Chopin and Bohemia

Frédéric Chopin

A few weeks ago, the world celebrated the 200th birthday of one of the great composers of all time, Frederic Chopin, who was born just outside Warsaw in 1810. As elsewhere, Chopin’s anniversary year is being celebrated in the Czech Republic – and with good reason. Although in the course of his short life Chopin spent just a few weeks in Bohemia, his links to the Czechs are far from superficial. When he was a child, his first piano teacher was the Czech, Vojtěch Živný; many years later Chopin spent some of the happiest days of his life in the West Bohemian spa town of Mariánské Lázně, and his stays here in Prague are marked with a memorial plaque on the corner of the streets Na příkopě and Hybernská. It goes without saying that Chopin was also an inspiration to generations of Czech composers and performers, a link that is celebrated every year at the international Chopin Festival in Mariánské Lázně.

Who better to talk about Chopin and the Czechs than the young Czech pianist Martin Kasík, whose performances and recordings of Chopin have won great critical acclaim.

So, Martin, thank you for joining us.

“Thank you…”

Martin Kasík
I’d like to start with a couple of quotes from reviews of your performances of Chopin’s work in the United States. The reviewers don’t spare the superlatives. One critic describes your playing as “elegant and irresistible”. “Kasík’s playing was utter fluidity,” writes another. Clearly Chopin is a composer towards whom you feel a special empathy. Your understanding of his work comes across very clearly in your performances.

“Yes, but I think it’s not just for me, because Chopin is really a universal composer. I don’t know anybody who would say, ‘I hate Chopin.’ Everybody says, ‘I love Chopin,’ if they know his music. My attitude to Chopin started very early in my conservatory years, in that I prepared a programme for the Chopin competition in Marienbad [Mariánské Lázně]. I was twice in that competition and both times I won the first prize, and this was not only a great encouragement for me, but also I got deeper and deeper into his music and found out more and more about him. I found it more and more fascinating, because he was clearly a genius who brought something completely new to music and without him music would not be the same. So he was a great inspiration for a whole bunch of composers. My attitude started there, and then I got from Chopin back to Mozart and Bach and on to Debussy and 20th century music.”

Martin, you had a great deal of success very early in your career. You rocketed to fame as a pianist in the Czech Republic and internationally. You’re still only just over 30. What was it like the first time you played in the Carnegie Hall?

Frederic Chopin
“It was fascinating, but at the same time there were a lot of nerves included. Of course, if you come to a building like the Carnegie Hall, you immediately feel all the great people who were there and all the great performances, and so you say to yourself, ‘Is it the right place for me? Do I belong here and can I do enough to contribute to the great fame of this building?’ So it was a great experience, though I felt, ‘I really have to do my best tonight, because otherwise I don’t belong to this place at all.’”

And judging by the reviews, you really did your best…

“Well hopefully. The reviews can be misleading, but the people will tell you the best, if you listen to the applause and if you see the faces. Then you know whether you succeeded or not.”

When you are on the concert platform, do you in some way engage with the audience, or do you just try to imagine that they’re not there when you’re performing?

“Well, I’m always aware that they are there, because I feel that this is a process of giving and receiving, and giving back. This interaction is immediately before the music starts. I feel we have to communicate before and there has to be this contact. Otherwise there is no reason for interpreting.”

You talk about how Chopin has been an inspiration to you and led you to many other composers. You are not alone in the Czech Republic in this respect. Back in the 19th century, one of the great Czech composers, Bedřich Smetana was also greatly inspired by Chopin, wasn’t he?

“Yes, by Chopin and Liszt. This was a period of so-called virtuosos. Liszt became a virtuoso, like Paganini. Paganini actually started this phenomenon of composers who are at the same time great performers. And they became something like the pop icons of the time really. So there’s Smetana, and also Dvořák. There’s no-one really who could ignore Chopin, because he brought so much innovation into harmony and rhythm, and especially colour.”

Vojtěch Živný
Chopin had a special relationship to Czechs and what is now the Czech Republic, didn’t he? This was not just because he visited this country four times, but it goes back to his childhood.

