When one is asked to describe Chopin’s charm, the imagery most commonly used involves food or priceless gems. And like the perfect appetizer, Chopin’s Mazurka’s are a perfectly inviting subject for conversation or academic debate. The organizers of the recent Chopin Symposium seem to clearly understand this, and had rounded up some very eloquent speakers to present their opinions and studies.
The guest list was quite impressive, and included many leading theoreticians and musicologists. From among the handful of lectures I attended, I particularly enjoyed Prof. Carl Schachter’s lecture on similarities between Chopin and Mendelssohn. Schachter is a name well-known to music students: His name is on the cover of the seminal Harmony and Voice Leading, which he co-wrote with the late Professor Edward Aldwell. Other speakers included: Prof. John Rink (Cambridge University), Dr. Assaf Zohar (Jerusalem Academy), Prof. William Rothstein (City University of NY), Prof. Halina Goldberg (Indiana University), Eytan Agmon (Bar-Ilan University), Prof. Alexander Tamir (Jerusalem Academy), and Prof. Roger Kamien (Hebrew University)
I had the opportunity to sit down with one of their international guests, Prof. Andrzej Jasinski from Poland, right after his lecture. Andrzej Jasinski has an infectious vivacity. This and the many anecdotes he shared made for a fascinating chat. During his lecture, he spoke passionately about correctly deciphering Chopin’s Mazurka’s, emphasizing his points by playing brilliantly at the piano. As can be seen in the interview below, Prof. Jasinski places supreme importance on proper interpretation of Chopin’s music.
Asher Krim: Tell me about yourself. Where are you teaching nowadays?
Prof. Jasinski: In Poland, Kotowice, Where I studied many years ago. My teacher was Markevitch (?) a woman who was also an accompanist. After the war she has written the first very good modern piano book for children. I have had very good conditions in my city. I met teachers from west Europe and also from Russia.
A: When was this?
J: I graduated in 59. And after, 1 year I spent in Paris. I was a pupil of Magda Tagliaferro, a Brazilian pianist. Also was a very good experience for me. We studied French music, some American music, and Spanish music.
A: And when did you begin teaching at Katowice University?
J: Not very long after graduating. I started to teach in 62. But my teacher, she told me “You’re probably gifted for this… activity!” (laughs). She asked me to accompany my colleagues sometimes when she was absent. This was a very good experience for me.
A: I noticed that you are about the same age as Heinrich Gorcki (A well-known and respected polish composer).
J: We studied together. My wife as well. Even today we still have a very nice connection. I teach his daughter, who just got her doctorate as a pianist, and is now also teaching at our school.
A: Do you have any stories from the time you were studying together?
J: I don’t remember very well, but he had much love for nature, especially for mountains. Very often they organized excursions to mountains. My wife also was part of this group. Now he has a second house in Tatra, the mountainous south of Poland and he’s living there with great pleasure. In Katowice is living another very good composer, Wojceich Killar he’s written many good compositions, music for film in America, he’s famous.
A: What is your opinion on the state of music education in Poland today?
J: After the war (WW2) it was like in the Soviet Union. But I must tell, the level of education was very good. Good education in primary school, followed by Gymnasium/Lyceum, and finally, high school for music. And now? Now high school doesn’t exist, there is only the music academy. The organization is very good. In the Music Lyceum they have young pianists and other musicians, and they learn not only how to play but also other things such as History, Language, Music theory, Musicology, Harmony, Ear training… everything. It’s very good. State schools, not private schools. Now we’re just starting to see private schools as well.
A: Has there been a decline in the level of music education since the fall of the Soviet Union?
J: I don’t think so, but in general we are seeing big progress, scientific progress, civilization progress, which is not good for music, not good for romantic music. Young people are not romantic now! They have a fashion of living, of clothes, of language, but they lack the courage to be romantic in life. Also they lack courage to show what they feel in music.
Very often when I have a lecture or when I teach I say “If you want to play good Chopin, you must want your feelings, even if you don’t share these feelings with your family”. My philosophy is to discover the composer not only as the musician, but as a man who was happy, who was unhappy, who had hopes. Experiences, disillusionment, deceptions, everything.
