Friday, December 10, 2010

Music and Identity: Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor

My coming out process is inextricably linked, as I have written here and here, with recovering and affirming my identity, part of which involves reviving my interest in and love for music and writing about compositions that have “spoken” to me.

Today’s post concerns Chopin’s Nocturne in C-Sharp minor.  This piece of music was featured in the 2002 film The Pianist, a movie that was based on the experiences of Polish/Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman from 1939 until shortly after the close of the Second World War.  The Nocturne was composed by Chopin in 1830 for solo piano, but has been transposed for other instruments, most notably the violin.

The haunting quality of the Nocturne was very appropriate for the film, which recounts the story of how the noose of Nazi genocide was gradually tightened around Spielmann’s family, starting with restrictions that dictated where Jews could and could not eat, walk or work.  Next came the requirement to wear a distinctive armband, along with further restrictions.  Then came the move to the Warsaw Ghetto. 

In the ghetto, Szpilman found work as a pianist in a restaurant for wealthy residents who tried to maintain some semblance of “normalcy”.  Conditions, however, grew increasingly worse until he and his family were selected for deportation to the Treblinka death camp.  At the last minute, Szpilman – who was recognized as being perhaps the foremost Polish pianist of his time and one of the greatest in Europe – is pulled out of the line by a Jewish policeman and practically forced to flee.  In moments of anguish, he watches his parents and siblings being loaded onto railroad cars before he flees and returns to his ransacked neighborhood in the ghetto.

Szpilman then manages to continue to survive in the ghetto until he decides to attempt an escape and then go into hiding in Warsaw.  He is successful in this and remains in hiding with the help of Polish friends until the Polish uprising and German counter-attack forces him to flee his hiding place.  He then seeks shelter where he can find it, eventually ending up in a villa in a bombed-out section of Warsaw.  Here, he finds a place to hide in the attic.

One night soon thereafter, Szpilman hears Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being played on a piano far below.  Later, as he looks for food in the house, he is discovered by a German officer who engages in a conversation with him, eventually asking what Szpilman does for a living.  “I am … I was a pianist,” Szpilman replies.  The officer then asks him to play something.  In compliance with this request, Szpilman, a broken man who had by then not played the piano for at least two years, sits down and plays (in the movie) an abbreviated version of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. 

Moved, the German officer not only does not turn Szpilman in, but keeps the pianist’s hiding place secret and brings him food.  Then, as the Russian army is advancing into Warsaw, the officer takes his leave of Szpilman, giving him his overcoat as a final gift.

Eventually, Szpilman is freed with the entrance of the Russian army into Warsaw, and he returns to his career as a pianist.

As is the case with virtually every movie about some aspect of the Holocaust, in The Pianist, one is confronted with the brutality of man, the capriciousness of fate and the will of the human spirit to survive in the face of unimaginable horror.  It was by chance that Szpilman was saved from the fate of the rest of his family, in the sense that the Jewish police man who knew Szpilman and was in a position to do so, was present and saved his life. 

However, the reason Szpilman was saved was because he was a gifted pianist.  If he had been a mechanic, he would not have been so spared.  This speaks to the deep reverence and appreciation that Szpilman’s people had for fine music and gifted musicians.  It was this same reverence and appreciation that prompted (non-Jewish) Polish friends of Szpilman to risk hiding him.  But, it also speaks to the chance of fate that made one man a gifted pianist and another a plodding laborer.  Ultimately, is one more valuable than the other?

Another troubling aspect of the movie for me was the story of the German officer.  At the end of the film, we are told that the name of the German officer was Wilm Hosenfeld.  Shortly before the end of the movie, we see Hosenfeld in a holding pen of German soldiers, prisoners of the Red Army.  Just before the credits, we are told that he died in a Soviet prison camp in 1952, having been a prisoner of war for seven years. 

When I read that, I was saddened and troubled.  Had it not been for Hosenfeld, Szpilman would likely have died of hunger or been discovered and shot.  Hosenfeld literally saved Szpilman’s life.  Yet the German died, no doubt cruelly and after years of torture and deprivation, in a Soviet hell-hole.  Again, one raises one’s eyes to the heavens and inquires, “Why?”  “Where is the justice in that?”  “Why did he have to die, never reunited with his family, after performing such a service?”  Again, one is confronted with silence, with the apparent capriciousness of fate.

