Music in America: A New Nineteenth Century Composer

 
Repertoire
Nancy Bachus

Nancy Bachus is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and has taught for 27 years at the college and university level. She is the author of Alfred Publishing’s “Spirit” series: the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Beyond the Romantic Spirit piano anthologies. Certified as a Master Teacher by MTNA, she currently maintains an independent piano studio in Hudson, OH.

 

Repertoire & Performance Editor, Nancy Bachus
Summer 2008, Vol. 19 #2

 

Musical Senses
Albert Pieczonka

I do not remember when I first “discovered” the Tarantella in A Minor of Albert Pieczonka. I do know I have taught it many, many times, and always with great success. I measure “success” in different ways. One measure was that every student greatly enjoyed learning and playing this piece. Also, because it is one of those wonderful pieces that sounds more difficult than it actually is, it is rewarding to play and effective with audiences. Additionally, each student that learned this piece gained greater technical fluency. Written almost as an etude with repeated patterns, ease and speed is developed through the repetitions necessary to learn the work.

I looked through all the standard reference books from time to time and found that absolutely nothing was known about this composer, not even the country or date of his birth. In the following article, you’ll read groundbreaking original research that provides, for the first time, details about the life, career, and works of this “mystery” composer. I have found Stephen Erickson’s research fascinating and am grateful to him for bringing such a vivid portrait of this most interesting man to us, as well as the correct pronunciation of his name: pyeh- CHUN-kah.

 

A Biography of Albert Pieczonka and Survey of his Works

by Stephen Erickson

Pianist Stephen Erickson received his Bachelor of Music degree in performance from Oberlin College Conservatory and his Master of Music degree in performance from Boston University School for the Arts. Since 1985, he has taught piano, piano literature and piano pedagogy at Salve Regina University, in Newport, Rhode Island.

Mr. Erickson's search for Albert Pieczonka has revealed some exciting discoveries. Albert's life dates are now known, his musical output has been augmented to 52 known works, and the details of his colorful life and family open a window to this fascinating period in history. Articles on Mr. Erickson's website www.albertpieczonka.org will include analyses of Albert's extant works along with an in-depth biography; they bring Albert and his role in the Golden Age of the Piano more closely into focus. Future projects will involve republishing some of Albert's available works for piano and publishing his Grande Sonata Infernale, now only in manuscript, for the first time.

The Search

"THE NEW GIANTESS TITANIC…Now on Her Way Here."1 On Sunday, April 14, 1912, a short article in the New York Times announced the pending arrival of the maritime wonder. A modest obituary appeared in the same paper announcing the death of a musician named Professor Albert Pieczonka. Later that night, 1500 people lost their lives in the North Atlantic. Did the collective shock of that horrific catastrophe overshadow Pieczonka's life and plunge him into an obscurity that deepened over the years? For generations, Pieczonka's Tarantella in A Minor has been a popular, motivating recital piece for young pianists. Yet nothing was known about Pieczonka—even his life dates were not available. Given that the Tarantella is as popular today as it was a hundred years ago, how could its composer have vanished without a trace? So began my quest to solve one of the enduring mysteries of piano literature.

For twelve years, my search for Pieczonka had centered in Europe, where I had gleaned only a few scraps of information. That 1912 issue of the Times revealed an extraordinary clue: Albert was actually a New Yorker. In trying to unravel the mystery of who Albert Pieczonka was, I had uncovered a new nineteenth-century composer in America. Pieczonka’s career in the United States—composing, performing, and teaching—would turn out to be a significant part of his life’s work.

Locating Albert’s American family was a stroke of luck.  Of Albert’s children, only his daughters married and had children, which certainly complicated the genealogical path. The choice of some descendents to legally change their surname also obscured the route. Fortunately one name change was unique—a German surname, pronounced with a Prussian accent, then translated into Spanish—and eminently traceable. I would learn that the members of this family were indeed related to Albert.

Albert's American and European descendants have graciously supplied me with a wealth of information, photographs and leads for further research. They have been invaluable in helping me discover vibrant details of Albert’s intriguing life, and they have my lasting gratitude. Even with all the documents I have found, this is very much a work in progress.

The Early Years

Albert Pieczonka in London circa 1862
Albert Pieczonka in London circa 1862.

Albert Emil Theodor Pieczonka was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, on February 10, 1828. He was the first of three children of Gotthilf and Friederike (Rehländer) Pieczonka. The surname Pieczonka (also Pieçonka) was originally Polish and is pronounced: pyeh-CHUN-kah. Although originally from Lissa (now Leszno), Poland, the family immigrated to German-speaking Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) shortly after the French Revolution.

