Karol Lipiński

Karol Józef Lipiński: the ‘Polish Paganini’

Family history

Karol Józef Lipiński was born on 30 October 1790 in Radzyń, in the Podlasie region, and although family documents mention 4 November, the earlier date is more credible (according to the composer’s birth certificate and his own account of his life). His father Feliks (born 1765 in Zakliczyn near Tarnów) came from a peasant family and most probably studied music at a monastery school. He played several instruments proficiently, working at aristocratic residences as director of orchestra ensembles and teaching the children of his benefactors. Opinions on his musical education, however, differ to a considerable extent. Some scholars (such as Sowiński, Eitner and Fétis) claimed that he was an extremely versatile and well-educated musician, others (including Oskar Kolberg, the founding father of Polish ethnography) believed that he was a self-educated amateur (‘a musician of mediocre talent having only a modicum of proper schooling’). Most probably, Feliks Lipiński could not receive a thorough musical education at his monastery school, but wishing to work at magnate courts, he constantly improved his musical knowledge and skills. He did so with success, as evidenced by his activity at the palaces of aristocracy, including those of the Lubomirski, Tarnowski, Potocki, Starzeński and Łączyński families. At the end of the eighteenth century, Feliks Lipiński settled in the Radzyń estate (near Lublin) of the Potocki family, where he taught the count’s children, conducted his private ensemble of musicians and performed chamber music celebrating the family’s ceremonies. This is also where he founded his own family, with Karol as his first child followed by Feliks and Antoni, all of whom received musical education. The atmosphere of the family home was especially conducive to the musical upbringing of his children. Being only five years of age, Karol started to study the violin under the direction of his father, who was also a skilled violinist. Less than two years had elapsed when the student surpassed the master: Karol had to study independently. At the same time, he learned languages, literature and painting. It was not long before his virtuoso command of the instrument brought him general admiration. In 1799, the Potocki estate in Radzyń passed into the hands of the Sapieha family, who were unable to maintain the orchestra. This is when Feliks Lipiński received an offer from Count Adam Starzyński to take a post in Lviv, where he set up a small orchestra and a chamber ensemble in which Karol played the first violin.

Lipiński’s meetings with the great musicians of his time: Ferdinand Kremes, Louis Spohr, Niccolò Paganini, Fryderyk Chopin, Richard Wagner and others

One of the first people to notice Karol’s talent was the Austrian civil official Ferdinand Kremes (Krenes), a talented cellist, who persuaded the young man to start studying the cello. The passionate interest in playing this instrument almost ruined Lipiński’s career as a virtuoso violinist. After several years dedicated to the cello, Karol returned to his first love: the violin. In the obituary published by ‘Dziennik Polski’ after his death, we read: ‘Kremes advised him that he [i.e. Lipiński] should return to the violin, as it would bring him to the fore, while the cello would lock him in a subordinate position in the orchestra for ever. Mindful of this precept, Lipiński had dedicated himself to violin music’.[1]

At the age of twenty, Karol Lipiński had already composed three symphonies and must have been well known in the musical circles of Lviv, since in 1809 he was offered the position of concertmaster in the orchestra of the city’s opera theatre,[2] which was then under Austrian administration. The director of that theatre was Jan Nepomucen Kamiński, who noticed the talent of the young composer and assigned to him the task of writing music for theatre performances. Lipiński agreed and wrote music for such shows as Syrena Dniestru (‘The Siren of the Dniester’) and Kłótnia przez zakład (‘The Quarrel over a Bet’), followed by Terefere w Tarapacie and the one-act opera buffa entitled Szlachta czynszowa czyli Kłótnia o wiatr (The Petty Nobility or Squabbling in the Wind’). At that time, his artistic activity was not limited to composing and playing in the orchestra; he also played the violin parts in various chamber music ensembles and symphony orchestras, continually improving his technique. He soon became the concertmaster and director of the opera orchestra, and his duties included overseeing the choir and soloists.

In 1812, Lipiński stayed in Warsaw, where he established contacts with the artistic community. He met there, among others, Karol Kurpiński, Józef Elsner, Wojciech Bogusławski, Maria Szymanowska, Franciszek Lessel and Jan Stefani. At the turn of 1813, he married Regina Garbaczyńska, who was regarded as ‘one of the most beautiful women in Lviv’. Among their children were Gustaw, a notable lawyer, and Natalia, who became a pianist.

