Thursday, October 25, 2018

100 Years of Poland in Music - Text of Lecture by Maja Trochimczyk

100 Years of Poland in Music - Sto Lat Polski w Muzyce 

Remarks by Dr. Maja Trochimczyk, Modjeska Club President at the Gala Concert in Beverly Hills, CA, October 20, 2018 (full text)

This year, in 2018, we are celebrating 100 years of Poland regaining independence in 1918. Since I think that the word “regaining” is quite “ungainly” I entitled our concert “100 Years of Poland in Music.”  The Helena Modjeska Art and Culture Club is only 46 this year, since we were founded in 1971. Interestingly, it seems that in the one hundred years that passed since 1918, Poland was independent only for 50 years (minus 6 years of WWII under German and Soviet occupations, and 44 years of Soviet rule in the Polish People’s Republic, 1945 to 1989).  So, in fact, we are close in age.

Nonetheless, our club with its 46-years of history is half serious and half humorous. Serious:  because if we were to put in this room all books, articles, artworks, and inventions by our members there would be no room for guests, these numbers are in thousands! So we are very serious about our American careers and we are well established in our fields – the academe, business, medicine, or the arts. Humorous – because we cherish good humor; enjoy each other’s company and like to share this enjoyment with others, while promoting Polish culture in California.

Modjeska Club poster from 1996 by Ewa Swider

Today we are celebrating 100 Years of Poland in Music. Why in Music? Let me start with an anecdote. When I moved from Poland to Canada in 1988, I was very surprised by the content of information available from the media, newspapers, and TV evening news. Classical music, the arts – were all absent. In my Warsaw, the opening of the Chopin Competition, Warsaw Autumn Festival, Konfrontacje Film Festival, or the Jazz Jamboree were all honored on the national news and on the first pages of newspapers. Classical music and the arts were so important in PRL, the Polish People’s Republic. Even though it was a Soviet puppet state, it cherished its arts and its artists.  Poland worshipped Chopin, a half-French émigré pianist and composer as its national symbol. The same country survived one tragedy after another.

Poland survived 123 years of partitions, without its own government or state, because families read Polish books and sung Polish songs at home – Christmas carols and military songs, krakowiaks and mazurkas, and the 1816 Historical Chants by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz that were designed to pass on to the next generations of Poles the history of Polish kings and heroes in the guise of songs in Polish. The key words here are: music, memory, resilience. In English “hardiness” – Poles are “hardy” – and they are also “hardy” in Polish – indestructible.

Kazimierz Wielki - song and litograph from Historical Chants by Niemcewicz (1816 edition)

A perfect illustration of this “hardiness” and resilience may be found in the 1946 film Zakazane Piosenki / Forbidden Songs. Today, we will start our concert with the music from this film. Forbidden Songs from 1946 is the first feature film made after six years of the Second World War. Its star, Danuta Szaflarska, was a guest of our club in 2010, in a wonderful event that is even now well remembered. I had the honor and pleasure to lead this fascinating meeting and conversation with a nearly century-old star.

She debuted in Zakazane Piosenki. The action of the film takes place during the occupation of Warsaw during the war, tells the story of several residents of the same building. Their stories are loosely linked to a set of songs, both pre-war ballads popular during the war, as well as songs that make fun of the German occupation. The premiere of the film took place in January 1947. Unfortunately, already in 1948, the film was reworked for political reasons, adding praise for the Red Army, and criticism of the Home Army. After three years of hope for freedom, the night of Stalinism prevailed in Poland. Everything was seen in the crooked mirror of the PRL propaganda.

Miro Kepinski, photo by Iga Supernak

Miro Kepinski, a fantastic composer and pianist who just received yet another prize for his collection at the Opening Gala of the Polish Film Festival (for best debut as a film composer), uses some melodies from Forbidden Songs Green Apple, Hymn of Szare Szeregi in his own compositions.  His music mixes minimalism with a ‘rawness’ of the north and a Slavic melancholy blended with classic themes. Miro’s recent film credits include: a multiple-award winning feature documentary, The Wounds We Cannot See; a dark-comedy, Suicide For Beginners (with Sig Haig and Corey Feldman); as well as In This Gray Place, his feature debut (with Phil LaMarr) and Lord Finn.

