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Poland’s Love Affair With The Piano
by Jan P. Muczyk


We must remind ourselves that historically Poland was a country on wheels. At the height of the geographic extent of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish borders extended practically from Berlin to Moscow and from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

Also, for 123 years (1795-1918) it was partitioned off the maps of Europe by

Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The post-World War II Polish borders correspond to Polish borders during the second half of the 10th century. Thus, numerous Poles came from areas that are now part of other countries, especially the Ukraine and Lithuania. This caveat applies to musicians as well. Prior to World War II, Poland was the home of the largest Jewish population in the world. The author, however, does not wish to confuse nationality with religion. Consequently, mention of the musician’s religion, if he or she had one, will be held to a minimum.

It is safe to say that composers and conductors start out as performing instrumentalists, typically on the piano (Karol Szymanowski and Andrzej Panufnik) or the violin (Grazyna Bacewicz, considered by many the finest female composer). The theme of this essay, however, compels the author to focus on the performance as pianists or composers for the piano, and not on the artists as conductors or symphonic composers. The number of Polish pianists is quite impressive (see table 1). Therefore, not all of them will be highlighted. The author takes full responsibility for deciding which to include and which to omit. The primary criterion for inclusion is international recognition.

The list of internationally recognized pianists highlighted below will be arranged alphabetically rather than rank order so as to avoid unintentional bias.

Emanuel Ax

Emanuel Ax

Ax was born in Lviv (Lwow in Polish), Ukraine June 8, 1949. At the age of seven he and his family moved to Warsaw, Poland where he studied piano.

Two years later, the family moved to Winnipeg, Canada where he continued his studies. In 1961 the family relocated to New York City, where Ax pursued his studies at the Juilliard School under Mieczyslaw Munz, another Polish pianist. Ax is currently on the faculty of the Julliard School. He has been the main duo recital partner of the popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Together they recorded much of the cello/piano repertoire.

Frederic Chopin


Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland about 29 miles west of Warsaw in 1810. His father, Nicolas Chopin, was a Frenchman who emigrated from France to Poland in 1787 at the age of sixteen, and in 1806 married Justyna Krzyzanowska. Nicolas was devoted to his adopted homeland, and insisted that the Polish language be used in his household. Six months after Frederick’s birth, the family moved to Warsaw. His first professional piano tutor was the pianist Wojciech Zywny.

Chopin was a child prodigy who had begun giving public concerts by the age of seven, and started composing about the same time. From 1823 to 1826 Chopin attended the Warsaw Lyceum where he received organ lessons from the Czech musician Wilhelm Wurfel during the first year. In 1826 he started a three-year course under the Silesian composer Jozef Elsner at the Warsaw conservatory.


In 1830 Chopin, already recognized in Poland as an exceptional pianist and composer, set out for other European countries never again to return to his homeland. He settled in Paris in 1831, and by 1832 established himself among the Parisian musical elite; earning the respect of such peers as: Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hiller, Liszt, and Berlioz, inter alia. He became friends with Liszt. While in Paris, Frederic became a sought after piano teacher. Chopin had one fiancee, Maria Wodzinska, but her parents successfully discouraged marriage. In Paris, Chopin developed a prolonged and intimate relationship with the French writer George Sand (her nom de plume). Toward the end of his short life, she was more of a nurse than anything else.

Chopin preferred intimate venues to large ones. He favored salons and his Paris apartment, where he entertained small audiences. It is estimated that during his lifetime, he gave about 30 public concerts. Such a small number is most unusual for a virtuoso of Chopin’s stature. Chopin composed within a self-imposed restriction of short compositions. All of Chopin’s compositions are for the piano, and most of them are for the solo piano. He did, however, compose two piano concertos. Frederic tended to adopt Polish musical idioms, such as Mazurkas and Polonaises for his compositions, but it should be remembered the he was trained in the tradition of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart, Schubert, and Field. Therefore, his music is universal. Over 230 works by Chopin survive. The ones that were lost were from his childhood.

Chopin probably died from tuberculosis at the age of 39. People from all over came to his funeral in Paris, where he is buried. His heart, in accordance with Polish tradition, rests in Holy Cross Church, Warsaw, Poland. His influence on piano music and piano virtuosi to this day is incalculable. As a tribute to Chopin, a museum featuring Chopin memorabilia, including his last Pleyel piano, was established in Warsaw; and the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, begun in 1927 and held every five years, requires that contestants play his music. For good measure, one of two premium Polish vodkas carries his name.