In 1814, Lipiński went to Vienna to meet Louis Spohr, who had recently been appointed as the conductor of the Viennese Opera. This meeting had a decisive influence on Lipiński and led him to making an important decision: he resolved to become a performing violinist. On his return to Lviv, he left the opera theatre and, following Spohr’s advice, focused on perfecting his technique. His numerous and widely acclaimed recitals brought him international renown at the age of twenty-seven. His concert tours took him through Hungary and Croatia to Italy, where he visited the cities of Trieste, Venice and Milan. In Padua, he met the famous violinist Niccolò Paganini; the Italian virtuoso liked Lipiński, hailed him as the ‘Polish Paganini’ and invited the Pole to play concerts with him. Lipiński accepted the invitation and greatly admired the virtuoso acrobatics of the living legend, but remained faithful to his own style developed under the tutelage of Spohr.

Lipiński’s aspiration, like that of other virtuosos, was to have his own works become part of concert repertoires and emphasise the virtuoso character of his own performances. This is why his first compositions – Caprices Op. 3 and Op. 10, Polonaises Op. 6 and 9, Variations Op. 2, 4 and 5, as well as Rondo alla polacca Op. 7 and 13 that were intended for classroom exercises – were geared towards displaying feats of extraordinary skill. Over the course of 1821, Lipiński performed in Kraków, Poznań, Berlin, Leipzig and Wrocław. He then returned to Lviv to plan his next concert tour, which included performances in Vilnius (May 1822). The tour also took him to Kiev, Poznań (June 1823) and Kraków (June 1824). In 1825, Lipiński gave concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The following year was also very busy. At the end of 1827, Lipiński arrived in Warsaw, where he played six times during his nearly three-month stay. Maurycy Mochnacki wrote several reviews of his performances and noticed that ‘the characteristic feature of Lipiński’s music is its picturesque style, comprehensibility, precision and lyrical elation’.[3] During his stay in Warsaw, Lipiński received an important distinction and was declared the ‘First Violinist at the Court of the Kingdom of Poland’. Having visited Kiev for a spell in 1829, he returned to Lviv, where he received honorary citizenship. He returned to Warsaw in the same year, where he was to play concerts in June. At the same time, Paganini performed in Warsaw. Critics were divided into two opposing camps, each of them praising one virtuoso and reviling the other. There were some unflattering comments concerning Lipiński in the press, but this awkward situation did not affect the friendly relations between the two geniuses.

The joint performances with Paganini and the dispute over who should be hailed as the consummate virtuoso of the violin contributed to the increase of Lipiński’s popularity, who, however, did not take advantage of his growing fame, because he did not set off on a tour to Paris straight away: ultimately, he understood that Paganini’s unrivalled and frantic virtuoso technique was not crucially important for interpreting music, but became an end in itself, an impressive acrobatic feat devised to amaze the audience.

Late in 1830, news came to Lviv about the uprising against the Tsar that had broken out in Warsaw. The insurgents, however, were soon defeated, much to Lipiński’s despair. It was then that his interest in Polish and Ukrainian folklore came to the fore, as can be seen in the piano accompaniment to The Polish and Russian songs of the Galician people collected by the poet Wacław Zaleski, known also by his penname Wacław of Olesko. At the end of 1833, the composer resumed his artistic tours and gave concerts in Vilnius, Warsaw, Poznań and Gdańsk. Then he set off for Leipzig, Frankfurt am Main and Paris. In Leipzig, he met Robert Schumann, who wrote: ‘Lipiński is here. These three words are enough for a music lover to set his pulse racing … For those who have not yet heard the powerful violin master, who is so adept at ushering one into the realm of previously unfamiliar feelings, it is recommended that they pay attention to this special opportunity to relish in his art as this is going to be a musical performance they may not experience in years’.[4] As a token of his affection, Schumann dedicated the series of piano works known as Carnival to Lipiński.

In Paris, Karol met a number of friends: Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Adam Mickiewicz, Bohdan Zaleski, Karol Sienkiewicz and Ignacy Chodźko, and, most significantly, Fryderyk Chopin, whom he met when still in Warsaw, as well as Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose operas were high on the agenda of Paris opera theatres at the time. The successive concert tours took Lipiński to London, Frankfurt, Leipzig, Wrocław and Vienna, where the Viennese audience compared him with Paganini and Ole Bull. However, one particular review (by M. G. Saphir, an editor of the daily newspaper Der Humorist) seems to be especially evocative: ‘violin music is a battle ground between Romanticism and Classicism. Paganini has become representative of Romanticism on account of his stunning ingenuity and the extraordinary and charming style of his performances. Lipiński, by contrast, is a genius of Classicism. It is in him that we find peace in its perfected and fully mature form, the sort of peace that is in itself the primary feature, flower and fruit of inner perfection. In Paganini’s music we forget about art for the sake of the artist, while in Lipinski’s the artist is being forgotten for the sake of art. We admire Paganini’s violin, but it is Lipiński’s violin that we love’.[5] After some time that proved to be fairly tumultuous to him, having completed a number of tours, Karol Lipiński became the director-concertmaster of the music ensemble at the royal court of Saxony in Dresden in mid-1838. His duties also included solo performances to the accompaniment of the orchestra and taking care of music performed at religious ceremonies. At that time, Lipiński also nurtured his passion for chamber music: the string quartet he founded focused on performing works by the Viennese classical composers.