Bravo, Miro! In addition to red roses, he received a signed Dyplom Uznania from us (a Certificate of Appreciation) for his ever growing collection.

Miro Kepinski receives our "Dyplom Uznania" - Photo by Iga Supernak


Miro Kępiński, pianist and film composer

  • Zakazane piosenki - Inspiracje / Forbidden Songs – Inspirations 

Songs performed by Katarzyna Sadej, mezzosoprano & Basia Bochenek, piano

  • Hej, Orle Biały / Hey White Eagle, (1917) text and music by Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)
  • Dziś do Ciebie przyjść nie mogę /I Cannot Come to You Tonight, (1943) text and music by Stanisław Magierski 
  • Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino / Red Poppies on Monte Cassino, (1944) by Feliks Konarski (text) and Alfred Schütz (music) 
  • Five Songs by Derwid (1950s-1960s) by Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) with texts by Jerzy Miller, Tadeusz Urgacz, and others 
  • Z lat dziecinnych / From Childhood Years
  • Zakochać sie w wietrze /To Fall in Love with the Wind
  • Tylko to słowo / Only this Word
  • Filipince nudno / The Filipino Girl is Bored
  • Cyrk jedzie / The Circus is Coming
  • To ostatnia niedziela / That Last Sunday, (1935) by Zenon Friedwald (text) and Jerzy Petersburski (music) 

Artur Szyk's postcards of Paderewski and President Wilson

And now, I would like to share with you the reasons we chose these particular songs for our program. In 1918 the country was reborn. We, Californians, like to credit Ignacy Jan Paderewski with this miracle for persuading President Woodrow Wilson to add to his 14 points for the Peace Treaty, independent Poland as no. 13. I wrote about the appreciation of Paderewski by Americans for this amazing feat. That is why we are starting our concert with Hej, Orle Biały / Hey White Eagle, a battle hymn written in 1917 - both text and music - by Paderewski. He intended it for the “Blue Army” of Gen. Haller formed in the U.S. and Canada to help liberate Poland during WWI. The Great War to end all wars that ended nothing.

Cover of Hej Orle Bialy by Paderewski. Polish Museum of America, Chicago.

The Blue Army consisted of about 90,000 Americans and Canadians who immigrated from Polish lands, Galicia or  Podhale, mostly poor peasants turned factory workers, who returned to Europe to fight first alongside France against Germany, and then in Poland to restore the country’s independence and to defend it during the Polish Soviet War of 1920.  The Miracle on the Vistula was followed by the return of these  veterans to their hardworking lives in Chicago, Milwaukee, or Toronto. The Blue Army was purposefully forgotten by the PRL propagandists; their defense of Europe from the Soviets could not be taught in schools. At least, today we remember.

In our program, we skip the interwar years for now, and find ourselves in the middle of the second World War, another effort to end all wars, again a failure. Wars are entirely pointless.  Dziś do Ciebie przyjść nie mogę /I Cannot Come to You Tonight  is a song was written in 1943, with text and music penned by Stanisław Magierski, a pharmacist from Lublin and a member of the Home Army, the largest organized underground resistance to the Germans anywhere – about 400,000 people conspiring against German and Soviets occupiers during WWII.

"Place sanctified by the blood of Poles who died for the freedom of their homeland" - monument commemorating a massacre of civilians in the district of Wola, 5 August 1944, Warsaw Uprising. This one is close to my home in Wola, near the Russian Orthodox Cemetery and Sowinski Park. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

Sadly, just like Zakazane Piosenki / Forbidden Songs, this nostalgic song was appropriated by the PRL propaganda and shifted to the partisans of Armia Ludowa, the People’s Army, formed in 1944 and controlled by the Soviets. Their numbers were much smaller (about 30,000), yet they were portrayed as the most important heroes and freedom fighters. Meanwhile the Home Army’s accursed soldiers / zołnierze wyklęci continued fighting against the Soviets and, like the brave Captain Pilecki, were mercilessly hunted and killed. Only now we can restore their memories, make films and write books about their lives.