Were it not for a memorial article in Musical America2, little would be known of Albert’s youth. As might be expected in a posthumous tribute, there was an element of exaggeration here. The hyperbole notwithstanding, we still get a clear picture of an exuberant youngster and his passion for music.

“The kindliness of the boy’s grandfather [his maternal grandfather Kempa] left its imprint upon his character. One Winter day the five-year-old youngster had been complaining that the cherry tree in the garden was taking a long time to show signs of bearing fruit. As the grandfather had always made it a point to fulfill the child’s every wish he bought a great box of cherries and when Albert was safe in bed, he climbed the tree and hung the cherries all over the branches. The next morning Albert was so delighted that he climbed up into the branches and remained there all day eating cherries to his heart’s content.3

Regarding his academic and business pursuits, the article continues:

“When he was sixteen Albert was sent to the University of Königsberg, but the youth played so many mischievous pranks that his father despaired of making a scholar of him and placed him with a business firm. Albert proved himself equally impossible as a business man by such bits of carelessness as leaving the tap of a molasses barrel open and allowing the entire contents to trickle out on the floor.”4

His love for music remained constant throughout his childhood and teenage years. “As a child Mr. Pieczonka showed signs of an aptitude for composing, for he worked out little melodies for one hand before he knew the merest rudiments of harmony.”5 Later when he was working as a clerk in the aforementioned store, we get another glimpse at Albert’s preoccupation with composition. “The receipts of the firm were not increased by Pieczonka’s hospitality in inviting the patrons to help themselves, while he stood behind the counter composing melodies.”6 Finally, he left Königsberg to pursue his sole interest, music.

By 1847, at age 19, Albert enrolled in Mendelssohn’s newly founded Leipzig Conservatory, where its world famous pianist-director, Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), had accepted him into his studio. Although mostly forgotten today, Moscheles was arguably one of the most recognized names in music at the time of Albert’s move to Leipzig.

Moscheles’ fame began as a piano virtuoso, often performing showpieces like his virtuosic “Alexander” Variations, Op. 32, for piano and orchestra. Beethoven depended on Moscheles to arrange the orchestral score of Fidelio for piano; later Moscheles orchestrated the plan to have emergency financial support sent to the dying Beethoven. Moscheles was a teacher, mentor and close friend of Mendelssohn. As a composer, Moscheles wrote over 300 works, which included 8 piano concertos and over 100 etudes for piano. The young Robert Schumann was very impressed with Moscheles as a pianist and composer; he had noteworthy success performing the “Alexander” Variations. Later, Schumann expressed his deep admiration by dedicating the F Minor Sonata (Op. 14) to him. Albert must have felt a tremendous validation of his talent when he started lessons with Ignaz Moscheles.

Remarkably, the Leipzig Conservatory has saved Albert’s transcripts for 160 years. They paint a candid picture of a typically distracted 20-year-old student. His professors' evaluations document Albert’s infrequent attendance at choir practice and organ lessons, and they note that he rarely practiced the violin. These reproachful assessments add a very human dimension to Albert and help us better understand him. Of course, Albert acted differently with his respected mentor. Moscheles wrote, “The diligence and attention of Mr. Pieconka in my lessons are commendable."7 Perhaps lacking the emotional and financial support of his parents, or fearing the social upheaval caused by the Revolutions of 1848-49, Albert left the conservatory after completing just two years, despite his good relationship with Moscheles.

His conservatory experience was followed by far greater musical success. He reportedly studied with Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein and then embarked on a solo concert career throughout Germany. More significantly, from a personal perspective, Albert began teaching a new student in Memel, East Prussia, who was to become his wife, Emeline Florentine Nancy Wohlgeboren (1836-1916). She was the daughter of a wealthy shipping magnate and eight years his junior. Nanny, as she would be called for the rest of her life, was a talented singer and pianist. According to family history, she was of royal heritage. Her grandfather, a Bourbon aristocrat, was apparently smuggled out of Paris during the French Revolution. Against her family’s wishes, Albert and Nanny eloped in 1855. They would spend the next 57 years devoted to each other.

Audio Clips

Audio Clip 1: Polish Chivalry
Performed by Kate Dickson
Sound Icon mp3, 3.2MB.

Kate Dickson is Albert’s great-great-granddaughter, the daughter of Mary and Richard Boning. Kate graduated from Ithaca College majoring in piano performance and vocal music education and has taught music at the elementary level. Seeking connections between musical language and the language arts, she received her Master’s in reading education from Hofstra University. She continues her piano studies with Felice Bedrossian, with whom she has worked since the age of 10. Kate lives in New York State with her husband Barry and two children.


