The Widdershins

Archive for August 11th, 2017

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Happy Friday Widdershins!

If you are reading this then good news: a nuclear was hasn’t started yet! But it is early, so we’ll see how things play out.

This morning I won’t bore you with my thoughts on Dump and whatever the latest shitnado he has unleashed on the world. There is so much happening and it’s happening so quickly that sometimes the brain feels like it will short circuit. So we will stay current on the news in the comments section, as always. If Dump launches a nuke at North Korea or California, please post here ASAP!

Instead I will tell you about a nearly forgotten artist. I listen to classical music almost exclusively and I have not heard of Maryla Jonas until just a week ago when Sony released a remastered box set of Jonas’ complete recordings made for Columbia in the 1940s and 50s. Granted, her recorded legacy was not big, only a bit over 3 hours of music. But it’s amazing how an such an important artist of her day could be so nearly forgotten, even though at the time famed critics like Virgil Thompson and Edward Downes counted her among the greats.

Maryla Jonas was born on May 31, 1911 in Warsaw, Poland. She became something of a child prodigy at the piano and though her father had serious misgivings about his daughter having a successful career as a musician, she did make her concert debut at the age of 9. At the age of 11 she was accepted to study at the Warsaw Conservatory. Over the years she studied with the famous pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

‘When I was no more than seventeen. I played a Ballade of Chopin for [Paderewski], and he said, very calmly and quietly, more pedal here—less pedal there—there, more tone—there, more speed. Such things. Also, he took my music and marked everything down in red pencil. Good! I went home and studied hard everything he had said. Like a parrot.

‘Then I went for a concert to Denmark. I played this Ballade, exactly as Paderewski had said. Well, a friend of his who was there, said it was no good! He told Paderewski I had played it no good. So the next time I came to Paderewski, he asked me what I did to play so badly, and told me to sit down and play the Ballade for him. I did, exactly as he had said. And this time he too said it was no good! I said he himself had told me all this, and he said, ‘No, that was impossible!’ I showed him his own red writing on the music, and again he said, ‘No!’ At that time, I was heartbroken. But today, I see exactly what Paderewski meant! He meant that the first time, he was in a mood to want the Ballade one way, and the next time, not. That is all. But it showed me that teaching can never be a matter of do-this or do-that’. (“The Etude”, February 1947, interviewed by Rose Heylbut).

When she was eighteen , Miss Jonas says an incident happened in her life which, more than anything else, influenced her subsequent career. ‘I had finished playing a whole program for Paderewski and he took me to the window and pointing, he said: “You see that street over there? You see how it winds down into that alley? It looks sordid, doesn’t it. Well, there is life. Go out and find out for yourself. Live an experience and come back to me in a year. You’ll be a better pianist”.

Throughout the 20s and 30s she toured across Europe, including recitals at the Salzburg Festival and Bayreuth. She married a famous Polish criminologist. And then Germany invaded Poland. Her husband and three brothers joined the underground resistance. Her sister, who had married a Viennese Jew, fled to Brazil. Jonas and her parents’ home was requisitioned by the Germans, so they spent months moving from shelter to shelter. They were eventually arrested and after an interrogation by the Gestapo Jonas was offered to be sent to Berlin if she would join the Nazi party and become an official Nazi artist. Jonas refused. She and her parents were sent to a concentration camp.

After several months in camps, a German officer recognized Jonas as a pianist he had heard perform before the war. He arranged to have her released from the camp and advised that she go to Berlin and appeal to the Brazilian embassy for safety. Jonas walked from Warsaw to Berlin: about 321 miles. She slept in barnes and under the moon, eating only scraps that she could find. Finally in Berlin the Brazilian embassy arranged to smuggle her out of the country on false papers, pretending to be the wife the ambassador’s son.

Jonas joined her sister in Rio, but her health had very seriously deteriorated from the long and arduous journey from Warsaw to Berlin. She then received news that her parents, her husband and one of her brothers had been killed in Poland and she suffered a nervous breakdown. She spent several months in various sanatoriums in Brazil. She decided that she would never play the piano again, but at the encouragement of her sister and a chance visit to Rio in 1940 by one of the most famous pianists in the world, Artur Rubinstein, changed her mind.

He had known Maryla in Warsaw, and called on her. He urged her eloquently to resume playing. He told her she was now a representative of Poland. It was her duty, he said, to keep reminding the world that her country had stood for something, and to work and earn money to help rescue other Poles from their Nazi-dominated homeland. She agreed with every word. But she could not play.

Rubinstein was rehearsing for several recitals he was to give in Rio and asked Jonas to come to the theater to offer him advise. At the theater he said he wasn’t sure what the img041_a_200dpi.jpgacoustics of the hall were like, so he asked Jonas to play while he walked to the back of the auditorium to sound-check. Jonas obliged… and found herself musically reborn. She decided to start playing again and within few months was giving recitals across South America. In 1946 she came to the United States and on February 25 gave a recital at Carnegie Hall. That seems to have been a very lightly attended show (someone joked the ushers outnumbered the audience), but a glowing review from the highly regarded Jerome D. Bohm of Herald Tribune: “the finest woman pianist since Teresa Carreno” he wrote. He continued that on her next appearance Jonas “will be greeted not by a handful of listeners . . . but by the sold-out house which such artistry as hers deserves.” Five weeks later her second Carnegie Hall recital was sold out. Olin Downes of the New York Times wrote that “The shimmer of the harmonies, the haunting song that they half revealed and half concealed, was something to remember.” Soon Jonas was engaged to play a Beethoven concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Sold out concerts and glowing reviews, and a record deal with Columbia followed. Jonas also married a surgeon.

During a Carnegie Hall recital on January 27, 1951 she got sick.

Persons familiar with the Schumann work [Carnaval] sensed that something was wrong when some passages were skipped. They were puzzled when the pianist got up after a gentle number about two thirds of the way through. She walked unsteadily to the left side of the stage and just beyond the edge of the dusty-rose curtain she fell.

… Miss Jonas had not been feeling well all week, according to her representative, so her physician, Dr. Franz Groezel, and her husband, Dr. Ernest Abraham, both were in the auditorium. They went back-stage to attend her and ten minutes later John Totten, manager of the hall, emerged from the stage door to say she would continue the program.

The pianist returned to the stage looking white and shaky, but once she was seated she seemed all right. She played the Nocturne, the Waltz, the Berceuse and two of the four Mazurkas she had scheduled. She also managed two encores, though the last one was given with the house lights on as a hint to the audience not to expect a third.

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In 1952 Jonas was stricken with a rare blood disease and put her concert career on hold. She was bedridden for two years. She returned to Carnegie Hall on December 1, 1956. It seems that physically she was no longer able to play well. Edward Downes of the New York Times wrote:

The Andante cantabile of the middle movement was an achievement of rare artistry. But toward the end of the sonata Miss Jonas began to sound nervous. As the Mozart group progressed there were moments of exquisite lyricism, but they became rarer as one sensed that Miss Jonas’ strength was ebbing under physical and nervous strain.

[…]

Friends who inquired backstage after the program were told that a physician was attending Miss Jonas. Later it was announced that she was not ill but suffered only severe nervous tension.

This was Maryla Jones’ last concert. She died on July 3, 1959. (Her husband, Dr. Ernest Abraham, was an amateur cellist and encouraged his wife’s career. He died a few weeks after her.)


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