If we know the biography of the composer we know him better. But the text of the composition shows us more. It needs not only intelligence, but sensitivity.
A: At the very end of your lecture you were talking about that music performance needs to come from the heart and not too much from the mind. Do you believe that the performer needs to be aware, especially in Chopin’s music, of the harmonic and structural progressions… (of the piece)?
J: Both! Yes, definitely! Only the brain is not enough! (Laughs) But only heart and spontaneity is also not good. In Chopin’s music especially style, sensitivity, and intelligence. Exaggeration in Chopin’s music is not good. You play too fast – it’s not good. Too strong, not good. Too rhythmically, not good. Too much Rubato not good. We must find this middle way which may show everything. Technique is only a servant, technique is not an aim.
A: So every performer who plays a Chopin Mazurka for instance will naturally play it differently.
J: Chopin’s music gives us the possibility to show individuality….
A: To express the individuality of the pianist? Or Chopin?
J: The pianist. Chopin is unique. But our personalities are all different. The text of Chopin gives us the possibility to show OUR individuality. Every pianist may have his own rubato, his own sound, his own pedalization. Tempo also. It’s allowed.
Chopin may repeat one phrase three, four times. To us it is very useful to change something, and not repeat it in the same way. But also, if it says diminuendo, it’s not possible to play crescendo. If there is written an accent and the pianist plays subito piano, this is not good.
A: I understand you’re a frequent visitor to Asia.
J: I was in Japan 20 times. Recently I told (them), before a Chopin competition, that I don’t want to teach in Japan any longer; I’m a chairman of the jury, it would not be good if I taught and took money! (Laughs) Afterward, to judge would be very difficult!
Very often, when someone asks me “Why is Chopin so loved in Japan?” I answer: In normal life, Japanese don’t show what they are feeling. Chopin gives them this possibility of telling everything, like to a very good friend.
I was twice in China for competitions and master classes in Beijing. They also have a very good connection with music. In the last competition I saw many mothers with little children. During the whole competition I saw many children.
A: And do you find the same thing in Europe?
J: In Europe, the situation is not so good, Europe is too modern! (laughs). In art, that is, not in buildings or science. To become a professional performer takes many hours. Nowadays the parents prefer that the children go to school that will prepare them for a good job. It’s a problem. And it’s the same problem in America.
A: Not enough interest….?
J: Yes. In the east there isn’t this problem.
J: I’d like to tell about an opportunity I had to meet and speak with Arthur Rubinstein. When (my student) Krystian Zimerman won the Chopin competition in 75′, he afterward was invited by Rubinstein to Paris. They spent a week together and I joined them at Rubinstein’s apartment for a day. Rubinstein was very friendly. We spoke the whole day, talking about music. We drank together Polish vodka between us! (laughs)
I told Mr. Rubinstein: This young pianist, Krystian Zimerman, is like my friend, my colleague. I don’t feel that I’m a very important teacher for him. He told me “Ah, It’s wonderful; I haven’t had so good a teacher as you! The connection between the teacher and pupil should not have a distance”
A: Because it’s a very intimate connection.
J: Ya. For me, this was a fantastic lesson.
I asked, what is important in piano playing? He told me “Now I have not a good voice, my voice is this way (exaggerates a raspy uneven voice). But when I am on the stage, in my imagination I am the biggest singer in the world.”
I asked him what is a good rhythm? He told me “ a good rhythm is not good measuring, like a metronome. A good rhythm is to feel the rhythm like a dancer, with every muscle.”
He told: “After a good recital, when I play with great expression, I get a stomach-ache!
It’s not true that we are playing with heart, we are playing with stomach! (laughs) It means that we playing not only the fingers of our hands, we are playing with our whole body. We must be full of music! It was an excellent lesson for me.
A: What is your opinion on the ever increasing role technology is taking in our enjoyment of the arts?
J: The real music is life, in concert life. A record is only a picture, stopped, yes? A good connection between pianist and audience is only in real life. I think it’s not only material connection, but sometimes it’s possible to receive a transcendental connection between composer, pianist, and audience. It’s the most beautiful thing.
Once Zimerman told me about his concert in Madrid. He played in a theater where Rubinstein had been an idol, a big person. And he felt that there was a spirit overhead that helped him.
A: A spirit? You mean that…?
J: That the ghost of Rubinstein was helping him. He played better and better, and finally, after a big applause, he was resting in his room, and the director of the concert came and said “please, get dressed and go back to the stage!” It was silent, but the public had stayed.
They were in such a happy state; they wanted to have this state for longer. And Zimerman, before this was told to him, he felt the connection with Rubinstein! It’s strange, but it may help. Understand, that to make music, it means not only to hear…..
A: Not just to hear the vibrations in the air.
J: Right, vibrations. It’s a connection between human beings. This connection, we don’t know. We can’t make an explanation. But I believe it exists.
A: In this day and age, with CD’s and the internet….
J: CD is good, but DVD is better.
A: You mean a video?
J: Yes, it allows you to see the body of the performer.
A: But not to experience that kind of trascendental experience.
J: No, that can only happen in life.
A: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
J: Maybe something about the next Chopin competition. [The International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition is held in Warsaw every 5 years, since 1927] This year we are organizing the 16th Chopin Competition in Warsaw. It will be a special one [Prof. Jasinski is chairman of the Jury]. The jury is very good of course. So far, the directors of the competition have received over 350 candidates! So much! In February the judges will have to view DVD’s of the applicants. 355 candidates. It will be almost two weeks.
A: Of just nonstop…
J: Yes (laughs). From this group 160 will be admitted to preliminaries in April. And finally in Warsaw for the formal competition in October, only 80! It’s very difficult to have a competition with so many candidates! This year is very important also because of Chopin Year [The 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth].
Today I met here in this school Murray Perahia. I admire him, he’s an excellent artist. He attended my lecture today (about Mazurkas). It was a great pleasure, an honor for me! Sometimes when I’m traveling by plane, I listen to his recordings of Beethoven Sonatas, He’s a great artist, a great pianist, and a very nice person.
A: Getting back to the competition, you mentioned there are so far 355 submissions. How does one go about eliminating any?
J: First I seek their teacher’s advice. The teacher or director of the school, if the candidate is good. Afterward we must receive two letters of recommendation written by renowned pianists.
A: and all this is before you’ve even heard the candidate.
A: and when you do finally sit down to listen to these young pianists, what is it that you’re looking for?
J: Generally our impressions must be, “It’s beautiful, it’s very nice, it’s interesting to hear”. Not borrowing (from other interpretations). After this, I compare his performance with the text of the composition. I see the rhythm, the tempo, dynamics, everything. I go through everything. Good technique is useful, but it’s not the only one. It’s not enough. Many pianists now would like to show their individuality, their fantasy, and sometimes change the text of the composition. This is not good.
A: They rewrite the composition?
J: Well, not the direct notes, but tempo, dynamics. It’s not good. First is composer, and after is public. And I must..
A: Serve both.
J: Yes, both. Not only perform for my pleasure.
Very often, in the past, we have listened to very talented pianists in the Chopin Competition, and had judges who gave different opinions.
For example, Evo Pogorelich. He played in Warsaw (in the 1980 competition) and after the competition made a big career and became very famous. But he didn’t receive a prize. He received only an honorable mention. The majority of the jury was against his Chopin interpretation. (Martha Argerich proclaimed him a genius and left the jury in protest) But everybody thought he’s an excellent pianist, just not so good for Chopin. And Chopin is our obligation.
A: It being the Chopin Competition
J: Ya. In a Chopin Competition especially.
This is Prof. Jasinski’s third time visiting Israel. He’s accepted an invitation to return in 2011. The Symposium was organized and presented by the Edward Aldwell Center in Jerusalem, in collaboration with The Polish Institute.