Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Heart of Warsaw

Chopin Concert, Łazienki Park
Date: May 27, 2018
Time: 12 noon




Twice every Sunday of the summer, the City of Warsaw hosts Chopin concerts, at 1200 and 1600 hours. The concerts are free and take place in the beautiful Łazienki Park, which luckily happens to be a few hundred metres from my house.

Chopin was born in Warsaw in 1810, when Warsaw was still part of the Duchy of Warsaw, a state established by Napoleon. As part of the Polish Great Emigration, Chopin left Poland for France as a twenty-one year old. Although most of his career was spent in Paris (where he also died at the young age of 39, and is buried alongside Jim Morisson and Édith Piaf in in Père Lachaise Cemetery), Chopin always identified with his Polish roots, and is credited with giving prominence to Polish themes in his music, even while exiled in France. In any conversation recounting the greats of Poland, Chopin's name always features alongside the others, like Nicolaus Copernicus, Marie Curie and Pope John Paul II.

Łazienki Park is Warsaw's largest park, home to lakes and museums. The concerts take place at the 'Chopin Monument' which occupies a small part of the park. The monument is a large statue of Chopin with a small pond in front of it, and several permanent benches designed to seat the patrons of the concert. But the turnout is huge, and since the benches can accommodate only a fraction of the concert-goers, there are people occupying the grass and sitting around the fountain in front of the statue of Chopin.

I arrive half an hour early, and find that the park is already quite full, with people continuing to pour in every second. I proceed to look for a spot in the grass. Others seem better prepared than me to sit in the grass, for they have come equipped with towels and rugs to seat themselves. I risk a muddy butt and plonk myself in the grass, but decide to move a few minutes later to the boundary of the pond, for a closer view of the performance.

It is nice to see an entire city come out in large numbers to hear the music composed by a pianist who is clearly a huge cultural icon in this country. The demographic of the listeners is very varied. There are young couples on an outdoor date, old couples who have probably been doing this date for years, entire families out to enjoy their Sunday together, and also topless men of different ages trying to sunbathe. Right next to me, a grandmother tries to coax her hyperactive toddler grandson to pose for a selfie (but he is restless, and she has little success). Behind me, a young girl is making notes in her diary before the concert starts, much like myself. People have arrived here by tram, by bus, on foot, and by bike. A number of cycles are seen strewn here and there.

There is a short announcement introducing the concert and thanking the sponsors. This is the 59th year of Chopin concerts in the city, which are organized every year by the City of Warsaw.

For a country that has been through immense trauma and tremendous political upheaval, it is heart-warming to see this tradition having continued uninterrupted for all these past decades. That it commenced during the Communist regime comes to me as a bit of a surprise. Today, of course, the concert has big corporations sponsoring the event. But it is the simplicity of the affair that makes it so special. There is only one musician here, and only one musical instrument.

The concerts take place by the Chopin Monument, a statue where Chopin appears to be playing an invisible piano with one hand, while looking over his shoulder at exactly the spot where the pianist of the day pays his/her homage to the man in the giant statute looming large. Visually, it seems as though the performing pianists have the blessings of the man whose compositions are being immortalized by them here every summer Sunday.

The monument itself has an interesting history. It almost feels like this concert is a symbol of all the odds the city has defied to be able to unite for a weekly offering of one of its icons. The statue was originally commissioned to be installed on the centenary of Chopin's birth, in 1910. But it could not be erected till 1926, after Poland had regained independence. But in 1940, the Nazis occupying Warsaw completely destroyed the monument and send the pieces to be melted in the foundries. The Nazis also put an end to all Chopin performances. The Nazis were very aware of the symbolic importance of this musical giant, and did not want the Poles unified by any nationalist sentiment. The monument could then be re-constructed and installed only after the war, in 1958, shortly before the tradition of the Sunday concerts began in 1959.

Chopin's body lies in Paris, but his heart rests in Warsaw. Holy Cross Church in Warsaw is home to the heart of this legend, which is kept in a hermetically sealed crystal jar. On his deathbed, Chopin made a request that his heart be taken back to his motherland. This heart had a tumultuous journey and exchanged many hands during the Second World War, and could have suffered the same fate as the Chopin Monument. But miraculously, it survived and continues to be in Poland, as per Chopin's wish.

This concert seems to be a big part of the culture of the city. Parents and grandparents appear to want to introduce their children to Chopin from a young age. This love, once  instilled, seems to continue through the years and across generations. Chopin brings this city together. This is a chance to meet friends on a Sunday, by design or even accidentally, and enjoy some sunshine and music together. This is an opportunity to enjoy music with loved ones.

These Chopin concerts could well have been a preserve of the elite. This could easily have been a stuffy affair where only the well-dressed and well-paying are granted entry. (In fact, there are paid Chopin concerts in the Old Town everyday.) But in this setting, all possible barriers between the music and the music lover have been removed. It is clear that the government has made all efforts to keep the concert free and accessible for its residents. And for its part, the city reciprocates with its whole-hearted enthusiasm, by coming out in large numbers. Here you find everybody in relaxed attire - shorts and t-shirts, sleeveless summer dresses, and even some men without shirts.

Though there is an informal air to the affair, there is also a sense of deep solemnity. When the pianist starts, everybody just shuts up. There are perhaps some crying babies to be heard on the periphery, but there is an unwritten understanding that everybody present is here to enjoy the melody of the piano notes without distraction.

The performance consists of one solo pianist playing Chopin's compositions for a period of one hour. The artiste today is a young prodigy, Jacek Kortus. Smiling, he takes the stage and bows to his audience. His fingers fly expertly over the piano. The crowd is always eager for more. Over the span of an hour, he plays a number of compositions, with varying tempo. Although I do not have a nuanced understanding of Chopin's music, I feel motivated to discover more after this performance. I find that I like the relatively fast-paced pieces more, and those with the more dramatic bass notes.


I am a guest of this city for only a few weeks, but I find that many of its cultural offerings are out of bounds for me because I cannot cross the barrier posed by the Polish language (a difficult tongue whose mastery in a few short weeks is near impossible, so I desist to try). This is another reason the Chopin concert is so special to me. I feel I have been given the chance to be an intimate part of an experience that lies at the very heart of the city's culture. This concert is uplifting to all those present here, because each of us can understand the universal language of music.

Chopin's heart and Chopin's melodies will never leave Warsaw.

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