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Władysław Szpilman

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Title: Władysław Szpilman  
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Subject: The Pianist (2002 film), Andrzej Szpilman, Janusz Korczak, The Pianist (memoir), Robinson Crusoes of Warsaw
Collection: 1911 Births, 2000 Deaths, 20Th-Century Classical Composers, 20Th-Century Pianists, Burials at Powązki Military Cemetery, Commanders with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta, Holocaust Survivors, Jewish Classical Composers, Jewish Classical Musicians, Jewish Classical Pianists, Male Classical Composers, Male Film Score Composers, Musicians from Warsaw, People from Sosnowiec, People from Warsaw, Polish Classical Composers, Polish Classical Musicians, Polish Classical Pianists, Polish Film Score Composers, Polish Jews, Polish People of World War II, Polish Pianists, Polish Songwriters, Polish Writers, Warsaw Ghetto Inmates, Władysław Szpilman
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Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman
Born (1911-12-05)5 December 1911
Sosnowiec, Congress Poland, Russian Empire
Died 6 July 2000(2000-07-06) (aged 88)
Warsaw, Poland
Resting place Powązki Military Cemetery, Warsaw
Nationality Polish
Occupation Composer, pianist, author
Years active 1930–2000
Known for The Pianist
Spouse(s) Halina (Grzecznarowski) Szpilman
(1950–2000; his death)
Children Christopher Szpilman, Andrzej Szpilman

Władysław "Wladek" Szpilman (Polish pronunciation: ; 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.


  • Career as a pianist 1
  • Survival during the Holocaust 2
  • Polish Radio 3
  • Compositions 4
  • The book 5
    • Film adaptation 5.1
  • Death and tributes 6
  • Recordings 7
  • Selected Published works 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

Career as a pianist

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.[1][2] 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.[3] 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).[4]

Survival during the Holocaust

House at al. Niepodległości 223 in Warsaw where in 1944 Szpilman met Wilm Hosenfeld
Commemorative plaque on the building
Photo of Szpilman, the most famous of Warsaw Robinsons, at the Warsaw Uprising Museum

As vividly described in The Pianist memoir, first printed in 1946 as The Death of a City by publishing house Wiedza,[5][6] with biographer Jerzy Waldorff – later slightly expanded by his own son Andrzej,[7] under the current title – Władysław Szpilman and his family, along with all other Jews living in Warsaw, were forced to move into a "Jewish quarter" – the Warsaw Ghetto – on 31 October 1940. Once all the Jews were confined within the ghetto, a wall was constructed to separate them from the rest of the Nazi German-occupied city. Szpilman managed to find work as a musician to support his family, which included his mother, father, brother Henryk, and two sisters, Regina and Halina. He first worked at the Nowoczesna Cafe, where the patrons sometimes ignored his playing in order to conduct business, as he recalled in the memoir.[8]

Szpilman later played in a cafe on Sienna Street and after 1942 in the Sztuka Cafe on Leszno Street as well. In these last two cafes he performed chamber music with violinist Zygmunt Lederman, accompanied singer Wiera Gran in a piano duo with Andrzej Goldfeder[9] and played with other musicians as well.[10][11][12]

Everyone in his family was deported in 1942 to Treblinka, an extermination camp within German-occupied Poland roughly 80.5 km (50.0 mi) northeast of Warsaw. A member of the Jewish Police (Jerzy Lewinski), who recognized Szpilman from a concert, pulled him from a line of people—including his parents, brother, and two sisters—being loaded onto a train at the transport site (which, as in other ghettos, was called the Umschlagplatz). None of Szpilman's family members survived the war. Szpilman stayed in the ghetto as a labourer,[13] and helped smuggle in weapons for the coming Jewish resistance uprising. Szpilman remained in the Warsaw Ghetto until 13 Feb. 1943, shortly before it was abolished after the deportation of most of its inhabitants in April–May 1943.

Szpilman found places to hide in Warsaw and survived with the help of his friends from Polish Radio and fellow musicians such as Andrzej Bogucki and his wife Janina, Czesław Lewicki, and Helena Lewicka supported by Edmund Rudnicki, Witold Lutosławski, Eugenia Umińska, Piotr Perkowski, Irena Sendler. He avoided capture and death by the Germans and their collaborators several times. Since August 1944, Szpilman was hiding out in an abandoned building at al. Niepodległości 223 when he was found in November by a German officer, Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. To Szpilman's surprise, the officer did not arrest or kill him; after discovering that the emaciated Szpilman was a pianist, Hosenfeld asked him to play something. (A piano was on the ground floor.) Szpilman played Chopin's Nocturne in C-sharp minor. After that, the officer showed Szpilman a better place to hide and brought him bread and jam on numerous occasions. He also offered Szpilman one of his coats to keep warm in the freezing temperatures. Szpilman did not know the name of the German officer until 1951. Despite the efforts of Szpilman and the Poles to rescue Hosenfeld, he died in a Soviet prisoner of war camp in 1952.[2][14]

Polish Radio

Szpilman started playing for Polish Radio in 1935 as their house pianist. In 1939, on September 23, Szpilman was in the middle of broadcasting when German fire was opened on the studio and he was forced to stop playing. This was the last live music broadcast that was heard until the war's end.[15] When Szpilman resumed his job at Polish Radio in 1945, he did so by carrying on where he left off six years before: poignantly, he opened the first transmission by once again playing Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor (Lento con gran espressione), the piece he was playing as the German bombs hit the studios of Polish Radio, interrupting its broadcast on 23 September 1939.

