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Henryk Melcer-Szczawinski

born: 25 July 1869
died: 18 April 1928
country: Poland

Henryk Melcer-Szczawinski—pianist-composer, conductor-teacher and music administrator—began his early musical education with his maternal grandmother, Józefa Klemczyn´ska, and later with his father, Karol, who was a violinist and choir director. His father came from the ancient city of Kalisz (Calisia), first mentioned by the Romans in the second century as being on the amber route between Rome and the Baltic Sea; the city is approximately sixty-five miles southeast of Poznan´ (Posen). It was in Kalisz that Henryk continued his musical studies at the local boys’ gymnasium and won the school’s gold medal upon graduation in 1887. Returning to Warsaw, Henryk simultaneously majored in mathematics at Warsaw University and in music at Warsaw’s Music Institute. There he studied the piano with Rudolf Strobl and composition with Zygmunt Noskowski, whose tone poem Steppe remains one of the most beloved and frequently performed symphonic pieces of nineteenth-century Polish repertoire. Melcer continued his studies in Vienna in mathematics and music, the latter with the Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky. Some sources mention that Melcer also studied with Aleksander Michalowski and/or Moritz Moszkowski, but these claims are dubious.

Sometime in the early 1980s, when interest in Melcer’s music saw a brief renaissance in Poland, several Polish sources began to claim that Melcer had also won third prize in the piano portion of the 1895 Anton Rubinstein Competition. This urban legend even made its way into the New Grove Dictionary. It should be remembered that this competition, held every five years from 1890 to 1910 and open only to males between the ages of twenty and twenty-six, was a contest for both pianists and composers. Only two prizes of 5,000 francs each were awarded in 1895—one for the best composer and one for the best pianist. Sometimes diplomas and/or ‘special diplomas’ were given to certain contestants but without any monetary award. The French and Polish correspondents for Le Monde musical and Echo muzyczny made no mention of the mythical ‘third prize’ in their coverage of that competition. In a letter from Berlin, dated 23 August 1895, Melcer wrote to his wife that based upon his performance the previous day he would not receive any prize. The pianist described his playing as having been exceptionally nervous, the cause of two memory slips in the required Beethoven sonata. The prize-winner from that year’s thirty-three registered competitors turned out to be Josef Lhévinne. He at first won the prize ex aequo with the French pianist Victor Staub, a student of Louis Diémer, but the jury insisted on another ballot which saw Lhévinne win by one vote. Staub and the Russian pianist Konstantin Igumnov received special diplomas. Melcer won neither a third prize nor a diploma (see Gustav A Alink: International Piano Competitions, Book 3, p. 4).

Nevertheless, in Berlin many were impressed with Melcer’s pianism and musicality, including Busoni, Diémer, Scriabin and Widor. Melcer accepted an offer to become professor of piano at the Helsinki Music Institute in autumn 1895, partially for financial reasons and partially because of the light teaching schedule that would allow him to perform during the academic year. One of his students in Helsinki was the famous Finnish composer and pianist Selim Palmgren, who included Melcer’s works in his repertoire. Helsinki was home for only one academic year, though. In 1896, Melcer moved to Lwów (known officially in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire as Lemberg) where one of his pupils in 1898 was the six-year-old Mieczyslaw Horszowski.

Towards the end of World War I Melcer became piano professor at the re-established Warsaw Conservatory. The end of that first world-consuming conflict in 1918 also saw the resurgence of a sovereign Polish nation for the first time in almost 150 years. In 1922, Melcer replaced Emil Mlynarski as the conservatory’s rector.

Melcer resigned from his conservatory post in 1926 (his successor was Karol Szymanowski), but he remained on the faculty, teaching both piano and composition. A year later he served on the jury of the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and gave his last performance during a concert of his own works directed by cellist-conductor Kazimierz Wilkomirski, still another musical sibling of Maria, Józef and Wanda. While giving a lecture at the Warsaw Conservatory, Melcer suffered a heart attack and died on 18 April 1928 at the age of fifty-nine. On 21 April Mozart’s Requiem was sung at his funeral service at Holy Cross Basilica, the church in which Chopin’s heart is enshrined.

Melcer was not a prolific composer. His orchestral works include the two concertos found on this CD, a programmatic symphony in C minor entitled ‘Four Romantic Pictures in the Form of a Symphony’ that was never published and whose score and parts have been lost, and a set of marches for military band. His other compositions include several chamber music pieces, a number of miniatures for solo piano, a couple of song cycles and a handful of choral works, an opera Maria (which won the first prize of 5,000 roubles in a 1903 competition in Warsaw) and an unfinished opera Protesilas i Laodamia, and seven piano arrangements of art songs by Stanislaw Moniuszko. One of the best pianists of his time, Melcer was responsible for training an entire generation of Polish musicians, and it is for his pedagogical work that he is best remembered in his native Poland, where his works are seldom performed today. In Warsaw, the Chopin Academy of Music’s chamber music hall is named in honour of its former rector.

from notes by Joseph A Herter © 2008

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