Warsaw early years

We didn’t get far with the Faure. Having regular rehearsals was an insurmountable problem since the choir had a lot service music that needed rehearsing. Discipline was also a problem. We decided to set up a choir. Much to my dismay, some of the older women elected to follow me. Not all of them had musical reasons. At 45, this was the beginning of a new phase of my life that I was unprepared for. How to deal with women of a certain age with a crush.


My first experience of women with a crush was in France. In the early 80s I went to Entrevaux, a postcard village in the hills behind Nice, with a group of early musicians from Rome. The following year I was invited to return to sing a work by Charpentier. The first year I had stayed in a small hotel with the other musicians. The second year I was lodged with a French divorcee/widow, a very attractive and charming woman, 18 years older with children in their teens.


All went well at first but second night she came into my bedroom and sat on my bed. She wanted to confide in me. I heard about her first divorce, then her second, then the husband who had died but left a castle in Spain and then she went. I turned over to go to sleep but almost immediately there was a knock on the door. She put her head into the room and asked, a tad sheepishly, whether it was very wrong for a woman to ask a man to go to bed with her. I told her that I had a concert the following day, but it made no impression. What could I do? I was a guest. I threw back the sheets. But she refused.

“Come to my room, I have the Dior sheets.”  I followed but I made it absolutely clear I was going to sleep. I owed it to my audience.


When I returned to Rome she followed me. For a week she spent the daylight hours sitting in her car outside my flat hoping to talk to me. The nights she spent in a five star hotel. Eventually, she became ill and a friend had to come to get her to take her home. I admit I didn’t behave as well as I should have done. The only way I could deal with the situation was by ignoring it.


This has been my response to at least three of my choir members who have developed fixations. One mother of teenage children deluged me with text messages, especially in the early mornings and late at night. Another has written me obscene emails and come to my flat at all hours. Frankly, knowing you are being watched, being stalked, is both unpleasant and frightening. It is  particularly difficult for me as this woman is still in the choir.


Some of the choir people I have confided in think I should go to the police. I wonder how the police would react to a big chap like me going to them and saying that I am being stalked by a woman in my choir and am fearful for my life.


Polish law seems weak on harassment. Actually, it seems weak on most things that involve protecting individual rights. The police claimed they could not do anything about my slashed car tyres without evidence. Isn’t their job to get the evidence?


At least I have the emails.




Warsaw early years

  The enormous advantage that singers in Protestant countries have over those in many Catholic countries is the fact that these countries have strong choral traditions in their churches. Not only does this provide the opportunity to make some money but it develops sight-reading and ensemble skills. These are invaluable advantages for anyone hoping to have a singing career.


In Warsaw, the only possibility for regular paid choral singing is in one of the state institutional choirs: the National Philharmonic or the National Opera. This is an option few academy students would consider. The choral singers come from the music schools and usually don’t have a higher level of education. That said, I have auditioned choral singers and have found that many are just as good as the academy trained solo singers. The big difference is in attitude. The choristers are certainly regarded as second class singers.


The choir at Warsaw Cathedral is amateur and rather over subscribed by women of a certain age. Whilst this is not necessarily a problem, some have mannerisms which are a definite handicap. How do I know? Shortly after my arrival in Warsaw I was invited to conduct the choir.


Every rehearsal began with a hymn to Mary, Queen of Poland. In my view, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, rather too much hope is placed in Mary. She must have been awfully distracted during the 20th century and as for now, I think the whole of the Holy Family must be on holiday. And it’s not just me who thinks so.


A while ago, a friend of mine, an American married to a Pole, wanted to have her baby baptised.  She went to her local church to enquire about baptism. The priest was adamant. Since she was not a church goer he would not baptise her baby. Somewhat taken aback by this response she tried another church. No luck. A third refusal and she resorted to friends. Through them, a friendly bilingual priest who had served as chaplain to the CIA and, armed with a bible, a horse and a gun, had been a missionary in Asia, agreed joyfully to the baptism in his church in the suburbs. Excusing his fellow clergy he blamed God. The problem was simple. God was AWOL and needed to spend more time with the church in Poland.


