“I lived in Poland for the first half of my life; another half of it I spent in America,” says FRONTLINE/World reporter Marian Marzynski as he emerges from the subway onto the streets of Warsaw. “After the fall of communism, I have returned here many times.”
This time, the music of Poland’s great composer and pianist Frederic Chopin brings him back.
Every five years, hundreds of young musicians from around the world come to Warsaw to compete in the Fredric Chopin International Piano Competition.
Entering a grand concert hall, Marzynski muses, “I am in a musical temple. Chopin is the highest priest in this temple. Here young pianists aspire to achieve their own priesthood.”
Eight hundred contestants from all over the world, many of them from Asia, signed up to compete. Marzynski meets several who have survived the first round of elimination, including Hisaki Kawamoto from Japan. When she plays Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” she tells him, she sees all of the planet’s animals dancing. Another contestant is Ben Kim, born of Korean parents who moved to New York, where he studies at the Juilliard School’s Music Division. He plays Chopin’s “Funeral March.” “It gives me goose bumps,” says Marzynski.
“In my youth, whenever a Soviet Communist leader passed away -- and there were many of them -- all of Poland was listening to the ‘March’ for days and days,” Marzynski recalls. “Chopin wrote it when he was exiled in France, the country of his father, when Polish culture was suppressed by the 19th-century Russian occupiers.”
Every Chopin competition is marked by a commemoration of his death. Stricken by tuberculosis, Chopin died at 39 in Paris and was buried there, but his heart was removed from his body and placed in a Warsaw church, where Marzynski attends a memorial service. Although Chopin’s father was French and Chopin spent half of his life in Paris, he was a Polish nationalist. His music is deeply Polish, inspired by Polish folk tunes and filled with nostalgia for the country of his birth.
After two weeks of competition, the field has been reduced to 32 semi-finalists. “Whoever wins these Chopin Olympics will launch a worldwide performing career,” says Marzynski. “But how can one decide who plays Chopin better and who plays it worse?”
One of the 18 jurors, Adam Harasiewicz, who won the competition 50 years ago, explains, “The whole idea is to be light, like playing it for the first time. It should sound like it is improvised.”
“What if they hit the wrong key?” asks Marzynski. “If someone plays beautifully,” the juror replies, “who cares about a false note?”
One of the stars of the competition is an Austrian, Ingolf Wunder, who plays magically. But the jury eliminates him. Some criticized him for playing too fast. “The jurors were being petty,” complains Harasiewicz. “He filled me with ecstasy.”
Marzynski turns his attention to a leading contender, Takashi Yamamoto, who left Japan and moved to Poland to study piano, as have many other Japanese prodigies. What do the Polish think about this Japanese invasion of the land of Chopin? Another juror, Janusz Olejniczak, who won a prize in one of the previous competitions, says the Japanese have “a tradition of industrial espionage.” They used to play mechanically, he says, but they have learned to “dig into Chopin’s soul ... they’re after our secrets.”
Only 12 pianists make it to the finals of the 15th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition: the Chosen Twelve. Nine of them come from Asia, one is from Russia and two are from Poland. Watching the finalists rehearse with a full orchestra, Marzynski wonders why there have been only three Polish winners of the 75-year-old festival. He speculates that during the Communist era, the Polish government preferred foreign winners, hoping they would become goodwill ambassadors for the country. “But perhaps it is also because Poles are too overwhelmed by the genius of their compatriot [Chopin] and get jitters on the stage,” says Marzynski.
This year, Poland’s hope is Rafal Blechacz, who comes from a small town and is a bit of a mystery, disappearing after each round of competition, avoiding interviews and returning home to practice.
On the final night of the competition, the National Philharmonic Hall of Warsaw is the place to be for the city’s cultural elite. Yamamoto is one of the favorites. As he performs, his Polish teacher watches nervously, but at the end declares his student has excelled. Others disagree. “He still doesn’t have the heart,” complains one observer.
At last, Blechacz enters the hall and begins to play. His brilliant performance of a Chopin concerto wins the hearts and minds of the public and the jury. Blechacz will collect close to $50,000 in prizes and guaranteed performances in the world’s greatest concert halls. The new prince of Chopin’s music will reign for five years, until the next competition.
