This past summer brought quite a lot of music with ties to World War II Europe into my life I noticed. This week, two pieces that I am preparing for a concert tomorrow –Variations on a theme of Paganini by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski and a piece written by British composer Benjamin Britten in memory of Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Paderewski, Mazurka elegiaca.
Two musical works with stories loosely connected emerged from the spring of 1941 as signs of art’s triumph over the hopelessness of war. Lutoslawski wrote hundreds of arrangements for two pianos, which he and fellow Pole Andrez Panufnik played in the cafes of wartime Warsaw between 1940 and 1944. All of these compositions, except one, were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising and are lost forever. But Lutoslawski’s 1941 work, based on Paganini’s malleable tune from his 24th Caprice and used by so many other composers (including Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Liszt and even Andrew Lloyd Webber) found its way out of Poland and is much loved by piano duos.
Britten had an entirely different wartime experience. He chose to leave England in 1939 and was harshly criticized for doing so. He spent some of that time in California, where his publisher telegrammed him early in 1941 and asked for two piano pieces that would celebrate Paderewski’s long, multi-faceted career. But Britten misunderstand his publisher’s request and wrote one two-piano piece, which, following Paderewski’s death in June of 1941, became a memorial work built on rhythms of the traditional Polish dance, the mazurka. In its middle section, the confusion and turbulence of war seem to play out in music, causing one reviewer to describe the work as “a lament for Poland’s predicament: it’s tenderness is tinged with violence, and in the middle the piece seems to hang by a thread.” But then, peace always hangs by a thread.
There were other bits of artistic news during that year of war. The National Gallery of Art opened in Washington, D.C. The film “Citizen Kane’ was released. And Billie Holliday recorded her song God Bless the Child. With Holliday’s description of its obscure text as a song that came to her after fighting with her mother about money, there can only be speculation that the words are related to Luke 8:11-18 and the parable of the sower, as many have suggested. God, so this story from the Gospels seems to imply, has sowed the seeds of divinity in each of us and our lives will be increasingly fruitful as we become increasingly aware of that holiness within ourselves.
Holliday’s own sad life serves to remind us that fame and fortune can’t possibly satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. Real happiness comes when our seeds of divinity bear the fruit of peace and quiet strength. The biggest lesson of 1941 would come on December 7, though, when this country learned it couldn’t turn its back on evil any longer. Peace would have to wait. Neither the quest for fame and fortune, nor the manipulations of power and domination could make anyone happy.
But if that’s just a bit too serious of an ending for this September day 75 years later, 1941 also brought us the first Curious George book. God bless the child, and the magic of children’s books!
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Where I’ll be:
September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. www.chevychasepc.org
Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. We are raising money for The House of Ruth, an organization that helps women and children coming out of domestic violence and homelessness. We will match any gifts made at the concert to support their good work. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.
October 5 – Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center, 6:00 p.m., I will be playing on a program with Furia Flamenco and Guillermo Christie
Also in October, I will be playing for the High Holy Days (a first for me) for the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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