Music from Chopin’s Land: Lesser-Known Polish Composers in the Spotlight

If you ask someone to name a Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin will probably be the answer about 99% of the time. His influence and status as a symbol of Polish pride continues to this day, and his legacy has inspired a long, rich piano tradition continuing with pianists like Artur Rubinstein and Krystian Zimerman.

In publishing, PWM (Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne) is renowned for its classic Paderewski Chopin volumes and the new Chopin National Editions sponsored by the Polish government. With all the attention on Chopin, it’s easy to forget other Polish composers who have made important contributions. PWM’s series Music from Chopin’s Land aims to fix that, spotlighting Polish composers through the ages. I had played a piece from this collection at a showcase at MTNA in 2016, but I decided to revisit it recently. Looking back through the rest of the contents now, I came to the following conclusions:

  1. They’re all at a reasonable student level, making them good for teaching.
  2. The pieces from the Classical era don’t make a huge impression, but they’re still fine for teaching.
  3. Each volume has at least two hidden gems, to use my celebrated terminology.
  4. The inclusion of one (lesser-known) Chopin piece in each book was a good way to provide context.

Volume 1 Highlights

Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994): Folk Melodies

Lutoslawski is known as an orchestral master, but these short, sweet pieces from a collection of 12 are pitch-perfect. In all three, the right hand plays the folk melody while the left hand shades it with some gentle dissonances. My favorite is probably “Flirting,” which captures a nostalgic mood that recalls Bartók’s folk excursions. Early Intermediate to Intermediate level. The video link above is for the whole suite, but the movement in this book are “Oh, My Johnny,” “An Apple Hangs from the Apple Tree”, and “Flirting.”

Marek Stachowski (1936-2004): Odysseus amidst the White Keys

(couldn’t find a performance for this one)

These two pieces at Upper Elementary to Early Intermediate level are some of the more interesting white-key pieces I’ve played through. The programmatic element definitely helps, and the Odysseus myth is somewhat universal. One piece portrays the Sirens of the story, with long singing melodies, and the other is a spirited “Homecoming of Odysseus.”

Janina Garscia (1920-2004): Mount Fuji from Ikebana

I liked the noble, dramatic gestures in this one. Having seen Mount Fuji in person, I appreciate the musical evocation. Besides the strength of the musical character, I hear some pentatonic scales and imitation of other scales in Japanese music. Intermediate level.

Volume 2 Highlights

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941): Nocturne in B-flat, Op. 16, No. 4

Paderewski is close to being a household name with pianists, but I had never heard this piece. I liked some of the surprising harmonic turns. In true nocturne tradition, a long melody weaves through the upper register in the right hand, and the left hand gets a nice rich new tune in the middle section. A sustained mood of calm reflection prevails. Upper Intermediate level.

Tadeusz Szeligowski (1896-1963): Sonatina

Even as this piece treads neo-Classical territory, the sneaky dissonance here ventures even beyond the model of Kabalevsky. I admit I had some trouble sightreading, but I think that’s mainly from all the accidentals. It’s really quirky and unpredictable music, . The right student with the right personality might be into it, and the five or six student performances I found on Youtube seem to support that.

Once again, here are links to the full details of each volume, including a 4-hand book I left out of the discussion:

Music from Chopin’s Land: Volume 1

Music from Chopin’s Land: Volume 2

Music from Chopin’s Land (1 Piano, 4 Hands): Volume 1

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