In 1949, to mark the centennial of the death of Fryderyk Chopin, the Kosciuszko Foundation’s Board of Trustees authorized a National Committee to encourage observance of the anniversary through concerts and programs throughout the United States. Howard Hanson, then Director of the Eastman School of Music, headed thisCommittee, which included, among others, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Horowitz, Serge Koussevitzky, Claire Booth Luce, Eugene Ormandy, Artur Rodzinski, George Szell, and Bruno Walter.
The Chopin Centennial was inaugurated by Witold Malcuzynski at Carnegie Hall on February 14, 1949. A repeat performance was presented by Malcuzynski eight days later, on Chopin’s birthday, in the Kosciuszko Foundation Gallery. Abram Chasins, composer,
pianist, and music director of the New York Times radio stations WQXR and WQWQ, presided at the evening and opened it with the following remarks:
In seeking to do justice to the memory of a musical genius, nothing is so eloquent as a presentation of the works through which he enriched our musical heritage. ... In his greatest work, Chopin stands alone ... Throughout the chaos, the dissonance of the world, Chopin’s music has been for many of us a sanctuary ... It is entirely fitting that this event should take place at the Kosciuszko Foundation House. This Foundation is the only institution which we have in America which promotes cultural relations between Poland and America on a non-political basis. It has helped to understand the debt which mankind owes to Poland’s men of genius.
At the Chopin evening at the Foundation, two contributions were made. The first, $1,000 came from Madame Ganna Walska, the opera star; the second, for $775, represented many smaller individual contributions. The fund was supplemented when Arthur Rubinstein donated the receipts from the national tribute to Chopin, held at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on October 17, 1949. Additional funds came from a cycle of Chopin programs held at the Kosciuszko Foundation House in the 1949-1950 season. Performed by the Viennese pianist Robert Goldsand, who would himself head juries of the Chopin Piano Competition, these recitals featured Chopin’s complete concert repertoire. The New York Herald Tribune reviewed the first Chopin evening, on November 14, 1949, as follows:
The Foundation’s Hall is a large drawing room, and last night, save for a single shaded piano lamp, it was kept in darkness. Intimacy of surrounding, then, was the setting, and intimacy of style proved to be Mr. Goldsand’s prime expressive means. He knows and understands the Chopin idiom and communicates its warmth, its wealth of epigram, its poetry and fire, with a minimum of effort. He plays gracefully, elegantly; he never toys with a thematic line, nor does he brutalize by pounding – as others do – Chopin’s frequent heroics.
The first Chopin Piano Competition was held on June 15, 1950, for the scholarship established during the Chopin Centennial Year. The winner was not of Polish extraction, but a young Black American, Roy Eaton, a student at the Manhattan School of Music [and City College] of New York. It is interesting to note here that prior to Kosciuszko’s departure for Europe in 1798, he directed Thomas Jefferson, the executor of his will, to sell the lands given him by a grateful American Congress for his services during the Revolutionary War, and to use the proceeds to purchase the freedom of Black slaves and to educate them to become good and useful citizens. Eaton’s award in the Chopin Piano Competition, highly significant in the pre-Civil Rights era was made a special feature by the New York Times on June 17, and was given considerable space in other newspapers and magazines. He appeared on WNYC and CBS Radio, and subsequently with the
Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He later earned an M.A. in musicology from Yale University, and in 1968 became vice-president of Benton and Bowles Company in New York.
During the early years of the Competition, scholarships were offered to a pianist and a composer, the fields in which Chopin excelled (the composition award was discontinued in 1956). Van Cliburn is probably the most famous Chopin Competition alumnus. A pupil of Rosina Lhevinne, Van Cliburn was the winner in 1952, at the age of 17. Sixyears later he won first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, a great icebreaker during the Cold War. On October 14, 1961, Van Cliburn, who had become a Patron Member of the KF, introduced his RCA all-Chopin album at the Foundation. On that occasion he remarked:
I do so very many times recall with such deep affection the very first time I sat at this piano. It was a very exciting moment for me to play at the Kosciuszko Foundation and to be an entry in the Chopin Competition, which was something of extreme distinction... But more than that, the people of this very wonderful organization have made for Poland and Polish art the world over a wonderful memorial of the past and an indication of the future.
The Chopin Piano Competition has become recognized nationally as an important stage in the lives of young pianists embarking upon a concert career following their studies. In surveying the list of winners, one finds men and women who have become well-known through success on the concert stage or as well-regarded professors and teachers throughout the Untied States. Through financial assistance to its winners, and their subsequent artistic achievements, the Kosciuszko Foundation, as a Polish American cultural/educational institution, has continued to make a substantial contributions to music in the United States.