The first time I heard the hymn to Mary, Queen of Poland,  it took me rather by surprise. I thought I was going to hear the opening bars of the Faure Requiem.  Instead, I got the most committed singing I had yet heard in Poland. However, it was accompanied by a great deal of movement. One well endowed soprano swung herself violently from side to side creating quite a momentum in the section. This she applied to all her singing and was both a distraction for me and other choir members. The swinging precluded her from ever watching my beat.


Warsaw early days

  I arrived in Poland on the 7th January 2000.  Since then, experience has taught me that there is only one month worse in Warsaw than February and that is January. These are dead months of short, black, snow blighted days.  Varsovians know how to deal with them. January is taken up with the post Christmas repose.   In February the schools close so that everyone can go to the mountains.  This is very sensible. Warsaw in January and February should be avoided like the plague.


My first weeks were a grim anticlimax. Everyone I knew was away and those I managed to contact expressed surprise that I was in Warsaw at all. No one had warned me when I said I was coming in February. Later, I learnt that this is a Polish trait. You are supposed to know what is happening without being told, though how you are supposed to know is something I have not yet understood.  Now, I am at the stage of not showing anger or feeling resentment when things I should know about I don’t know about, because nobody has told me, or I haven’t thought sufficiently in advance to ask the right question. I bear the consequences in silence.  This is the way it is.


That first February I spent a lot of time sitting and feeling sorry for myself in Miedzynami, the only westernised café where English was used and there were no net curtains, heavy tablecloths or surly staff. It was very basic: wooden floors, heavy metal tables and chairs but the staff greeted you and other people engaged in conversation and were willing to let you buy them drinks. It was never crowded but there was always something going on, usually to do with an art happening. It was run by a pleasant German and his Polish girlfriend. There seemed to be two distinct crowds; day time and evening. The day time crowd were young business types trying to look progressive and upwardly mobile. The evening was mainly gay.


I had two weeks to kill before my week of workshops at the Chopin Music Academy. Looking back on it I only have memories of this café, pavements made impassable by the depth of pothole-covering slush and loneliness. I had no idea how I was going to make a living but at least I had a week of teaching to look forward to, followed by a month of rehearsals at the Opera Kameralna.


I had been invited to hold a week of workshops on Baroque singing for the Early Music Department of the Chopin Academy. Actually, I hadn’t taught much Baroque singing so I hoped my years of teaching musical theatre in London and my own experience as a counter-tenor were enough to get me through. I had no idea what to expect from the students, though Polish singers I’d worked with abroad, like Christine Ciesinski and Andrzej Snarski, were very good.  Anyway, even though my career as a Baroque singer was sporadic at best, the Poles seemed to think I had something to offer.  The organisers were very enthusiastic and treated me importantly. Quite why, I am not sure. Looking up biographies on the internet was still unusual and they certainly wouldn’t have found me. Maybe it was just that I was English.


The Early Music Department was preparing for a performance of Sesarme, Handel’s little known opera. There is a general rule that if a work by Handel is little known then there is a good reason for it.  Even the greatest composers have off days. Even Shakespeare wrote a few non-starters.


Looking at the score it seemed to me Sesarme had nothing to recommend it especially for young singers whose first experience of Handel this was to be. Why not try something famous which the students might even get to sing professionally later on? 


But no, it had to be Sesarme because the Dean of Singing or someone in authority had chosen it. It came off the top of his head. He had sung it once a long time before and didn’t know any other Handel titles. How can you be in authority in a music academy vocal department in the 21st century and know only one Handel opera?


To get an idea of how shocking this is, imagine being a contemporary music theatre performer who has never heard of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. You may not want to have heard of Lloyd-Webber, that is a different question, but you would certainly know the titles of the shows and perhaps sing some of the songs. More than likely, to keep the wolf from the door, you would have even performed in some of the shows. Handel was the music theatre composer of the Baroque. He wrote some of the most sublime music ever written for the stage. He was Bel Canto. I simply can’t imagine a professor in a music academy only being able to name one obscure opera and then, to make matters worse, impose his ignorance on the long suffering students. What about Ariodante, Giulio Cesare or Rinaldo for starters? Mind boggling.


