Władysław Szpilman

5 Dec 1911
6 Jul 2000
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Władysław “Wladek” Szpilman ( 5 December 1911 – 6 July 2000) was a Polish pianist and classical composer. Szpilman is widely known as the protagonist of the 2002 Roman Polanski film The Pianist, which is based on the book of the same name recounting his survival of the German occupation of Warsaw and the Holocaust.

Szpilman began his study of the piano at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland, where he studied piano with Aleksander Michałowski and Józef Śmidowicz, first- and second-generation pupils of Franz Liszt. In 1931 he was a student of the prestigious Academy of Arts in Berlin, Germany, where he studied with Artur Schnabel, Franz Schreker and Leonid Kreutzer.

After Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Szpilman returned to Warsaw, where he quickly became a celebrated pianist and composer of both classical and popular music. Primarily a soloist, he was also the chamber music partner of such acclaimed violinists as Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel and Henryk Szeryng, and in 1934 he toured Poland with U.S. violinist, Bronislav Gimpel.

On 1 April 1935 he joined Polish Radio, where he worked as a pianist performing classical and jazz music. His compositions at this time included orchestral works, piano pieces, and also music for films, as well as roughly 50 songs, many of which became quite popular in Poland.

At the time of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, he was a celebrity and a featured soloist at the Polskie Radio, which was bombed on 23 September 1939, shortly after broadcasting the last Chopin recital played by Szpilman.

The Nazi occupiers established the General Government, and created ghettos in many Polish cities, including Warsaw. Szpilman and his family did not yet need to find a new residence, as their apartment was already in the ghetto area. He continued to work as a pianist in restaurants in the ghetto. Through his piano playing, he was able to earn barely enough to support the family of six (his father, his mother, his two sisters, one brother and himself).

Szpilman began his study of the piano at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw, Poland, where he studied piano with Aleksander Michałowski and Józef Śmidowicz, first- and second-generation pupils of Franz Liszt. In 1931 he was a student of the prestigious Academy of Arts in Berlin, Germany, where he studied with Artur Schnabel, Franz Schreker and Leonid Kreutzer.

After Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Szpilman returned to Warsaw, where he quickly became a celebrated pianist and composer of both classical and popular music. Primarily a soloist, he was also the chamber music partner of such acclaimed violinists as Roman Totenberg, Ida Haendel and Henryk Szeryng, and in 1934 he toured Poland with U.S. violinist, Bronislav Gimpel.

On 1 April 1935 he joined Polish Radio, where he worked as a pianist performing classical and jazz music. His compositions at this time included orchestral works, piano pieces, and also music for films, as well as roughly 50 songs, many of which became quite popular in Poland.

At the time of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, he was a celebrity and a featured soloist at the Polskie Radio, which was bombed on 23 September 1939, shortly after broadcasting the last Chopin recital played by Szpilman. The Nazi occupiers established the General Government, and created ghettos in many Polish cities, including Warsaw.

Szpilman and his family did not yet need to find a new residence, as their apartment was already in the ghetto area. He continued to work as a pianist in restaurants in the ghetto. Through his piano playing, he was able to earn barely enough to support the family of six (his father, his mother, his two sisters, one brother and himself).

From 1945 to 1963, Szpilman was director of the Popular Music Department at Polish Radio. Szpilman performed at the same time as a concert pianist and chamber musician in Poland, as well as throughout Europe, Asia, and America. During this period, he composed several symphonic works and about 500 other compositions that are still popular in Poland today.

He also wrote music for radio plays and films and in 1961, he created the International Song Contest in Sopot, Poland, which has been produced every summer for more than 50 years.

Szpilman and Bronislav Gimpel founded the Warsaw Piano Quintet in 1963 with which Szpilman performed more than 2000 concerts worldwide until 1986 in such places as Royal Festival Hall in London; Salle Pleyel and Salle Gaveau in Paris; Herkules Saal in Munich; as well as the Salzburger Festspiele, Brahmstage Baden-Baden, Musikhalle Hamburg a.o.

Szpilman died in Warsaw on 6 July 2000 at the age of 88. He is buried at Powązki Military Cemetery. On 25 September 2011, Polish Radio’s Studio 1 was renamed for Wladyslaw Szpilman.

On December 4, 2011, a commemorative plaque to Szpilman in Polish and English was unveiled at 223 Niepodległości Avenue in Warsaw in the presence of his wife, Halina (Grzecznarowski) Szpilman, son Andrzej and Wilm Hosenfeld’s daughter Jorinde Krejci-Hosenfeld. The next day, the exact centenary of his birth, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski met Szpilman’s widow and son, and Krejci-Hosenfeld.

Uri Caine, an American classical and jazz pianist and composer created his own interpretations of Szpilman’s works in a variety of genres. The CD of the concert was released on 24 February 2014.

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