CHOPIN SOURCE OF ANTILLEAN MUSIC
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HILVERSUM - The well-known Polish-French composer Frédérique Chopin greatly influenced the development of Antillean classical music.
This is what Jan Brokken writes in his recently published book “Why eleven Antilleans knelt before the heart of Chopin”. Brokken recounts how, from the second half of the nineteenth century on up to the twentieth century, the composer left his mark on the Curaçao waltz. The author earlier published portraits of musicians, writers and artists. In addition, he also published such literary novels as “The Province”, “The Sea of Old” and “The Tragic Champion”. This last-mentioned book is about a Curaçao table-tennis champion who comes down in life.
The title of the new book points to the presence of Antilleans at the commemoration in Warsaw on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chopin's death. Brokken discovered the composer's connection with the Antilles at the time he lived in Curaçao in 1993, when his piano music was recognized by a neighbor as “our music”, whereas this was actually a piece composed by Chopin. This composer's influence on the music of Curaçao and Aruba, but also of Cuba and Puerto Rico is unmistakable, says Brokken.
Mazurkas and waltzes are important in the history of Antillean music. In the Caribbean region they did indeed take a different path, but they can still be recognized when compared to Chopin's compositions.
Brokken wondered why nothing is known in the Netherlands about Chopin's influence on Antillean music. He believes this is because the Dutch virtually exclusively devoted their attention to East India.
Brokken believes that Curaçao came into contact with the composer via pianist Jules Blasini. In the late 19th century, Gerrie Palm sent Blasini to Paris to continue his studies at the Academy of Music where he was received with great enthusiasm.
Upon his return to Curaçao with scores of Chopin he passed that music on to his pupils on the island. Blasini was also popular in [-illegible-], so that the music continued to spread about. Contemporary music on the islands has taken an entirely unique course, but the influence of Chopin - and also Africa - still resounds for instance in the numbers sung by vocalist Izaline Calister and in the Tumba, so popular during Carnival.
Next to the cheerful dance music, Brokken finds that also melancholic music is composed in the Antilles.
To him, it is a feeling of transience. This feeling also fits in with Chopin because he never quite knew whether he belonged in France or in Poland. Also Antilleans often have the feeling that they do not really belong anywhere, and they find themselves locked in between various worlds, South America, Africa and Europe.
CHOPIN UNDER THE PALMTREES
Jan Brokken describes the warm ties the Antilleans have with the great composer
[Caption:] Jan Brokken: Why eleven Antilleans knelt before the heart of Chopin.
How was that? The answer became a book with anecdotes and conversations, supported by research in the records, a study that was conducted with unbroken enthusiasm, pleasant like a trade wind. He topped it off with the graceful title: “Why eleven Antilleans knelt before the heart of Chopin”.
Two Antilleans paying homage, in 1999, before the heart of Chopin which is entombed in this pillar of the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsau, Poland: CCF Chairman Mrs. Millicent Smeets-Muskus and well-known Antillean composer and pianist Wim Statius Muller.
Chopin was a Polish national living in France, who until his death in 1948 converted traditional melodies of his homeland into mazurkas, waltzes and polkas, to which he gave their unique rhythm that at times served as a prelude to swinging jazz - this can be experienced in a Dutch concert hall, when a pianist who has this in him comes forward. But here the feet do not get off the floor. That is quite different in Curaçao, as Brokken was quick to notice thirteen years ago. Until recently, it was the custom there to compose waltzes for festivities, but also for funerals.
Zelszowa Wola, the home in Poland where Chopin was born in 1810. It is still the sertting for concerts of Chopin's music. The audience sits in the backyard garden and hears the music through the windows as if Chopin were inside playing the piano himself.
After Chopin's death his scores found their way to the island, and there they impacted a whole series of composers bearing exotic names like Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Joseph Sickman Corsen, Jan Berard Palm, Edgar Palm, Jacobo Palm and Wim Statius Muller. The music they composed often resembled Chopin's like two drops of water, but just as often their adaptations turn into Creole danzas, ragtime, calypso and Latin jazz. On the warm-blooded CD that comes with Brokken's book, that transition sometimes takes place within one composition: the Antillean waltz “Un Recuerdo”, a 1930 composition of Jacobo Palm, starts off as a piano etude, that the moment the small orchestra joins in, invites the listener to get off his chair and join the music in rhythmic movements.
Brokken is a fan, but he did not let himself be “taken in” just like that; the CD contains resounding proof. He presumes that it was precisely Chopin who had such influence because, also in Curaçao, families often hail “from afar” (from Europe mostly) and they were quick in the uptake of his combination of melancholy and traditional dance music.
The old Cubans Ferrer and Gonzales were already approvingly going about the island, playing along in dance clubs on a regular basis before Ry Cooder discovered them and made them famous worldwide with the Buena Vista Social Club. And we all know that one, but who knows Gottschalk, Corsen or any one of the many Palms? Brokken just wants this to be said, and we in this indifferent Holland get a blush of shame because of his enthusiasm.
Therefore, we need to catch up and repair the damage quickly, play the CD and read about Gottschalk (who himself once played for Chopin), the vain virtuoso who played to the whole of South America making many a woman flip her lid, and who tempts Brokken to use an adventurous hyperbole: “Gottschalk sought adoration, not sex, as a result of which he is more or less the only nineteenth century artist who was spared a venereal disease. All the same he did get entangled in a moral scandal in California.” A legendary figure, who used to dress like Chopin and who reached the exact same age.
Things get really exciting when Brokken tells us about the gentleman Joseph Sickman Corsen, poet-critic-pianist, the great-great-grandfather of jazz pianist Randal Corsen (1972) who launched a brilliant CD last year, on which he revived the waltzes and danzas of well over a century ago: “Corsen plays Corsen” - Chopin, Schubert and jazz all at the same time, as Randal himself observed with surprise.
Perhaps the nicest story is the one about Tonie Palm, scion of a sensitive family who refused ever to play a single note again after his mother died: “Born in 1885, he turned his back to music in 1905. By that time he had composed six danzas in the style of the Puerto Rican master Juan Morel Campos, five waltzes, the mazurka “El Desengaño” and the melody of the Antillean national anthem. Tonie would go on to live for another fifty-nine years, but without music.”
Maestro Edgar Palm (1905-1998), whose comfortingly sad waltz “Padu” is featured on the CD, at his great age still remembered that during the opening of a candidates' tournament in 1962 he played for chess players and that nobody paid any attention to him, except for this tall, thin young man. “Your music calms me completely”, he said at the end. Brokken: “The otherwise so very modest Palm was pleased, the chess player who shook his hand was Bobby Fischer.”
Yet another good story. Having read this book, and knowing what became of Fischer - from chess genius to raging eccentric - one cannot but think wistfully that things surely would have turned out differently for Bobby had he listened more to Palm and all those others.