The Harpsichord Can Do Anything. An interview with Elżbieta Chojnacka


We are getting ready to talk and take photos. Elżbieta Chojnacka is sitting at an open harpsichord, and suddenly notices how silly she feels posing for a picture without a score. She bends down and lifts one of the pink cardboard sheets off the floor. Each one has a carefully attached score of individual compositions.

Magdalena Talik: These colourful sheets are your IDs. Where did the idea for such a solution come from?

Elżbieta Chojnacka: I loved lilac, everything I had was that colour. When I found a way of not getting on stage with someone who turns the sheets over, but figured out that I can put them aside, I started using a lilac cardboard sheet to stick the score on. I thought it would be good if all the sheets were the same colour, which means I can forget to take one of the sheets with me. They all look the same after all. Then I come to the concert and it turns out some sheets are missing and it is a tragedy. Sometimes you can prevent it, sometimes not.

Elżbieta Chojnacka’s ID is also a wealth of red hair.

It’s not even a hairstyle but what can I actually do with my hair. There’s no pose in it.

You have often been described as a provocateur on stage.

It’s not me. It’s more the provocative music of its creator. I am in the service of the music and its creators.

Your recent album released by Polskie Nagrania is dedicated to Wanda Landowska. On the one hand, you moved apart from that great harpsichordist, on the other hand, there is much you have in common. Landowska restored early music to the world, and you did the same with contemporary music.

I am always very proud and honoured if anyone compares me to Wanda Landowska because she was a remarkable person and musician. Probably this is why she managed to create what she intended. Indeed, when I think about it, Landowska would not think of how much harpsichord music might develop. Its composers, who constructed the harpsichord a few centuries ago, did not hesitate. They had no historical burdens or piety. Nor have I. Once I dared to bring the harpsichord to modern music, I thought to myself: why not introduce another world of sounds? Hence the pieces composed with traditional, Spanish, Japanese, and even Uzbek instruments. Why not? How about the tango? The harpsichord is not an instrument for the tango but it is an instrument for rhythm, and the tango is the rhythm. The harpsichord can do anything and anything can be done with it.

But in the days when you started your career, the harpsichord was really just restored in the performance of early music.

Of course! When I started learning, I used to only work with Baroque music. The mere fact that I started playing contemporary music was a coincidence. I was asked once to perform a composition with the harpsichord. I said I had no idea how to play it. The person said: “Well, you will learn.” I actually learned it and I liked it because I was dealing with a completely different world which fascinated me.

That love was requited. You are the addressee of compositions which were written by prominent authors. The Harpsichord Concerto by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was written for you.

I’m very proud that composers create their music for the instrument of little dynamics and quieter sound, even though they have an orchestra at their disposal. In today’s concert all the pieces were written for me, each one is different and allows the audience to discover the instrument in a whole new way. Suddenly, the harpsichord sounds like a zoo, a forest, a nocturne by Chopin, because each composer associates its expressive capabilities with something different.

Are there, among the works written for you, some that you particularly like or doesn’t it make any difference to you?

I like all the pieces I play. If I don’t, I do not return to them. Sometimes I have to play the world première, although a composition does not convince me, but it happens very rarely. In general, the compositions are in my repertoire. But above all I think that if the performer is not convinced about the value of what they are playing, if they hate it, the audience can sense that immediately. And I want to introduce all people to that other kind of music, sometimes with no harmony, and often no melody too. In addition, the contemporary music of today is no longer scary. It is much more likeable than ever. There have been some other trends or currents.

Do you still play early music?

Of course! Even at concerts, but there must be a theme. It makes no sense to play just to show that you can perform both contemporary and early music. However, you can build a bridge between the 21st century and, for example, the 16th and early 17th centuries. One of my records showed that in the sixteenth century, there were pieces that were the germ of the present. I sometimes play them in concert. The audience seems to think they were written today, not a few centuries ago, because they are bold, courageous, and are ahead of their times.

Wanda Landowska took her instrument to the most distant parts of the continent, including Russia. Do you take your own harpsichord with you too?

I do, sometimes. My instrument is superb. It was made especially for me. It has already been to Spain, England and Italy. As a rule, however, I don’t take my own instrument to a place where another instrument is present. I wonder how Wanda Landowska took her harpsichord to Yasnaya Polyana, to Leo Tolstoy. How much did that cost? But then she was associated with Pleyel and the manufacturer covered the costs of transport for the sake of advertising. When she went to the United States, she had as many as five harpsichords with her. It’s always been amazing that when all ears were focused mainly on the piano, she made everyone listen to the harpsichord, and was listened to.

Interview: Magdalena Talik

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