What’s Polish for *scandale*?

Jonathan Bellman

Krystian Zimerman, Polish superpianist, declared—before his final piece at a recital at Disney hall in Los Angeles on Sunday evening, April 26—that he was never coming back to the U.S.  Our military is trying to take over the world, etc. etc. Some audience members walked out, tossing obscenities at him (he lobbed an insult or two back), more cheered, there was tumultuous applause for his final piece (Szymanowski variations), no encore, finis.  Exeunt Krystian Zimerman and his Steinway.  News item here, full review of the concert here, post-mortem here.

I am of two minds on this.  I was taught that one never, ever, ever insults an audience or makes them uncomfortable, and making this kind of statement is, in a sense, holding them responsible for the policies of the Bush administration.  To then mock those departing—“Yes, some people, when they hear the word military, start marching” is really provocative as hell.  Zimerman is an artist I admire deeply and I, had I been in the audience might well have fired something nasty back at him at that point, perhaps something to do with murderous Polish behaviors in the 1930s and 40s, or Polish disposition to march when the commands are being offered by Hitler or the Soviets.  I can further imagine being torn limb from limb for having done something like that, so the fact that I would have severed all good relations with Polish friends (who have been generous with their time and help) would have meant little to me… bleeding to death as I would have been.  Probably ’twas a far, far better thing that I wasn’t in the audience, but I know myself well enough (I was short of self-control in class even in graduate school) that I might well have shot off my mouth—and, to be honest, throwing ignoble Polish behaviors in the pianist’s face would not have been an inappropriate response to his decision to rub Bush policies in the faces of a bunch of admiring angeleno concertgoers.

In any case, it was odd that he would choose to enact this bit of theater now that Obama is in office and so many things are changing; indeed, he spoke approvingly of Obama in Berkeley, where he had performed shortly before.  There had been some build-up, over the years, chronicled in the Los Angeles Times pieces linked above.  The only real explanation is one offered in the LA Times, via Zimerman’s manager Mary Pat Buerkle, is that this had been some time in coming, that Zimerman had been increasingly unhappy with the circumstances of touring in the U.S.  Here a particular anecdote comes to mind, one of which I was unaware until now.

Shortly after 9/11, when Zimerman entered the U.S. on tour with his personal Steinway, U.S. officials (Customs? Homeland Security?) thought the glue smelled funny and, suspicious that he might have been smuggling in explosives (!?), destroyed the instrument.

Destroyed the instrument.  Let me explain.  To musicians, instruments are living things.  Even those who would not go so far as to say the sort of thing quoted on Zimerman’s wikipedia entry—“My friendship with the Steinway piano is one of the most important and beautiful things in my life”—we have all had the experience of people coming to us after performances, in tears, transformed, etc. etc.  Yes, it was the music that reached them, and if we have any sense we acknowledge that we personally did not have all that much to do with it.  But to the violinist with his Guarneri or Strad, or the guitarist with his classic Martin or Stratocaster, or Zimerman with his Steinway, that is a living thing, an object miraculously fashioned of star-stuff that can be animated to the point where it communicates directly to listeners’ souls.  I don’t think I exaggerate much; it is akin to how Jews traditionally think about books and scrolls: most certainly not just inanimate objects (hence our reactions to book-burning; that means far more to us even than it looks like).  Rock aficionados should consult John Hiatt’s “Perfectly Good Guitar” if they’re skeptical of my point here; that song is a cri de coeur roughly equal to Clapton’s “Layla,” and it addresses just the subject at hand.  So here’s Zimerman with his beloved Steinway, and the U.S. geniuses—taking a break from renaming pommes frites “freedom fries,” perhaps, or putting up “if you ain’t a patriot you’re a SCUD” posters—destroy his piano.

Since then, Zimerman has chosen to return to the U.S., and now he apparently travels with his piano in pieces, which he reassembles (something I find unimaginable).  I can readily see, though, that such a thuggish act of wanton destruction—needless cruelty, in an artist’s view—would burn away at someone like Zimerman.  Finally, I imagine, he had had enough, though probably the pressures were building up more from within than without: all auguries in the good old U. S. of A. are that we’ve turned back from the moral precipice, governmentally speaking, and are hell-bent on reassuming moral leadership, reestablishing the rule of law, reassuming our responsibilities to our citizens and those of the world, and so on.  It makes no sense for Zimerman to flip us what Bruce Springsteen calls “the New Jersey state bird” now, unless this is a long-term buildup of rage and resentment.