JDomanskaoanna Domanska

Joanna started her piano studies at the Academy of Music in Krakow with Professor Jan Hoffman, and she graduated with distinction in 1982 from the Academy of Music in Katowice, in the piano class of professor Andrzej Jasinski. She continued her piano studies with Livia Rev in Paris in 1986-1987. Domanska is considered an excellent interpreter of Karol Szymanowski’s works. While Szymanowski is best known as a composer, he was an outstanding pianist as well. Domanska is also appreciated for her interpretations of Brahms, Ravel, Mozart and, of course, Chopin.

She is a laureate of several international piano competitions, and recorded for Polish radio and television, Radiotelevisione Italiana, and Radio France. Currently, Joanna conducts piano classes in Katowice, Poland.

Leopold Godowsky.


Godowsky was born in 1870 in Zasliai, now in Lithuania.

Another child prodigy, Godowsky was already composing and becoming proficient on the piano and violin by the age of five. He gave his first concert at nine years of age, and toured throughout Lithuania and East Prussia. Godowsky is most unusual in that he was largely self-taught. After briefly studying under Ernst Rudorff in Berlin, he emigrated to the United States, where he made his debut in Boston in 1884. In 1885 -86 Leopold continued his career by embarking on an extended tour of the northeastern United States and Canada with violinist Ovide Musin. In 1887 he returned to Europe where he gave numerous recitals in Paris and London, eventually becoming a protege and friend of Camille Saint-Saens. In 1890 he returned to the U.S . and began a pedagogical career at the New York College of Music, which he continued at the Gilbert Raynolds Combs Broad Street Conservatory in Philadelphia, and the Chicago Conservatory. In 1909, he took over Busoni’s master classes in Berlin.

As a composer, Godowsky is best known for his paraphrases of piano works by other composers, which he enhanced considerably, as well as for his transcriptions. His most famous work in this genre is the 53 Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (1894-1914). His piano compositions are considered among the most difficult works ever written. Even Vladimir Horowitz considered his compositions unplayable, and opined that to do so would require six hands. Yet, he inspired a number of musicians, among them Ravel, Prokofiev, de Pachmann, Rachmaninoff, and his fellow countryman, Jozef Hofmann.

He died 1n 1938 at the age of 68 and is buried in New York.

Josef Hofmann.

Hofmann was born in 1876 in Podgorze, Poland near Krakow. A child prodigy, he gave his first recital at the age of five. While touring the United States, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children intervened causing the tour to be cancelled. A $50,000 donation by Alfred Corning Clark satisfied the condition of his tour, but forbade Hofmann from performing in public until he turned 18 years of age.


The donation permitted Hofmann to continue his studies in science and mathematics, and to take music lessons from Heinrich Urban (composition) and Moritz Moszkowski (piano). In 1892, Anton Rubinstein accepted Hofmann as his only pupil. Hofmann met Godowsky in Berlin in 1900, becoming friends until Godowsky’s death.

Hofmann became the first director of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1927, and remained so until 1938, when he was forced to resign. By then he had become an alcoholic, and this condition had a negative impact on his career as well as his life. By the time he died in 1957, he had published over 100 works, many of them under the pseudonym “Michel Dvorsky.” Hofmann was also an outstanding inventor. By the time he passed away, he obtained over 70 patents, among them the windshield wiper and the pneumatic shock absorber. His understanding of the mechanics of the piano permitted him to modify his beloved Steinway to suit his playing. Many of his contemporaries considered Hofmann to be on the short list of the finest pianists of the 20th century. For example, Harold C. Schonberg has argued that Hofmann was the most flawless and possibly the greatest pianist of the 20th century. The Hofmann Piano Competition in Aiken, South Carolina is a tribute to this extraordinary virtuoso. His remains are interred in California.

Mieczyslaw Horszowski

MHoroszewskiieczyslaw was born in Lwow (aka Lviv, Lemberg) now in the Ukraine. He was initially taught by his mother, but became a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky at the age of seven in Vienna. In 1901 he gave a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Warsaw, and soon after toured Europe and the Americas as a child prodigy. In 1905 he played for Gabriel Faure and met Camille Saint-Saens in Nice. In 1911 Horszowski put his performing career on hold to study literature, philosophy, and the arts in Paris. Horszowski was barely five feet tall and had small hands. It has been suggested that this is one possible reason he never attained superstar status. With the encouragement of Pablo Casals, he returned to the concert stage, and settled in Milan until he emigrated to the United States States during World War II.