Hosenfeld’s fate so troubled me that I sought additional information about him.  I learned that Hosenfeld’s actions on behalf of Szpilman were not isolated, but were rather the culmination of years of risking his position and life on behalf of Poles as well as Jews.  From that trusty source, Wikipedia, we learn the following:  These efforts [of Hosenfeld] began as early as autumn 1939 when he allowed, against regulations, Polish POWs access to their families and even pushed (successfully) for the early release of at least one.  During his time in Warsaw, he used his position to give refuge to people, regardless of their background (he gave refuge to at least one politically persecuted anti-Nazi ethnic German as well), who were in danger of persecution—even arrest by the Gestapo, sometimes by getting them the requisite papers and jobs at the sports stadium that was under his oversight.

Hosenfeld was captured by the Soviets at Błonie, a small Polish city about 30 km west of Warsaw, with the men of a Wehrmacht company he was leading. He was sentenced to 25 years at hard labor for alleged war crimes simply on account of his unit affiliation. He was tortured by the Soviet secret services, as they believed Hosenfeld had been active in the German Abwehr or even the Sicherheitsdienst. Despite the Polish and Jewish citizens who filed petitions on his behalf, the Soviets refused to believe that he had not been involved in war crimes. He died in Soviet captivity on 13 August 1952, shortly before 10:00 in the evening, from rupture of the thoracic aorta, possibly sustained during torture.”

In October 2007, five years after release of the The Pianist, Hosenfeld was posthumously honored by the president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, with a Commander’s Cross of the Order of PoloniaRestituta (Polish: Krzyż Komandorski OrderuOdrodzeniaPolski).  A year and a half later, after thousands had petitioned for such an honor, Yad Vashem (Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust) announced that Capt. WilmHosenfeld would be posthumously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations (an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis), and on 19 June 2009 Israeli diplomats presented Hosenfeld's son Detlev with the award in Berlin.

Coming back to the Nocturne, as I have listened repeatedly to this composition, I have been struck at how the mood of the piece shifts back and forth from minor to major, from sunlight to varying shades of darkness, from solitude to shared humanity.   It is to me a piece that is emblematic of life itself, of tragedy and happiness, of regret and fulfillment, of love shared and lost, of the ultimate yearning of the human soul for meaning and purpose, conjuring images of those who have moved in and through and around our lives. 

Though originally written for piano, I prefer the piece as transposed for violin and orchestra.  (I particularly like the performance by Joshua Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, available on iTunes).  Here, in memory of Wilm Hosenfeld (pictured above in a compelling sketch), is a performance for violin and piano of the Nocturne featuring violinist Joshua Bell.  This evocative performance seemed to me especially appropriate as a tribute to Hosenfeld, bringing to mind his relationships with the family in Germany, from whom he was permanently separated, and with those people whose lives were saved or benefitted by his courageous intervention.  The haunting concluding ascending and descending runs evoke an image of fallen leaves being scattered by the November wind, symbolic of Hosenfeld’s last years in a Soviet camp and, finally, his death.  The following final measures, shifting as they do from minor to major with ascending notes, culminating on a note of exquisite sweetness, evoke an image of his spirit ascending, triumphant, complete, whole.

This is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.


  1. I am pleased to meet a fellow Classical enthusiast. Like you, i think this is indeed a beautiful piece and amongst my favorites.

  2. Perhaps the beauty of Hosenfeld's tragic fate is that he knowingly engaged in helping others despite the madness of the war. I don't think that there are any answers to "Why?" but simply how do we allow ourselves as humans to hate, to dominate and control? This holocaust, like so many others, and wars only underline the absurdity of taking life for a "just" cause. It just doesn't make sense at all.
    With a class that I have been teaching this week, we watched "Joyeux Noël" about the 14-18 war in the trenches and the decision to cease fire between the Germans and the Allies for Christmas eve. Beautiful classical music and the realization of humanity unites Scots, Brits, French and Germans for a night, a very magical night that is forgotten by History. A MUST see.

    And for Chopin, nothing as moving as his crystal, delicate, tragic and exquisite expressions of the heights of beauty and and the depths of melancholy....

  3. Sean - Glad you liked it.

    Libellule - Thanks for your comments. I had already planned to write about "Joyeux Noel" in the coming days. :)