Category Archives: Halina Goldberg

The Transgressive Chopin and the Politics of the Chopin Competition

by Halina Goldberg, Scholar in Residence 2017

My first experience attending the International Chopin Piano Competition occurred during turbulent times. The summer of 1980 in Poland was eventful. At the end of June, the Communist government announced extensive price hikes. Overnight, as people rushed to buy produce, all food disappeared from grocery stores. Everything. The day after the announcement, shops everywhere were wastelands of empty shelves and unfilled display cases. To tone down this flagrant display of Communism’s failures, the shelves were later filled with millions of bottles of vinegar, the only produce that was not in short supply. This sight was to become the norm for the next several years. The people responded to these new economic hardships with a wave of strikes, out of which the now-legendary labor union Solidarity—the movement that brought down Poland’s Communist Party a decade later—was born. It was against the backdrop of these events that the 10th Chopin International Piano Competition took place, just weeks after the establishment of Solidarity.

Most Chopin enthusiasts remember this competition for Martha Argerich’s melodramatic resignation from the jury. She quit over what she viewed as unjust treatment of one of the contestants, Ivo Pogorelich, who did not advance to the finals. Unfortunately, even today, it is Pogorelich’s name that is more often recalled in relation to that competition than that of Dang Thai Son, the fine Vietnamese pianist who won it.

On the ground, way below the Mount Olympus inhabited by the jurors, clashes over Pogorelich’s playing started even earlier, during the first round of the competition. I was still close to my pianistic roots, having just played my diploma recital a few months before, and as an aspiring music critic I had plenty to say about Pogorelich’s pianism. I disliked just about everything about it. But I quickly found out that I expressed these views at my own peril. The customarily polite and elegant world of classical pianism was deeply divided. Emotions ran hot, and the diverging opinions pitched friends against each other with intensity of the sort some of us experienced during Thanksgiving gatherings in 2016, after the American election.

After he was eliminated in the third round, the fandom for Pogorelich reached the level of pandemonium. The recital, which he performed in Warsaw after the competition concluded, sold out in a flash (in the following months he also played debut concerts at Carnegie Hall, in London, and in other places). But one of my sassier friends, an aspiring film director, dragged me (kicking and screaming) into the office of the director of the Warsaw Philharmonic, where she demanded that additional on-stage seating be provided. We were among the lucky ones who got to hear the Divine Ivo! The less fortunate ones were seen scaling the building of the philharmonic to gain access to the grand event. Not since Liszt (or at least Paderewski) had the world seen so many young women sigh and shriek and throw flowers at their pianistic idol.

Although on the surface all this brouhaha around Pogorelich seemed to be about pianistic aesthetics, in actuality other forces were also at play. In fact, the intensity and divisiveness of aesthetic opinions were soon to be mirrored in the political arguments that ripped apart families, as some Poles sided with the authorities while their kin supported the opposition movement.

What was it about the slinky Yugoslav pianist that touched a raw nerve in Polish audiences? Sure, he had the good looks and allure of a bad boy, but his following extended far beyond those drawn to him by his sex appeal.

During Poland’s summer of discontent, the slowly simmering economic and political tensions and frustrations exploded in a collective act of rebellion. Pogorelich and his playing tapped into this defiance of authority: he disregarded rules and broke taboos; instead of the customary dark suits, he wore tight black pants and folksy shirts adorned only by a thin black velvet ribbon tie or even (gasp!) performed tieless; rumors circulated that he was in a relationship with his much older teacher (Aliza Kezeradze whom he indeed married later that year). Even his bad-boy sexiness exuded disobedience; it stood in sharp contrast to the refined Chopinesque charm of Krystian Zimerman, the equally handsome winner of the previous competition.

But beyond these outward trappings of rebelliousness, in his performances Pogorelich gave his Polish audiences a Chopin that was defiant, nonconformist, and modern. His transgressive, unsentimental playing offered a perfect antidote to the sappy concept of Chopin’s music trapped in the national and socialist narratives.

The case of Pogorelich highlights the Polish dilemma of Chopin’s legacy. Chopin’s music embodies Polishness. But the political narratives that shape its role in Polish culture have the capacity to both draw the Polish listeners in and drive them away.

Under Communism, Chopin was decisively placed among “the people.” He inhabited the Polish countryside, fraternized with peasants, and learned from their music. On the rare occasions when he was imagined in the city, he was seen as sympathetic to the woes of the common workingman. (Aleksander Ford’s 1952 film Chopin’s Youth serves as a good example of presenting Chopin in this manner.) His music, likewise, was hijacked to speak for and solemnize the new socialist order.

Mieczysław Oracki-Serwin, Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major for the “Kościuszko” Steelworks

By the 1980s, many Poles had grown to resent the role Chopin’s music played in the service of the Communist agenda. Even for some professional musicians it was difficult to separate his expressive compositions from the solemn official ceremonies (akademia in Polish) during which Chopin’s music (and life) was imbued with a socialist spirit rivaling that of “The Internationale.” So, in reacting to Pogorelich’s performances, his Polish audiences were also responding to some three decades of Chopin being yoked to an oppressive political system.

Perhaps the most interesting postlude to the whole Pogorelich fuss is that the fall of Communism did not do away with the inner contradictions intrinsic to the Poles’ relationship with Chopin. On the one hand, there is a cognizance that Chopin’s music is somehow important. There is also an awareness that his name provides an internationally recognizable trademark of Polishness, one that is appropriated for various and nefarious purposes (for example, the Chopin Airport and Chopin Vodka), and that his music crosses linguistic and cultural borders with much greater ease than Mickiewicz’s poetry or Grotowski’s theater, with perhaps the single competitor being the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus. But for Poles, especially the young ones, the flip side of these positives is the lingering politicized image of Chopin as Poland’s official composer. In 2010 (the year of the Chopin Bicentennial and the 16th International Chopin Piano Competition), concerns about the persistence of this stilted image of Chopin led the organizers to embark on a campaign of de-propagandizing him. By midyear, the country was plastered with such terrific posters as these:

For the true aficionado of Chopin’s music, all this is irrelevant. The Pogorelich moment was unusual in the way it drew the audience of the Chopin Competition into politicized performance. . . or was it? The most recent competition (2015) coincided with the highly-contested parliamentary election that gave most seats to the Law and Justice Party. I was there, and there is a story to be told about that as well. . . maybe in a future blog post.

Halina Goldberg is Professor of Musicology at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University Bloomington, and affiliate of Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program, Slavic Languages and Literatures Department, Polish Studies Center, and Russian and East European Institute.  She is the author of Music in Chopin’s Warsaw (Oxford University Press, 2008; Polish translation O muzyce w Warszawie Chopina, 2016), and editor of The Age of Chopin: Interdisciplinary Inquiries (Indiana University Press, 2004).  Goldberg interests focus on the interconnected Polish and Jewish cultures.  Much of her work is interdisciplinary engaging the areas of cultural studies, music and politics, performance practice, and reception, with special focus on 19th- and 20th-century Poland and Eastern Europe, Chopin, and Jewish studies. She also serves as the Project Director for the Digital Scholarly Commons dedicated to the study of Jewish Life in Interwar War Łódź