I am a product of the 20th century. I smoke, drive a car and travel by plane. I can’t live as in baroque times – says Elżbieta Chojnacka, world famous Polish harpsichordist.
Wojciech Sitarz: You studied playing with Aimée van de Viele, a student of Wanda Landowska. Did you get a chance to meet Mrs. Landowska?
Elżbieta Chojnacka: Unfortunately, I never met her, but Aimée van de Viele was her beloved student. Later, when I watched films about Landowska, I realized what an enormous impact she had on her – van de Viele even imitated the way she gestured.
You also taught playing, but after a while you gave up. Didn’t you want to continue the Landowska tradition?
In Mozarteum in Salzburg I was teaching for eleven years and got tired of it. I did my best. I do not know if you can call it a continuation of the Landowska tradition, but still, what I find very important is that a contemporary harpsichord class was created. There was nothing like that anywhere in the world and today it does not exist anymore. My aim was to attract people to repertoire and contemporary harpsichord, which has nothing to do with the reverence of historic instruments.
Has there been anyone who could take over the class?
I can’t think of any person who could actually do it. As I was teaching, I felt a great satisfaction, because I could see that people were very interested in the instrument. What is unusual, is that the majority of the most talented and interested students were young Polish women. One of them, Aleksandra Gajecka-Antosiewicz, makes me especially proud and I believe she can be my successor.
So, can we say that soon we will be admiring another brilliant Polish harpsichordist?
I do not know. You may say, whatever you like … However, I can see her enthusiasm and engagement, but most of all I am aware of her capabilities. She is extremely talented and at the same time, what is important, very sensitive.
Landowska brought the harpsichord to life in order to perform early music better. Most music lovers relate the harpsichord with baroque aesthetics. Why have you decided for a contemporary repertoire?
At the beginning, just like every other harpsichordist I learnt baroque music. I won my first competitions playing early repertoire. It makes sense, as everything is about baroque, because it was a period when the harpsichord was the king of instruments. Many masterpieces were composed then by: Bach, Haendel, Rameau, Couperin and Froberger. But unfortunately there are only few who would like to play contemporary music. It is much more difficult, not only for playing, but also for listening. Contemporary music has no traditional harmony or melodic pattern. It is a completely different world, as since that time everything has changed.
Didn’t you like baroque aesthetics?
I assume they are masterpieces, but I do not feel them. And you should play only that which you really feel and like. The audience will immediately notice that the performer does not feel really good in a certain repertoire. I do not play Couperin very often, because I feel this music is not for me. Once, when I told someone about it, he was shocked: what sort of a harpsichordist are you?! So I replied that I would not call myself a harpsichordist at all. At the beginning of the 20th century there was a revolution in every aspect of art. Machines created a new pace of life. I am a product of the 20th century, not the 17th or the 18th. I was born in the 20th century; I smoke, drive a car and travel by plane. I can’t live as in baroque times, where the pace of life was different. I admire those who can play early music. However, when many people talk about authenticity of the performance, I ask: What kind of authenticity? I am authentic. After all they do not know the composer. They cannot call him and ask him how to play – but they can ask me.
Does the presence of a composer help?
Working with a composer is a great experience. I can always ask how I should play, how it sounds to him or just say that I am not able to play something. Once I told Xenakis that I cannot play this way, and he replied: If you can’t, then don’t. I got really mad and told myself: It will take a year, two, five, but I will do it and so I did it.
But doesn’t it take some of the performer’s freedom away?
If someone considers him or herself to be so great, that he or she doesn’t have to listen to anyone, then he or she should learn how to compose on his or her own. If you are a performer you remain at the composer’s service. He is the arbiter and if he says: I want you to play it like this, I must do what he wishes. The composer takes all the responsibility because he is the author of the work. However, there are cases when a composer leaves us some space. During a concert at Musica Electronica Nova I will be playing a piece with a tape, which will guide me, but I myself will improvise.
You called yourself a ‘product of the 20th century’, but the audience can also be called that. Why then is contemporary music not that popular?
When listening to contemporary music the audience cannot be passive. I can easily vacuum my apartment while listening to Vivaldi, but I definitely won’t do it when listening to Xenakis. Early music is easier, as it has a nicer melody. Whereas contemporary works are composed of a large amount of sounds, they are dynamic and invasive, just like our world. Early music is wonderful, it doesn’t’ disturb anyone, it has a beautiful sound – that is a fact, but the beauty has changed. But some people still live at the beginning of the 20th century – some still go back to Debussy, others refer to a later period, and there are some who haven’t even left the 18th century.
When you started playing the harpsichord, there were hardly any contemporary works for this instrument.
I started playing somewhat by accident. I was told to try and I said I couldn’t. I heard in reply: Try, you’ll learn and indeed, I was astonished by the harpsichord. Later, I thought that since there were works where the harpsichord exists as one of the sounds, it could be played as a solo instrument just like it used to be. First, I found a few works and started playing them.
A few works is still not enough to have a recital.
The harpsichord was forgotten for an entire century, so it had to become acquainted with from the very beginning. With time composers started to discover this instrument as a totally new sound. That is how they started composing new works for me.
There have been around one hundred works composed for you. Do you have your favourite composition?
There are many such compositions and all works I play are my favourite.
Do you have at least your favourite composer?
No, however there are composers – but very few, I can count them on the fingers of one hand – whose pieces I played by accident and I do not intend to play ever again.
Oh no – no names …
Have you prepared the programme of your MEN performance by yourself?
Yes, it is all my own choice. I will present different works with a tape. You will find processed sound, electroacoustic studio and electronics. The programme includes two compositions which are among the first contemporary works I ever played. These are the works by François Bernard Mâche and Luc Ferrari of 1972. Naturally, there will be some new works as well, including the première of a work by Nicola Sani.
Have you chosen the works according to a specific idea?
First of all, I wanted the programme to be interesting and diversified. Each time, the audience must hear the instrument in different circumstances.
If someone prefers baroque harpsichord sound, will he or she find something for him/herself during this concert?
I bet they won’t come, but if somehow they do, I would be very happy. It all depends on the person. There are people who are overwhelmed by the baroque, but remain open to contemporary sounds. However there are also some who would never come to listen to such sounds. I can’t do anything about it, but one thing is sure. I always try to do everything as well as possible, as perfectly as possible. I want to show it is also music – but somewhat different.
What if music was not invented?
I do not have that kind of imagination …
Interview by: Wojciech Sitarz