Music scholars, critics, and popular writers have for generations told and retold the same tale about Fryderyk Chopin: namely, that the teenaged composer encountered Jewish folk musicians during his visits to the Polish countryside, was fascinated by their music, and even occasionally performed it. Our article endeavors to counter this and similar misconceptions about Chopin's connections to Jews and Jewish folk music, drawing on an array of historical, ethnographic, and literary sources previously discounted or overlooked by Chopin scholars, and freshly reexamining the composer's earliest correspondence. Having established an absence of primary documentation corroborating oft-repeated anecdotes about the young Chopin's interactions with Jewish music makers, we argue that the “Jewish tales” tenaciously clinging to the composer's biography reflect narratives rooted in later nineteenth-century nationalist rhetoric, anachronistic misreadings of Polish-Jewish relations, and unchallenged reliance on precedent writing. Finally, we offer a sampling of the folk and popular music Chopin would likely have heard, performed, and described to his family, citing material sourced from the work of the pioneering Polish ethnographer, and Chopin family friend, Oskar Kolberg.
Chopin’s Żydek, and Other Apocryphal Tales
Barbara Milewski is an expert on Chopin and, more broadly, on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Polish music and questions of nationalism, memory, and identity. Recent scholarly writings and translations have brought international attention to songs from the Nazi concentration camps, contemporary Polish theater, and postwar Polish cinema. She is professor of music at Swarthmore College.
Bret Werb is the long-serving music specialist and recorded sound curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has contributed to scholarly books and periodicals, produced recordings of ghetto, camp, and resistance songs, and collaborated on numerous theater, film, and concert projects. He holds a PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA.
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Barbara Milewski, Bret Werb; Chopin’s Żydek, and Other Apocryphal Tales. Journal of Musicology 1 July 2022; 39 (3): 342–370. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2022.39.3.342
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