From 1940 he lived first in in New York City and later in Philadelphia. Horszowski played with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini with whom he developed a friendship. During the 1954-1955 season he gave a memorable cycle of Beethoven’s entire solo piano works in New York. In 1960 he did the same for Mozart’s piano sonatas. He often appeared at the Prades and Marlboro Festivals, and performed twice for U.S. presidents. Also, he was widely recorded. Horszowski had one of the longest performing careers on record, and he died in Philadelphia in1991 one month before his 101st birthday. Mieczyslaw gave his final piano lesson a week before his death.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

PPaderewskiaderewski was born in the village of Kurylowka in what is now Ukraine. Initially, he took piano lessons with a private tutor. In 1872, at the age of 12, he was admitted to the Warsaw Conservatory. After graduating in 1878, he was asked to become a tutor of piano classes at his alma mater, which he accepted. In 1881, he went to Berlin to study composition with Friedrich Kiel and Heinrich Urban. In 1884, he moved to Vienna to become a pupil of Theodore Leschetizky. He made his debut in Vienna in 1887, followed by successful appearances in Paris in 1889, London in 1890, and the U.S. in 1891.

Paderewski was a prolific composer as well, including many pieces for the piano. His charisma was displayed early in his career, and accounted for the elevated level of enthusiasm for his concert performances, especially among the ladies. He became famous for the “Minuet in G, Op. 14/1” and his monumental “Symphony in B minor — Polonia,” which was among his last compositions. Paderewski was a philanthropist as well, especially when it came to encouraging young composers. It was he who financed the Grunwald Monument in Krakow, Poland. During World War I, Paderewski became an active member of the Polish National Committee in Paris, and was instrumental in persuading Woodrow Wilson to include an independent Poland as point 13 of his fourteen points. In 1919, in the newly independent Poland, Pilsudski appointed Paderewski as the prime minister of foreign affairs. He and Dmowski (Pilsudski’s rival) also represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference. On December 4, 1919, Paderewski resigned as foreign minister and became Polish ambassador to the United Nations. After the German invasion of Poland, Paderewski became the head of the National Council of Poland, a Polish parliament in exile in London. In 1941, at age 80, Paderewski died in New York. He was buried at first in Arlington Cemetery, and re-buried in St. John’s Archcathedral, Warsaw, Poland in 1992. The repository of his heart, however, is the National Shrine of Our Lady of¬ Czestochowa, Doylestown, Pa. The Polish Museum of America in Chicago contains many of his personal possessions. Three foundations and two music festivals, one in Paso Robles, Ca. and the other in Raleigh, North Carolina, bear his name.

Artur Rubinstein.

RubinsteinRubinstein was born in Lodz, Poland in 1887. While he was acclaimed for his performances of various composers, he was regarded by many as the greatest Chopin interpreter of his time, with the possible exception of Josef Hofmann. The New York Times referred to him as one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. He played for the public for an amazing eight decades. At the age of two, Rubinstein demonstrated perfect pitch and a fascination with the piano. By the age of four, he was recognized as a child prodigy. At the age of seven, Artur had his debut with compositions by Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. At the age of ten, he moved to Berlin to continue his studies with Karl Heinrich Barth. In 1904, Rubinstein moved to Paris to launch his career in earnest. While in Paris, he met composers Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas, and Jacques Thibaud, as well as Paul Kochanski and Karol Szymanowski, and played Camille Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in the presence of the composer. Rubinstein made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 1906, and thereafter toured the U.S., Austria, Italy, and Russia. During World War I, he lived in London, giving recitals with and accompanying the violinist Eugene Ysaye.


Rubinstein neglected his technique in his early career, but got by on natural talent. In 1934, he withdrew from the concert circuit for intensive study and practice. While living in Brentwood California, Artur provided the piano soundtrack for several films, including “Song of Love.” He appeared in the films “Carnegie Hall” and “Of Men and Music.” While best known as a recitalist and concerto soloist, Rubinstein was also considered an outstanding chamber musician, partnering with such luminaries as Henryk Szeryng, Jascha Heifitz, Pablo Casals, Gregor Piatigorsky, and the Guarneri Quartet. He was a champion of Spanish and South American composers as well. While not a religious man (in fact a self-admitted womanizer) , he was a strong supporter of the State of Israel. He died in Switzerland at the age of 95, and his ashes reside in Israel. At the innauguration of the United Nations, Rubinstein played the Polish national anthem in an emphatic manner as a protest that there was no delegation from Poland. A sculpture of Rubinstein at the piano stands in a prominent place on Piotrowska Street in Lodz, Poland, where he grew up. Needless to say, over such a distinguished career, he received numerous awards and honors. Prominent among them were five Grammy Awards.

