Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. His mother was Polish, and his father was a French immigrant to Poland. A renowned child prodigy pianist and composer, Chopin grew up in Warsaw and completed his musical education there. Following Russia’s suppression of the Polish Uprising in November 1830, he settled in Paris and became part of the Great Emigration. He never returned to his homeland. Regardless of that, Chopin was an ardent and deeply emotional Polish patriot. His celebrity in the mid-19th century did much to help put the Polish claim to statehood on the map. His role in public diplomacy for his country has remained unsurpassed to this very day. Who knows what could have been if Poland had existed when Chopin did – after all, not many other countries have elected a composer and New York resident to the position of prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, as Poland did with Ignacy Jan Paderewski in 1919. According to Chopin’s last wish, his heart was smuggled by his sister Ludwika into Russian-occupied Poland and buried in Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church.
The vast majority of Chopin's works are for piano solo, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces and some songs to Polish lyrics. His piano works are often technically demanding, with an emphasis on nuance and expressive depth. Chopin invented the instrumental ballade and made major innovations to the piano sonata, mazurka, waltz, nocturne, polonaise, étude, impromptu, scherzo and prélude.
One could not hope to describe him better than our fellow compatriot Arthur Rubinstein did:
“Chopin was a genius of universal appeal. His music conquers the most diverse audiences. When the first notes of Chopin sound through the concert hall there is a happy sigh of recognition. All over the world men and women know his music. They love it. They are moved by it. Yet it is not "Romantic music" in the Byronic sense. It does not tell stories or paint pictures. It is expressive and personal, but still a pure art. Even in this abstract atomic age, where emotion is not fashionable, Chopin endures. His music is the universal language of human communication.”
There are, of course, numerous Chopin piano competitions around the globe – and ours is not even among the more important ones. There is the International Chopin Piano Competition held every five years in Warsaw. It is one of very few major international competitions devoted solely to the works of a single composer. There is an Australian biennial Chopin Piano Competition in Canberra. The Kosciuszko Foundation here in New York holds an annual competition. There is a National Chopin Piano Competition of the United States, a Canadian Chopin Festival, one in Moscow, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and a substantial number of others in many countries, not to mention in almost every self-respecting Polish town. There are even Chopin Piano Competitions held on YouTube now that are judged by popular vote. And since there is no copyright on what undoubtedly has become one of the greatest Polish brands of all, we think that all this only goes to show the vibrancy of global interest in Chopin on one side, and in piano virtuosi on the other.
The Polish Student Society at Columbia and Barnard has established its tradition of holding an annual competition on campus not for some overwhelming need for a “me too” event, but because we realized that our campus is, indeed, a microcosm of fantastic international diversity and very serious talent. American national universities have, in fact, become the gold standard of higher education globally. As a consequence, many of the most accomplished students from the world’s most ambitious nations come to receive their education there. While this does not make it easy for the rest of us, it is why everyone is ultimately here: to study with the best and learn from the best. As one can hear in the traditional commencement speeches every year, a substantial part of our educational experience is owed to our fellow students. Their often unbelievable accomplishments and multitude of interests make our campus a universe of ideas, initiatives, and a veritable marketplace of human talent.
And grooming emerging talent is every university’s stock-in-trade: although we are no school of music, we are a school of thought and a meeting ground of many cultures and ideas, of a great depth and breadth of style and creativity. In our Annual Chopin Piano Competition we provide an opportunity for just that: to showcase talent.
The winners of the competition were as follows:
1st place: Wei-Li Suen - Nocturne in E Major, Op.62/2
2nd place: Natalie Jung - Nocturne No. 8 in D flat Major, Op. 27/2
3rd place: Dean Deng - Scherzo No. 1, Op. 20
It is our sincere wish to thank again our kind sponsors for their assistance in this event. Our gratitude goes to the East Central European Center for the prizes to the winning contestants. The event was sponsored in part by the Arts Initiative at Columbia University, made possible through a generous gift from The Gatsby Charitable Foundation.
President, Polish Student Society at Columbia University and Barnard College