Czerwone Maki, first page, from the Polish Museum of America

The next song, also from World War II, is Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino / Red Poppies on Monte Cassino written in 1944 on the eve of the tragic victory of Polish troops. Monte Cassino was a Benedictine monastery, where St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica were buried. Germans converted it into a fortress that blocked the main road towards Rome and stopped the Allied forces. Poles were asked to sacrifice themselves and storm that citadel, and so they did, with the majority of the troops dying on the slopes of Monte Cassino.  Interestingly, if you go to visit this site today, the first thing you notice is that the Benedictine monks – whose very name is synonymous with hard work – have rebuilt their monastery and church exactly as it was for centuries, with all their exquisite mosaics, architecture, stained-glass windows. It took them well over 20 years, but they refused to accept the destruction of the war, and erased its memory.

Let us return to Czerwone Maki. Feliks Konarski (1907-1991) penned the text and Alfred Schütz (1910-1999)  wrote the music. The song was composed for the Polish II Corps of Gen. Władysław Anders and with it we honor soldiers that fought for Polish independence outside of Poland.  We selected it to illustrate three facts of Polish history.

The first fact: that Poland fought alongside the Allies on many fronts and yet was denied its independence in 1945. This bitter truth is perfectly illustrated in the film premiered at the Opening Gala of the Polish Film Festival in Los Angeles, Squadron 303, with a fantastic role by Maciej Zakoscielny.  Based on the popular novel by Arkady Fiedler it presents the contribution of heroic Polish pilots to the Battle of Britain: they shot down 126 German planes, while losing only eight planes themselves.  Yet, there were denied the right to march in the Victory Parade: Churchill and Roosevelt partnered with Stalin, Poland’s government in exile, located in London, and refusing to accept Soviet occupation, was a thorn in their side.

Church candles in Poland, photo by Maja Trochimczyk

The second fact: that Poland lost more than half of its land after Soviets took over what is now Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine – the so called Kresy, the Borderlands. In 1940-41, up to 1.5 million Poles were deported to Siberia, Kazakchstan, and Central Asia; about 500,000 died. From among those who lived, the Anders Army gathered nearly 80 thousand soldiers and took in over 37 thousand civilian deportees, women, children and war orphans to Iran, Palestine, Italy and on around the world. India welcomed a thousand Polish orphans with Hanka Ordonowna - the famous Ordonka - as their teacher (you can read her story in her memoir, now out of print, soon to appear in its first English translation from Moonrise Press). New Zealand received just fifty Polish children and there is a museum to prove it!

There were Polish refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia, Australia, and Mexico.  You can find out more, if you join the group “Kresy Siberia” on FB, and read posts by children of survivors, scattered literally around the globe. The poet of Czerwone MakiFeliks Konarski was one of these survivors, an Anders Army soldier and theater director (“Polska Parada”) who wrote texts to popular songs as “Ref-Ren” in the interwar era in Poland and settled in London after the war, where he staged over 30 theater performances for the Polish community. After 1965, he ended up in Chicago, where for many years he had a Polish radio program called Czerwone Maki. 

The third historical fact is that up to 10% of Anders’ Army were Jews, including the majority of musicians. We can name Alfred Schütz, the composer of Czerwone Maki, as well as Henryk Wars / Henryk Warszawski / Henry Vars (1902-1977 – his archives are at the USC Polish Music Center and children live in Los Angeles)and Jerzy Petersburski (1895-1979) who wrote the last song on our program tonight.  Schütz went to Brazil for 15 years, but ended up in Munich, working for Radio Free Europe for another 25.  Paradoxically after Schütz died in 1999 and his wife passed on as well, the royalties for Czerwone Maki, this anthem of anti-German struggle of Polish soldiers, were collected  by the State of Bavaria, the same state that saw the origins of Hitler’s rise to power… Only in 2015 were the royalties from this war-time anthem assigned to the Polish government.

