Monday 20 November 2017

Classical: Chopin's musical legacy amplifies the wonders of Warsaw

Exile: Polish composer Frederic Chopin left Warsaw for Paris after Russia invaded.
Exile: Polish composer Frederic Chopin left Warsaw for Paris after Russia invaded.

George Hamilton

The trip to Warsaw with the football team last weekend offered a plethora of possibilities, opportunities to get to know more about Poland, a country that has so many reasons to have close ties to Ireland.

There was the chance, too, to fall in love with a city that is the unsung heroine among the great European capitals, for Warsaw is a phoenix that has found itself again.

It suffered the horrors of a history that culminated in the destruction wrought by the Nazis during World War II.

Now, it's a welcoming place, so warm in its hospitality that the chill wind biting in from the east is easily forgotten.

Last week in this space it was all about Poland's patron saint of music, Frédéric Chopin, and the international piano competition held in his honour every five years.

It's on at the moment and thanks to the good offices of Polskie Radio, I was able to add the Warsaw Filharmonia - the city's concert hall - to the list of wonderful venues I've had the privilege of visiting.

There's nothing special about where it finds itself, down a side street behind the principal post office, but once inside, a feeling of expectation is instantly fired.

Up steps into the vast lobby, which, it turns out, is directly beneath the sumptuous auditorium, you'll still hear the music from above to tide you over to the first intermission if you've had the misfortune to turn up late.

In there, as we sat in our plush red seats, young hopefuls produced impeccable performances of a suite of Chopin compositions. Outside in the city, there were big screens to deliver the spectacle live.

Chopin is with good reason Poland's favourite musical son, for his story parallels the nation's redemption. He was born in 1810, the son of a French schoolteacher who'd married a local woman and stayed. Chopin was bright, and was marked out as a young pianist with a future.

He travelled widely, and earned himself a reputation. But politics was never very far away. Poland's vast, largely flat terrain meant it became a playing field for big powers with big ideas. When the Russians overran the place in 1831, Chopin, who was 21, decided his future lay elsewhere.

He settled in Paris, and never made it home. But he was Polish to the end, and his music reflected this. Polonaises, mazurkas, and waltzes - it all just flowed.

Last Monday, I strolled along Krakowskie Przedmiescie, a magnificently restored boulevard that stretches from the Royal Palace in Warsaw's Old Town right up to an intersection that connects to the new and the brash, to find the Church of the Holy Cross, which is almost opposite the wrought iron of the gates to the city's university - Trinity without the quadrangles.

Inside the church, a nun was attending to the flowers beside the second column on the left, down the central aisle.

"Here rests the heart of Frederick Chopin", it says. He lived in exile, but he was Polish through and through. He died on this day in 1849.

Back down the street, you arrive at the Hotel Bristol, Warsaw's Shelbourne, all elegance and style, dating from around 1900. Just off the lobby you'll find a huge bust of Ignacy Paderewski. He was a multi-faceted personality who'd been involved in the development of the hotel and whose prowess as a pianist and composer had propelled him to a position of political prominence.

He became Poland's prime minister when the dust settled after World War I. Whichever way you turn, you're never far from music in Warsaw.

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