM) –  in Edinburgh.  Despite this, Stirling wrote to Chopin everyday, and the close contact inadvertently rendered rumors that Stirling had become Chopin’s fiancée and after his death, she was mistakenly named by a few as “Chopin’s widow.”  However, the truth is revealed in Chopin’s own words in response to the engagement rumor, that “I’m nearer to a coffin than a wedding bed.” (3)

 

Nevertheless, Jane Stirling, along with Camille Dubois (OBM), Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (OBM), Eugène Delacroix (OBM), Auguste Franchomme (OBM), Pauline Viardot (OBM), and Jenny Lind (OBM) formed a circle as Chopin’s closest friends and pupils.  Through Stirling’s letters and writings, her admiration and respect for Chopin became easily perceptible. In reference to his teaching, she deemed it to be “marvelous” and in her commentary about his playing, she praised that the chords he played “sounded more celestial than of this earth and contained an aspiration that extend into eternity.” (4)  After she heard one of Chopin’s most successful pupils – Camille Dubois – perform, she remarked that she “ardently wish[es] her to preserve the [Chopin] tradition.”(5)  Personally and professionally, she was devoted to Chopin.  Apart from the tour to England and Scotland, Jane Stirling arranged for Chopin to perform at the Salle Pleyel in February 1848, which was to be his final concert appearance in Paris. By this time, Chopin was suffering from influenza, and Stirling had reportedly remained backstage to care for Chopin as soon as he stepped off the performing stage.

 

After Chopin’s death in 1849, Stirling bought his last Pleyel piano and involved herself with matters regarding the publication of Chopin’s posthumous works. She was reported to have singlehandedly funded his funeral, including the costs of the orchestra and chorus.

 

Her efforts to preserve his legacy and generosity by providing her personal scores for study had made an immense contribution to the world

 

According to the memoir of Solange Clésinger-Sand, the daughter of George Sand, Stirling was described as a “thin, pale, ageless, solemn [and] never smiling woman.”  But there is no doubt that Stirling, through her devotion, had exerted significant impact on Chopin’s life and especially his later years.  She stopped playing the piano for one year following Chopin’s death and in the subsequent years, dressed in black.  It had been reported that she repeatedly performed the C minor prelude Op. 28 No. 2 , dubbed the “Funeral March,” in public after her teacher’s passing away.  Her efforts to preserve his legacy and generosity by providing her personal scores for study had made an immense contribution to the world of Chopin scholarship, and the knowledge gained still impacts the teaching and playing of Chopin’s music today.  The Chopin artifacts she bought, collected, and passed onto his family benefitted Chopin institutions and enriched archive collections.

 

References:

 

  1. Atwood, William G. Fryderyk Chopin: pianist from Warsaw. New York: Columbia U Press, 1987. Print.
  1. Cholmondeley, Rose. “Chopin’s Visit to Britain, 1848.” The Chopin Society UK, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.
  1. Eigeldinger, Jean Jacques. Chopin– Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by His Pupils. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. Print.
  2. Eisler, Benita. “Chopin’s Funeral.” The New York Times. N.p., 20 Apr. 2003. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.
  3. Hadden, J. Cuthbert. Chopin: By J. Cuthbert Hadden. Adelaide: Cambridge Scholars, 2002. Print.
  1. Portraits of Greatness Chopin. New York: Elite Corporation, 1966. Print.
  1. Smialek, William, and Maja Trochimczyk. Frédéric Chopin: A Research and Information Guide. New York, NY: Routledge, 2015. Print.

 

 

 

About the Author:

Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.