The first thing that impressed me about the students was the quality of the voices. The second was the paucity of their musical experience. The third was their desire to graduate, leave Poland and find recognition, fame and fortune in the west.


When I say the quality of the voices I mean the basic instruments. They all had fantastic natural instruments but few knew anything about breathing, which is pretty basic. This is like having a car with a Ferrari engine but the fuel pump of a Mini.  They involved an enormous amount of unnecessary physical effort in the process of making the sound come out. Of course, breathing is a big problem worldwide, something the great mezzo Marilyn Horne commented on when she retired and turned to teaching. However, unless you breathe properly you can never have the flexibility you need to sing anything before Wagner. Well, actually, you cant do anything unless you can breathe, but to sing bel canto you need bel canto breathing and Handel certainly falls into that category. So, my first problem was breathing.


 When I say the paucity of their musical experience I mean that few of the students could read music. Few, if any, had sung in vocal ensembles or choirs. Few knew anything about being a singer apart from the fact that the voice is precious and opera is the only possible career path. The voice is precious, this is true, but singers should not feel precious.  Nor is opera for everyone. Its like saying everyone should wear size 10 shoes. This fact few of the teachers had impressed on their students nor, probably, were willing to admit to themselves.


A singer’s job is to tell a story through extended speech, something we call singing. The process starts with the words. No words, no story. Too many singers become obsessed with vocal technique and forget to develop their imaginations or their story telling abilities. Let me illustrate this. 


Some time ago I directed a performance of Rigoletto in a partly restored palace just outside Warsaw. I met the soprano, a star of the National Opera, to discuss the part of Gilda. I asked her how she did her first entry. “I just sing it”, which, as an answer, is fair enough. But it beggars the question. How do you, a hefty 36 year old mother, put your mind into that of a 17 year old virgin, who doesn’t know who her mother is and who is so over protected by her father, that she is not allowed to meet new people nor leave home unaccompanied. Add the fact that in church that very morning she saw a young man, who saw her, whom she can’t get out of her mind, and I think you have a very complex situation. Gilda has been trying to deal with this all day hoping that when Rigoletto comes home he’ll be able to provide some quick-fire answers.


Rigoletto, meanwhile, is having the worst day of his life.  This includes being cursed by a man on his way to unjust execution while he, Rigoletto, was only doing his job of court jester and baiting him. The last thing he needs when he gets home is have to deal with is a disturbed adolescent daughter who requires some straight answers. I don’t think that either parties can just sing, can they?


As it happened in our production that is exactly what happened. I hope the audience got the gist.


 I tried to impress on the academy students that their credentials would not make them desirable in the west. Apart from the ludicrous approach of the singing teachers towards ensemble singing, they themselves had to understand that unless you are Joan Sutherland (a name only one of the 20 or students recognised) or Luciano Pavarotti and possess a voice that electrifies an audience simply by its quality, you are not going to get anywhere without musical skills, an open mind and single-minded determination. This news was not well received.


5 historic houses

  Leaving Kozlowska we backtracked to Czemierniki. This was not the best use of petrol but finding an hotel in the area the previous night might have been problematic without planning. Seweryn wanted to see some churches on the way and the Firlej family palace at Czemierniki. This site as much as anything we saw speaks of Poland. The fortified Renaissance palace, the red hue of the bricks, the reed encircled lakes, the white Baroque church on the bank opposite, the storks standing immobile in their pole top nests: white feathers on the end of a chimneysweeper’s brush, the bright warm early autumn sun, the mass of leaves turning golden. The palace itself is in private hands and warning signs are prominent to dissuade the trespasser. However, the massive walls which encircle the palace have collapsed in places to give a view of the house. Rather as you might imagine the Sacred House of Loreto, this house looks as if it has flown in from Tuscany and is thinking about where to go next. Apparently, there is a monumental staircase leading to the entrance. I wish we could have got closer.


