Unpublished interview with Michał Spisak

31 August 2018

A previously unpublished interview with Michał Spisak – patron of the International Music Competition in Dąbrowa Górnicza. The interview is a selection of excerpts from the composer’s letters to his friends taken from the book by Leon Markiewicz entitled ‘Michał Spisak 1914-1965’. We encourage you to read and get familiar with one of the most outstanding Polish composers of the 20th century who came from Dąbrowa Górnicza.

Olaf Otwinowski: First you were first a student of the Mieczysław Karłowicz Music School in Warsaw, and then a student of the Silesian Conservatory. Do you remember your entrance exam?

Michał Spisak: There are many candidates sitting on long benches in the corridor. Myself between them, holding the violin on my knees. They call for me. I enter the room. Serious, very serious gentlemen examine my left hand fingers and my right wrist and… they tell me to play. I do play, but they frequently interrupt me. I’m sweating – not because of the stage-fright, as I didn’t know it at that point, but because of the heat and out-of-tune sounds that I played. Suddenly one of the examiners asks me very gently: ‘Why don’t you play something else for us now, young man’. So I do play something else, but they interrupt me and say ‘goodbye’. I leave and pack my violin to the case while sitting on the bench, but… they call for me again from another door. I try to defend myself, for I am already exhausted enough. My explanations do not help; it’s time for the theoretical exam now. There are many serious gentlemen and very serious ladies there, too. They tell us to get together, sing, harmonise, do sight reading, they examine our ears – and keep writing something on large sheets of paper. I finally leave and I’m convinced that I’ve been rejected, because I want to get back to Warsaw. However, things turned out differently. I was admitted to the Conservatory as a student in prof. Cetner’s class and instead of riding tram number eight from Powązkowa street to Złota street, now I have to go from Dąbrowa to Katowice by train.

In later years you received a scholarship to study in Paris where you studied under the eye of an outstanding teacher – Nadia Boulanger. What are the advantages of being a Polish student in the capital of France?

Not only do studies in Paris make our musicians familiar with the European technique and let them work under the guidance of such an extraordinary teacher as Nadia Boulanger, but they also contribute to promoting Polish music abroad. The Poles are becoming increasingly popular in Paris. Polish artists are in demand. Not only is it much easier to perform Polish pieces; in fact, such performances are desired, the French frequently ask for them. Therefore, the current situation is very favourable for Polish music here.

What do you value most about studying in Nadia Boulanger’s school?

For Polish composers in my generation studying under Nadia Boulanger is invaluable in the sense that it liberated us from the anachronistic influence of the German school. ‘Nadia’s school’ is in fact a very broad concept which refers to many dozens of composers, sometimes with outstanding personalities.

How would you describe classes with Nadia Boulanger?

She lets everyone talk as much as they want to and then shuts everybody’s mouth by giving her opinion. A very nice lady.

Apart from being regarded as a great student, you also had the reputation of a rebel. You apparently criticised a lecture given by one of your professors, objecting to isolation of the then intelligentsia from the class of the ‘uneducated’, that is the working class?

Such lectures will only be useful when they are accessible to the widest possible social circles. If the lectures are addressed only to intelligentsia, then they are pointless, because ‘music must enter the society’ (…).Wouldn’t it be better if, instead of intelligentsia, we directed our interest to those common people who need it more and who will not look down on us with contempt (…), to those for whom we should have the highest respect and appreciation, that is – working classes?

Many musicians look for their own way, for originality. What advice could you give to young artists – how to become original in the global music market?

Searching for originality at any cost is no good – it’s a vain effort. If originality is to come, it will arrive by itself. When I get down to composing, I never think whether what I write will be original, or how to compose nowadays, or what it will be like in the future.

In your early days, when you began getting familiar with music, you reportedly started with Schönberg and Webern, but later you recommended young composers not to imitate their works?

Intellectual combinations frequently interest me only as far as they are rooted in the heart. Therefore, I’m extremely far from the ‘experiments’ of dodecaphonists, as well as from the composers of concrete or electronic music. Therefore, I’m extremely far from the ‘experiments’ of dodecaphonists, as well as from the composers of concrete or electronic music. I do not condemn them, because everything can be useful for something. Any accusations in art are completely useless, because everything that’s good will remain.

In 1942 you composed ‘Toccata for Orchestra’ whose premiere took place in Brussels, whereas the second performance was given by the RAI Orchestra under Mario Rossi during Biennale in Venice – and that was the only piece by Polish composer performed at the Biennale.

While being in the countryside, I got a telegram saying that my ‘Toccata’ would be performed during Biennale in Venice and asking me to send my resumé. I was very happy, but I didn’t know any details. I got the ‘timetable’ and I saw that I was the only Pole in the programme, although I knew that a lot of scores had been sent from Poland […].

How do you write a new piece?

I like working in one go and every interruption makes me angry and gives me hay fever. I’m only interested in my music, the music which is inside me and which I want to put on score paper.

Apparently you valued very highly the works by Romanian composer, Dinu Lipatti, to such an extent that you dedicated ‘Hymn to the Lyrics by St. Ambrose’ to him?

In my opinion, he was one of the greatest musicians in the world, and definitely the greatest pianist and a wonderful human being. I was so deeply shocked by his death that I decided to pay a tribute to his memory. I knew him well and there was a lot of friendship between the two of us.

In 1954, Queen Elizabeth International Competition for composers was held and you won the first prize – Premier Grand Prix. It was a huge success, particularly because as many as 400 pieces from 37 countries were sent to the competition! You were planning to send ‘Symphony Concertante no. 2’, but you did not manage to complete it and you took the risk of sending an old piece, i.e. ‘Serenade for Orchestra’?

I began to write ‘Symphony Concertante no. 2 for Ficio (i.e. Grzegorz Fitelberg – editor’s note). After his death I suspended my work to think it over. Then I thought I would send it to the competition, but the huge personal problems (health issues) I had did not allow me to do any work. This is why I sent ‘Serenade’ instead. I was annoyed with myself for having won the first prize for such an old score. I wrote ‘Serenade’ in 1938-1939 and I put on the shelf until then. And it was brought back in Brussels.

Another big success was winning Grand Prix in the international competition for writing the official Olympic anthem in Monaco. Your ‘Olympic Anthem for Mixed Choir and Orchestra’ was chosen from among 392 works submitted to the competition. Its premiere took place in Monte Carlo, whereas the choir and orchestra were conducted by Nadia Boulanger. Were you proud of yourself?

I enjoy the fact that ‘Olympic Anthem’ made my friends happy. It’s a small piece that I wrote out of curiosity to see if I’d be able to solve a difficult problem. Difficult, because the anthem must be a piece of music that is accessible – I’m not keen on the word ’accessible’, but I can’t find a better one at the moment. I apparently managed to write music which can be sung by the youth. During the prize awarding ceremony in Monte Carlo, the members of the jury congratulated me a lot. I got the royal treatment there. When I came back, I received telegrams, phone calls and letters from all over the world.

You reportedly often recall your homeland?

I think about Zagłębie and Dąbrowa Górnicza all the time, because you never forget your family town.

What is the most important thing in life for you?

The only goal of my life is music. If a single piece, or one second of my music brings pleasure to anyone, then it’s great happiness for me.


All questions are present day and were prepared by Olaf Otwinowski, whereas the answers (with original spelling) were taken from the composer’s letters to his friends collected in the monograph written by Leon Markiewicz „Michał Spisak 1914-1965”.

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