Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Szymanowska's Satin Slippers

I went to Paris in September, came back changed in October. An astounding city, full of history and charm. My purpose was to talk about Maria Szymanowska and visit and photograph places associated with Chopin. I found his grave and put a poem from "Chopin with Cherries" there. I went to the church where his Funeral Mass was held, with Mozart's Requiem (St. Madeleine) and I wondered about his empty chair and white evening gloves at the Bibliotheque Polonaise near the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The purpose of my trip was to give a paper about Maria Szymanowska, a Polish virtuoso composer-pianist, who preceded and inspired Chopin with her brilliant style, etudes, mazurkas and songs... Szymanowska (1789-1831) died young, too; Chopin was 39 when tuberculosis finally defeated him. Szymanowska - at 42 - went quickly, of cholera in St. Petersburg. But first she managed to enchant Goethe, who wrote for her a poem entitled "An Madame Marie Szymanowska (Aussohnung)." Known as "Aussohnung" (Reconciliation) it was included in the Trilogie der Leidenshaft, inspired by the sixty-year-old poet's tragic infatuation with a young girl, Ulrike. Szymanowska's music, her empathy and beauty helped the aging poet return to his senses. (I write about recent research into her life and work discussed at the Maria Szymanowska Colloque in Paris in my "Chopin with Cherries" blog).

At the conference, I presented the first version of my poem about Szymanowska. After making some changes, I read it for the workshop of Westside Women Writers group and I received comments from Millicent Borges Accardi, Kathi Stafford, Georgia Jones-Davis and Sonya Sabanac. Here's the third version of this work in progress. I want to capture her life as I see it - she was dazzling, inspiring, enchanting, and disappeared all too quickly.

The Shooting Star

Reflections on Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831)

“He brought a horse to her bed, that’s why” – they said.
“No, he did not let her play. She left…”
“Not the only one, mind you.”
Rossini wrote: “Madam,
I equally adore your modesty and talent.”
“At least she was a mother – that redeemed her.
Three children, two daughters, that sort of thing.”
“Did she love them? Was she doting?”
“Didn't she leave them for three years
To play her music?”

“Did she travel alone?” Always with her sister –
Paris, London, Dresden, Marienbad.
Devastated by Ulrike’s youthful charms,
Goethe found comfort in Maria’s nocturnes,
Reconciliation in the kindness of her voice.
He saw Das Ewig Weiblich.
He wrote Die Aussöhnung.

A Roman Goddess?
Wearing the latest London fashions?
She was the Queen of Tones for Mickiewicz,
the Polish bard. A friend of Prince Vyazemsky.
The Court Pianist of the Tsarinas.
A Warsaw brewer’s daughter,
She rose to royal heights,
Shining with the brilliance of her art.

She was elegant, refined
In her pristine muslin gowns,
With sleek belts and jewels.
Her satin slippers dared to
Outlive her by two hundred years.
They sit on a shelf, laughing.
She’s gone. Her daughters,
orphaned in a fortnight of cholera,
Are gone, too. So are
Their daughters’ daughters.

What remains of this dazzling life?
A gold bracelet with a cut sapphire?
A handful of songs, etudes and dances
Scattered along the way? Sweet melodies
Frozen in the air above vast plains
Of snow drifts and tundra?
The sparks of a shooting star
Falling across our dark winter sky?


Lithograph based on a portrait by Maria Szymanowska by Jozef Oleszkiewicz, 1825. Framed print from the collection of Bibliotheque Polonaise in Paris.

Maria Szymanowska's satin evening slippers and an image of Warsaw's Grand Theater of Opera and Ballet. Paris, Bibliotheque Polonaise.

Portrait of Maria Szymanowska by Aleksander Kokular, Rome, 1825. Copy, original in the collection of the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature, in Warsaw, Poland.

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