The land of forgetfulness

It seems that everything has already been said about the Chopin Competition. The final brilliant reviews of experts from music magazines, radio rankings and TV broadcasts are being added, and the audience members themselves are directing their weary steps towards music of different genres. The magical portal that brings classical music to the world of mainstream media closes tightly and will reopen, as tradition has it, in the next five years.

The Chopin Competition is undoubtedly a cultural phenomenon, utterly mythologized in Polish culture, for years serving Poles as a tool for maintaining their sense of national pride and identity. Fryderyk Chopin, as the sacred cow of Polish culture, has been the subject of political manipulation for a long time. The sentimental reception of his music revives in Poles their sense of pride and national unity gathered around universal romantic ideas, the cult of youth which is symbolized not only by the national bard, but also by the young contestants themselves. For a short moment Chopin connects Poles with Russians, believers with non-believers, conservatives with liberals, the poor with the rich, the old with the young, etc. The sense of connection and community in a society that experiences crises has been and will always be a necessary tool for politicians, regardless of their times and political affiliation.

From the point of view of the contemporary culture mass audience, the reality of classical music seems too sophisticated and solemn, kept in a golden cage of snobbery, suitable at best for serving as a setting at the most important state ceremonies. The classical music environment, although fantasizing about the popularity and secretly staying jealous of entertainment music because of its active contact with the audience, deliberately closes itself to the standards of contemporary culture in a false bubble of niche elitism, safe and resistant to the so-called “hate speech” that is typical of the brutal modern media. No wonder classical music does not win over the audience of the youngest generation. Popular music uses a simple and understandable language, it does not discourage anyone with its inaccessibility. It does not divide the community into castes and does not create monuments. It is available to everyone, regardless of their position or education, it does not create an elite professors’ circles. The classical music community seemingly places its spiritual values above popular music and feels superior when seeing the profits of the popular music scene, while in reality it is a slave to the same bonanza – money, power and glory…

Early music is for a modern man almost an entirely exotic product, and its performers find it hard to find themselves in an extremely commercialized reality. Pushing classical music performance into a niche has made the piano environment highly competitive where anyone can be a potential rival in fighting for a workplace in which one “young, outstanding virtuoso” can be easily replaced with another. It is a world that becomes more and more brutal each year, controlled by market mechanisms in which friendships have no place, which consequently turns into a ruthless, bloody struggle of young people to obtain prestigious job openings. Art agencies treat their artists as if it was the modelling industry, making them fall into professional non-existence as they reach maturity. Thus, prestigious music competitions are a chance for young musicians to appear in the mass market reality. Chopin’s show hides its double, dark face – young people compete to the death for their future and existence on the labour market before it gets too late. The methods of eliminating competitors are often brutal, and media’s political correctness covers all unfair mechanisms of fighting one’s way to the top. 

Elite, niche and snobbish character of the classical music environment is therefore a huge ground for manipulating the public opinion, as art itself does not offer simple solutions and well-measured results. Is it possible to state without any doubt that Chopin’s music is better than that of Shostakovich? Is one able to recognize the superiority of Rubens’ vision of beauty over Picasso’s twisted idea? Each of them describes different reality using different tools. We tend to objectify and compare the artists’ technique but never the emotional content of their works. Which criteria could be applied in order to assess the maturity and spiritual depth of young performers of Chopin’s music? In what way we should measure their physicality, souls and personalities other than according to highly subjective standards that were imposed by the clannish jury and selected journalists? Does such approach seem brutal and inhumane to anyone? Does the audience member who has not undergone musical education, contemptuously called by experts “an ordinary listener”, who after all is the addressee of this performance, have any opinion-forming value? The mass audience is merely a layman for experts, it is recommended that they “educate” themselves with classical music, but their opinion is not taken into serious consideration. What could a car wash employee possibly say about music by Chopin or Mozart? Creating content and national heroes in a consumer society belongs to experts, educated people and those who were given credit by state institutions. They are the only ones who possessed the secret value-giving code that enables them to determine whether something is worthy of attention or not, the only proper model which should be obediently accepted by laics. Classical music journalism gets stuck in its relativism, opinion-forming dependence and political correctness. Only few commentators made the effort, though with various results, to examine deeper the media message which was flattened to the limit: philosophy professor and blogger Jan Hartman wrote about young participants of the competition from the perspective of culture “commodification”, writer Adam Wiedemann and the editors of decided to cross the line of correctness political and use stronger elements: the aggressive language of contemporary media, offensive and worn-out quasi-literary narrative, and the journalist Robert Mazurek in a cabaret tone questioned his guests about corruption in classical music world, the winners’ earnings and female laureates’ dresses, ultimately reducing the whole phenomenon to a meaningless farce.