I really have no great conclusion.  Krystian Zimerman is entitled to do what he likes; I continue to admire his artistry, which is equaled by very, very few other musicians.  I hope he decides to return here at some point.  (Since he has returned since the post-9/11 debacle I have to conclude that he decided that return trips would be commercially adavantageous to him.)  All that said, I also think that he was very wrong to allow his feelings to boil over at a bunch of people who had come to be mended and improved by his music, who had paid premium for the privilege, and who had little or nothing to do with Cheney/Rove/Bush (in order of importance) policies.  I have never found artists (or humanities scholars, even) to be deep thinkers, politically—Zimerman or the Dixie Chicks or plenty of other historical examples, so their principled stands can sometimes end up looking a bit…well, simpleminded.  So, while acknowledging his heartfelt feelings, I—proudly American, despite whatever criticisms I choose to level at my government and fellow citizens—would probably been among those bellowing insults back at him. Yet he who[se country] is sinless cast the first stone; it is intellectually so lazy so say something like “your military is trying to take over the world,” now, that however heartfelt this seems like a petty, theatrical display.  Whether Mr. Zimerman returns or not, I’m sure there will still be interest in his playing, but given his choice to make that kind of exit—cape billowing, nose in the air—if this was the final chapter there may not be a lot of mourning here, even among pianists.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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14 Responses to What’s Polish for *scandale*?

  1. Phil Ford says:

    Good point about the meaning of instruments to musicians. When I was about 12 I read about Cromwell’s followers storming churches and pulling down organs, later marching through the streets tooting on the pipes. I remember feeling a wave of real, physical (not metaphorical) nausea, as if I had read about people parading through the streets with dismembered body parts. The Steinway story is hardly the worst thing I’ve heard in the last few years, but it’s shocking in its way; yet another of an near-infinite series of anecdotes to compile into some future book that will tell our astonished descendants about the texture of daily life in the first decade of 21st century America.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    I agree Zimerman’s timing was odd and his choice of demonstrative action a mistake; I also agree he had a major, justified grievance over Homeland Security’s act of vandalism. (Imagine sitting quietly on a crowded 747 when you hear the blood-chilling cry “Look out! He’s got a Steinway D!”) But I’m not sure the many crimes committed by Poland and Poles in the past weigh as heavily in the moral scale as the military interventions of the US right now. I voted for, and admire, Obama, but we’re still waiting for him to make good on his pledge to pull back from the military adventures he inherited; until he does, “Your military is trying to take over the world” is maybe crude but not, I think, actually untrue.

  3. tim says:

    When I read this story yesterday, I hoped that you would comment on it. Thank you so much.

  4. MJ says:

    I love this blog, but I had to read the LA Times article before I believed the part about his piano being destroyed. (What I believed even less was his traveling with the piano in parts. What exactly does that mean? Other than the music rack and the legs, what parts could be taken off that could then be put back on? Easily, over and over again?)
    Anyway, I love Z.’s playing, and had heard this was his attitude toward the U.S. I, too, previously wrote it off in the manner of the Dixie Chicks. But after finding out about the piano, I can’t believe he even came back here at all. Maybe he had contractual obligations? (For that long?) Did he attempt to sue?
    I’m a less-than-third-rate pianist, but if I owned a great piano, and someone destroyed it, I’d have to be restrained. Aside from all musical and emotional considerations, a concert grand is a very expensive piece of property. It’s also the means Z. has of making a living. (Not that he couldn’t easily get another one, but still. And we only know he could never get another one exactly the same.)
    This is definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. Could not someone have checked to see if the man really was who he said he was, and then asked themselves if it was logical that piano glue would … Oh, never mind.
    Yes, the terrorists have won.

  5. jonathan says:

    That is that part of the story–or back-story–that I can’t figure out. I cannot imagine what obnoxious, thuggish cruelty would have moved the morons in the DHS to destroy a piano–a *PIANO*–because the “glue smelled funny.” I’d really like to know more about that story. I guess I really can’t imagine why he would come back to the U.S., after that kind of treatment, either.
    We have a lot of ground to make up, as a nation. I feel good about the start we’ve made, but my *God* was that a ridiculous, nightmarish period.

  6. gabe says:

    Has it actually been verified that Zimerman’s piano was destroyed? I have tried a search (at least the NY Times article archive) for stories in the early 2000s about this destruction and have found nothing — until this latest story about his decision not to tour in the US any more. Did Mr. Zimerman state that his piano was “destroyed”? Was this “destruction” intentional (it sounds like someone took an axe to the instrument)? Was it stored improperly and thus damaged? Zimerman is apparently extremely particular about his instrument (a tendency I find unreasonable as a pianist myself), so what, exactly, might he have meant if he said the instrument was “destroyed”?
    I wish someone would investigate this, it seems that blog after blog simply flogs this story without much critical investigation.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Gabe: guilty as charged–I was parrotting, I guess, what I saw in the L.A. Times, but it’s a widely disseminated story.
    Let me think on’t, and thanks for the justified cold bucket of water.

