Frederick Chopin gave his birthday as the 1st March 1810. Indeed this was the day his family celebrated his birthday. Yet according to the parish record of the baptism, lost until 1892, he was born on 22nd February 1810.
Now, whether the local witch had deemed 22nd February and the subsequent week inauspicious dates for a birthday or whether a complicated family trust excluded beneficiaries born before 1st March or on even number days or something like that, frankly we shall never know. All we can be sure of is that on 23rd April in Brochow church Chopin was baptised for the second time. Yes, the second time.
Nothing is ever straightforward in Poland but the double baptism is easy to explain. Chopin was born sickly and was not expected to survive until a church baptism could be arranged. It is every Christian’s duty to ensure that no child leaves this life without the mark of the Cross, the mark of salvation, on its forehead. Thus, he was baptised by a member of his family shortly after he was born in a wing of the manor house at Zelawola Wola on 22nd of February 1810. That much is certain.
I have to admit that I myself have served the function of a self-appointed baby-baptiser though not, thankfully, because the newborn was dying. In London, I used to babysit for a friend of mine whose father was a clergyman. Perhaps as a reaction to her own upbringing, much of which had been lived in the precincts of Windsor Castle, it was her belief that her child should decide her faith for herself. Thus, there would be no baptism until she was old enough to take the decision. This troubled me.
One evening, on watch over the cot, I felt moved to do my Christian duty.
Naturally, with grandparents on both sides of the family practising Christians, I may not have been the first to have had the thought, nor to have done the deed. But, I did it.
When Lara was baptised by her grandfather the bishop eleven years later at the font of Kingston-upon-Thames Parish Church, a church where Anglo-Saxon kings had been crowned, I suspect he might have been on replay. In fact, he would have been failing in his duty if he were not.
My most recent visit to Brochow church was on 22nd February of this year. The cold and the snow and the short black days were enough to turn the most cheerful dispositions into depressives. Frankly, I was not looking forward to the trip to Brochow.
Brochow is just off the western approaches to Warsaw and that afternoon the lorries were many and slow. The 45 kilometre journey, plus a wrong turning, took 2 hours. I was late and I was sure the church would be cold. However, my fears proved surprisingly groundless.
The church looked beautiful, decked with white lilies and carnations as if for a smart wedding. The television crew had already set up and a huge industrial fan was blowing hot air effectively into the church. The orchestra and choir places were ready and, together with the Steinway concert grand and the television booms, they took up half the church.
I had prepared the choir for a Haydn Te Deum and was going to sing the alto part in Come, ye Sons of Art by Henry Purcell.
If there was any doubt about why we were performing Purcell in a celebration of Chopin`s birthday, this was dispelled by the television presenter who announced to the assembled audience of local bigwigs, most of whom who had never heard of Purcell anyway, and the live Eurovision audience, that Purcell was France’s leading Baroque composer. Chopin was half French, he died in France, he is partly buried in France, so French music was appropriate. Many of the orchestral musicians, seated in front of the cameras, were unable to stifle a snigger.
As an Englishman, I glowed with pride. Despite having at his disposal Corneille, Moliere, Rameau, Lully and Charpentier to mention but a few, here was proof that when the Sun King needed quality he had to turn to the English language, an English poet and that most English of composers, Henry Purcell (call him a Frenchman if you want, I thought). If only. Europe might have been spared the War of the Spanish Succession, if only.
But then, from where would that saviour of Europe of Churchillian provenance have come? I refer to Sir Winston Churchill, descendant of Sir John Churchill, Ist Duke of Marlborough, the greatest English general of the 18th century, humbler of the French, founder of the dynasty and uncle of Louis XIV`s great marshal, the Earl of Berwick, son of England’s King James II and Churchill’s sister Arabella. Marlborough’s descendant, Sir Winston, named after the Duke’s father, himself a Member of Parliament, I hope needs no introduction.
The concert in the church was not bad at all. However, someone rang from Germany to say that TVP, Polish state television which had broadcast the concert, had cut off the last ten seconds of the last work in the programme, the Chopin Concerto No 1, in order to begin the news on time. I ask you.
Of great interest for me was the audience. Apart from the men’s dowdy clothes, mainly very ill fitting business suits, probably only in use for weddings and funerals and civic occasions, their behaviour was entirely in keeping with Chopin`s time and before. Authentic. The real thing. They never stopped talking. The whole idea of participating in the concert, of adhering to modern concert etiquette was totally alien. They even missed out on the opportunities to applaud, which is most rare for a Polish audience, which usually relishes a bit of active participation. Were they to blame? Were they being disrespectful? Not at all. Why?