Poles hope that Blechacz -- the first Polish winner in 30 years -- will continue to live in Poland instead of emigrating to the West. But in the new unified and democratic Europe, borders are not as important as they once were, and Chopin’s music is Poland’s gift to the world.
POLAND: CHOPIN'S HEART
15TH INTERNATIONAL CHOPIN PIANO COMPETITION
FREDERIC CHOPIN ACADEMY OF MUSIC IN WARSAW
SAMANTHA GRANT WIESLER
Senior Associate Producer
Series Executive Director
For the Web
Senior Interactive Producer
WOW !!. Amazing, indeed. Chopin is my all time favourite and his music is simply great. Master of piano music. Great presentation.
Chopin: the greatest man in the history of PIANO MUSIC of all time. I admired him since my teen years in the Philippines. His pieces live in my veins for over 60 years and now.
Music truly is the heart of Poland, and the world. As a musician, I see the music in everything and the background sounds of life. This competition was a display of such talented musicians, who played with obvious passion. From their expressions as they played, I could see the story, behind the notes and rhythms, that the music gave to them. It is inspiring to see people around my age that are living through their music and their passions.
I just watched this program, and really liked it. I must comment, however, on the editing and the choice of shots used. While I understand the need for variety in camera angles, the decision to digitally "flip" the images when the pianists were playing was quite distracting to me. It's so blatantly obvious as the high notes are being played by their left hands and I think this is something to consider when editing film containing musicians. I did thoroughly enjoy listening to the artists and the dialogue - all other aspects of the documentary!
A thrilling inspiring program, I admire the pianists' dedication so much and this music is one of the highest achievements of our species. My mother could play the Minute Waltz beautifully from memory; and I am always moved by anything by Chopin. Thank you very much!
Thank you for a beautiful, touching film. I cried - the music and emotion touched me.
The 15th competition was wonderful. I watched it online in a Polish website. Anyone interested in Chopin must visit this website:
CHOPIN: THE POET OF THE PIANO
It has been on the web for many years. Besides its great information, you can also find the link to some videos of the 15th competition there.
Bielsko - Biala, Poland
Such a touching experience, especially for the heart and soul of somebody who has an American husband and shares a life between Poland and USA. BRAVO!
Brilliant! Thank you, Frontline, for bringing to us the "renewed heart of Poland." It was truly a spiritual experience to hear and watch the enthusiasm and dedication of all the young contestants, but I rejoice with Poland that her "heart came home!" Bravo!
Arlington Heights, IL
Especially enjoyed the variety of well placed excerpts of Chopin's music played as a backdrop of Marian's well chosen dialogue. Kept me both interested visually and very wonderfully entertained by the music of Chopin. Hope Rafal soon gives a concert here in the Chicago area and perhaps can visit the at the Polish Museum at PRCUA which houses an Exhibit of another great pianist, Paderewski.
Captured the mystique of music, why we love what we love. A wonderful job!
Not only a great documentary from Marian Marzynski but also a personal account of his love for Chopin's music and a touching commentary on passionate journeys of young people from around the world.
I hope one day I will observe an International Competition personally.
Chopin is never overdone. I am glad that this was made.
One does not often think about what is behind why a competition is made. This reminds me of the one done on the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
With both, it is the amazing lives of the man behind it and what they symbolized to their country that made it important. However, Cliburn is not Chopin. He will probably be faded while Chopin's name will forever be mispronounced by novices but remembered.
His music will touch others.
Cliburn's is merely a medium for music... an excellent pianist who succeeded in a Russian competition during the Cold War. In other words: a good pianist who so happenened to be there at the right time.
New York, NY
A very frustrating program. I want to hear the pianists playing - not Maryan Marzynski constantly talking while they play!!!
Just totally amazing! I don't know the words. This may sound weird, but I really don't think I missed much (I'm blind, so I can't see the images). There is so much power in music. I have friend who is working on playing the Minute Waltz. That is an extraordinarily difficult piece to play!
Another great film documentary from Marian. Well thought out as a subject/topic. Well presented. Well filmed. Viewer connected to the country, to Chopin, to the winner himself, and to the filmmaker.
This was a wonderfully produced piece.