Paganini died on 27 May 1840, having bequeathed eight of his best violins listed in his will to the eight most eminent violinists in Europe (Lipiński received his Amati instrument).

In 1842, Richard Wagner was one of the first visitors to the newly created opera theatre in Dresden. Lipiński greatly esteemed his talent. It was not long before Wagner became the second artistic director of the Dresden Opera. The then concertmaster of the opera orchestra was Lipiński, who disagreed with the Bayreuth master over his interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The conflict, however, was soon resolved and had no negative impact on their collaboration.

In the following years, Lipiński played innumerable concerts all around Europe, which only added to his already well-established fame; it is not surprising, therefore, that scores of young violinists would come to him to become his apprentices, since he was noted not only for his mastery of the violin, but also for his exceptional pedagogical talent. Among his numerous students was one indisputable genius, Henryk Wieniawski. Lipiński took care of him in a fatherly manner (he was only thirteen at the time) and recommended him to another virtuoso musician, the pianist Ferenc Liszt.

Lipiński’s last tour took him to Kiev in 1846. In 1854, he received the knight’s cross of the Albert Order in recognition of his merit to the royal court.

The year 1856 saw the death of Regina, Lipiński’s wife. The composer was devastated by this loss and fell ill in the following year, suffering from rheumatism. He was experiencing a malfunction of his right arm and wrist, which significantly limited his ability to work. He underwent treatment at the spas of Cieplice and Karlsbad, but although it did alleviate his suffering, he was unable to return to concertmaster’s duties. Considering this, in 1860 Lipiński applied to his employer (Lüttichau) for a pension. In 1861, he moved from Dresden to Urłów (now Virliv in Ukraine), where he died on 16 December of that year following a severe asthma attack. His body was laid to rest next to that of his wife in the family tomb in Urłów.

When in Urłów, Lipiński tried to set up a music school for poor peasant children. He also wanted to fund scholarships for Polish violinists, but all these plans were left unfinished and it was only owing to his son Gustaw that they were finally implemented after his death. Being the only heir of the Urłów estate and having no descendants, Gustaw Lipiński stated in his will that the proceeds from the sale of the estate should be divided into four parts, three of which were to fund the Karol and Regina Lipiński scholarships for three Polish violinists studying at Lviv, Naples and Vienna conservatories,[6] provided that the scholarship holders performed at least one of his father’s works at every examination. A fourth part of the proceeds was to secure the upkeep of the family tomb. The will proved to be troublesome for the executor, i.e. the regional assembly of Galicia (under Austrian administration), as Lviv did not have a conservatory, but only the music school maintained by the Galician Music Society. This, however, was resolved by transforming the school into a conservatory.

Lipiński’s artistic oeuvre and techniques of composition

The works of Karol Lipiński are dominated by instrumental works, with a privileged role reserved for the violin, as can be seen in the overture to the opera Kłótnia przez zakład (‘The Quarrel over a Bet’), in which the violin plays the role of the concertante instrument. It is obvious that Lipiński composed his works having himself in mind as their intended performer, and, given his matchless technical skill, it is hardly surprising that his compositions often contained two-pitched sonorities and three-voice and four-voice structures. To shape his own works, Lipiński often used the form of sonata-allegro that was fairly casual, closely reminiscent of fantasy. The idiomatic features of Lipiński’s music include a truly remarkable melodic ingenuity, simple and clear harmony interspersed with occasional chromatic elements and folk dance rhythmic patterns.

A significant part of the composer’s legacy consists of compositions prepared for a variety of occasions, as well as variations and fantasies based on themes from Italian operas or from his own opera works. They had a showpiece character and involved the typical compositional means that were commonly employed in that period, but because of their low degree of individualization they soon passed into oblivion.

Among Lipiński’s most valued works are concerts, caprices, polonaises and rondos, musical forms that were especially appreciated by his contemporaries and often performed in concert halls. The concerts are particularly interesting, modelled as they are on those by Spohr. The first two have a three-part structure, whereas the other two are standalone compositions. The caprices are especially challenging on account of their technical intricacy, as they require masterful command of such virtuoso elements as arpeggio, passages spanning perfect and augmented octaves, flageolets and acrobatic portamenti.

In his youth, Lipiński composed symphonies, too. His Symphony in E flat major and Symphony in B flat major have a four-movement structure, while the Symphony in C major is made up of three parts. All of them, much in the vein of Haydn’s symphonies, begin with slow movements. The first and the final parts are composed in the form of sonata-allegro. These works were intended for small orchestral ensembles.

