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‘With his profound intelligence and a heart that was forever young and fervent, he understood that, in the history of art, it is only form that changes – and change it must, indefatigably following the complex paths of human development. The essential content, however, always remains the same. It is a content born of the sense of life’s depth and mystery, through relentless and dedicated work, in the name of a selfless ideal.’ Karol Szymanowski wrote these words about his elder friend and colleague, with whom he shared the same space of values as well as long and frequent conversations. They had similar views on that vital and life-giving current in art that shunned fashionable formal and stylistic boundaries. This album, dedicated in its entirety to the music of one composer who falls outside any rankings of progress in music composition, and whose works bear witness to the genuine nobility and cheerful nature of his spirit – is an unquestionable achievement of one of Poland’s most outstanding pianists, Magdalena Lisak. The artist has biographical links to the composer, since Lisak’s grandfather Zbigniew Dymmek, a distinguished pianist, conductor, and composer once attended Roman Statkowski’s class at Warsaw’s Conservatory. Lisak restores to present-day repertoires the output of a composer who has unfairly been relegated to the margins of Polish music history.

Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz used to say that ‘the secret of time that Roman Statkowski’s works exude lies in the harmony of the mind and the heart’. In his epitaph for the composer, printed in Wiadomości literackie in 1925, he commented that between the previous generation (born around 1860) and the group that first made its appearance twenty years before the moment of writing (the Young Poland movement in music), ‘a star of the first magnitude shone in the narrow horizon of our music – namely, the talent of Statkowski. Unfortunately, the telescopes of that time, and of the one that followed, were dimmed either by clouds and mists of foreign influence, or by the glimmer of improvisatory ignorance – and so the star failed to gain appreciation. This is very likely the reason why the man who began with Filenis gave us nothing more apart from Maria – which is already a lot!’ Statkowski – an artist who played a major role in the generation between Stanisław Moniuszko and Karol Szymanowski, who had greater achievements to his name than Władysław Żeleński and Zygmunt Noskowski – was, throughout his life, a tormented introvert, constantly forced to choose between finding fulfilment in artistic creation and the toil of an educator’s life. This image of the composer has been confirmed by his pupils and by contemporary music critics. In a commemorative speech delivered at a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of Statkowski’s death, Michał Kondracki recalled his teacher as one of ‘the victims of the hard conditions and material necessities that the beleaguered composer had to face on his thorny artistic path’. ‘Once he dedicated himself to teaching, he focused entirely on work with the musical youth, which left no time for himself,’ added Felicjan Szopski, who wrote about ‘quiet unimposing work, unpublicised despite its value’.

Let me recount a few facts from the rich biography of Roman Statkowski. A long-time Warsaw resident, he was born in 1859 in Szczypiorno (now part of the city of Kalisz), in the family of a customs officer loyal to the tsar. The artist later became a landowner in Pskov province (he inherited the estate from his paternal uncle, who had died childless). In 1872–1878 Statkowski learned harmony, counterpoint, and composition with Władysław Żeleński at Warsaw’s Music Institute. The composer also graduated in law from the Imperial University of Warsaw, but for his composition studies (1886–1890) he went to Petersburg. Originally, he had planned to study in the West. What brought him to Russia was the need to secure his legal interest in the landed estate. His teacher was Nikolai Soloviev, a rather minor but highly regarded composer representing the folklorist trend. He also graduated with a distinction from the instrumentation class of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and had consultations with the head of Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein. That latter composer, eminent if rather conservative, was highly acclaimed as a pianist and teacher, and had once taught Pyotr Tchaikovsky himself, whose music fascinated Statkowski at that time. It was also at that time that Statkowski developed his Slavophile outlook, in which a brotherhood of nations was opposed to the strict and ruthless tsarist policies. After his studies and a short period of journeys across Western Europe in 1897 (which took him to Berlin, Paris, Brussels, and London), subsequently – an attempt to take up teaching in Kyiv and a brief sojourn on his (soon to be confiscated) estate at Mali Zherebky (Volhynia), Statkowski started his five-year collaboration with the Moscow branch of the well-known Warsaw piano seller Herman & Grossman, of which he became the director (thus putting his legal knowledge to practical use). In his Moscow years, Statkowski composed two operas, Filenis and Maria, whose success in two competitions for composers (in London and Warsaw) earned him a job at Warsaw Conservatory as teacher of aesthetics and music history (1904–1918), later also of declamation (a prototype opera class).