Waiting for the barbarians… 

Nowadays musical interpretations become more and more unified, mainly due to the global nature of music education, a huge number of piano competitions and, above all, the availability of recordings. Competition performances are usually compatible with the chosen ideal, which has its roots in the piano tradition that began with the performances of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. In the times dominated by recordings, is there still place for individuality? We carry on the pianistic tradition while being compared to the icons of mid- and late 20th-century piano performance or – which has recently became more popular due to the revival of historically informed performances – to the predecessors of contemporary performance, although their artistic approach was entirely different from today’s view on piano playing. The times of Paderewski, Cortot, Friedman, Leszetycki are irretrievably over, their performances for contemporary pianist may be at best an inspiring curiosity, because the expectations of today’s consumers are radically different. Contemporary pianist, having collided with an early aesthetics, even as its admirer, is held in the clutches of professionalism and contemporary performance standards that have been irrevocably imposed by the competitions and phonography of the 20th and 21st centuries.

As Neil Peres da Costa states:

The power of a sound engineer, combined with the technical perfection imposed by the phonographic industry and consumer expectations, formed the late 20th-century performance aesthetics. In this context (…) perfection means the exact execution of the rhythm, absolute obedience to notation, and the complete elimination of the variability of tempo within the rubato tempo, which was an integral aspect of expression and phrasing at the beginning of the 20th century. Such striving for perfection may push [performers] to the limit of their abilities. (…) A specific difficulty in creating an interesting recording is to constrain the soloist’s imagination with an obsession with perfect performance. The result of this mindset is expressionless production. We should persuade performers to keep their sense of humanity and set the warmth of their personality against a cold, soulless replication.

In today’s consumer culture, are competitions the only space for development that enables an artist to exist on the labour market and reach a mass audience with his/her art? Is the piano performance doomed to be a niche, except for events with a wider media coverage? Or perhaps we are already so filled with the culture goods, we produce so much art that there is already a shortage of its recipients … we slowly become indifferent to beauty, we are bored and tired, the Internet is flooded with a plenitude of the best productions, we are drowning in an excess of goods. We cannot decide for ourselves which of the products is the best. Nothing truly moves us anymore, we have become – as Roman Brandstaetter writes – a salt that has gone stale and useless?

In this cultural supermarket we put our trust onto experts who decide for us what is worth seeing, listening to, reading, experiencing, thinking, and which values deserve to be promoted. Jan Hartman, in his essay Cultural Industry and Brilliant Children, published during the Chopin Competition, reveals the condition of modern man in the age of consumer culture:

The audience wades waist-deep in genius, unable to digest anything else. It suffocates with spirit and dies of overload. Everything is a routine – genius is a routine, delight is a routine and uniqueness is a routine (…) and what will happen next? What could possibly happen in music, literature, painting, when there is more than we need? Since there is no longer any unsatisfied big hunger, only a daily hunger, will each day be completed with the tastiest and healthiest food? (…) The brilliant children of the Chopin Competition enter the cruel world of a globalized, hyper-professional culture in which they will inevitably face the same fate of luxurious commodification. Let the fame and money not become a burden to them…

Such a nearly apocalyptic vision of the present demonstrates the assumption that the existence is utterly meaningless, there is nothing but nihilism and emptiness, and all human actions are futile, aimed merely at selfish interest and mindless consumption. It turns out that absorbing the spiritual content provided by contemporary art, even at regular basis, will not satisfy the greatest existential needs of a human being. Does art for Jan Hartman represent the highest sublimation of humanity? When art becomes ordinary and there are so many outstanding virtuosos, writers and composers of various genres, is it pointless to multiply one’s talent because it won’t be capitalized? When creativity, words, sounds, images or human relations devalue faster than ever, should we give up on the attempts to communicate with people because it is unprofitable? Are such values as courage, nobility, honesty and pure intentions a sign of stupidity and naivety in today’s world just because they are not converted into material profit? As the goods become universal, thanks to which so many people are given the opportunity to fulfil their professional potential, should we undermine and eliminate each other, get rid of unnecessary human existence that threatens the comfort of the majority? Jan Hartman accurately diagnoses the cancer of modern culture, however, deliberately and cynically leaves the reader with a feeling of overwhelming bitterness, a vision of plunging into a carnival of nothingness or a hidden desire… self-destruction… boredom, emptiness and waiting for a catastrophe. Similar mood might be detected in the famous poem by Constantine Cavafy, written shortly before the World War I: Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution…

