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I was born in Warsaw, Poland, on December 17, 1917, the youngest of seven children. I grew up living in a large apartment at 18 Gesia Street in a Jewish neighborhood in the northern part of the city, later part of the Warsaw Ghetto. We were a musical family, and there was always lots of singing and music playing at home. My parents were great people who were always encouraging us and joining in on the merrymaking.
Most of our musical interest and talent came from my wonderful mother, who adored music and encouraged us all to play instruments. Although she played the piano only a little bit, she had a special love for music that she passed on to all of us. She once told me that while coming home from school, she regularly went out of her way to pass a private home where a piano was often played. She would stand outside the house and listen for as long as the music continued, forgetting to go home.
My brother Ignaz and my sisters Helen and Lucy played the piano, while my brothers Joel and George played the violin. Although Ignaz never studied a note, he sang beautifully and played totally by ear. He was a great entertainer and the life of the party, and he was always played so that family and guests could sing and dance. My brother Michael did not play an instrument, but he loved music immensely. He was the one who most wanted me to succeed as a pianist, always chasing me to the piano to make sure I practiced.
Since my father's wholesale clothing business was just down the block, at 8 Gesia Street, he came home every day forlunch. He was a very bright man and a good provider, but what I remember most about him was his sense of humor. He Was the greatest laugher in the world. I'd say to him, "Dad, I'm going to tickle your foot," and he would start laughing without my touching him. When he laughed, the tears would pour out of his eyes. Later, when I was older, we'd sneak out to the movies together to see Charlie Chaplin or some other comedian. My father always laughed the loudest in the movie house, and I wouldn't be far behind him. He had started out being very strict and stern, but he learned to relax as the family grew.
My musical education began in a most informal way. When I was four years old, I started to sneak in on my sister Helen's piano lessons. I would jump up on a chair behind the piano stool and peek over her shoulder, taking it all in with wide-open eyes and ears. I fell in love with the piano instantly. It made the most glorious sound in the world, the most magnificent I had ever heard. I was hooked. From then on I was married to the piano.
Helen's excellent teacher, an older woman with eyes that were a little crossed, didn't appreciate my interference, but she tolerated my curiosity. One week she showed me a piano key and said, "This is middle C. Now play it." I played it and left knowing where middle C was. The next week I was at the piano before the lesson started and proudly pointed out, "That's C."
"Yes," she said, "and that's a C, and that's a C, and that's a C. The next one is a D, now get out of here." Each week the story repeated itself. The teacher showed me a little more until eventually I had learned the names of all the keys on the piano. Then every once in a while on my own I would tiptoe in and bang around a little bit with one finger. I wasn't playing much of anything, but the wheels were already starting to turn inside my head.
The next summer, when I was five, my mother took me with her to a beautiful spa in northern Poland called Ciechocinek, where people traditionally went for a rest and a "cure." It was similar to what Bath used to be in England. Visitors drank mineral water from its source in a lovely big park and listened to an excellent symphony orchestra, which played concerts of classical music every afternoon. My mother never missed a single one, and, of course, I was always with her.
When we returned home to Warsaw after six weeks at Ciechocinek, I went straight to our upright piano and picked out with one finger most of the beautiful themes from Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky that I had heard at the concerts. As you can imagine, this caused quite a sensation among the family members. So my mother arranged to bring me to see Josef Goldberg, a well-known teacher of gifted children with special musical talent. He was the director of the Moniuszko School of Music, a first-rate school named after a famous Polish composer.
We took the streetcar to the Center City and went to 132 Marszalkowska Street, where Mr. Goldberg lived on the top floor. To try out my musical ear, Mr. Goldberg played a ten-note chord using both hands and asked me to tell him what the notes were. I immediately gave my answer, but my mother, who had seen his hands and the piano keys he had pressed, said, "Oh, that's wrong," believing I was off by a half tone.
"No, it is a half tone lower, Mrs. Filar," Mr. Goldberg said. "He's dead right. My piano is badly out of tune. He has perfect pitch."