Wladyslaw Szpilman.

SszpilmanSzpilman was born in 1911 in Sosnowiec, Poland, and began his study of the piano at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, where he was the pupil of Alexander Michalowski and Jozef Smidowicz. In 1931, he was a student of the prestigious Academy of Arts in Berlin, Germany, where he studied with Artur Schnabel, Franz Schreker, and Leonid Kreutzer. Wladyslaw returned to Warsaw in 1933, where he became a celebrated pianist and composer of both classical and popular music. He was primarily a soloist, but toured as a music partner with such acclaimed violinists as Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel, and Henryk Szeryng. In 1934, he toured the United States with violinist Bronislaw Gimpel. He performed classical and jazz music on Polish Radio, where one of the studios bears his name. After the German invasion of Poland, Szpilman found work as a pianist in restaurants in the Jewish ghetto. Miraculously he survived the holocaust with the help of fellow musicians and a German officer who recognized him. From 1943 to 1963, Szpilman was director of the Popular Music Department of Polish Radio, and continued giving piano concerts. During this period, he composed about 500 compositions that are still popular in Poland. He created the International Song Competition in Sopot, Poland, which has been produced every summer for 50 years. He was the protagonist in Roman Polanski’s film “The Pianist” based on Szpilman’s book “Death of a City.” Szpilman died in Warsaw in 2000 at age 88. He is buried at Powazki Military Cemetery along side many other Polish heroes.

Maria Szymanowska.

Szymanowska was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1789. The history of her early years with respect to her musical studies is uncertain. She appears to have studied piano with Antoni Lisowski and Tomasz Gremm, and composition with Franciszek Lessel, Jozef Elsner, and Karol Krupinski. Her first public recitals were in Warsaw and Paris in 1810. In the same year she married Josef Szymanowski (apparently unrelated to Karol Szymanowski, the esteemed Polish composer), with whom she had three children. Her daughter Celina married Adam Mickiewicz, the celebrated Polish bard. Her professional piano career began in 1815, with performances in England in 1818, and a tour of Western Europe from 1823-1826, including both public and private performances in Germany, France, England, Italy, Belgium, and Holland. She was among one of the first professional piano virtuosos in 19th century Europe. Critics gave her playing technique credit for a delicate tone, lyrical sense of virtuosity and operatic freedom. After years of touring, she returned to Warsaw for some time before relocating in 1828, first to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, where she served as the court pianist to the tsarina. Her compositions included many solo piano pieces and miniatures, songs, and some chamber works. Stylistically, she was part of the “Stile Brilliante” and “Polish Sentimentalism” movements. Because of her stature as a performer, and because of the salon that she operated in St. Petersburg, she developed connections with many notables, including Rossini and von Goethe. She died of cholera in St. Petersburg in 1831.

Krystian Zimerman.

Zimerman was born in Zabrze, Poland in 1956, and studied at the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, Poland under Andrzej Jasinski. His career was launched when he won the 1975 Warsaw International Chopin Piano Competition. He performed with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1976, and made his debut in the U.S. with the New York Philharmonic in 1979. He has toured and recorded extensively. Since 1996, he has taught piano at the Academy of Music in Basel, Switzerland, where he lives with his wife and two children. In 1999, he created the Polish Festival Orchestra to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s death. Zimerman is best known for his interpretations of Romantic music, but has performed a wide variety of classical pieces; as well as contemporary compositions. Witold Lutoslawski wrote his piano concerto for Zimerman, who has been hailed as one of the finest living pianists. When not touring or building pianos, he has been editing piano editions of the works of Wladislaw Szpilman, and has also authored a treatise on aesthetics.


The question that needs addressing is: Why so many outstanding Polish pianists and piano composers (see table)? In other words, how does a tradition get started? The explanation rests with early role models setting expectations, an abundance of outstanding teachers, and domestic as well as international opportunities to display the talents to large audiences. Role models encourage parents to not only identify musical talent at an early age, but also to provide quality music teachers, and continuous encouragement. It is no coincidence that so many outstanding pianists were child prodigies. Role models also provide the students with the motivation to emulate their role models. Polish parents understood this, and European capitals such as Warsaw, Vienna, Paris, London, St. Petersburg, and Berlin (and subsequently New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, interalia) afforded highly regarded conservatories with an abundance of outstanding teachers. Also, European cities — and later, American ones — not only provided large and appreciative audiences, but were perceived by the performers and composers as desirable places to live and work. Polish pianists on the other hand showed little reluctance to becoming cosmopolitan celebrities. Musicians, out of necessity to augment their income and to prepare the next generation of musicians, become teachers themselves and recording artists, thereby putting the entire process on automatic. Hence, our gratitude goes out to all the key players who are responsible for the music that enriches our lives every day.

