The XIX International Lviv Early Music Festival ended in the Myroslav Skoryk Lviv National Philharmonic. This year, the Festival chose the title «At the Edge of Time». Despite the war in Ukraine, foreign performers joined the Festival. The Polish harpsichordist Urszula Stawicka was one of such brave musicians. I had the opportunity to talk with her the day after the concert.
Congratulations on yesterday’s performance! The concert program was diverse and coherent at the same time. In my opinion, using different harpsichord registers successfully emphasized the changes in characters in the works. Did your expectations from the concert and the audience come true? Why did you select these works for the program?
The Lviv National Philharmonic has perfect acoustics that works well with the instrument. Such a problematic instrument as the harpsichord often requires additional sound and acoustic support. It is also essential that the listener coming to a big concert hall expects to hear enough sound from anywhere, which is rarely possible to get from a harpsichord, unlike a grand piano. Therefore, good acoustic conditions have a positive effect on the stage mood of the performer.
Program selection is the second thing that is more consistent over time. We concluded with the festival organizers that these works resonate with today’s war in Ukraine. Most of these works were created during the Thirty Years War, one of the greatest catastrophes in Europe. Therefore, this music carries a wide range of emotions and tensions. The program wasn’t aimed primarily at performing virtuosity but more at listening and emotional experience while listening to music.
You perform mostly old music. Did you choose the profession of harpsichordist and organist at school?
I started studying as a pianist at school but didn’t particularly like this instrument. Therefore, quite quickly, somewhere near the end of elementary school, I had to decide where to move next. I was interested in wind instruments, so I chose the organ to study in high school and at the academy. It was my first instrument. As for the harpsichord, it was rather a happy coincidence. The thing is that when you play the organ, you often participate in concerts with various chamber ensembles. There, this touch to ancient music appeared through the medium of an instrument. I liked it, so I decided that I could learn to play the harpsichord a little. I entered with the idea that I might study for only a year, no more. But I got into the class of Elżbieta Stefanska, an extraordinary figure in the world of early music. She infected me with this love for the harpsichord, and thanks to her, I studied for more than a year and graduated from the academy. My priorities changed, and the organ took a back seat. I rarely play it now, mostly when teaching basso continuo.
This is very interesting because the practice of learning the organ for children is not yet widespread in Ukraine. There are no such conditions. Often, organs in good condition are found only in large cities. Recently, an optional organ program for music academy students began to operate in the Lviv Organ Hall, which is very timely.
I think this is an excellent addition because musicians of the 16th-18th centuries played both instruments. The piano and its variations came later. For example, César Frank was an organist. Still, he played the piano that was contemporary to him, not the harpsichord, which had already fallen into oblivion for a certain time. Instead, before, the organ and the harpsichord went side by side. By the way, it seems to us that playing the organ is an incredible and simple pleasure, but in the 17th century, there was no such possibility. There was no electricity to practice for 3-4 hours, and you had to hire someone who pumped air into the instrument. So, most practice on the harpsichord is more logical and profitable.
Your main activity is related to teaching, but you also created “Fundacja Akademia Muzyki Dawnej” (Early Music Academy Foundation). Why did this field interest you? What are the main ideas and mission of the foundation?
In 2008, I created a foundation whose main idea has been to popularize early music. The foundation is one of the forms gaining popularity to organize musical life outside the institutions. In Poland, an institution of this type, such as a philharmonic or an opera, has one collective. It is rather unusual that the Lviv Philharmonic has several collectives. In Poland, either there is no such practice, or it is pretty rare, only for large institutions. Therefore, many collectives do not search but create organizations according to their requirements. In addition to these organizations receiving grants and awards, they can offer various lectures, and publish sheet music and CDs. But the main goal is to help artists. It seems to me that it is interesting for young people who do not want to immediately connect their lives with an orchestra in which they will play for 30 years. Maybe it’s better to try different teams, and later choose what suits you best. This form of various societies and foundations is very beneficial to work in the artistic field.
On the territory of Szczecin (Poland), ancient music was not distributed; no one was engaged in it. It was about introducing antique tools to those who lived there and encouraging young people to take up this craft. We also conduct scientific activities. For example, we discover the names of composers who created ancient music in northern and western Poland’s territories. This work consists in searching for notes or references in local archives and abroad and transcribing manuscripts of composers of this region. Szczecin and the surrounding areas suffered greatly during the war. Therefore, everything related to art and music, all books, was destroyed. We have transcripts from manuscripts we often find in Scandinavian or German libraries, and that’s all.
What are your responsibilities at the foundation?
As for my duties at the foundation, that’s almost everything (laughs). Of course, I have a team; it’s several people, and we usually share tasks in the project. When there is preparation for a concert, we agree that someone works with the media, someone deals with contacts, someone organizes the orchestra and prepares logistics, and someone does advertising. Usually, the artistic director deals with the selection of the program. He also looks at the availability of notes, that is, whether they are available, because this is an essential element, in fact, in ancient music. I can say that the foundation performs many tasks, and the duties of each team member are variable. There is no such thing as that I will always do the same in the team.
How many people attend events created by the foundation?
At the First Festival of Ancient Music in Szczecin, ten people were at the harpsichord recital. Before the pandemic, there were already 300 people at the lute recital, which shows that our activity has brought and continues to bring demand. When we first started, it was necessary to get people interested and attractively show this music. We always try to take care of the high quality of our products. So the listener was satisfied not only with the beautiful music heard (because everyone will always like Bach) but also with a good performance. Obviously, promotion plays an important role, which we prepare depending on our budget, but not by a single advertisement. It is important to have regular listeners who are always interested in learning something new for themselves.
What is the average age of your target audience?
This is probably a problem for all European concert organizations because older adults dominate them. I explain this because they did not have time for such entertainment when they were young. Currently, the “60+” movement is trendy in Poland because people who are already retired are very active and want certain experiences and sensations. They often find new interests, and some just become music lovers. I believe that what we do is similar to restoring monuments but in the musical sphere. Therefore, people generally interested in such ideas will most likely be interested in us.
Let’s talk about another important part of your life – teaching. Where do you share your knowledge? What are the characteristics of the educational institution where you teach?
In Poland, the education system is as follows: primary school — 8 years, high school — 4 or 6 years, depending on the direction, and then the academy. I teach in a high school. Therefore, I can encourage students to study further at the academy, not necessarily with me. I believe that too much time with one teacher is also not good; a change is required. Therefore, there is a possibility of choice, and students can study in their hometown, which is more convenient and economical.
I also teach at the youngest Arts Academy in Poland, Szczecin. It has only been 12 years. A combination of different arts is the main idea of this institution. The direction of “plastic arts” is quite widely represented. A model of such an academy is the Berlin “Academia Darconza”. The educational institution is located in old palaces explicitly converted for education. It has quite a good toolkit, which is increasing every time. Most students choose institutions with a long history, so we do not have many students yet. Instead, we try to invite good teachers to us and, in this way, encourage students to study in Szczecin.
Is the psychological preparation and stability of a student-musician so important? What is your relationship with your students?
During the last exams, the professor, the head of our department, and I concluded that we were working primarily on psychology. Music is a very complex field that, like sports, requires discipline, practice, and self-improvement. But if there is no specific dose of self-confidence, this vast amount of training is in vain. We have to tell those who decide to work in this field, that this is an important aspect, especially for those who do not have a stable psyche. Mental training takes even more time than purely learning technical things.
Musicians who are 15-16 years old and those who are 20 years old interpret music differently. Older people are already more developed in such points as articulation, phrasing, or the use of ancient fingering. Therefore, I cannot ask a 15-year-old to play everything according to the old rules. He cannot do this yet, because he is not yet so developed. On the other hand, more difficult requirements apply to students who are already older. We are already working on this in the academy.
I will also add that the relationship between teacher and student has changed. Previously, the professor was “on a pedestal”, but now the distance between the professor and the student has decreased, and these relationships are more like a partnership. I will not say it is good when some students call my home after 10 p.m. because they think I am their friend, I will pick up the phone and help. But this is how the world changes and customs with it.
When I started attending the harpsichord course with my fellow pianists, the biggest surprise was how relaxed you need to be.
It is evident that the touch of the harpsichord, namely the touché, which needs to be mastered, is essential. It is different from playing the organ or the piano. However, many outstanding pianists who play ancient instruments use the harpsichord technique even for the modern grand piano. That is, without large hand movements and force play. Also, legato is extracted from the finger, not from the pedal, as pianists usually do. You have to switch to such a play. Some musicians have a talent for it, and some will never master it.
Similarly, some organists also play the harpsichord. The peculiarity here is that the organ requires a strong hand, especially when performing the later repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries. Later, it isn’t easy to return to early music and find that articulatory sensitivity in the fingers again. However, there are many exercises that should help with this.
Do you think there are universal musicians? Because our system is based on such principles.
I think you can’t be that universal when you play Bach, Chopin, and Satie. It’s like babbling. We also have pianists who start learning from the music of Bach, sometimes Scarlatti. Even French composers of the 18th century are performed on the piano in Ukraine, but they are not played on the piano at all here. It is perfect if they are illustrated for students with appropriate ease, with embellishments. But when you start learning to play the organ or harpsichord, it suddenly turns out that music for keyboard instruments existed as early as the 13th century. Often these works are very complex rhythmically, much more complicated than, for example, some Mozart sonatas.
What advice would you give to students who want to learn the harpsichord?
These students should understand that they have a challenging road ahead. I would advise all harpsichordists to master the basso continuo technique. After all, this is 80% of our work, unlike solo music, which requires less. On the other hand, if we talk about basso continuo, a student who has mastered this skill well will always find a job for himself. Whether we are playing ancient or modern instruments, a Mozart or Gluck opera, the harpsichordist must play the basso continuo. If the philharmonic orchestra has worked with this part in its repertoire, the harpsichordist must also perform them. We are constantly fighting for this instrument to become more popular and occupy its place in the musical world.
I also encourage harpsichordists to perform a diverse repertoire, not to limit themselves exclusively to German or French Baroque music. To perform as much music as possible so that I know what fits best and what I feel best as a performer. Learning is exactly the period where you need to experiment. And finally, I advise you to look for these works yourself. I think that there are pearls of ancient music on the territory of Ukraine. You just need to find them.
Are there works that you are tired of listening to or performing?
Yes, I dislike Vivaldi’s Seasons. Also, I don’t like illustrative French works (“Cuckoo”, “Doll”, etc.). Unfortunately, sometimes you have to play them. Such programs are called “Nightingale in Love”. And most of all, I like such works that carry a more emotional message, in which you can show expression and emotions. Sometimes it’s nice to brag about virtuosity, but it’s not only important. Some toccatas, which are more like exercises, do not excite me.
In the video interview, you mentioned that you performed Ukrainian baroque. What were these works, and do you include them in other concert programs?
I included vocal and instrumental works in my programs. I learned this music through collaboration with Ludmila Kapustina and “A cappella Leopolis”. It seems it was an anonymous Vesperae, something by Dyletskyi and numbers from the opera “Alcido” by Bortnianskyi. I did not play instrumental music. I know that the same Bortnianskyi has sonatas.
I noticed the tendency of contemporary composers to write works for ancient instruments. How do you like the idea of popularizing ancient instruments, and have you had any experience with it?
Yes, there are such cases. I immediately remember the project of Elżbieta Chojnacka, who founded the centre of modern ancient art. She worked in Paris because she left Poland in the 1960s and 1970s. Instruments were specially made for her, and composers dedicated works to her. One of my friends from Silesia went to her course because she was also interested in modern music and later created her centre of early contemporary music in Poland.
It’s an excellent way to popularize old instruments. I also sometimes play contemporary pieces, but mostly I add them as small accents in the programs. I’m not too fond of this direction in modern music when the harpsichord is interpreted as a percussion instrument because I always try to find a melody. However, this is changing now, and composers are writing differently.
You are from Lviv; how often do you manage to come here?
I try to come every year. These are not always private trips, and sometimes I come here precisely as a performer. I am happy that I was invited and accepted this challenge.
How often do you tour? Do you like this artistic lifestyle?
Yes, I travel a lot, but it’s actually a pretty tough lifestyle, and I always warn my students about that. You need to prepare for such an activity. Because, in addition to the fact that you need to have abilities and talent, psychological strength and good health will not be superfluous. From the outside, playing in different countries and cities looks pretty nice, but it is worth remembering that traveling is tiring. You often lack sleep and have no choice: you have to play exhausted or with a headache. Here in Lviv, I arrived at 3 in the morning and went to bed at four and performed the same day, but these are the realities that performers have to find ways to cope with.
The last question is about projection into the future. How do you see the criteria for a full-fledged cultural process in any country? Perhaps based on personal experience in Poland.
Coming to Ukraine and knowing the culture that is developing, I look at it with admiration. First, it seems to me that you are a very talented society (not only musically, but in general). Next, you are a very creative and dynamic society. This distinguishes Ukrainians from Western Europeans, who are bored and don’t want to do something new. They are at a higher level because they have years of economic development and wealth. But if we talk about thoughts and creativity (the most important thing in art), then you dominate.
It seems to me that due to such a tragic reason, much attention is being drawn to Ukraine as a state, the attention you need. The same can be said about Poland. I encountered this ten years ago in Italy: when they found out that I was from Poland, they thought it meant “I’m from russia.” Such was the consciousness in Western Europe. And this awareness and understanding of the cultures of the peoples of Eastern Europe continues to be very limited. Therefore, the present time is another opportunity for you to present your culture even more strongly to the West because such popularization through artists, and means of culture, especially folk culture, is an essential element. And that’s what makes you different, what sets you apart. This requires research.
Therefore, I would advise paying more attention to and strengthening musicological activity and music research because it is not a good practice to still rely on 19th-century editions. It is necessary to get to the primary sources and manuscripts. The cultural heritage here is simply huge if we talk about Lviv and the region. You can find Renaissance works and many other things in local archives. But this work still needs to be done, and that’s what I miss here. Because you have a lot of creative and talented people, you need to give them even greater chances for development.
Research and scientific work on performance, which would be translated into Ukrainian, is also necessary. This kind of work has been going on in Poland for a long time. Even some of my friends have opened their own publishing houses and translated and published books that describe the principles of fingering, the use of the bow, and so on. For example, there is a book by Leopold Mozart which has already been translated into Polish. It is a whole direction that needs to be developed because it enriches and strengthens knowledge about ancient music.
“You are a very talented society (not only musically, but in general). Next, you are a very creative and dynamic society. This distinguishes Ukrainians from Western Europeans, who are bored and don’t want to do something new. They are at a higher level because they have years of economic development and wealth. But if we talk about thoughts and creativity (the most important thing in art), then you dominate.”
I believe that due to the diversity of peoples and cultures that lived in Ukraine, it is possible to find various genres of ancient music. This also applies to the variety of forms because you can probably find ancient vocal music in Kyiv, but there was probably much more of this music in Lviv. I think you know about such a composer as Wojciech Bobowski, who was born in Lviv, but during one of the Tatar raids, he was taken prisoner and ended up at the Sultan’s court and wrote works there. I did not know this, but my colleague from Turkey discovered it for me. He used Bobovsky’s pieces for his project, namely the Psalms. Therefore, he relied on vocal and instrumental works written by a composer from here.
Often, performers become researchers and include anonymous or named works of ancient music composers in their programs. It is also the already quite famous Franz Xavier Mozart, Martin Leopolita…
Yes, but we must remember that they could not be the same composers in one large territory for a long time. Josef Elsner also worked in Lviv, and his opera “King Loketek” was staged here. This score was preserved in the Ossolinsky Library (now the Stefanyk Library). In such a large and important place as Lviv, there was not only one composer, but many more. You need to look for them and find connections between them.