“Michał Spisak 1914-1965”

25 April 2000

Photo by J. Dorys – courtesy of Maciej Gadaczki.

…If any one tact,
one second of my music will give happines,
this is already a great happiness for me
(from a letter to Seweryn Różycki)
Michał Spisak (1914-1965)

His short life was a testimony of evangelical victory of “the eager spirit over the body”. Despite the paralysis of lower limbs resulting from poliomyelitis, he overcame all boundaries due to great passion for music. As a student of Józef Cetner at the Silesian Conservatory, he was able to perform such difficult musical pieces as Karol Szymanowski’s “Myths”, and in the Aleksander Brachocki’s class he exceeded the compulsory course plan by several dozen pieces. In 1937 he managed to obtain a diploma with distinction. Following this, the Silesian Musical Society recognised him as the most gifted graduate of the Conservatory and gave him a scholarship for further composition studies in Paris.

In Paris he attended classes conducted by Nadia Boulanger – an extraordinary character with exceptional musical knowledge, broad intellectual horizons and outstanding teaching abilities, who was respected by the most eminent composers of that period. He viewed meeting her as a particularly lucky gift from life. She, having recognised his talents from the very first meeting, considered him as her favorite student. She conducted his first Parisian musical pieces, often presenting them during her lectures, and contributed to the extension of his scholarship. All the charms of Stravinsky’s music were discovered by him during her lectures. She treated him almost as her son and maintained close relationship with him till the end of her life.

Having found himself in France as a 23-year-old young man, Spisak was actively involved in the activities of the Association of Young Polish Musicians. However, he did not think that the outbreak of war in 1939 would keep him in that country which he would consider to be his second homeland, and Paris would become a place of his creative activity for the rest of his life. Almost all of the several dozens of his musical pieces – symphonic, chamber and solo – were created in Paris. In the first years after the war, Spisak’s musical pieces composed during the course of the war began to appear on European stages, where they caused great sensation – because their author was unknown at that time – earning him everyone’s respect and the opinion of one of the most interesting Polish composers of the young generation. The triumphal entry of such musical pieces as the vibrant “Toccata for Orchestra” and “Suit for String Orchestra” to the Polish music scene – performed during many concert tours by Paweł Klecki and Jan Krenz – was led by enthusiasts of Spisak’s musical career. “Symphony Concertante No. 1” was performed by the great Grzegorz Fitelberg in Katowice, followed by “Divertimento”, also known as “Light Music No. 1”. Two compositions for wind-instruments: “Trio” and “Quintet” are still performed around the world, as an example of great chamber music, and his excellent “Concert for bassoon and orchestra” is still highly recognized among the virtuosos of this instrument – as well as “Concertino for trombone and orchestra”. “Sonata for violin and orchestra” – one of the greatest works of Michał Spisak, worthy of the entry into the register of the Polish virtuosic violin compositions – was created for the outstanding violinist Eugenia Umińska. The abovementioned register should undoubtedly include “Suit for two violins” dedicated to two Polish Violinist – Eugenia Umińska and Irena Dubiska.

Pictures from monographs „Michał Spisak 1914-1965” – prof. Leona Markiewicza

It is difficult to list all of Spisak’s musical works. The following is a list of the most spectacular achievements of the composer. They include, among others, prizes received at international competitions. In 1953, his composition “Serenade for Orchestra”, composed in 1939, was awarded the Grand Prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. Two years later, he received the only prize – again the Grand Prize! – among 392 compositors who submitted their works to the Competition for the new “Official Olympics Anthem”. Celebratory performances of the Spisak’s “Olympic Anthem for mixed choir and orchestra” with the words of the Odes of Pindar enjoyed great fame: in 1955 it was performed at the 50th IOC Session in Paris, then at the Mediterranean Games in Barcelona, at the VII Olympic Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo and in 1956 during the Games of the XVI Olympiad in Melbourne and Stockholm. The Anthem was also published on a CD. In 1957, his “Concerto giocoso per orchestra da camera” received the Grand Prix – among 237 musical pieces submitted from 38 countries – at another Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. This excellent work is the most representative for Michał Spisak’s style.

He also received a couple of Polish prizes:

  • Music Award granted by the Association of Polish Composers in 1964 for his compositions and for his contribution to contemporary Polish music;
  • Krzyż Kawalerski Orderu Odrodzenia Polski (Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta), granted by the Council of Poland on request submitted by the Association of Polish Composers.

What is Michał Spisak’s music like? It has all the features of the so-called French Neoclassicism, taken over from Nadia Boulanger, who strived for excellence and aimed at achieving conciseness and clarity of the form, avoiding excessive emotionality characteristic for the nineteenth century romanticism. Therefore, it is easily recognizable by its emanating energy, resulting from spontaneous music action, saturated with dynamic music plots, boiling with volubility of “electrified” rhythmic diversified with sudden almost “percussive” accents and dynamic contrasts, clear pallet of harmonic sounds and orchestra shades full of splendid and clarity of instrumental structure. Listeners associate these features with dominating moods of joy, cheerfulness, positive energy and optimism. In comparison with them, lyrical parts of Spisak’s works are like desirable moments of blissful calmness, rest or short reflection.

What is characteristic of his music is the fact that there is no place for pessimism, which in everyday life was overcoming him with the progress of disability and worsening health condition. When composing he did not aim at achieving originality – it is evidenced by his honest statement used as a motto for this essay. For the rest of his life he was faithful to his once chosen style – combining baroque traditions with Viennese classicism – which in the history of music had its culmination in France in the interwar period. And although after the war the young generation of composers represented totally new trends – Spisak stayed faithful to his traditions. Nevertheless, his works had never been regarded as conservative. On the contrary – in confrontation with revolutionary aesthetic and technical demonstrations, they have always come out as victorious, invariably gaining respect of both traditionalists as well as advocates of progress in music. Such recognition was only granted to those compositors who stayed faithful to their own aesthetic ideals and traditions. Michał Spisak can be undoubtedly included in the group of the most outstanding compositors.

prof. Leon Markiewicz

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