All opera works by Lipiński written for the Polish Theatre in Lviv were in fact short vaudevilles and followed the contemporary models of theatrical performance. Their comic and ‘light’ character made them especially appealing.

  The national idiom in Lipiński’s music

 In the nineteenth century and beyond, when the Polish lands were partitioned between the neighbouring powers, the wanderings of musicians were the norm. They would give concerts in various European cities, often displaying their nationality through their music. Karol Lipiński was a sought-after virtuoso violinist, soon to become a living legend. Beginning with his earliest years, he absorbed the musical atmosphere of Lviv and showed interest in the folklore of the Lviv region. The regional motifs in Violin Concerto No. 2 in D major Op. 21, dating from 1826, paved the way for the concert to be included into the category of ‘military concerts’, which means that the clashes of 1809, when Napoleon’s troops briefly stationed in Lviv, were engraved on the young composer’s memory. Also, in Violin Concerto No. 4 in A major Op. 32, Lipiński returned to the military march with its counterpointed and syncopated rhythms. As V. Grigoriev wrote, Lipiński made his music part of the native musical idiom owing to his ‘Slavic melodious tones’, ‘Polish and West-Ukrainian musical phrasing’, his ‘technique of improvisation’, ‘encircling the main elements of melody’, ‘vivid ornamentation’ and ‘the characteristically Slavic chromatic embellishments and changes in tonality’.[7]

In turn, Mieczysława Demska-Trębacz wrote that ‘the polonaise has been a dance of freedom at least since the Napoleonic times; it has often served as a manifestation of Polishness’.[8] For this reason, polonaise rhythms feature very prominently in Lipiński’s compositions, including in those that are entitled polonaises (Op. 1, 6 and 9), in rondos alla polacca (Op. 7, 13 and 17) and in the Fantasy on a theme of the ‘Kościuszko Polonaise’. The polonaise was supposed to represent the righteousness of the national heroes, as it epitomised respect for tradition and loyalty to the homeland. The rhythm and melodious phrases of the polonaise soon became a subdued non-verbal symbol of Polishness (although readily recognisable to Polish patriots). However, it would be incomplete to limit the national idiom in Lipiński’s oeuvre only to the realm of folklore, given that the traditional cult of the Virgin Mary was also part of that idiom.[9] Evidence for this is Lipiński’s draft entitled Boga Rodzica. A hymn of St. Adalbert, whose melodic features are modelled on old Polish traditions. It seems likely that it was a fragment of his Variations on Polish melodies for violin and piano, in which the composer grappled with Poland’s national tradition.

‘Thus, it was with the national idiom that Lipiński had delineated the topos koinos – the ‘common’ place – of Polish violin music. His virtuoso ideas gave rise to a wave of emotions: a soliloquy in the lyrical parts and the resonant voice of the protagonist in the dramatic ones … Lipiński added ‘violin plaques’, or perhaps ‘slabs of the most beautiful stone’, to the trove of human culture, preserving the memory of the history of Poland for posterity. They have maintained their invigorating power of generating and co-creating violin music all around the world to this day’.[10]

Aneta Derkowska

[1] J. Powroźniak, Karol Lipiński, PWM, Kraków 1970, pp. 22–23.

[2] His predecessor as the Kapellmeister of the orchestra in that theatre was Józef Ksawery Elsner, the first director of the Warsaw Conservatory (founded in 1821) and a teacher of Fryderyk Chopin.

[3] J. Powroźniak, Karol Lipiński, p. 86.

[4] E. Eismann, R. Schumann. Ein Quellenwerk über sein Leben und Schaffen, Leipzig 1956, vol. 2, p. 138, quoted from J. Powroźniak, Karol Lipiński, p. 108.

[5] Quoted from J. Powroźniak, Karol Lipiński, p. 122.

[6] In 1905–1914, due to the low standard of teaching at the Naples Conservatory, two scholarships were awarded to students at the Vienna Conservatory or transferred to the Berlin Conservatory.

[7] V. Grigorjev, Karel Lipin’ksiy, Moscow 1977, p. 144, quoted from: M. Demska-Trębacz, Topos i idiom narodowy w muzyce Karola Lipińskiego, p. 181, [in:] Karol Lipiński. Życie, działalność, epoka, vol. 5, ed. by A. Granat-Janki, Wrocław 2013.

[8] M. Demska-Trębacz, Topos i idiom narodowy w muzyce Karol Lipińskiego, p. 181.

[9] As above, p. 182.

[10] M. Demska-Trębacz, Topos i idiom narodowy w muzyce Karola Lipińskiego, [in:] Karol Lipiński. Życie, działalność, epoka, vol. 5, pp. 184–185.