In this small area north of Lublin you get a real feeling for Poland and for it what it once was. Of course, this is tinged with an irreconcilable sense of loss. There are no pretty villages, no pubs, no diversity of culture. But, it is beautiful and, unlike some other regions of Poland, it is Polish.


There are some signs of economic growth but if, as we saw in Kock, this means building exaggerated Carpathian-mountain-styled houses in the middle of a Lubelski village or half-built never-to-be-finished characterless dwellings spawning randomly over the countryside, then perhaps it had better stop. But, if the economy can be revived and with it the colourful and profound culture that was Poland in the 17th century, then the sooner the better. Wishful thinking, no doubt.





5 historic houses

In some respects, Seweryn kept the best till last. There is an exhibition in the original carriage house so out of place, so surprising, that I couldn’t help being charmed.  It is a comprehensive display of Polish Socialist Realist memorabilia from 1950-55, apparently the only one of its sort in the world. Though Communism hit Poland 30 years later than Russia and the originality of its art forms is absent in the Polish versions, nevertheless the impact on society was as devastating.  Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel prize-winning Polish poet, describes socialist realism as “inferior” art, the necessary result of the limited view of reality allowed the artist by the regime. 


In Warsaw, the prime example of Socialist-Realism is the Palace of Culture, a Moscow styled tower block and nuclear attack  bolthole for the Politbiuro. This extraordinary building tries to incorporate Polish features with symbols of the universality of Soviet philosophy. The skyline-dominating tower is festooned with smiling, well-built tool carrying workers, a few seated thinkers reformulating their philosophies in the light of the new values, actors, painters and musicians offering the instruments of their art for the benefit of their new masters, the proletariat and the Party.  


The interest in functionalism   was partially mirrored in the West, especially in America with the Social Realism of the “New Deal” that emerged during the Depression twenty years earlier. However, in the Soviet dominated states the proletariat poor were exclusively the subject matter. Nor could the artist depict the workers` reality as it was, only as it should be.


The Palace of Culture was intended to reflect the permanence, stability and power of the regime. Though its construction is admirable in many ways, its worth pales when compared to the New Deal period Rockefeller Centre. This is a marvel of technology, elegant and functional. It is as much a political statement as the Palace of Culture but without the limitations of class warfare. It says to everyone, “Reach for the sky. You can do it. You all can.”

These two buildings epitomise the fundamental difference between the two systems. One speaks of the freedom to conform, the other of the freedom to break boundaries.


The socialist-realist collection is full of statues of all sizes of the party bigwigs that once adorned the public spaces and the mantelpieces of Poland. There are innumerable pictures of the party leader, Bierut, a friendly, kindly fellow if you believe the artists` eyes. The stirring songs from the period exhorting the workers to unite their efforts in the common cause made uplifting background music. What a pity that robust vocal culture has all gone. That cant be said for most of the art, though two pictures are memorable. One is of a worker’s family sitting around their kitchen table at the end of the day learning to read. There is a touching intimacy about their shared struggle to gain the skills that will enable them to live better lives, to be of greater value to society, to read, ponder and inwardly digest the party approved literature.


The other striking picture is of a concert pianist playing Chopin to factory workers. The piano is on a stage in the middle of a huge grim factory floor. Tool-wielding workers stand around. Bewildered? Yes, and perhaps a little cross at having their time wasted.  Everything about the pianist is in stark contrast to his audience. His elegant concert dress, the whiteness of his shirt, the effeteness of his coat, his flowing locks, his mannerisms exaggerated to grotesqueness all give the impression that the painter is saying “art for the workers? Yes, but within reason, please”.  Irony manages to creep in where it is least expected.


