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When music transcends

Photo of Władysław Szpilman at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, by Adrian Grycuk

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n the 2002 film The Pianist, actor Adrien Brody portrays Władysław Szpilman, a Polish pianist of Jewish descent. Szpilman was a well-known performer for Polish Radio when his career was interrupted by the Nazi invasion in 1939. The movie, which is based on Szpilman’s own account of the ensuing six-year occupation, reminds us of the profound impact that music can have on people’s lives.

In one memorable scene, Szpilman’s family, facing destitution, is being forced to sell their beloved Steinway piano. As they are weighing an offer, the buyer says, “My advice is to take it. What are you going to do when you’re hungry? Eat the piano?”

Yet, it was music – not wealth – that would come to Szpilman’s aid during the occupation. After being captured and deported to the Treblinka extermination camp in 1942, a member of the Nazi-controlled Jewish Police Service pulled Szpilman aside after recognizing him from a concert. His parents and three siblings, who were being deported along with him, proceeded to the camp and did not survive.

With help from other musicians, Szpilman went into hiding and avoided capture several times before being discovered by a German army captain named Wilm Hosenfeld. By now starving and emaciated, Szpilman mustered the strength to play Polish-born composer Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 for Hosenfeld on an old piano in an abandoned building. The captain, instead of arresting Szpilman, felt compelled to protect him, offering him food, clothing, and safer hiding quarters.

Meanwhile, another Jewish pianist, Natalia Karp, was sent to a Polish concentration camp in 1943. There, by coincidence, she performed the same Chopin Nocturne for the commanding officer, who was so moved by her playing that he decided to spare both Karp and her sister. And Zuzana Růžičková, a Czech harpsichordist, once recounted how she scribbled down some music by Johann Sebastian Bach on a scrap of paper as she was being taken to Auschwitz, as a source of comfort in a hopeless moment. All three musicians survived the war and went on to pursue distinguished careers.

Music, which we often think of as mere entertainment, takes on new meaning through stories like these. The clip below is a recording of Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20, set to a montage of scenes from The Pianist. The performer is Janusz Olejniczak, a Polish pianist whose playing was used in the movie soundtrack.

One interesting feature of this composition, which Chopin dedicated to his older sister, is its so-called “Picardy Third” ending. Simply put, this refers to the fact that the piece spends most of its time in a minor key, taking on a distinctly melancholic character, before concluding on a somewhat sunnier major chord. As you listen, try to see if this harmonic sleight-of-hand gives the ending a little lift and perhaps a sense of forward-looking hope. Below the video, you will find links to the same piece played by the real Władysław Szpilman at age 86, and by Adrien Brody’s character in footage from The Pianist.

January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Click to read about the lives of Władysław Szpilman, Natalia Karp, Zuzana Růžičková, and Wilm Hosenfeld, who eventually died in Soviet captivity after the liberation in spite of Szpilman’s efforts to intervene.

 

Performer: Janusz Olejniczak
Composition: Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor, Op. posth.

Click to see Chopin’s Nocturne No. 20 performed by Władysław Szpilman in 1997, and by Adrien Brody’s character in film footage from The Pianist (2002).

 

View image license for photo of Władysław Szpilman at the Warsaw Uprising Museum

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