That news convinced my parents that I should begin musical studies. Since both my sisters and Ignaz already played the piano, my parents decided that I should study the violin like George and Joel. So they bought me a quarter-sized "baby" violin. It said "Stradivarius" on the inside, but it wasn't.
The first time they handed it to me and I tried to play, I immediately started to cry and make a scene. I hated the thing. I couldn't find the right tone, the right key, the right way to play on pitch. It drove me crazy. You never heard such a noise. That violin wailed and squeaked and screeched so much that it sounded like it was trying to scare all the mice out of the house. It was awful! I carried on and fussed, crying, "I don't wanna, I don't wanna." I made myself so obnoxious that they finally figured it wasn't worth it and switched me to the piano. Then I was happy. Life was all sunshine again. I had already fallen in love with the sound of the piano and that was what I wanted to play—the piano and only the piano. That has never changed.
Because I had such a good ear, Mr. Goldberg took me on as one of his private students, and I studied piano with him from ages six to twelve. When I began, Helen used to take me by the hand to my lessons. Mr. Goldberg had a concert-sized E-Bach—a nine-foot grand—that from my perspective looked about fifty feet long. When we reached the top floor, waiting there would be that enormous piano that made such a big sound! In the beginning, because I was still so small, Mr. Goldberg had special pedals put on his piano to raise them to the level of my feet, which didn't even come close to touching the floor when I sat on the piano bench. I always enjoyed my lessons with him, and our whole family liked him and enjoyed his company. He was a man of good humor, and we were constantly inviting him to our house on the Jewish holidays to be part of the celebration and ritual.
I did so well with my musical studies that at age six I was asked to give a public performance in the large no. 19 classroom at the Warsaw State Conservatory, which was located in the Center City at Okölnik 1, just off Nowy Swiat Street. Since I didn't realize how unusual it was to be playing a recital, I wasn't nervous. To me it was no big deal. Besides, all my brothers and sisters played instruments, so I was just doing something that everyone else in my family did, except that I had a recital. You don't learn to get nervous until you're older.
I played that first recital on a Bechstein piano. Years later I read a book by James and Suzanne Pool entitled Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power, 1919-1933 (New York: Dial Press, 1978). I learned for the first time that the Bechsteins, especially Helene Bechstein, were great promoters and financial supporters of Hitler. Helene Bechstein even went to the trouble of teaching the future mass murderer which fork to use when he dined with wealthy people. The book makes me wonder how many concert pianists around the world know of the Bechsteins' support for Hitler and his cause. It would be hard to believe that any decent human being who knew that would want to play a Bechstein piano ever again.
When I was about seven years old, Mr. Goldberg was so pleased with my progress that he decided to show me off to his teacher, the very famous Aleksander Michalowski, one of the all-time great Polish pianists. Michalowski was as good if not a better pianist than Paderewski, who was an artistic god in Poland as well as the prime minister. But because Michalowski never left Poland, he never became as famous as Paderewski. Michalowski, however, was the true dean of Polish pianists and a great exponent of Chopin's music. When you mentioned Michalowski's name, everyone took his hat off.
When I met him, Michalowski was a very old man, half blind and feeble. I played for him, but I was too young to appreciate the honor. I'm embarrassed to admit that I was more impressed with his French poodle and spent the time under his piano playing with the dog rather than trying to talk with him. What I wouldn't give now to talk to him about music!
I also studied a little with Professor Jerzy Zurawlew of the Chopin Music School. Professor Zurawlew was a remarkable man. He was responsible for starting Poland's International Chopin Competition, one of the world's most prestigious piano competitions. He got the idea in a very funny way. Next to the Conservatory of Music was a big circus building where everyone used to go. As a kid, I went there often and loved every act, especially the clowns and the trapeze artists. There was always quite a crowd. One Saturday Professor Zurawlew was coming out of the Conservatory when he saw a line of people that stretched all the way down the block, a much longer line than usual. He wondered what everyone was waiting for, so he asked someone and found out that the circus was a having a special boxing match. He asked himself, what is it about a boxing match that attracts all these people? He decided that it was the competition, the desire to see who was best, who was going to win. So he thought, "Why can't we take these people away from the circus and bring them to the Conservatory? If everyone likes competitions so much, why not have a competition of music instead?" That was the idea behind Poland's great International Chopin Competition, which began in 1927.