Audio Clip 2: Dancing Waves
Performed by Mary Hamilton Boning
Sound Icon mp3, 4MB.

Mary Hamilton Boning was born in 1929, a century after the birth of her great-grandfather, Albert. She graduated from Trenton State College (The College of New Jersey) in 1950 with a degree in music education and taught choral music in the schools of Atlantic City, NJ; Freeport and Baldwin, NY; Hanau, Germany; and Franklin Square, NY. Later she was a writer for the Barnell Loft Publishing Company, a family company founded by her husband and brother-in-law. She continues her piano studies with Felice Takakjian Bedrossian, of Freeport, NY. Mary and her husband, Richard, live in Baldwin, NY.


Audio Clip 3: Tarantella
Performed by Carrie Dickson
Sound Icon mp3, 2.1MB.

The youngest of the family performers, Carrie Dickson, is Albert’s great-great-great-granddaughter. She studies piano with Felice Bedrossian, and also plays the cello. In addition to her musical activities, Carrie loves ballet and has performed various roles in The Nutcracker. Basketball and horseback riding are favorite activities.
Continuing the family tradition, playing the Tarantella in A Minor has been a musical rite of passage for literally generations of Albert’s descendents. Keyboard Companion is especially grateful to Carrie for sharing with us her contribution to the family musical archives.


Audio Clip 4: Wanda
Performed by Holly von Zschiegner O‘Horo
Sound Icon mp3, 3.7MB.

Great-granddaughter Holly von Zschiegner O’Horo started her musical career playing the ‘cello, as a student of Albert’s grandson, concert cellist Charles Pier. After Charles’ untimely death, she turned to the piano and entered The Juilliard School, graduating in 1971. She made a Carnegie Hall debut with her first husband as part of a successful two-piano team. Their programs consisted of standard repertoire followed by jazz improvisations on tunes written by Holly. Her mentor was pianist/improvisator Grace Castagnetta. Holly resides in Long Branch, NJ with her husband, Douglas.

The London Years

In 1858, the couple emigrated from East Prussia to England with their two young children, Ernst and Fanny Cosima. In London, Albert and Nanny rounded out their family with a succession of girls: Alice, Kaethe, Emily, Helene and Evaline (Eva). The girls were immediately immersed in music as Albert taught them all piano (he likely taught them the basics of stringed instruments as well).

In 1861 they resided at 29 Cedar Road, Fulham, and by 1871 they were living at 40 Lancaster Road in Kensington—a mile from Notting Hill and two miles from Kensington Palace. According to Albert’s granddaughter, Lily Pier, the family led a life of success and privilege in London. The children had private tutors, including the luxury of harp instruction, and the family entertained the leading musicians and literati of the day.8 Albert's daughter Kaethe Pieczonka recalled:

When I was a little girl, our house was always full of musicians on Sundays… [Anton] Rubinstein and my father were great friends and they played on two grand pianos many of the great works of the masters. I remember Rubinstein as most distinguished looking with a great shock of black hair… Many singers came to our musical afternoons. Madame Nordica often sang for us when she appeared at the Drury Lane Theater. Sometimes my mother, who was a professional singer, sang too. She was a pupil of Nordica and Christine Nilsson, who was often our guest in London. Madame Adelina Patti we knew very well.”9

Kaethe continues the list of eminent musicians who visited the Pieczonkas:

“Chevalier de Konski [Anton de Kontski] and Sir Charles Hallé, the latter a fine interpreter of Beethoven, were frequent visitors. Thomas Aptomas [sic.], the distinguished harpist with whom my father toured in concert, was often with us.”10

One indication of Albert’s professional and social status was, as reported in The Washington Post, his appointment as music teacher to royalty, including the children of the Princess Alexandra [Princess of Wales] and aristocrats like Countess Stanhope and other prominent English families.11 As a pianist and composer, however, Albert was still not well-known a dozen years after he had arrived in England. In 1871 a London reviewer praised his music and identified him as a composer "whose name is new to us."12 Prior to 1870, documentation of Albert’s performances is extremely rare. By the mid-1870s, however, it is apparent that he was performing more extensively and his name was recognizable. The reviews of his performances in England located thus far are complimentary. His own compositions, performed at these concerts, were also well received.

Inexplicable Move to the United States

Albert Pieczonka in his 50s, shortly after arriving in New York
Albert Pieczonka in his 50s, shortly after arriving in New York

In spite of twenty-two successful and satisfying years in London, Albert packed up most of his family and immigrated to America. On September 9, 1880, Albert, Nanny, Emily, Helene and Eva arrived in New York on the ship The Queen. Daughters Fanny and Alice arrived in New York in May of the following year on the ship Erin. The reasons for the move remain unclear. Perhaps it was encouraged by Albert’s friends: Anton Rubinstein, who had recently completed his legendary concert tour of America; and the harpist Aptommas, who had by then toured the United States twice and eventually became a permanent resident.