The materialistic approach to art also affects the pedagogical methods as such. The general tendency noticeable in world piano pedagogy is based on improving students’ skills by developing a know-how recipe (the so-called canon) for a perfect performance, one that guarantees winning competitions. The glorious exceptions are those educators who see the development of their students as their overall artistic and moral growth, stimulated by approaching their psyche, imagination, spirituality, knowledge of styles or other fields of art. Music performances that are the fruits of the intellectual and spiritual learning process, as well as turning one’s own emotionality into a groundwork for creating the interpretation, grow into the so-called “non-competitive” performances. Even though artistically valuable, these performances eliminate the competitors from the race due to their distinctness. In other words, a “non-competitive” interpretation is an artistic interpretation that is open to communication with other people, it is a natural consequence of emotional and intellectual processes taking place in the human psyche. The piece itself then becomes a space in which a personal spiritual content is expressed. Such interpretation is improvisational, as it is subject to the artist’s subconscious impulses and to the whims of his/her imagination. It is also a cognitive tool, because when run through personal sensitivity, it absorbs the substance generated under the influence of emotions on stage. A musician open to interaction with the live set of emotions, considers a concert as a potentially dangerous situation, a kind of disturbance of inner life and balance that needs to be restored in order not to be faced with mental disorders: neurotic behaviours, addictions or other personal tragedy. It is equally difficult to maintain mental balance when an artist is deprived of contact with the audience and the platform for sharing his/her work with other people. Vladimir Nabokov was most inspired while experiencing intercostal neuralgia. Without the proper venting, the creative tension accumulated in the artist’s psyche often leads to chronic diseases.

A competition-oriented interpretation is goal-driven, complete and closed to interaction with another human being. The piece becomes a product for sale, a kind of a circus show, a clever trick that has nothing in common with a mature artistic act, and is developed thanks to regular, sport-like training. The musician concentrates on the technical aspect of the performance, the objective is to play the piece in a way that follows the established canon and precisely conveys the teacher’s vision. From the emotional perspective it is an average performance, but thanks to such a strategy it gains efficiency and stable form at all stages of the competition. Each element might be imitated: the sound beauty, the flexibility of the phrase, musical timing, stylish coda, except for emotional content. This missing element does not respond to any manipulation. However, in order to spot authenticity in a performer, one should be a tireless seeker of… truth, a person sensitive to hoax. Grasping truth is not easy, because it is by nature not attainable in any definition. Longing for truth costs enormous effort, and its persistent seeker often suffers falls and humiliations. It is carved not only by the hardships of physical work at the instrument, but above all by one’s own spiritual resources.

Emotions or affection?

During competitions people constantly talk about emotions in Chopin’s music and their universal nature. The genius of Chopin’s music manifests itself in the multidimensionality of the emotional sphere which everyone might find relatable. An 18-year-old may find traces of his first heartbreak in it, a mature woman may implement her sensual exuberance, a religious person will see God himself there. It is not known whether this is just a game the imagination plays or the real transformative features of this music. We often infantilize emotions, mistaking them for cheap sentimentality. However, do emotions fully express human spirituality? Is the addictive adrenaline that enhances the sensations and adds a special flavour to a performance by helping to express oneself exactly the same things as a deep and creative act of sharing oneself with another human being? An artistic act is a deeply humanistic attempt to satisfy the deepest existential longing – to learn the truth about reality, transcend oneself and to communicate with other people by trying to reach one’s own emotions.

Maturity or overtraining…

When trying to learn the artists’ personalities, we look for a way to contact them, want to contemplate their spirit, listen to conversations with them, read articles and interviews. The materials provided by media, however, usually disappoint. Young prize-winners asked about artistic issues talk about the course of their careers and rarely touch on aesthetic and stylistic topics, and rarely answer questions about their own spiritual life. What is the reason for such gap between outstanding performances and the emotional intelligence of pianists? Is piano playing really just a competitive sport? Is Jan Hartman right when saying that the maturity of young contestants is a hoax and the effect of overtraining? Or perhaps he does not recognize the existence of a supernatural sphere, this inexplicable artistic maturity, a source of creative energy that “understands though does not understand”, that is a man’s ability to transcendence regardless of his/her age.