Maja Trochimczyk's lecture, photo by Lucyna Przasnyski

Thus, with three war songs we commemorate the tremendous sacrifices made by Poles during both World Wars, the suffering and tragedies that resulted in a national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that still affects us.  (This, at least is a thesis of Maciej Świrski from the Polish National Foundation). Poles could not tell the truth for 50 years after the war: they went from fire into fire, from oppressive German and Soviet rule, into Soviet occupation of a country cut in half and transformed from a multi-ethnic, culturally diverse nation, into one that was almost uniformly Polish and Catholic. According to British historian Norman Davies, the Polish census of 1931 listed the nationalities by language as Polish, 69% of the population, Ukrainian, 15%, Jews 8.5%, Belarusian, 4.70%, German, 2.2%, Russian 0.25%, Lithuanian, 0.25%, Czech 0.09%, (Davies, God’s Playground, Vol. 2, p. 460). Thus, one-third of Polish population consisted of minorities.

After the war, however, Poland became mostly Polish, due not only to the Holocaust and departure of the remnant of Jews in 1946-48 (the survivors did not want to live under the Soviet rule and many went to the newly formed Israel instead), but also because of the deportation of Poles from lands taken over by the Soviet Union (about 4.5 million deportees) and the expulsion of Germans from Silesia and Pomerania, lands given to Poland in return for the lost eastern provinces. The borders shifted, the country shrank and lost its Slavic inhabitants as well. Belarusians, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians stayed where they lived for generations, yet found themselves in Soviet republics.

Covers of Trochimczyk's poetry books about war experiences of her family,  and Polish civilians.
Books recognized by the 2016 Creative Arts Prize by the Polish American Historical Association. 

The losses were harsh on everyone; there is not a Polish family that has not lost someone in World War II. I counted my losses in two poetry books, Slicing the Bread (Finishing Line Press, 2014) and The Rainy Bread (2016, read sample poems ). For so long, Poles could not face the past, deal with the pain and move on. The unhealed trauma still breaks up in public – in attitudes of victimhood, attacks, or hatred. For almost 50 years, historical facts could not be discussed in public, though people all knew them at home – about the murder of Polish officers in Katyn, about the deportations, murders and betrayals.
Aleksander Janta Polczynski

After 1945, Poles faced a difficult choice. The Dividing Line, Linia Podzialu went through every family, every heart. I quoted here a title of a very interesting play by émigré nobleman and writer Aleksander Janta Połczyński (1908-1974) about ethical and personal dilemmas of emigrants, in my opinion, a much  better play than Slawomir Mrożek’s or Janusz Głowacki’s Emigrants, more truthful, yet not convenient for PRL propaganda and its heirs.  I hope that the Modjeska Club will stage a performance, or at least a staged reading of this amazing play, in Polish, in California.  Incidentally, Janta’s Polish Psalms capture the grief and trauma of displaced Poles, worrying about their families in Poland, trying to come to terms with their loss and suffering.

Polczynski's most famous book, I lied to live.

What were the post-war options for Poles? Option Number One: Ensure the survival of Poland as a nation within its historic borders, however reduced, by accepting the Soviet dominance and keeping the language and culture alive where Poland was born. This meant staying put, having children and helping them to grow up into the film makers that we welcome here today.  This meant: compromise, Orwellian double-speak.

Option Number Two: Ensure the survival of the truth about Poland as it was, without lies, masks and propaganda by emigrating to maintain the fragile Polish identity in foreign countries. This meant leaving the Old Country behind and recreating it anew in the New World. This is us, the Modjeska Club members, Polish Californians.  This meant: loss of roots and coherent identity.

The first strategy resulted in biological survival and preservation of Poland as a nation on its own lands. The second strategy resulted in scattering the remnant among a multitude of host countries. It is as if a bomb exploded in the middle of Poland and sent Polish people around the world. We could look at it as a tremendous tragedy, or as a victory, because now the whole world belongs to Poles and there is Poland everywhere.

Katarzyna Sadek and Basia Bochenek in patrotic dresses, red and white, photo by Lucyna Przasnyski

Let us then move to the main part of the program, the popular songs by Derwid, written by the avant-garde composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) under a pseudonym and now being recorded by Katarzyna Sadej and Basia Bochenek. These songs illustrate the first option, the survival strategy of pretending, wearing masks and adapting, while making sure that the kernel of truth remains within. Here I’m reminded of the masks worn by the characters of Witold Gombrowicz’s fantastic novel Ferdydurke (1937) – masks to hide true identity, masks worn upon masks upon masks. So that’s Polish compromise, mala stabilizacja / small stability. Gombrowicz( 1904-1969), the author of surrealist plays and novels, was an emigrant himself, he spent the years 1939 -1963 in Argentina, and later moved back to Europe – first Germany and then southern France.