Well, to be blunt, they did not know any better. They have never been taught to listen. Most of these people were local government officials and their wives. (The women reminded me of WS Gilbert’s immortal lines from The Mikado: The lady from the provinces Who dresses like a guy, And who doesn’t think she dances But would rather like to try.)
Local government agencies do not usually attract the most educated. And what passes for education outside the big cities, or even inside them, is not what most of us would recognise as an education. The absence of cultural education is total in most rural areas. So, the question arises, how can we build a civil, creative, innovative society if there is no music and drama in schools? You tell me.
Sitting at the front of the audience was the most important man in the region. Don’t ask me to explain the many layers of local government in Poland, just accept my word that the Voiovod is it, the number one. We first met three years ago at the Debutantes Ball at the Royal Castle, thanks to Roza Thun, now a Euro-deputy. (Yes, Warsaw has an annual Debs Ball.) I often see him at concerts and vocally he supported my picketing of the recent Beethoven Festival in Warsaw. I believe that we should build infrastructure before we have international music festivals of questionable quality that export Ministry of Culture money and don’t leave anything behind. However, this is a subject is for another place.
The Voiovod has a daughter who has just graduated as an opera director. She invited me to her final show, a staged performance of Purcell’s great Dido and Aeneas, in the Warsaw Drama Academy’s useful Baroque-like theatre.
Actually, she asked to meet me whilst the project was still in the planning. She told me that the British Council had been approached for funding. They were very interested. Really? I didn’t know there was a role for ethnic disc jockeys in Dido. Why not, though? The action takes place in Carthage (North Africa.)
And, she added, the British Polish Chamber of Commerce was keen to get involved. I gave up being a member of the BPCC because the last thing that seemed to interest them was classical music. Good luck, I thought, though I would be miffed if she, as the daughter of a politico, got the help from them that I, as a member, was never able to do. In the end, neither organisation lifted a finger as I suspected they wouldn’t. Interest comes cheap here.
I offered my services with textural coaching but she let the offer drop because, apparently, as I learnt from her later, she was afraid I wanted to exploit her father’s influence. As far as I can tell, the Voiovod doesn’t have much influence being, as he is, above politics, a bit like the Queen but without the income. A pity, anyway. I genuinely wanted to help. However, people perceive the motives in others that they want to perceive.
I went to one of the many well attended performances and as soon as the singing began I regretted that she had not made use of my skills. The pronunciation and word colouring were poor, though, to be fair, most of the singers conveyed some understanding of the text. The acting was patchy.
Aeneas was vacuous. A man of empty gestures, a poseur, a small town politician, hardly the stuff of the Trojan hero nor anywhere near the man who would have roused the passions of the Queen of Carthage who, in this production, was very sexy.
The witches were brilliant, the high point of the show, a mezzo and two counter tenors, two Cerberus-like guards of Hades, whose agility, menace and dramatic ability were memorable.
The most depressing moment of the evening was the sailors` chorus. The solo sailor, who obviously did not have the slightest idea what he was singing about, exhorts his fellows to weigh their anchors, leave their woman and get back to the ship. His body language, with his arms flopping by his sides, was in limp contrast to how I imagined the rest of the crews` members.
The great thing about this production, with all its short comings, was that the audience loved it, proving that Baroque opera has an appeal for a modern audience, a universal appeal. Sadly, this production was a great deal better than they could have hoped to see at Warsaw’s famed Opera Kameralna, not that most of the people in that audience were old enough to get in. Hardly a grey hair to be seen.
The Warsaw Chamber Opera is one of the jewels of Polish theatre or, at least, it would be if it were properly managed. It is a 120 seater opera theatre with a full compliment of singers and orchestral players. In 2001 they celebrated the four hundreth anniversary of opera with over 60 productions of mainly Baroque and classical operas. Mad yet magnificent.
However, as you can imagine, the standard of performance is so variable that I have long given up going there. Admittedly, tickets are hard to get because there seems to be a loyal, if aging audience that attends everything, night after night. In a way, the Kameralna is to Warsaw’s “cultural” elite what the bingo clubs used to be to England’s working classes. Somewhere to go and be known and pass the time of day. And how much more preferable opera is to bingo. But what will happen when the audience finally dies? Perhaps the standards will rise.
The concert at Brochow over, we were all invited to the local school where I had some of the best cheese cake I have ever tasted. The house where Chopin was born at Zelawola Wola was just a few minutes ride away.