  8. gabe says:

    Well, actually I may have found a roughly contemporaneous newspaper story that corroborates the story, although it’s hard to interpret exactly what happened, although it sounds like the piano was crated so maybe the customs officials thought the crate did not contain a piano. A couple other stories might give more details, but the newspapers want to charge for them.

  9. Jonathan wrote: ‘The only real explanation is one offered in the LA Times, via Zimerman’s manager Mary Pat Buerkle, is that this had been some time in coming, that Zimerman had been increasingly unhappy with the circumstances of touring in the U.S.’
    Why is this the only real explanation? Zimerman specifically pointed to US foreign policy and its imperialism as reasons for his decision not to tour in the US. Why must one’s motivations be grounded in destruction of property or touring comforts–i.e. what affects the individual–rather than a matter of acting according to one’s conscience and of taking a political stance against hegemony?
    Jonathan wrote: ‘It makes no sense for Zimerman to flip us what Bruce Springsteen calls “the New Jersey state bird” now, unless this is a long-term buildup of rage and resentment.’
    Clearly, Zimerman does not think that Obama is a Christ figure. Some on the left understand that the US system is run from the board room and not the oval office.
    Concerning the piano, Zimerman builds his piano actions for each specific project and tour. He is his own technician. His relationship to the instrument is also one of a craftsman, which we simply do not find in other artists.

  10. jonathan says:

    I agree with your point about the piano and Zimerman’s relationship to it. Your “some on the left understand” remark, though, merits no more than a sour laugh. People On The Left don’t necessarily “understand” more than those On The Right: the self-righteousness and tribalisms are the same. Too often, only the color of the uniforms is different, and the flavor of the ideology through which reality is prismatically filtered. I wonder if those same Euro-Left types “understand” such countries as Poland and Germany—Zimerman’s original and adopted countries–to be run less from the boardroom? If not the boardroom, where? Don’t even start to say “by the people”–I’ve lived in a country with a parliamentary system and the people care about as much as they do in the U.S. Worse yet, they understand about as much, too.
    My point was that the U.S. is in a process of radical improvement now, and whether or not Obama was presented to us on a *Deus ex machina* we’ve been America for some time. If Obama, doesn’t represent that much of a change, why did Zimerman bother coming here in the first place? To take our money and *then* insult us? Some other reason? Very impressive.

  11. You seemed to have avoided the question that I posed by turning to the realm of facile distinctions, stereotypes, and patriotic finger-pointing. And, I was not making a distinction between the left and the right, rather my comment ‘some on the left…’ referred to those on the left who have developed a critique of power that undermines the false dualism between the mainstream political parties in the US. I was making a distinction between the ‘official’ realm of politics controlled by the moneyed elites and politics conceived of and engaged in at the local, grass-roots level. Poland and Germany have very little to do with the current discussion (just as your comment in your original post about what Poles did under the Nazis and Soviets is irrelevant to the current situation). We have a moral responsibility towards what we can alter. We are talking about an artist who is talking a stance against the current empire.
    As far as the US being in a process of radical improvement, I really question your use of ‘radical’ here. Even Karl Rove, in a recent NY Times Op-ed, is praising Obama for providing continuity with the Bush administration’s foreign policy objectives.

  12. Cory Edel says:

    What are you talking about? What Polish behavior in the 1930 and 1940? It’s rather the American INACTIVITY that caused much of the WWII damage. How many times did Polish people saved Jews from concentration camp, and had them sent to the US to tell to the American public that the Holocaust is happening!!! But they didn’t listen, they didn’t believe that, rather they listened to Hitler, saying that the Jews were sent to “working camps” in Russia
    Learn your history before you ever comment
    Now that’s American ignorance!!!

  13. Joe says:

    I have been in an audience when a great pianist has chosen to impose their personal views on the audience – It is neither the time nor the place and unlikely in my opinion to ever have the effect the artist would desire. Sad if the piano really did get vandalised though.

  14. “Get your hands off of my country,” he said. He also made reference to the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
    About 30 or 40 people in the audience walked out, some shouting obscenities. “Yes,” he answered, “some people when they hear the word military start marching.”
    You know it’s hard for me to fault Zimmermann for the way he reacted. There is so much pent up anger at the way the Bush Administration treated the rest of the world during its eight year reign that I don’t think that we Americans actually understand the damage done to our reputation on the world stage. Art and Polictics often collide.

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