Jewish Journal

Memory Through Music

Wladyslaw Szpilman's jazzier tunes have made their way onto a new CD, thanks to his son, Andrzej.

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Wladyslaw Szpilman with his grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Szpilman Archive

Wladyslaw Szpilman with his grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Szpilman Archive

When Andrzej Szpilman was 12, he furtively rummaged through a chest high on a shelf of a closed wardrobe in his Warsaw home. Inside the closet, he found 10 copies of a book and, recognizing his father as the author, hid one in his third-story bedroom. "I read it and received a shock," said Andrzej Szpilman, 46, a dentist and record producer who immigrated to Germany in 1983.

The book was "Death of a City," his father, Wladyslaw's, grittily brutal, dispassionate 1946 memoir of hiding in and around the Warsaw Ghetto. Since Roman Polanski turned the book into a searing film, "The Pianist" -- which won four National Society of Film Critics Awards and is up for two Golden Globes on Sunday -- Szpilman has become one of the best-known Holocaust survivors in history.

But on that fateful 1968 day, his dramatic story was news to his son. "He had never once spoken of his experience," Andrzej Szpilman said. "He never even told me he was Jewish. I think it hurt him to talk about it, because he survived and all his family perished."

More than three decades after he discovered "The Pianist" hidden in a wardrobe, Andrzej Szpilman has made it his mission to bring his father's life story out of the closet, literally. In 1999, he spearheaded the reissue of the memoir, which had been banned by the communist regime and ultimately captivated Polanski. When Polanski's screenplay depicted his father only as a virtuoso pianist, he produced CDs highlighting his father's work as a classical composer and the author of more than 500 pop songs.

The latest, "Wendy Lands Sings the Music of The Pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman," recently released by Universal's Hip-O Records, is a well-received collection of jazzy ditties Szpilman (1911-2000) wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s. "In the film, we see [Poles] helping my father because they knew his Chopin performances, but the real reason most people knew him and hid him was from his hit songs," his son said. "He owes his survival to this kind of music."

In April, with his friend, Sherman Heinig, a German music industry veteran based in Los Angeles, Andrzej Szpilman brought in producer/arranger John Leftwich, who had worked with Rickie Lee Jones. Together, they hired writers to create new, English-language lyrics and auditioned about 30 singers before selecting Canadian-born chanteuse Wendy Lands. The venture is unusual because few scripted films have been able to generate nonsoundtrack albums, according to Variety.

Andrzej Szpilman said he initially invested his own money in the project because his father, while famous in Poland, never had the chance to promote his work in the West. "His career was essentially [stunted] by the Nazis and then the communists," he said. "But it was painful for me that people thought of his music as only good enough for the Polish market. It's my ambition to make it popular to a worldwide audience. That's one way I can honor his memory."

When Andrzej Szpilman began working on reissuing "The Pianist," he said his father, then in his late 80s, wasn't interested in the slightest. "He said, 'Do whatever you want, but no one will read it,'" his son recalled. Instead, the book became a critically acclaimed bestseller published in 20 languages.

Wladyslaw Szpilman did agree to help publicize the memoir by appearing at book signings and speaking to readers, the first time his son ever heard him talk about the war. "But it was strange," he said. "He hadn't read the book in 50 years -- in fact he never re-read it -- but when he spoke he used the exact same sentences he'd written in '46. Like the book, his tone was detached. He sounded like a computer."

Nevertheless, the elder Szpilman was pleased when the book drew Polanski's attention and that of Dr. Noreen Green, artistic director of the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, who conducted the 2001 world premiere of a piece mentioned in the memoir. In the book, Szpilman describes a Gershwinesque "Concertino for Piano and Orchestra" he wrote while languishing in the Warsaw Ghetto. "What struck me was the discrepancy between the wonderful, optimistic music and the terrible conditions under which it was written," Green said.

Andrzej Szpilman -- who included the piece on a CD, "Music Inspired by the Motion Picture 'The Pianist'" -- believes the breezy "Concertino" provides clues to his late father's psychology. So do the upbeat songs, featured on the Lands disc, Szpilman wrote during the Holocaust and the communist regime's anti-Semitic purge of 1968. "My father didn't like to talk about these things, but writing music was his way of coping," his son said.

For information about the Lands CD, go to www.musiclicensing.net/xxx.html. The Lands disc, the film's soundtrack and "Music Inspired by the Motion Picture 'The Pianist,'" can be purchased at www.amazon.com. The Golden Globes air Jan. 19 from 8-11 p.m. on NBC.  

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