Warsaw Autumn: Making New Music in Cold War Poland

This post is part of a blog series leading up to the American Musicological Society annual conference taking place in Vancouver, Canada from November 3–6. Please visit our booth if you are attending, and otherwise stay tuned for more content related to our Music books and journals programs.

by Lisa Jakelski, author of Making New Music in Cold War Poland: The Warsaw Autumn Festival, 1956-1968

Jakelski cover Making New Music in Cold War PolandWhat can institutions tell us about contemporary art music? The Warsaw Autumn festival provides some intriguing answers to this question. Launched in 1956 (and still running today), the Warsaw Autumn was at the heart of a vibrant musical culture in Poland whose diversity and modernity were unique in Cold War Eastern Europe. Electronic music from West Germany, symphonies from the Soviet Union, sonic experiments from Poland, and avant-garde dance from the United States—these were just some of the things a festivalgoer could see and hear in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The Warsaw Autumn fascinates me because of its unique location during the Cold War. At the time, the festival was on the cultural fault line between East and West, and, as a result, it was a place where there were heated debates about what new music could (and should) be. I’ve been just as intrigued by the stories of the people who’ve been involved with the festival. In writing this book I’ve encountered savvy composers, traveling performers, wheeling-and-dealing cultural officials, partisan critics, curious tourists, and rioting audiences. Telling their stories has allowed me to present new music as a social phenomenon—the creation of many different actors working through institutions. Following the journeys of people, objects, and ideas has also led me to a more nuanced understanding of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Instead of being muffled by an Iron Curtain, musicians in Poland, through the Warsaw Autumn festival, were able to participate meaningfully in networks that stretched across the world.

Lisa Jakelski is Associate Professor of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.

Remembering Mayer Kirshenblatt, 1916-2009

Mayer Kirshenblatt, the artist whose paintings opened a window onto Jewish life in Poland before the Holocaust, died November 20, 2009 at age 93. Kirshenblatt started painting at age 73 at the urging of his family, who asked him to “paint what you remember”. Over the years he created almost 300 paintings, each an illustrated memory of his hometown of Apt, Poland, before World War II. “The paintings burst from his brush,” his daughter Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote in a Toronto Globe and Mail column in memory of her father.

With his paintbrush, Kirshenblatt immortalized his home and family, and all the goings-on in Apt: the “human fly” who would climb the house of the wealthiest man in town, the boy whose parents dressed him in white all his life, the interior of the synagogue, weddings and funerals, holiday meals and celebrations, and the stories that were handed down to him from past generations.

His paintings also capture vivid fragments of everyday life: the way his mother’s scrubbing burnished the floorboards, sailing paper boats in the rain-filled gutter, the tools used by leathermakers and the way a horse’s harness was fastened, the foods bought and sold in the market, the fish in the millpond and the attire of the water-carriers—all the details that can only be expressed by someone who was there. Each painting is its own story, and together they are a visual memoir and a priceless gift.

Mayer Kirshenblatt moved to Canada in 1934, and had a long career before starting to paint. His work is collected in They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland before the Holocaust, published in 2007. The narrative is gathered from 40 years of interviews and conversations between Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and her father.

The Museum of Family History has an online exhibit of 40 of Kirshenblatt’s paintings, with accompanying narratives, audio and video. In this feature from The Jewish Museum, where he had a solo exhibition last year, Kirshenblatt leads a virtual tour through his hometown. A documentary about Mayer Kirshenblatt, called Paint What You Remember, was completed in 2009.

Read Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s “Lives Lived” column about her father in the Toronto Globe and Mail, and visit the blog They Called Me Mayer July.