However, here is a contradiction. Stalinist Socialist Realism exalted the proletariat at the expense of bourgeoisie values. What could be more Bourgeois than Chopin? There is no evidence that he ploughed the fields or scattered the seed. The folk dances he heard during his childhood holidays in the country he elevated to an art form, a form for the salon, hardly a medium that the peasantry would or could appreciate.  At the same time, so much good music from the 19th and 20th centuries was ignored by the regime, music that was in many ways just as important to the national image as Chopin and in a sense more laudable. I am particularly thinking of Szymanowski and Karlowicz. These are authentic voices, Polish voices with Polish surnames, unlike Chopin. I wonder how the Party explained that one to the workers. Much of this lost repertoire was rediscovered and popularised by Western musicians, Sir Simon Rattle in particular.




5 Historic Houses


In 1670, the great Italian architect Carlo Fontana designed one of the chapels in S.Andrea Della Valle, Rome. In 1689, Baldassare Fontana designed the interior of St. Anne’s, Krakow. In 1733, Paolo Fontana designed St. Anne’s, Lubartow. The Fontana family, originally from Naples, was a family of architects who were active throughout central southern Europe from the mid 16th century. Whether these three were related is hard to say. But, if they were, what an incredible contribution the Fontana family made to Poland. What’s more, we shall soon be meeting another.



From Lubartow we made our way to the nearby Zamoyski family palace of Kozlowska. This is one of the most famous stately homes in Poland.  Of course, in the south west there are finer and older houses but they are German. This house is entirely Polish. Apart from Lancut, nothing is more representative of the  splendour that was aristocratic Poland until 1939.


As you approach the grounds you get the feeling of the presence of an important house. The outbuildings are substantial and in various stages of restoration. As it comes into view, the central building is one the most handsome I have seen in Poland. It is hard to take your eyes off it.  This is a “must visit” place. 


At Kozlowska we meet another Fontana, Josef.  Born in Poland, he was son of Giacomo. Begun in 1736 for Michal Bielinski, the house passed into Zamoyski ownership in the 1790s where it remained until the Russians arrived in 1944. After the war, it was used as a deposit for furniture saved from other mansions and manors. More recently, the state- managed restoration began and the Zamoyski heirs, now living in Canada, were paid a substantial settlement. This included the right of residence on the estate for some months of the year. 


Next to the ticket office there is a fascinating carriage display in one of the outbuildings near the main gates. Most of the carriages are on loan from Lancut, the Potocki family mansion in south eastern Poland.


The gardens are well kept especially the rear gardens. The two towers that stand sentry on each wing of the house, one of which is a water tower, are more in evidence from the back than the front. However, the rear elevation of the house is disproportionate. This, as we discovered from old drawings, is because the first floor terrace, originally decorated with flamboyant stone statues and a double staircase to the ground, is missing. Some of the statues have been moved to the roof of a loggia on the left of the house. The house looks naked without the terrace. I hope they put it back.


The excitement of waiting in the hall for the tour to begin can only be matched by the shock and disappointment of the red plush velvet that lines the main stairs. The mass of pictures on the wall are “original” copies, most of them bad or indifferent. Worse is to come. One awful room follows another. A Zamoyski prince in the mid 19th century decided to modernise. He had more money than sense and WS Gilbert’s quip about “good taste misplaced” could not be more appropriately applied. Apart from a delightful, concealed bedroom, and a 19th century bathroom, the first sign of plumbing I have seen in an historic Polish house, the rest is ghastly. If you like masses of dingy velvet hangings, heavy uncomfortable looking 19th century furniture and a general sense of costly gloom and mustiness, then this is the place for you. I do not. Nor have I ever seen a house so full of indifferent family portraits. There is hardly a space on the walls that not devoted to a portrait of aunty someone or uncle that.


I think that the family must have had a massive and cross-generational identity crisis. Added to which few, except Izabela Czartoryska`s strikingly handsome daughter who bred like a rabbit, have anything that resembles good looks. There is little to look at or appreciate, though there is one wall with some nice oriental plates. All I could do was wish the guide would cut it short.


