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What was at stake in the mythological contest of the two virtuosi – Apollo and Marsyas – was authority and respect in the world of music. The metaphorical conflict between technique and emotion, the canon and originality, appears to be eternal and insoluble. Criteria for the perception of virtuosity have changed over time, as also has the role of virtuosi in the society. In Chopin’s lifetime, in the 1st half of the 20th century, the virtuoso pianist was a phenomenon of unique significance, impacting not only on the music repertoire and performance technique, but also – on instrument construction. A music performer’s outstanding technical skills were frequently attributed to supernatural intervention, or even – to a pact with the devil. The audience saw the virtuoso’s playing in rhetorical terms: what counted was not just the music, but also the visual aspect of performance.

In an attempt to answer the question of a virtuoso’s status and role in the society, we shall examine various contexts of public life in the 1st half of the 19th century, which reflect the social need for participation in collective spectacles providing both illusion and the experience of things out-of-the-ordinary. We shall also consider the role of a virtuoso as a prophet and a visionary, who – acting as a medium for the communication with the supernatural world – leads the community toward transcendence. We shall present a whole galaxy of virtuosi, such as the violinist Niccolò Paganini, the pianists: Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Carl Czerny, Henri Herz, Ferdinand Hiller, and Sigismund Thalberg. The central figures in our story, however, are the two giants of piano art – Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, perceived as two opposites complementing each other. In their works we find a perfect synthesis of virtuoso elements, artistic individuality and musical genius.

“The Virtuoso” – an exhibition accompanying the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition – is a kind of commentary on the long and lively debate concerning artistic competitions. This debate has made realise that defining and redefining the idea of virtuosity is still a valid topic today, as it inspires reflection on the principles of performance art and on the role of art in human life.

 

Part of the exhibition is presented in the Ball Room of the Warsaw Philharmonic during the 7th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition (from 1st till 23rd October 2015).

The exhibition in the Museum is open from 11 am till 8 pm daily during the Competition, and from Tuesday till Sunday since 24th October 2015. "The Virtuoso" exhibition will close 31st January 2016.