Władysław Szpilman's grave in Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw

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 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 like 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.


From his early Berlin years Szpilman never gave up the will to write music, even when living in the Warsaw Ghetto. His compositions include orchestral works, concertos, piano pieces, but also significant amounts of music for radio plays and films, as well as around 500 songs. More than 100 of these are very well known as hits and evergreens in Poland. In the 1950s he wrote about 40 songs for children, for which he received an award from the Polish Composers Union in 1955.

His son Andrzej commented in 1998 that Szpilman's works did not reach a larger audience outside Poland, attributing this to the "division of Europe into two halves culturally as well as politically" after the war. His father "shaped the Polish popular music scene over several decades -- but the western frontier of Poland constituted a barrier" to music from the Eastern bloc countries. (Andrzej Szpilman's "Foreword" to the 1999 edition of "The Pianist," p. 8)[8]

Szpilman's compositions include the suite for piano "Life of the Machines" 1932, Violin Concerto 1933, "Waltzer in the Olden Style" 1937, film soundtracks: "Świt, dzień i noc Palestyny" (1934), Wrzos (1938) and Doctor Murek (1939), Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1940), Paraphrase on Own Themes (1948) "Ouverture for Symphonic Orchestra" (1968) and many very popular songs in Poland. His works are now published in printed editions by Boosey & Hawkes · Bote & BockBoosey Music Publishers in New York, Berlin and London [16]

In 1961 he initiated and organized Sopot International Song Festival produced in Poland every Summer, now for more than 50 years. He founded the Polish Union of Authors of Popular Music.

The book

Shortly after the war ended, Szpilman told his story of survival in wartorn Warsaw to a friend and popular Polish writer Jerzy Waldorff,[5][7] who composed and published the book, Śmierć Miasta (The Death of a City) in 1946 as Szpilman's semi-autobiography. The book was censored by Stalinist authorities for political reasons.[8] For example, the nationality of benevolent German officer Wilm Hosenfeld was changed to Austrian. As the East German dissident singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann observed in his epilogue for the 1999 English-language edition: "Directly after the war it was impossible to publish a book in Poland which presented a German officer as a brave and helpful man," and an Austrian hero would be "not quite so bad." Biermann added caustically, "In the years of the Cold War Austria and East Germany were linked by a common piece of hypocrisy: both pretended to have been forcibly occupied by Hitler's Germany."

In 1998, Szpilman's son Andrzej published new edition of his father's memoir, first in German translation from Karin Wolff as Das wunderbare Überleben (The Miraculous Survival) by a German publishing house Ullstein Verlag; and then in English translation by Anthea Bell as The Pianist with Epilogue by Wolf Biermann. In March 1999 Władysław Szpilman visited London for Jewish Book Week, where he met English readers to mark the publication of the book in England. It was later published in more than 35 languages, named Best book of the year by Los Angeles Times, Sunday Times, Boston Globe, The Guardian, The Economist, Library Journal, won Annual Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize 2000, Best book of the year 2001 by magazine Lire and Elle (Paris) in 2002. New Polish edition, Pianista : warszawskie wspomnienia 1939–1945 (Kraków: Znak, 2000) became a number 1 on the bestseller list by Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita for 3 years in 2001–2003.

As it reached a much larger audience, Szpilman's memoir was widely praised. Britain's Independent described it as "a compelling, harrowing masterpiece"; it is "one of the most powerful accounts ever written" of the era declared another leading British daily. The book's description of the famed Warsaw teacher and writer Janusz Korczak has been described as "overwhelmingly powerful and poignant." Korczak declined to save himself from deportation to Treblinka, instead walking with the children of his orphanage to the deportation site and ultimately escorting them "into the next world," as Szpilman related:

One day, around 5th August, when I had taken a brief rest from work and was walking down Gęsia Street, I happened to see Janusz Korczak and his orphans leaving the ghetto. The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children and now, on this last journey, he could not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them." – The Pianist, pp. 95-96.[17]

The 1999 English-language edition also includes excerpts from Wilm Hosenfeld's diary (1942-'44). Biermann's Epilogue gives further insight into Hosenfeld's deeds and his character. He aided several other would-be victims in Warsaw; Hosenfeld nonetheless died (in 1952) after seven years in Soviet captivity, despite the efforts of Szpilman to help him.

Although it concludes with his survival, Szpilman declined to conclude his memoir on a happy note. In the final paragraphs, he walks the streets of an abandoned and devastated Warsaw: "A stormy wind rattled the scrap-iron in the ruins, whistling and howling through the charred cavities of the windows. Twilight came on. Snow fell from the darkening, leaden sky." As one reviewer noted, "these final sentences distill the style of this astonishing and unforgettable book. Concise yet highly evocative; measured and somewhat detached, yet possessing a poeticism and a consistent spiritual tenor and strength."

