Memory Through Music
When Andrzej Szpilman was 12, he furtively rummaged througha chest high on a shelf of a closed wardrobe in his Warsaw home. Inside thecloset, 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,” saidAndrzej Szpilman, 46, a dentist and record producer who immigrated to Germanyin 1983.
The book was “Death of a City,” his father, Wladyslaw’s,grittily brutal, dispassionate 1946 memoir of hiding in and around the WarsawGhetto. 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 twoGolden Globes on Sunday — Szpilman has become one of the best-known Holocaustsurvivors in history.
But on that fateful 1968 day, his dramatic story was news tohis 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 hisfather’s life story out of the closet, literally. In 1999, he spearheaded thereissue of the memoir, which had been banned by the communist regime andultimately captivated Polanski. When Polanski’s screenplay depicted his fatheronly as a virtuoso pianist, he produced CDs highlighting his father’s work as aclassical composer and the author of more than 500 pop songs.
The latest, “Wendy Lands Sings the Music of The PianistWladyslaw Szpilman,” recently released by Universal’s Hip-O Records, is awell-received collection of jazzy ditties Szpilman (1911-2000) wrote from the1930s to the 1960s. “In the film, we see [Poles] helping my father because theyknew his Chopin performances, but the real reason most people knew him and hidhim was from his hit songs,” his son said. “He owes his survival to this kindof music.”
In April, with his friend, Sherman Heinig, a German musicindustry veteran based in Los Angeles, Andrzej Szpilman brought inproducer/arranger John Leftwich, who had worked with Rickie Lee Jones.Together, they hired writers to create new, English-language lyrics andauditioned about 30 singers before selecting Canadian-born chanteuse WendyLands. The venture is unusual because few scripted films have been able togenerate nonsoundtrack albums, according to Variety.
Andrzej Szpilman said he initially invested his own money inthe project because his father, while famous in Poland, never had the chance topromote his work in the West. “His career was essentially [stunted] by theNazis and then the communists,” he said. “But it was painful for me that peoplethought of his music as only good enough for the Polish market. It’s myambition to make it popular to a worldwide audience. That’s one way I can honorhis memory.”
When Andrzej Szpilman began working on reissuing “ThePianist,” he said his father, then in his late 80s, wasn’t interested in theslightest. “He said, ‘Do whatever you want, but no one will read it,'” his sonrecalled. Instead, the book became a critically acclaimed bestseller publishedin 20 languages.
Wladyslaw Szpilman did agree to help publicize the memoir byappearing at book signings and speaking to readers, the first time his son everheard him talk about the war. “But it was strange,” he said. “He hadn’t readthe book in 50 years — in fact he never re-read it — but when he spoke he usedthe exact same sentences he’d written in ’46. Like the book, his tone wasdetached. He sounded like a computer.”
Nevertheless, the elder Szpilman was pleased when the bookdrew Polanski’s attention and that of Dr. Noreen Green, artistic director ofthe Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, who conducted the 2001 world premiere of apiece mentioned in the memoir. In the book, Szpilman describes a Gershwinesque”Concertino for Piano and Orchestra” he wrote while languishing in the WarsawGhetto. “What struck me was the discrepancy between the wonderful, optimisticmusic and the terrible conditions under which it was written,” Green said.
Andrzej Szpilman — who included the piece on a CD, “MusicInspired by the Motion Picture ‘The Pianist'” — believes the breezy”Concertino” provides clues to his late father’s psychology. So do the upbeatsongs, featured on the Lands disc, Szpilman wrote during the Holocaust and thecommunist regime’s anti-Semitic purge of 1968. “My father didn’t like to talkabout these things, but writing music was his way of coping,” his son said.
For information about the Lands CD, go towww.musiclicensing.net/xxx.html. The Lands disc, the film’s soundtrack and”Music Inspired by the Motion Picture ‘The Pianist,'” can be purchased atwww.amazon.com. The Golden Globes air Jan. 19 from 8-11 p.m. on NBC. Â