Although I don't remember much about it, I am proud to say that when I was ten I played a mutual recital at the Warsaw State Conservatory with my contemporary, the great violinist Henryk Szeryng. How wonderful that fifty-one years later, after our worlds had collapsed around us, we were able to come together again to teach a master class.
In 1931, when I was still only twelve, I took a big step forward in my career as a pianist and a performer. I auditioned for the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, playing the complete Mozart D Minor Piano Concerto, K.466, for the Philharmonic's conductor, Walerian Bierdjajew. He was so impressed he immediately engaged me to perform the same piece as a soloist with the orchestra. I played, and my performance received excellent reviews. Suddenly I was famous, a celebrity, a hero among my friends!
My parents were delighted. One afternoon soon after the performance I came home from school to find that our faithful old upright was gone—vanished! To my astonishment, a brand-new five-foot, seven-inch grand piano by Kerntopf, a very good manufacturer, stood in its place. It was just waiting there—for me! My parents had never said a word. Suddenly I had a beautiful new piano and one of the most wonderful surprises of my life.
As a result of my first performance with the Warsaw Philharmonic, I was selected to play the Mozart concerto again a few months later, this time with the Philharmonic under the baton of conductor and cellist Kazimierz Wilkomirski. For my encore at the performance, I played Chopin's Nocturne in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2. Even at that early age I had an affinity for Chopin, in my opinion the greatest piano composer of all time. Again, the reviews were wonderful, and everyone was impressed.
Shortly afterward my parents decided I needed a new teacher. Mr. Goldberg wanted me to work next on Beethoven's First Piano Concerto, which was a big mistake. It was too big a step to try to take without first mastering the fundamentals. Even my mother knew it was wrong. Mr. Goldberg was just relying on my ear, so he wasn't working on any of the basics with me. He never mentioned anything about chords, arpeggios, scales—the techniques that are the underpinnings of any great technique. So now after my success with the Philharmonic, he wanted me to learn this very difficult concerto. It was time to leave.
It so happened that Alfred Hoehn, a great German pianist who had won the first Anton Rubinstein Piano Competition in Moscow and who was the director of the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music, was in Warsaw in preparation for his upcoming performance with the Philharmonic. He attended my second performance of the Mozart concerto to check out the kid all of Warsaw was talking about. Afterward, my mother brought me to meet him. Since she had taken me away from Professor Goldberg, she wasn't sure where to turn and thought that Mr. Hoehn could offer some advice. He was very complimentary about me, and, much to our surprise, he offered to take me to Germany to study with him. He had children my age with whom I could go to school, so I would have friends while I studied piano.
"When he comes back to you at twenty-one," he told my mother, "he'll be completely trained and ready as a concert pianist. But there is a problem in Germany right now with the Hitlerites. I'm sure it will blow over in a few months, but, until it does, why doesn't he study at the Conservatory here? Then he can come to me when this Hitler business settles down. Each time I visit Warsaw, I'll stop by to monitor his progress."
He recommended that I study with Professor Zbigniew Drzewiecki, the most admired piano teacher in Poland as well as a distinguished concert pianist who played throughout Europe. He was president of the Chopin Society and of Poland's International Chopin Competition. Professor Drzewiecki was a great man and the leading musician in the country, and he demanded 100 percent all the time.
So the next thing I knew, I was auditioning for Professor Drzewiecki, and he accepted me for private study during July and August in preparation for the September entrance exam to the Warsaw Conservatory of Music.
