Wieniawski's Polonaise de Concert

Today the Music Academy is pleased and honored to feature a performance from our friends and partners at the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). Now entering its third year, the LSO partnership is a unique initiative that brings LSO members and collaborators to Santa Barbara, while the LSO Keston MAX program allows selected fellows to visit London to work directly with the orchestra and its music director, Sir Simon Rattle. The full orchestra visited Santa Barbara in 2019 and is scheduled to do so again in 2021.

Today’s program features LSO co-leader Carmine Lauri, violin, and Simon Hester, piano, in a performance of Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert, Op. 4.

WATCH THE PERFORMANCE


 

You’d be forgiven for assuming that a piece called Polonaise de Concert is of French origin. Just like with mayonnaise and hollandaise, the “-aise” ending is usually a dead giveaway, and the “de Concert” only makes its French-ness seem more apparent. The polonaise as a genre, though, is actually one of several Polish national dances. This particular example, the Polonaise de Concert, is by Polish composer and virtuoso violinist Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880). It was published in 1853 – when the composer was only 18 years old – in Braunschweig, Germany. Wait – a Polish composer writing a Polish-style piece that was published in Germany with a French-ified title? What gives? Well, quite a lot, actually.

Violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, pictured in 1880

The polonaise originated as a stately but simple Polish peasant dance known as the chodzony. In its original form it was typically sung. That genre was appropriated by the Polish nobility in the 1600s, after which time it morphed into a more elaborate instrumental piece that was popular for refined dancing. Traveling Polish aristocrats and visiting nobles from abroad helped spread the chodzony to other countries, until by the mid-18th century it was widely popular across Europe. In the process it had picked up a new name: polonaise – French for “Polish.” (The new name even made it back to Poland, where the erstwhile folk dance became known as the polonez.)

The polonaise gradually shed its association with the physical act of dancing, becoming instead one of several popular “stylized dances” that were meant only for listening. Polonaises of this kind were written by Polish and non-Polish composers, including J.S. Bach; later the polonaise style was used in everything from concertos to operas by a veritable who’s who of composers from all across Europe, among them Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Tchaikovsky. By the 19th century the polonaise had become so ubiquitous that one of Polish-composer Fryderyck Chopin’s teachers complained that “everything that is pleasing today may be converted into a polonaise.”

As the genre’s popularity in Europe grew, so did its significance to the Polish people. During the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815), the conference the redrew the European map following the Napoleonic Wars, Poland was partitioned and divided among several European powers. The only thing that remained of “Poland” after the Congress was a nominally autonomous region around Warsaw that was ruled in actuality by the Russian tsar. The situation grew worse following a failed uprising in 1830, after which Poland was forcibly integrated into the Russian Empire.

With these events as the backdrop, the polonaise became for many Poles one of several musical symbols of a lost nation, and Polish composers could fruitfully combine the broad popularity of the polonaise with their own need to express their own Polish identity. Chopin, for example, wrote several polonaises throughout his career, many of which are quite virtuosic in nature. As a young Polish violinist studying in Paris, Henryk Wieniawski must have been aware of the music of Chopin, who was at the time one of Paris’s most famous Polish expatriates. The Polonaise de Concert is a dazzling and difficult piece, one which Wieniawski, who made a career as a traveling virtuoso violinist, would have originally performed himself.

Henryk Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert sits at the intersection of several seemingly disparate things. As a virtuoso showpiece written by a traveling violinist, it is part and parcel of a 19th century European fascination with traveling virtuosos. As a polonaise, it is a clear indicator of the broad popularity of this type of stylized dance with European audiences. And as a polonaise written by a Polish composer, it is an example of the association of Polish expatriates with the music of their subjugated homeland. The curious history of the polonaise, a style that was by turns uniquely Polish and broadly cosmopolitan, is an interesting example of cultural exchange that should seem not altogether foreign to audiences in our increasingly globalized world.

– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West


 

Sources:

Stephen Downes, “Polonaise,” in Grove Music Online

Boris Schwarz, “Wieniawski Family,” in Grove Music Online