17-year-old Franz Schubert writing Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel, Mozart composing Requiem at the age of 35 or Jimi Hendrix releasing a breakthrough album in the history of music being only 24 years old are the evidence of the highest complexity of spiritual life, which does not depend on age. Perhaps then an artistic maturity does not really go hand in hand with life experience and self-awareness? There is no clear answer to this question…

Therefore, the Grand Competition leaves us with a list of disturbing questions: is the Chopin Competition really an event supporting culture and promoting the highest values, symbolized by Chopin’s music? Has the art of playing the piano became an end as such in a consumer culture? Have we idolized tools to such an extent that they seem of more importance than the values ​​they were supposed to serve, and the whole event becomes only a game of appearances that is used, as Jan Hartman writes, only for the “luxurious commodification” of young virtuosos? In the global market of “hyper-professional culture”, even the very ideas of beauty, good, truth, freedom, which have been modified in such an advanced way that hardly anyone can recognize their real value, are sold. Is this degeneration of human culture a forerunner of crisis, change or maybe a catastrophe? Will we be forced – due to the pace of civilization development – to adapt to new realities every decade in order to keep up with the latest cultural trends and maintain a common language with the youngest generation? Contemplating Ignatius of Loyola’s thoughts brings a cool wind of hope that absolute trust and waiting for a catastrophe may bring only cynicism and bitterness.

Therefore (…) we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honour to dishonour, a long life to a short life. The same holds true for all other things. Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.

Indeed, what is the purpose we have been created for? St. Ignatius clearly formulates the priorities of man: to glorify and serve the supreme God, of whom a man is a partial reflection, and the ultimate goal – the salvation of one’s soul.

Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

Chopin’s Sonata in B flat minor is a tragic symbol of struggling with oneself and the world, the hopeless fate of man whose ultimate goal is death, interpreted as a domination of selfish inclinations, spiritual emptiness and the decline in values. In the third movement, in the middle of the merciless funeral march, Chopin deliberately placed a sweet, quiet and somehow familiar melody in D flat major. The only symbol of hope in the entire piece. A touch of holiness. Imperturbable hope is in the centre of Christian thought. Hope is another person’s choice, faith in their creative potential and idealism. It is hope that is inseparable from the love of life and costitutes the engine of true humanity. Chopin, although in the Sonata gives up hope in order to sink into the abyss, chooses life faced with his real death. The moving stories of people who witnessed him die give us a testimony to true heroism of this man – a quiet heroism, distant from the exaltation of the crowds. Although Chopin’s ouvre for the most part is an apotheosis of suffering and darkness, in the end the composer showed his spiritual light. “I am already at the source of happiness” – he said at the end.

Is it still possible to form one’s own individual artistic path in a world commercialized to the beaking point? Jan Hartman replies: “The parallel road [to the competition’s one] leads through great personal individuality and creating one’s own, unique artistic personality that reaches beyond all standards, but as a rule it is more difficult and ultimately rather less profitable”. All that is left is hope that anything is possible if we keep true faith and unperturbed idealism. After all isn’t it thanks to the composer’s idealistic faith that we can now listen to and admire his works performed by the winners of the competition named after him?

Save us from foolishness, Lord!

We are salt that has gone stale and useless.

We do not know how to live

We do not know how to think

We do not know how to look

We do not know how to hear

We do not know how to predict

Out of misfortune

We do not know how to learn beneficial knowledge,

And so we climb

– An ensemble of people

Possessed with greed for conquest –

Up the steep ladder of illusions,

And its rungs fracture and break

Under the weight of our careless steps.

Acting against common sense

And an innate inclination to endure,

We are taking an imaginary road

To an imaginary destination

In our defeats we see victory,

In our victories we do not notice the seed of defeat,

We see nonsense in meaning, 

And the spoken language

This privilege and glory of our unusualness

We have made a tool for empty chatter

And ugliness,

And a poisonous lie

On which we are trying to build

The greatness of a man.

God of infinite wisdom,

Creator of the perfect universe

And the most beautiful land

Immortal soul

And the brain,

And grey cells,

And five senses,

And free will,

Liberate us from the predatory clutches of foolishness

This black-eyed temptress,

Alluring us in all corners of history

Like on the street corners

From that initiator

Of our clownish intentions and deeds,

And falls

And a barren life

And give us the wisdom of purification,

To the sons of the earth,

To the salt that has gone stale and useless.

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