And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Isaiah 35:10
When I was sixteen years old, I sat on an airplane next to a man I have never forgotten. He was seated in the center seat of a crowded set of three seats. I was seated in the aisle seat. The man was returning from a trip to Venezuela where he had been given a circular brass shield, at least three and a half feet in diameter, with an intricate pattern pounded into it. The flight attendant asked me if I minded such a large object in front of my feet since it would not fit under the seat, in the overhead bins, or in the airplane closets. I said that I didn’t. Without this obstacle in front of us, we might never have spoken.
He was a balding man in his fifties with a fairly prominent nose, dark glasses, and a strong Eastern European accent. As we began to converse, we came to the topic of music. I do not remember everything that was said during our first conversation on the plane. I remember that he asked me if I played the piano. I told him that I had from the age of eight or nine until I turned fourteen and then had focused all my attention to the trombone. Somehow our conversation came around to the music of Frédéric Chopin and he asked me if I had any particularly favorite artists or recordings of Chopin. Undaunted by his presence and unaware of his musical prowess, I told him that I liked the recordings of Van Cliburn, whose “My Favorite Chopin,” a best-selling RCA album in the 1960s, was in my parents’ record collection. He seemed to wince as I told him this, perhaps, although he never said anything negative about van Cliburn, because his interpretation and playing of Chopin’s music was antithetical to his own. Little did I know that I was speaking to the Polish pianist Andrzej Wasowski (1919-1993), a man who Time Magazine in 1946 called “the greatest Chopin interpreter of modern times.”
A few weeks after the flight, I greeted him at the door of my home. After our in-flight conversation, knowing that I would appreciate his abilities, or perhaps to prove to me without words that his playing far exceeded that of van Cliburn’s, he invited me to his upcoming recital.
Andrzej Wasowski was a pianist who had emigrated to the United States from Poland. He came from a wealthy Polish noble family. His mother was a Princess and his father a vast landowner. In 1939 his dreams were shattered when the Nazis invaded his country and his family’s lands and property were forever taken from them. He told me how he was forced to play piano at the private parties of Nazi officers and on concert tours in Russia, where he was allowed to play anything but the work of Chopin, for fear that the nationalist sentiments raised by Chopin’s fiery and emotional piano music, would enflame the populace against the army of their occupiers.
Even at my young age, I sensed a certain sadness about him. I knew that the well of his emotions ran deep. The music of Chopin seemed to connect him to his lost homeland, his people, his mother, and the vast tradition of musical artists and performers. He played Chopin like no other!
I can only imagine what it would be like to have lost as much at once as he did. His sadness never seemed self-absorbed. It seemed to express itself in his music and in his kind and gentle manner to his students and friends.
As a child, I was surrounded by two very good piano players, my grand-mother Phillips and my mother. I would play a tune and my grandmother, ever the severe critic, would tell me that I need to play it with expression. I had played all the notes correctly but that was not entirely what it was about. Expression is what separates the good piano players from the spectacular—and Mr. Wasowski was spectacular.
Maestro Autori, the Italian conductor of the Tulsa Philharmonic Orchestra, lived around the corner from our house. Before an upcoming recital, Andrej Wasowski, after visiting the nearby conductor, would stop by our house and invite me and my family to attend. I still have the programs from two of the recitals we attended in the 1970s.
At the intermission of one of his recitals, my father and I went up to greet him and commend him for his artistry. He showed us an enormous fluid-filled blister on his thumb, the like of which I have never seen. It stretched from the palm of his hand to the tip of his thumb. He had practiced and practiced for the recital and had played his heart (and his fingers) out during the first half of the concert. Perhaps the Beethoven piano sonata that had been played with such vigor was the culprit. He showed the blister to us privately, as if only to us, and soon was back without the audience ever being the wiser and played the entire second half of his recital with a few encores—never telling the audience of his physical handicap that day.
Sadly, I lost track of him during my years in seminary. A few years ago, while listening to the piano music of Chopin and Scriabin, I was inspired to find recordings Wasowski’s piano playing. Much to my surprise, I found recordings of Chopin’s 51 Mazurkas and 21 Nocturnes. I bought them immediately and went home to listen to them. At the same time, I discovered that Wasowski had died in 1993 in Washington, D. C.
The memories of his piano playing and his personal kindness came back to me at once.
In the season of Advent, we read the words of the prophet Isaiah in which he foretells a time in which God will restore all things. In the midst of the world in which war, famine, torture, death, and evil abounds, the arrival of the Messiah provides hope.
In the midst of a world in which it is so easy for us to become discouraged or even to give up hope, the music Andrej Wasowski played provided hope both to himself and to others. I wonder sometimes if it was the piano music he played that kept him from despair. Andrej had a kindness and gentleness borne of the immensity of loss in his life and the fact that in spite of all that he and his wife had raised a family. Even in an undeserved obscurity in the United States, he somehow still had hope, a hope that he quietly shared with others, that is until he began to play the piano. And how he could he play!
Even now when I hear his recordings of Chopin, I hear the wings of hope ever ascending. I’m not sure if it is the music of angels, but it comes pretty close.