Chopin, Paderewski and a Search for a Tree

The Chopin Museum in Poland is a pianist’s delight. It has two locations; one at his birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, which I didn’t visit, and the other at the Ostrogski Palace in Warsaw, where I spent several hours. There, one can gaze at letters and visiting cards, schoolboy calligraphy, drawings, Chopin‘s Paris piano, notebooks, letters from contemporaries, personal belongings and much more. Above all, there are the manuscripts; it is fascinating to see the neat, carefully beamed demisemiquavers and stratospherically high leger lines in his early works, and the later scribblings and corrections in more mature works-in-progress, as if he were in a hurry to transcribe the music from his inner ear to the page. A quick view of both museums can be seen here.

My eternal love for Chopin has been combined this year with a growing interest in the life and music of Ignace Paderewski, pianist, composer and statesman, who not only toured the world as a virtuoso pianist, but who also signed the 1919 Treaty of Versailles after WW1 as Poland’s Prime Minister. In September I performed music by Chopin and Paderewski at Highclere Castle, television’s ’Downton Abbey’, celebrating 100 years of Polish Independence. Earlier in the year, Ognisko Polskie, the Polish Hearth Club in London, formed by the British Government and the Polish government-in-exile in 1939, kindly invited me to perform Chopin and Paderewski’s music in a recital prior to a screening of the film Moonlight Sonata, in which Paderewski, appearing as himself, performs music by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin, and his own Menuet Op 14 No 1. 

Everyone who learnt the piano in the early 20th century played that piece. My mother used to speak of my grandmother’s interpretation of it. Family legend says that grandma heard Paderewski in a live concert. He toured Australia in 1904 and 1927 and I’ve always felt a connection with him because of that story. A generous philanthropist, Paderewski donated the proceeds of his two final concerts in Sydney and in Melbourne in 1927 to support the orphans of the ANZAC soldiers killed in Gallipoli. 

When in Melbourne in 1904, he planted a tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens near the Victorian College of the Arts where I studied; it seemed an appropriate gesture to celebrate this year‘s centenary of Polish Independence and my current blogpost theme, The Romantic Piano, by finding the tree. So, armed with a map of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, I set off yesterday afternoon on my quest. 

‘It will be somewhere on the Central Lawn,’  said the helpful Visitor Centre receptionist, marking my map with an approximate location. ‘It‘s an Aesculus x hybrida.’ 

Ah. First, find the lawn … and what a lot of trees there are on said lawn … And what on earth does an Aesculus x hybrida look like … it must be fairly big now, 114 years old … scrabbling around beneath the low-lying branches to find the tree labels … no … no … no … YES! A true Eureka moment. 

The music critic in Brisbane’s newspaper The Telegraph wrote, on Friday 8 April 1927: ‘Paderewski plays all things magnificently, but there is a fragrance about his Chopin playing that will linger long in the memory of those privileged to hear it.’ Did grandma experience that? Who’s to know, but Paderewski’s tree still lingers on, bringing beauty to Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, and perhaps fragrance, too. 

From Australia, a very Happy New Year to you all, wherever you are on the globe.

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2 Responses to Chopin, Paderewski and a Search for a Tree

  1. Ritzmar says:

    I wrote quite a long comment here, could not retrieve my password, and it appears to have gone! By any chance, has it surfaced somewhere else?
    Kind regards, Ritzmar

  2. Ritzmar says:

    Ah, understood! Many thanks, Ritz

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