When listening to the songs of Derwid we could ask ourselves a question – who was the real Lutosławski: the world-famous avant-garde experimentalist, or the one who celebrated childhood, seasons, humor, and love in his cute and stylish songs?  What was true? What will survive? In PRL, you had to hide what you knew, pretend and lie in order to live “jako tako / so so” – we called it “the Japanese way, po japońsku” - and do your own thing. In many places, you still have to do it today. Lie to survive. Wear a mask to keep a job.

After 1989, Poland regained its independence, then became a part of the European Union, which was supposed to guarantee the country's sovereignty against Soviet domination, but turned into quite a different story. About 70% of Polish media are now in German hands. As for the factories, land, companies, and real estate formerly owned by the Polish People's Republic, their "re-privatising" was a highway robbery - a process in which former PZPR executives and other politicians became owners of vast chunks of what had belonged to the whole nation under the "socialist system." Of course, heirs to those dispossessed by the PRL after 1945 were entitled to receive their property back. But those who lost lands and possessions to Soviet Union, received nothing and the losses of many who were robbed and traumatized or murdered by German soldiers and citizens were not paid back either. Democracy returned,  and with it the endless arguments that mired Poland before its fall in 1795 and threatens its independence even now.  A sad story, so let us return to music.

Sadej and Bochenek perform, photo by Iga Supernak

The composer of the last piece on our program, Jerzy Petersburski (1895-1979), a Polish Jew and a veteran of the Polish Second Corps of General Anders, is an example of Option No. 2, of those who left.  After serving in the military, he lived and worked as a musician in Argentina and Venezuela, but at the end of his life he returned to his beloved Poland. Here’s another paradox, he returned in 1967, just a year before the last mass expulsion of the Jewish remnant from Poland in 1968 – when so many Polish Jews were told to leave and denied Polish citizenship.  Somehow, Petersburski not only returned, but thrived – he married for the third time (his second wife died in 1967). The 1935 song To ostatnia niedziela / That Last Sunday, a nostalgic tango, remained one of the greatest hits, szlagiers, of the interwar period and is popular until today.

The song itself appeared in many films, including Russian Syberiada, American Schindler’s List, Polish/French White from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors. It was originally performed and recorded by Mieczysław Fogg (1901-1990),  whose survival story was even more amazing than that of the famous Pianist, Władysław Szpilman. A veteran of the Polish –Soviet war of 1920, a singer since 1928, between the wars, Fogg was a “crooner” working in cabaret and revue theaters. During WWII, he became a member of the Home Army, engaging in many clandestine activities and fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. He saved the life of a Jewish composer Iwo Wesby (Ignacy Singer, 1902-1961) and his family, sheltering them in his own home until the end of the war. Wesby ended up in New York while Fogg stayed in Poland and now is on the list of the Righteous among the Nations.

Now that’s a subject for a film treatment, don’t you think?  And, please, do not forget Ordonka and the thousand Polish war orphans in India. That’s another unparalleled story of heroism, survival and resilience.

I’m sure that by now I convinced you that it is through song that Polish identity survived and thrived. We, the Modjeska Club members, will have a chance of singing together on December 15, 2018 at our annual Christmas Carols party, koledowanie. Mark your calendars for December 15th. We do it the American way, before Christmas. We are Poles in America and we are grateful for our new home.
Let me end this presentation with a fragment of a poem from my most recent book, a poetry anthology, Grateful Conversations. You can find the full text on my Poetry Laurels blog .