Film adaptation

In 2002, the Polish-French film-maker, Roman Polanski, directed a screen version of the book, also called The Pianist, but Szpilman died before the film was completed. The movie won in 2003 three Academy Awards – Oscars for best director; best actor, and best adapted screenplay, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Film Award, and the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Polanski escaped the Kraków Ghetto and survived the Holocaust, but his mother was killed by the German occupiers. Polanski's film closely follows the book's style and details. Adrien Brody accepting the Oscar Award for The Pianist said - ..."This film would not be possible without the blueprint provided by Wladyslaw Szpilman. This is a tribute to his survival"...

Szpilman's son, Andrzej Szpilman, compiled and released a CD with the most popular songs Szpilman had composed under the title Wendy Lands Sings the Songs of the Pianist (Universal Music). Other CDs with the works of Szpilman include Works for Piano and Orchestra by Władysław Szpilman with Ewa Kupiec (piano), John Axelrod (director), and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (2004) (Sony classical) and the Original recordings of The Pianist and Władysław Szpilman-Legendary recordings (Sony classical).

In November 1998, Szpilman was honored by the president of Poland with a Commander's Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.

Death and tributes

Szpilman died in Warsaw on 6 July 2000 at the age of 88.[18] He is buried at Powązki Military Cemetery. On 25 September 2011, Polish Radio’s Studio 1 was renamed for Wladyslaw Szpilman.[19] 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.[20][21] The next day, the exact centenary of his birth, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski met Szpilman's widow and son, and Krejci-Hosenfeld.[22]

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.[23]


  • CD "F.Chopin – Works" - National Edition – F.Chopin – Piano trio und Introduction und Polonaise – W. Szpilman, T. Wronski, A. Ciechanski, Muza Warsaw 1958 and 2002
  • CD "J. Brahms – Piano Quintett" The Warsaw Piano Quintett, Muza Warsaw 1976
  • CD "Wladyslaw Szpilman – Ein musikalisches Portrait" Works by Szpilman, Rachmaninov und Chopin, Alinamusic Hamburg 1998
  • CD Władysław Szpilman – Portret [5 CD Box-Set] Polskie Radio Warszawa 2000
  • CD Wladyslaw Szpilman. The Original Recordings of the Pianist. Sony Classical 2002
  • CD The Pianist [Soundtrack] Sony Classical 2002
  • CD Songs of Wladyslaw Szpilman – sings Wendy Lands, Universal Music USA 2003
  • CD Works For Piano & Orchestra Sony Classical 2004
  • CD Władysław Szpilman – Legendary Recordings [3 CD Box-Set] Sony Classical 2005

Selected Published works

  • Władysław Szpilman: Suite. The Life of the Machines for Piano (1933). Boosey & Hawkes Berlin/New York 2004 ISBN 3-7931-3077-0
  • Władysław Szpilman: Concertino, Piano and Orchestra, Piano parts, Schott Mainz 2004 ISBN 3-7931-3086-X
  • Władysław Szpilman: Concertino, Piano and Orchestra, Partitur Schott Mainz 2004 ISBN 3-7931-3079-7
  • My memories of you. 16 selected songs by The Pianist Władysław Szpilman Boosey & Hawkes Berlin/New York 2003 ISBN 3-7931-3085-1

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist p. 59, Orion Books, 1999, Smierc miasta Warsaw, 1946
  4. ^ Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist p. 16, Picador – St. Martins Press, New York 2000.
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^ Wladyslaw Szpilman, Śmierć miasta (a.k.a. The Pianist), "Wiedza" Warsaw, 1946.
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ a b c Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist p.13-17, Orion Books, 2005.
  9. ^ Antoni Marianowicz, "Życie surowo wzbronione", Warszawa 1995
  10. ^ Polski Slownik Biograficzny, Polska Akademia Nauk, Krakow, (t. XLVIII, 2013, s. 637-640)
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary by Mary Berg – publisher=L. B. Fischer New York 1945
  14. ^ Szpilman 2005.
  15. ^ "Szpilman's Warsaw: The History Behind The Pianist.", n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.
  16. ^ [Information on Szpilman's works at Boosey & Hawkes] url =
  17. ^ Wladyslaw Szpilman, The Pianist p. 95-96, Orion Books, 2005.
  18. ^ The Pianist (2002 film)
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^

Further reading

External links

  • Władysław Szpilman information and biography
  • In Loving Memory Of Władysław Szpilman
  • Information on Szpilman's works at Boosey & Hawkes
  • " at the United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumThe Pianist"Szpilman's Warsaw: The History behind
  • Interview with Dr. Halina Grzecznarowska-Szpilman, widow of Władysław Szpilman, first part
  • Interview with Dr. Halina Grzecznarowska Szpilman, widow of Władysław Szpilman, second part
  • Władysław Szpilman at
  • Information on Wladyslaw Szpilman at Polish Biographical Dictionary by Polish Academy of Sciences, Kraków 2013
  • Uri Caine – performance of songs by Władisław Szpilman
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