“His first teacher – and only piano teacher, which is amazing – was Vojtěch Živný, who came from the Czech Lands, and he was a main figure in his education. He introduced him to Bach and Mozart, the two biggest composers before Chopin, and it had a major impact on Chopin’s music. And then Chopin actually experienced the happiest period of his life in Marienbad. That was the only place where he could meet his parents after he emigrated to Paris. Plus he met his fiancée, Maria Wodzinska. This was a very serious relationship. They loved each other, but unfortunately Chopin had already been diagnosed with pneumonia, and Maria Wodzinska’s father was opposed to this marriage. So it actually did not happen. But the two weeks the two of them lived through in Marienbad were one of the happiest periods of his life.

“Chopin was also in Prague, and this is interesting because he stayed in a building on the site of what is now the Czech National Bank. There is a little plaque on the wall and because of the link we do concerts every year in the hall of the Czech National Bank to feel this special relationship.”

And what do we know about his stays in Prague?

“Chopin is said to have composed a small mazurka here, but we really don’t know whether this is true or not, but it might have happened….”

… and it was said to be in honour of Czech-Polish friendship!

“Yes, and that friendship really existed at the time, because it was a time of a rising up of national feelings, and we were all Slavs, so they were naturally our brothers!”

Do you think that was felt strongly at the time - I mean in the musical community - that sense of pan-Slav identity?

Martin Kasík, photo: David Vaughan
“Yes, I think this was the beginning of this feeling of togetherness.”

Martin, your interest in Chopin isn’t just in the fact that you play a lot of his work, but also you are the director of a Chopin festival. Can you tell me a bit more about this?

“The festival is quite old. We celebrated 50 years last year. It was founded by enthusiasts and musicians, as well as other artists in the 1950s, and it was set in Marienbad, naturally, because this was the place where Chopin spent most of his time in the Czech Lands. So since then the festival has been annual, in August. It used to be eight days, but we made it a little bit bigger last year, so it is ten days in August. We have orchestral concerts, recitals, also chamber music. We also do a little bit outside of Marienbad, but the main focus is on the festival.”

And it’s worth pointing out that Marienbad/Mariánské Lázně is a beautiful town – a perfect spa town in West Bohemia – so it’s a wonderful setting for this festival, isn’t it?

“It is. It was quite an important town at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, because for the English King Edward VII, this, along with Biarritz, was his summer residence, so this place had a lot of attention, not only from European courts and diplomacies.”

And what, in your opinion, will be the highlights of this year’s festival?

“We’ll have the Prague Philharmonia with Jiří Bělohlávek and the winner of the Chopin Competition 1995, Philippe Giusiano from France; we’ll have Gabriela Beňačková, the famous soprano, singing Chopin songs; we’ll have Eric Himy, a great American pianist; also some compositions that we don’t hear very often by Chopin – some chamber music, which is a little bit on the margin of his main repertoire. So there is a lot to be heard.”

Mariánské Lázně, photo:
And will we have the chance to hear you performing?

“I will be accompanying Gabriela Beňačková on the piano with Chopin and Schumann songs.”

It must be quite difficult, or distracting, combining a career as a pianist with all the responsibilities of organizing a major international festival like this. Doesn’t it get quite frustrating sometimes, when you really want to concentrate on your music?

“Very much so, but at the same time it reminds me that I’m most happy being a pianist! Before, I used to say that maybe some other occupation would also be good, but now I know that this is really what I should be focusing on. Of course, I don’t do all the organizational stuff. We have an executive director who does all the dirty work. I’m mainly focused on dramaturgy and finding the artists, and things around the presentation of the festival.”

We are talking to you in your small flat in Holešovice, in the centre of Prague. You also have a five-month-old son. It must also be quite hard sometimes when you are trying to concentrate on practicing and your son is crying in the room next door. You told me, for example, that last night you didn’t get much sleep.

“Yes, but he is also a very good listener. He likes music and music calms him when he is really upset. If we play or sing something for the baby, it’s very good for him. Also, he is already playing the piano. We put him at the piano, and he goes ‘bang, bang’ – he likes it very much, and he also likes performance, because every time some note is audible, he will turn to the public – to me or his mother – as if to say, ‘Was it good, is it nice?’ and he’s smiling. So obviously he likes to show off a bit!”

Another Kasík to look out for in a few years’ time on the Czech musical scene! In the meantime, if you can’t make it to Mariánské Lázně in August, you can hear Martin Kasík playing Chopin on the CD entitled simply “Chopin”, released on the ArcoDiva label in 2002.

You can find out more about the Chopin Festival in Mariánské Lázně at: