Article Published: Wednesday, January 08, 2003 - 12:28:10 PM MST

Keys to survival

'Pianist' protagonist Szpilman made it through the Holocaust - and his music now thrives

By Fred Shuster
Music Writer

In September 1939, Polish concert pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman was performing a short lyrical piece by Chopin on Warsaw radio when Nazi bombs exploded and knocked the station off the air.

It was the beginning of a long, painful odyssey for the 27-year-old Szpilman, a well-known musician who had scored a number of films and composed popular songs before Luftwaffe artillery struck.

His six-year struggle to survive during the brutal German occupation of Poland, in which Szpilman lost his parents and siblings but eluded deportation by hiding in the devastated Krakow ghetto in a day-to-day fight to stay alive, is the true story behind Roman Polanski's harrowing "The Pianist," based on the Jewish musician's 1945 memoir.

The film reveals how the music of Chopin, particularly the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, became a lifeline for Szpilman - and it was the keyboardist's musical gift that helped save him in the end. Szpilman, who performed in Los Angeles with the Warsaw Piano Quintet after World War II, died in July 2000 in his native Poland at age 88, survived by his wife and two sons, just a few months before filming began.

"Chopin's music was an essential part of Szpilman's repertoire," Polanski said. "For us Poles, Chopin symbolizes revolution. ... It is what gave Szpilman strength and courage."

For the score to "The Pianist," Polanski chose Polish soloist Janusz Olejniczak to perform eight Chopin pieces, including the haunting nocturne that plays a pivotal role in the story. Sony Classical's soundtrack album ends with a recording of Szpilman himself playing a Chopin mazurka in Warsaw in 1948.

"He was known outside Poland as a chamber musician but inside the country as a composer of popular music," said the pianist's son, Andrzej Szpilman, 46. "He would write songs as if they were letters to a girlfriend."

Actually, Szpilman wrote about 500 tunes - with nearly 150 of them landing in the pop charts of Poland, where they are today considered standards. He also devised more than three dozen songs for children in the 1950s.

The Szpilman revival, which includes the book, movie, soundtrack and a collection of piano works, continues with a set of stylish love ballads sung by Montreal-born chanteuse Wendy Lands. Tongue-twistingly titled "Wendy Lands Sings the Music of the Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman," the disc is a hybrid of 50-year-old melodies and timeless sentiments newly struck. Andrzej Szpilman produced the effort, for which lyrics were specially written to his late father's tunes.

"I must have auditioned 30 singers, but Wendy had a special personality," said Szpilman, who works as a dentist and lives part of the year in the South of France. "She had a sensitivity for this type of music and the kind of expression that's discrete and powerful."

The pianist's son added that the sheet music of a concerto his father composed in the ghetto during the occupation recently surfaced through the mists of time "like a miracle." And he's working to get more of Szpilman's recordings issued in the United States.

In the film, Szpilman, played by Adrien Brody, furtively rehearses in silence. Polanski himself escaped the Krakow ghetto at age 7 through a hole in a barbed-wire fence. When the Nazis were forced to retreat from Warsaw in January 1945, only about 20 Jews were left alive in the city. Szpilman was one of them.

"This film will be educational for Polish people," Andrzej Szpilman said. "It shows the tragedy that happened to these people. It's the first time there's been a really honest movie about this time and place. And it leaves room for your own reflections. I think that's why audiences in Europe are sitting until the last letter of the credits, which is not normal for them."

After the war, Szpilman was named musical director of the rebuilt state radio station where his Chopin nocturne had been interrupted six years earlier. He also resumed his career as a pianist, playing concerts, recitals and duets throughout Europe and America.

"My father never, never spoke of his war experiences," Andrzej recalled. "But he was extremely happy when he found his story was going to told by a fellow Pole. It's all been a very emotional experience for my family."

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© Andrzej Szpilman 2004