The one thing that amused me was our fellow tourists. All the other people on the tour had come miles by coach from the Carpathian mountains in the south. Seweryn and I are around 6 feet tall. The rest of the group was significantly shorter and broader. These mountain people seem to have maintained their genetic stock intact. There cannot be many places in Europe where regional differences are still so marked. Coming from their sturdy log houses I can only imagine what they made of the house. God forbid they should be inspired to model their own homes in a similar fashion.


The last room of the house before you hit the gift shop with the usual Chinese plastic tack and religious baubles designed to tempt the coins out of the pockets of the gullible, is of passing interest and was overlooked by the guide.   There is a gun cabinet with some nice shot guns, a few of them English. I stopped to have a look before escaping.


The sight of the sun and the feel of the fresh air was a great relief. I had another look at the spirit-reviving façade. I wonder if feels any shame for what it is concealing?  What a disappointment.


5 historic houses

Look at the Lubartow web page and you will get an idea of the modern town. Ugly functionality. But the two buildings I have already mentioned indicate a far more glorious past, the palace and the church.


The palace was gutted in the war but the façade survived. It has been strikingly well restored. With its monumental height and huge windows it is immediately reminiscent of the Krasinski Palace, Warsaw’s most beautiful palace. Glass was still a luxury and the size of the windows was a statement, not only to the neighbours, most of whom were living in wooden huts or cottages, but also to fellow noblemen : look at us.


The gardens around the palace are  unusually well maintained and worth seeing. They can only hint at past splendours but compared to Nieborow, now a far more important house only because it survived the War intact, these gardens are a lesson in good gardening.


The magnificent Krasinski Palace, Nieborow and Lubartow were all designed by  the Dutchman  Tylman van Gameren, probably the most prolific and influential architect of the Polish Baroque.  He was brought to Poland in 1660 by the Crown Marshall, Prince Lubomirski to build fortifications for the defense of Poland, whose borders had recently shrunk dramatically. He devoted the rest of his life to Poland, changed his name to Gamerski and married a Komorowska.


The period 1655 to 1660 was a time of great turmoil for Poland and the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth. It became known as the Swedish Deluge. In 1655, aided by the divisive behaviour of some of the noble families, the Calvinist Janusz and Boguslaw Radziwill in particular, the expansionist Protestant Swedes were given a golden opportunity to attack Poland. While the Polish Jesuit cardinal King Jan II was trying to deal with the Russians and the Cossacks on the eastern borders, a venture in which he was continually hampered by his own squabbling nobility, the Swedes marched on Warsaw from the west with 50.000 men, seized Poznan on the way and left a trail of destruction wherever they went. They then took Krakow.


Had not the heroic monks of Jasna Gora given a lead and held out in their besieged fortified hilltop monastery, Poland would have been lost. But with their three months of resistance the monks acted as a catalyst for patriotism and action.   Although Poland had lost much of the Ukraine to Russia, once the Poles had been able to get their act together and unite behind the king, they staged an effective counter attack against the invader.  By the time Tylman arrived in Warsaw, western Poland had been liberated.  


With the enormous cost in manpower, wealth and the loss of a third of its territory, the Deluge marked the end of Poland as a European power. It also heralded a change in the balance of power within the family of Slavic nations. The rise of Russia was inevitable.  


However, despite this uncertain state of affairs, the Deluge presaged a great period of building in Warsaw, Cracow, Lwow and their surroundings. This in itself was a sign of confidence. Misplaced confidence?  Easy to say with hindsight. Perhaps the signs were hard to read. But the fact that the Poles chose a Dutch architect who was deeply influenced by the Italian school, shows that Poland was putting itself firmly in the central European sphere of influence.


To take that a stage further. In 1650, the enormous church of S.Andrea della Valle in Rome was completed 60 years after it was begun. This church was part of the Roman Church`s response to the Protestant Reformation in which architecture and the other Arts played a formidable role. Tylman was in Italy in 1650. Even if he was not in Rome at the time, the completion of S. Andrea, second only to the Jesu in importance, could not have gone unnoticed by him.


The Counter-Reformation, King Jan`s membership of the Jesuit Order and Tylman`s building style had profound consequences for Poland`s future place in the world.