Polish Pianists Arranged Alphabetically

  • Anderszewski, Piotr
  • Ax, Emanuel
  • Bakst, Ryszard
  • Ben-Or, Nelly
  • Bergson, Michal
  • Bialk, Michal
  • Blechacz, Rafal
  • Blumental, Felecia
  • Brozek, Anna
  • Chartoryska, Marcelina
  • Checinski, Pawel
  • Chopin, Frederic
  • Czerny-Stefanska, Halina
  • de Kontski, Anton
  • Dobrzynski, Ignacy Feliks
  • Domanska, Joanna
  • Drzewiecki, Zbigniew
  • Echsner, Stanislav
  • Eisenberger, Severin
  • Ekier, Jan
  • Etkin-Moszkowska, Roza
  • Fiedman, Ignaz
  • Filar, Marian
  • Fontana, Julian
  • Gierzod, Kazimierz
  • Gimple, Jakob
  • Godowsky, Leopold
  • Gremm, Tomasz
  • Grychtolowa, Lidia
  • Harasiewicz, Adam
  • Hesse-Burowska, Barbara
  • Hlawiczka, Karol
  • Hlawiczka, Karol
  • Hoffman, Jan
  • Hofmann, Josef
  • Horszowski, Mieczyslaw
  • Jablonski, Krzyrztof
  • Janotha, Juliusz
  • Jasinski, Andrzej
  • Jonas, Maryla
  • Kalegris, Maria
  • Kapusta, Jozef
  • Karp, Natalia
  • Kedra, Wladyslaw
  • Kilar, Wojciech
  • Kisielewski, Waclaw
  • Kleczynski Sr., Jan
  • Kochalski, Raoul
  • Kocyan, Wojciech
  • Kon, Boleslaw
  • Konczal, Szczepan,
  • Krauze, Zygmunt
  • Krupinski, Lukasz
  • Kutrzeba, Stefan
  • Lechowski, Przemyslaw
  • Lefeld, Jerzy Lescheitizky, Theodor
  • Lessel, Franciszek
  • Lewita, Gustaw
  • Lisowski, Antoni
  • Maciszewski, Waldemar
  • Makowicz, Adam
  • Malcuzynski, Witold
  • Malek, Krzyszytof
  • Marek, Czeslaw
  • Markiewiczowna, Wladyslawa
  • Melcer-Szczawinski, Henryk
  • Michalowski, Alexander
  • Mikuli, Karol
  • Moszkowski, Moritz
  • Moyseseowich, Gabriella
  • Munz, Mieczyslaw
  • Niedzielski, Stanislas
  • Oleniczak, Janusz
  • Paderewski, Ignacy
  • Jan Paleczny, Piotr
  • Pikul, Andrzej
  • Popowa-Zydron, Katarzyna
  • Radziwonowicz, Karol
  • Rawicz, Marjan
  • Rosca, Monica
  • Rosenthal, Moriz
  • Rubinstein, Artur
  • Rzepko, Adolf
  • Scharwenka, Xavier
  • Schonfeld, Avi
  • Sert, Misia
  • Sliwinski, Jozef
  • Smendzianka, Regina
  • Smeterlin, Jan
  • Smidowicz, Jozef
  • Sosinska, Marta
  • Sternberg, Daniel
  • Stojowski, Zygmunt
  • Stople, Antoni
  • Szalit, Paula
  • Szalwinska, Beata
  • Szeligowski, Tadeusz
  • Szpilman, Wladyslaw
  • Szpinalski, Stanislaw
  • Szymanowski, Karol
  • Szymonowska, Maria
  • Tansman, Alexander
  • Tausig, Carl
  • Tchaikowsky, Andre
  • Tiegerman, Ignace
  • Turczynski, Josef
  • Wasowski, Andrzej
  • Wertheim, Juliusz
  • Wienawski, Jozef
  • Wnukowski, Daniel
  • Woytowich, Boleslaw
  • Zachzra, Franciszek
  • Zarebski, Juliusz
  • Zarzycki, Alexander
  • Zelinski, Wladyslaw
  • Zielinska, Izabella
  • Zimerman, Krystian
  • Zmudzinski, Tadeusz
  • Zurawlew, Jerzy
  • Zywny, Wojciech


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