Musical Treasures from Chopin’s Land

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In 2020, I was commissioned by PWM Edition to record five films showcasing educational piano music by Polish composers. Captivated by my new musical discoveries, I have continued to independently explore and review the music of Chopin’s land…

At the start of this series I gave an account of my surprise 2020 visit to Poland, and in subsequent articles I have discussed some of the best piano music I discovered on my trip, together with the tutorial films that I and a team of international colleagues created to showcase this music to the piano teaching community worldwide.

As the series draws to a close, I would like to share a couple more books that were featured in the PWM promotion, as well as a series of three special collections which actually bear the project name, Music from Chopin’s Land.

And then the punchline! I will end this final post in the series with a short reflection on the lasting lessons I have learnt about piano pedagogy following on from my visit to Chopin’s land…

So, firstly, a few extra reviews and videos for your interest and enjoyment…

Music from Chopin’s Land

Those who have been following the series may already have noticed that PWM previously published three collections called Music from Chopin’s Land, comprising two solo and one duet collection. These books were central to their previous international promotion of Polish piano music.

The gorgeously presented books have soft matt covers with embossed lettering and cream pages within, the inside title pages including colour print. Each book begins with an informative introduction in Polish and English by series editor Ewa Pobłocka, and ends with equally helpful and detailed notes on each of the pieces and composers whose music appears within.

As Pobłocka notes,

“Every era in the history of Polish piano music had its own great creators. The compositions selected and included in this series allow for a global overview of the Polish piano music – its pathway, development and unique style.”

The first volume is suitable for late intermediate players and includes:

  1. Anon. c.18th: Taniec • The Dance
  2. Frydryk Chopin (1810-1849): Waltz in A minor (op. posth)
  3. Franciszek Mirecki (1791-1862): Sonata No.3 Op.12, II. Theme & Variations
  4. Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909): Elegiac Polonaise
  5. Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994): Folk Melodies: Oh, my Johnny • An Apple Hangs on the Apple tree • Flirting
  6. Marek Stachowski (1936-2004): Odysseus Amidst the White Keys: The Sirens • The Home-coming of Odysseus
  7. Janina Garścia (1920-2004): Ikebana: Mount Fuji

In terms of level the second volume follows on smoothly from the first, and is suitable for more advanced players. It features:

  1. Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831): Contredance
  2. Karol Kurpiński (1785-1857): Polonaise in D minor
  3. Frydryk Chopin (1810-1849): Mazurka in B flat major Op.7/1
  4. Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941): Nocturne Op.16/4
  5. Tadeusz Szeligowski (1896-1963): Sonatina, I. Allegro moderato
  6. Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013): Music for the Cruise from the film The Shadow Line

Although these collections include some music that appears elsewhere in the publications I have written about in the Music from Chopin’s Land series, there is much here that is unique to these books, and in any case they provide a perfect sampler from which to begin an exploration of Poland’s piano music.

The series also includes a book of music for piano four hands, in which primo and secondo are presented on opposite pages. This collection comprises three more substantial works and is the most technically and musical demanding of the three collections:

  • Stanisław Moniuszko 1819-1872): Polonaise in D major
  • Frydryk Chopin (1810-1849): Variations in D major (op. posth)
  • Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994): An Overheard Tune

This collection will entice any serious duet player, bringing together three hugely attractive works.

It makes a wonderful celebratory conclusion to the series, and indeed to my series Music from Chopin’s Land.

But of course there is no conclusion…

The treasures of Polish piano music seem to me inexhaustible! Just as one feels an overall impression has taken shape, yet another gem appears, often by a composer not previously encountered.

Zygmunt Noskowski, anyone?

Nor did the recent project feature the advanced concert repertoire, such as that by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), surely not just one of Poland’s greatest, but one of the most significant of all piano composers.

The PWM project did however include two other important names whose output for piano I have yet to explore here…

Firstly, Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872), who was the father of Polish opera, but also wrote some positively charming piano music, as introduced by my Japanese colleague Marie Kiyone in this video:

And then there’s Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831). I’m not yet fully won over by Szymanowska’s music, but it’s a fact that like Kurpiński she was a hugely important predecessor to Chopin, as outlined with erudition by Hubert Rutkowski in his tutorial:

Coming Home

My unexpected visit to Poland in the middle of lockdown year 2020 has left a deep impression, of which the music itself is a joyous expression. So how does Polish piano music stand out as unique within our vast international repertoire?

Through successive generations, Polish composers have overcome the traumas of their respective times to craft a vibrant and distinctive musical culture, embracing the experimental and turning it to their own creative development.

From the seemingly premature romanticism of Szymanowska to the evocative impressionism of Szymanowski, and from the gregarious modernism of Bacewitz to the delicious film scores of Kilar, Polish music at once refuses to be categorised, yet remains defiantly Polish.

Poland’s composers seem always to be right at the cutting edge of evolving European musical language, while retaining the characteristics of their own rich heritage of folk melody. And this repertoire remains ever infused with national and international dance rhythms and idioms.

Fundamentally, this is music which is of Poland and for Poland: a culture of character, community and solidarity.

So what can we learn?

One of the most fascinating challenges of integrating these Polish gems into my own teaching practice is that their technical and creative content demands a rethink of some of my ideas about curriculum, progression and pedagogy.

A hot topic of discussion among piano teachers this past year has been the question of what to focus on while graded exams have largely been in abeyance. How fascinating, then, to explore the educational piano music of a nation with a strong pedagogic and performance tradition, but that has developed away from the hegemony of our UK assessment schemes.

As one might expect there are commonalities of approach, but equally some intriguing differences. So much of this music subtly defies the ‘received wisdom’ of English pedagogy, and would be difficult to place within the relatively narrow criteria of our graded exams. Music is undoubtedly one of our most creative pursuits, so it should not surprise us to find such variety in the way it is taught, learnt, developed and experienced.

Lest entropy sets in, we should perhaps periodically remind ourselves not to constrict music education with any kind of straight jacket. Let’s teach with stimulating creativity, fresh and abundant variety, and an ongoing commitment to meeting the bespoke technical needs and musical interests of each student.

The Music from Chopin’s Land will certainly be playing a bigger role in my studio over the coming months, and I recommend you have a look at this extraordinary body of piano repertoire for yourself.

My sincere thanks and ongoing friendship to all at PWM Edition for their hospitality and support with this project.

The “Music from Chopin’s Land” project is financed from the funds of Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as part of the “Inspiring Culture” programme. 

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.