"This is Not Chopin:" Allen Kuharski on Chopin Without Piano

21 Oct 2015


Chopin Without Piano, produced by Centrala, Warsaw, conceived and written by Michał Zadara and Barbara Wysocka, directed by Michał Zadara. Chopin performed by Barbara Wysocka. Photo by Natalia Kabanow. Courtesy of Swarthmore College.

On October 24, Swarthmore College presents the North American premiere of Chopin Without Piano—an interpretive theatrical and musical piece that reveals new insights into Fryderyk Chopin as both a historical figure and a masterful composer. Additional performances will take place at FringeArts in Philadelphia, October 28-31.

The performance reimagines the distinct character of Chopin's orchestral writing of two piano concerti—replacing the piano parts with dramatic spoken text, constructed from fragments of Chopin's letters and biographies, and Polish writers' commentaries on Chopin. Acclaimed Polish actress, Barbara Wysocka, who conceived the work with the Centrala theater company's Michał Zadara in Warsaw, Poland, will perform the monologues in Polish with English subtitles. >>Visit the project website to learn more.

In an essay accompanying the program booklet, Allen Kuharski, chair of the department of theater at Swarthmore College and a scholar of Polish theater and drama, contextualizes the performance within Polish culture and political history, and contemplates how Chopin Without Piano may "reanimate the creative principle embodied by Chopin rather than historically reconstruct him." An excerpt of Kuharski's essay follows.

A paradox: by taking Chopin's pianism out of the Concertos, Michał Zadara and Barbara Wysocka render him aphasic as a composer even as they give Chopin speech.

That speech may be in Polish—but Chopin's first language is his pianism.

In Cyprian Kamil Norwid's poem "Chopin's Grand Piano," written in 1865, an act of deliberate cultural vandalism is portrayed: the spectacular physical destruction of Chopin's piano by the Czarist forces occupying Warsaw, likely the same one on which he composed, practiced, and first performed the Concertos.

The destruction of the instrument did not silence Chopin's music, and the symbolic political act by the Russians was countered by Norwid's poem. The poem was not a restoration of the lost piano, which was impossible in any case, but filled its absence with new artistic work in another genre.Now there were two voices: Chopin's music and Norwid's poetry.

There is a perpetual need in Polish culture to replace what has been destroyed by such vandalism—and for the understanding that new cultural production is more meaningful than scrupulous restoration to fill the absence.

Zadara and Wysocka's new performance piece using the orchestral score of Chopin's Concertos risks the accusation of being a new act of vandalism, this time within the very performance of the composer's work. If we replace the piano with Wysocka and the score with text, is this another violation, or something else? This proposition is in significant contrast to that of twenty-first-century musicians playing on period instruments: Wysocka is quintessentially a twenty-first-century instrument and performer.

The banishing of the piano from the performance of Chopin's Concertos is a radical act of cultural blasphemy. Rather than mere provocation, the goal is to renew and transform a tradition that began with precisely such creative rebellion and innovation. The question is how to reanimate the creative principle embodied by Chopin rather than historically reconstruct him.

As with the Czarist forces in nineteenth-century Warsaw, this is undeniably also a symbolic political act. It is a critique of Chopin's pianism as a tool of mutual oppression by Poles, of its associations with nationalism and passéisme instead of as the means of mutual liberation, individual empowerment, and unfettered creativity it represented in Chopin's day.

Understood as a new piece of contemporary theater, the goal of this experiment is the generation of an unprecedented Polish work, a performative counterpart to Norwid's poem. Which itself was also a symbolic political act.

The political exchange here is between Poles.

The creative exchange, however, is between artists.

Allen J. Kuharski is chair of the department of theater at Swarthmore College, where he holds the Stephen Lang Professorship in Performing Arts. He also teaches at Pig Iron Theatre Company's Advanced Performance Training Program in Philadelphia. He is the recipient of the Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Award from the Polish chapter of I.T.I./UNESCO, as well as the Order of Merit in Polish Culture from the Polish Ministry of Culture. His articles, reviews, and translations have been widely published in the US, Great Britain, Poland, France, Austria, Norway, and the Netherlands.