That summer of study with Professor Drzewiecki was not the happiest period of my life, to put it mildly. Today I reverently keep his photograph above my piano, but then he was bigger than life and was stern and very intimidating. There was no nonsense about him. When he gave you a look of disapproval, you turned to ice. When he yelled, you shook. He scared me half to death. I remember him always with a cigarette, which he kept between his third and fourth fingers. He was a very, very great man, and it was an honor to be his student, but it wasn't easy. For one thing, he shouted at me at the top of his lungs. And what he shouted made it worse.
Here I was, almost a folk hero. Stories about me were appearing in all the newspapers: Marian Filar, who had soloed with the Warsaw Symphony at age twelve; Marian Filar, the prodigy, the new musical sensation, the young genius! And here Professor Drzewiecki was yelling at me! And not very politely. How dare he? I didn't like it at all.
But I have to admit, I did set myself up for it. At our unforgettable first meeting when he asked me what I played, I foolishly but innocently enough said, "A concerto." He said that he didn't want to hear it again, that he had been at the concert. Then there was a very long silence, the calm before the storm.
"Do you play scales?" he asked.
"Do you play arpeggios?"
"Do you play Czemy études?"
"Do you play Bach?"
He exploded, "Then you don't know anything!"
And when Professor Drzewiecki shouted, you wanted to take cover. He was famous for his yelling. On one occasion, my mother was supposed to meet me after my lesson, but she didn't show up, so I had to go home alone. When I got there, I was surprised to find her at home.
"Mother, why didn't you meet me at Professor Drzewiecki's as you said you would?"
"I was there. I was at the door, just about to ring his bell, but when I heard such shouting inside, I got scared and turned around and went home!"
And she had only been outside the door! She had no idea what it was like to be in the line of fire!
I was miserable and cried a lot during those two months because I thought of myself as what the newspapers were saying I was—a great young pianist. But I hadn't developed the patience and discipline to work on such basics as hand position, wrist position, arm weight, scales, chords, arpeggios, and so on. And what was worse, I didn't know how much I needed to master those things. Thank God, Professor Drzewiecki scared the hell out of me and forced me to learn them.
At our first lesson he said, "All right, show me your hand position." I did, but my fingers weren't correct. "No, like this," and he shaped my fingers so they were more rounded. "Now, show me your hand position." I did. The fingers were still not right. One in particular wasn't rounded enough.
"No!" he shouted. He grabbed my tiny recalcitrant finger and slammed it into the keyboard. "Like this!"
Ouch! I had to look at my finger to see if all of it was still there!
"Forget about concertos and concerts," he shouted. "You don't even know how the fingers should be placed on the keyboard!" I wanted to hide under the piano. But, in my own defense, how was I supposed to know? No one had ever taught me about hand positions. The truth is, I didn't really know anything about music. I had simply been relying on my ear and not working on the basics. That was all to change.
Even though I eventually came to appreciate Professor Drzewiecki's greatness, that summer with him was pure hell—like Marine boot camp. My early, naive dislike of him later turned into admiration and appreciation for a wonderful teacher, and later still, I came to look upon him as my second father. He was one of the courageous ones who risked his life to help me survive the Holocaust.
Excerpted from From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall by Marian Filar and Charles Patterson. Copyright © 2002 by Marian Filar and Charles Patterson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Part 1: Old World|
|Part 2: Fires of War|
|War Comes to Warsaw||000|
|Refugee in Lemberg||000|
|The Warsaw Ghetto||000|
|Part 3: Inside the Nazi Camps|
|Majdanek and Skarzysko Kamienna||000|
|Buchenwald and Schlieben||000|
|Part 4: After the Storm|
|The Tables Are Turned||000|
|Searching for Pieces of the Past||000|
|A New Beginning in Germany||000|
|Enter Sol Hurok||000|
|Farewell to Europe||000|
|Part 5: New World|
|Getting Started in a New Land||000|
|Managing without a Manager||000|
|Return to Warsaw||000|