Yucca whipplei, endemic to the local deserts near LA. Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

In Morning Light

[…]We live on a planet where it rains diamonds.
Hard rain. Sparkling crystal droplets.
We walk on untold treasures. that we do not notice.
We forget and forget and forget - where we came from
where we are – where we are going –
We are the children of Sunlight, blessed by radiance
We wear Love’s golden haloes – we shine and blossom
In Light’s cosmic garden of stars, on this diamond planet
of what IS –  in the Heart of the great, great Silence…

Sadej and Bochenek with their flowers, photo by Iga Supernak

Today, we are most grateful for the amazing opera star, a Polish Canadian American mezzosoprano Katarzyna Sadej (sadedz) who agreed to grace our event with her astounding voice and musicality. Her voice is one in a million, you will feel its beauty very soon. If you read her biography in our program you see now many opera companies have already invited her to perform. We are delighted with her presence and thankful for the support and the musicality of the talented pianist Barbara Bochenek. So now, without further ado, welcome to One Hundred Years of Poland in Music!

Applause for the musicians. Photo by Iga Supernak


Katarzyna Sadej, a Polish-Canadian-American Mezzo-soprano was born in Wrocław, Poland, and is based in Los Angeles, California. Her international, eclectic career spans concert, opera, chamber music, oratorio, recital and voice-over performance. She has performed numerous world premieres and has had over a dozen new works composed especially for her. Recent opera performances: L.A. Opera debut as the Page of Herodias in Strauss’ Salome, SOPAC Ottawa debut as Le Prince Charmant in Massenet’s Cendrillon, and the title role of Bizet’s Carmen in the Palm Springs Opera Guild annual gala. Upcoming highlights include her debut with the Chicago Philharmonic as the alto soloist in Wojciech Kilar’sMissa Pro Pace, her Chinese debut at Opera Chengdu as Giannetta in Donizetti’s L’ElisirD’Amore, and her debut with conductor Alexander Shelley as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the NAC Ottawa. Her debut at Walt Disney Hall was with the Pacific American Chorale (alto solo in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony). Other notable debuts: Industry Opera, Carnegie Hall, Festival Mozaic, the National Theater in Taipei, the Nuits Blanches Festival of Toronto, San Diego Opera, the Ravinia Festival as a Steans Fellow, the 2012 London Olympics, the Ojai International Music Festival, the Montenegrin National Theater, the Lviv (Ukraine) and Banatul (Romania) Philharmonics, the Music Biennale Zagreb, the Bard Summerscape Music Festival, the Cartagena International Music Festival, Harvard University, and more notable venues.

Kasia and Basia perform, photo by Iga Supernak.

Basia Bochenek, a Polish-American pianist, is an avid performer of classical music, whose passion and dedication for collaborative arts brought her to venues throughout the U.S. and Europe,working with world-renowned composers, incredible musicians and great conductors. Basia has made Los Angeles her home. Her performances include world premieres and new interpretations of art songs as well as chamber music. Basia has worked with Robert Jason Brown, Richard Faith, Anne Lebaron, Lori Laitman, Libby Larsen and Sofia Gubaidulina, among others. In the exploration of performing lesser known music by Polish composers as well as art songs, Basia works with Katarzyna Sadej. Their dedication to exploring new approach to art songs began at Songfest.  Basia has worked at the California Institute of the Arts, coaching young artists, accompanying opera productions, recitals, classical works and musical theatre. Other engagements include accompanying the studios of acclaimed artists, such as LA Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour, Vermeer Quartet violist Richard Young, baritones Rod Gilfry and Sherrill Milnes. Her collaborations include performances with mezzo-sopranos Suzanna Guzman, soprano Ashley Maria Bahri, violinists Roberto Cani, Mark Menzies, Lorenz Gamma and Cheryl Norman-Brick.

Board with performers: L to R Elizabeth Trybus, Katarzyna Sadej, Maja Trochimczyk, Ewa Barsam, Miro Kepinski. 
Back row - Marcin Gortat, Witold Sokolowski, Chris Justin. Photo by Lucyna Przasnyski.

Modjeska Club Board with musicians: L to R. Treasuer Elizabeth Przybyla, President Maja Trochimczyk, PhD, Vice President Witold Sokolowski, PhD, Community Relations Director, Ewa Barsam, Katarzyna Sadej, Barbara Bochenek, guest. Seated: Technical Director, Christ Justin and Secretary Elzbieta Trybus, PhD. Photo by Iga Supernak

Originally published on Chopin with Cherries blog, October 25, 2018

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