Having thus returned to his native country after nearly a quarter of a century, to the provincial, profoundly backward and envy-ridden environment that was hardly favourable to creative work, he dedicated himself to teaching since his two operas did not win any particular success on the stage. From 1909 until the end of his life, he taught Warsaw’s composition class (taken over from Zygmunt Noskowski after the latter’s death), as well as general history of music, and subsequently also counterpoint and instrumentation. Ten years later he was appointed deputy head of Warsaw Conservatory. His pupils in Warsaw included such excellent artists as Zbigniew Dymmek, Michał Kondracki, Szymon Laks, Jerzy Lefeld, Jan Maklakiewicz, Piotr Perkowski, Bronisław Rutkowski, Bolesław Szabelski, Stefan Śledziński, Kazimierz Wiłkomirski, and Victor Young (one of the greatest US film music composers). Statkowski was universally respected by the conservatory students, despite his dogmatic emphasis on classical rules of harmony and counterpoint (coupled with brilliant planning of musical form). The majority of his pupils (only Kazimierz Wiłkomirski and Bolesław Szabelski remained sceptical) valued Statkowski highly for his solid foundations, his opposition to clichés and banality, his passion for community work, noble and tolerant attitudes, his kindness and love of art. When a heart disease rendered him no longer capable of teaching, pension was denied to him. Karol Szymanowski’s intervention with Felicjan Szopski only secured him a sickness benefit. In 1925 Statkowski died in poverty in Warsaw.

Roman Statkowski’s oeuvre comprises 40 opus numbers, including two orchestral works (Polonaise Op. 20 and Symphonic Fantasy in D Minor Op. 25), the cantata Belshazzar's Feast, two operas (Filenis and Maria), six string quartets (two of which have been lost), 20 songs, violin miniatures, and, finally, piano works, which constitute the bulk of his output (around sixty pieces; those that remained in manuscript are now lost).

Statkowski wrote piano pieces throughout his life, starting with the period of his composition studies in Russia. 1884 saw his debut in this field, the Mazurs for piano published in the Echo Muzyczne, Teatralne i Artystyczne weekly. A large proportion of his piano works (mainly sentimental pieces with salon-style titles such as Valse triste, Fariboles, etc.) was composed in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. He continued to write for the piano in his Warsaw years, till the end of his life (1925), as a kind of substitute for his unfulfilled operatic ambitions. Already his Moscow compositions demonstrated, as Stanisław Niewiadomski concluded, ‘an excellent knowledge of the instrument’. Though Statkowski never envisaged himself as a concert pianist, he did take piano lessons with the highly regarded pianist and music critic Antoni Sygietyński, professor of the Music Institute, who had been a pupil of Rudolf Strobl and Carl Reinecke. It was probably in that period that he became acquainted with a number of issues which make his piano works so perfectly suited for that instrument. Statkowski composed for the piano in a way that indeed reflected the instrument’s complete technical and expressive spectrum, which made his music ideally tailored to the skills and needs of a pianist. The formal perfection of his miniatures, nobility of style, simple and sincere expression – were emphasised by critics from the very beginning, ever since he published his first opuses for the piano. His melodies, as Józef Reiss pointed out, are tuned to a profound expression of feelings, often pensive in a melancholy fashion, but invariably refined in their mellifluous lines and framed in delicate harmonies. It is the spirit of Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Moritz Moszkowski (particularly his models of counterpoint), and the Russian Romantics that speaks through Statkowski’s piano music.

Though this is part of the piano repertoire that filled the space of the then salons, it represents the beneficial transformations of salon culture from the 1860s and 70s onwards, the time when composers turned towards Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, and Liszt. The backward sentimentalism of mostly domestic, bourgeois music-making suited to less sophisticated tastes (characterised by miniatures with French, typically programmatic titles) was thus enriched and transformed using the major tools of advanced piano technique. The first steps in this direction were taken by Ignacy Krzyżanowski and Aleksander Zarzycki, while Władysław Żeleński, Eugeniusz Pankiewicz, Roman Statkowski, and Zygmunt Stojowski are responsible for the ennoblement of this style. All these innovations notwithstanding, Statkowski’s piano music still functioned in the territories of former Poland as popularising works for the general public. Polish national dances are frequent in his output, from the polonaise (Trois piécettes polonaises, Deux Polonaises, Op. 26) to the oberek (Op. 9, Op. 22), cracovienne (op. 23) and mazurkas (Trois Mazurkas, Op. 2, Polonica, Op. 24). There are also waltz stylisations (Deux Valses, Op. 5), programmatic miniatures (Six Pièces, Op. 16), as well as autonomous forms (Six Préludes, Op. 37, Toccata, Op. 33). In a letter from Moscow dated 1903, the composer wrote: ‘In order to feel powerfully, one needs to love strongly, and one loves most readily what one stems from, all those things that have contributed to the making of one’s nationality. This is why the greatest creative spirits are at the same time embodiments of their respective nationalities…’ This explains the marked presence of forms derived from Polish folklore in Statkowski’s oeuvre.

Michał Klubiński /translation: Tomasz Zymer/

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