Still, mysteries abound. Why would Albert leave the security of an established career with enviable professional and personal contacts to seek a most uncertain future? As reported by Lily Pier, daughter Emily (Lily’s mother), aged 19, wept at her first sight of “filthy old New York."13 Her urbane, privileged London life was being replaced with what must have seemed like a relatively bleak frontier existence. Both Albert and Nanny shaved ten years off their ages on the ship’s manifest, and the girls’ ages were similarly reduced. Clearly they needed a fresh start.

The family first settled in an apartment on Bleecker Street in New York, not too far from the Little Germany neighborhood of the lower East Side, where they made most of their social and professional contacts. By 1889, the Pieczonkas had moved uptown to East 95 th Street, where they would stay for the next twenty-three years. In total Albert lived in New York close to thirty-two years—longer than he had lived in East Prussia or London.

Although the move to the United States might have been a jolting transition initially, Albert came to enjoy spending summers at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where both he and Nanny rarely missed a summer day of swimming and where Albert often performed recitals at the local hotels. Albert also continued to compete in chess tournaments—a skill he had acquired in London. As noted by the British Chess Association, Albert was competing as a member of the St. James’s Chess Club as early as 1861. Documentation of his chess playing is by far more extensive once he moved to New York. He was a member of the Metropolitan Chess Club in Manhattan and a regular competitor in local, state, and interstate matches. Often the results of these matches were publicized in newspapers and journals.14

The Kempa Ladies’ Orchestra

Albert with The Kempa Ladies' Orchestra, comprised of his wife and daughters
Albert with The Kempa Ladies’ Orchestra, comprised of his wife and daughters

Recognizing the lucrative financial potential of the popular music market, Albert assembled an act with an immediate appeal: the “Kempa Family Ladies’ Orchestra—Each Member a Soloist of the Highest Order,” named for his maternal grandparents. Each of the Pieczonka girls was a strong pianist and string player. The family act consisted of small and large ensembles and solos and reflected the popular musical tastes of the day. Their programs often started with an opera or operetta overture and included popular selections transcribed for strings, a variety of flashy classical instrumental solos, and a popular piece for the entire ensemble, which usually ended the program. Albert usually performed some showy piano solos in addition to duets with Nanny, who also sang. The young girls’ string solos were often the highlights of the concert and entire programs were performed from memory, a feat which impressed reviewers.

Touring with an ensemble, Albert added even more diversity to the programs by performing concertos and concert pieces for piano and orchestra/ensemble at the Kempa Ladies’ Orchestra (KLO) concerts. Along with the Schumann Piano Quintet, KLO programs frequently included the Weber Konzertstück and the Mendelssohn Capriccio Brillante and Rondo Brillante.

Programs from these American KLO concerts are among the only documentation of Albert’s performing repertoire. Although a few British reviews mention some of the pieces he performed, no full programs from that period abroad have been found. In the United States, entire programs for their concerts, which included Albert’s solos, were sometimes printed in the newspapers and over twenty complete KLO programs have been located in rare book collections.

The KLO toured the US extensively between 1882 and 1887, performing in Boston, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cleveland, Houston, and Washington, D.C., among other places. They played at the 1883 Foreign Exhibition, German festivals, music halls, athletic clubs, hotels, music academies, summer cruises, and even at Dime Museums—the precursors to Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibitions. This grueling life on the road must have been difficult for musicians used to hobnobbing with European royalty.

The apparent reason for the age shaving at their arrival in America was to impart the caché of youth to the KLO. A reviewer wrote, "Miss Eva Kempa, child violinist, received abundant marks of approval."15 According to The Queen’s passenger list, Eva was a child of 10 when she performed for that reviewer. In reality, she was 15. By 1887, Eva, the cute child prodigy of the ensemble was 20; Kaethe, Fanny, and Emily were no longer with the ensemble. The family act was in its twilight.

Lauded Performer and Influential Teacher

Reviews of Albert’s solo performances are rare but extremely positive. In England, his expressive interpretations were praised by critics. In the United States, Albert was favorably compared to Anton Rubinstein, who had set standards of musicianship during the celebrated 1872-1873 American tour that secured for him the stature as one of the foremost pianists of his time. Albert Pieczonka “ranks as the peer” of Rubinstein, declared a typical American review.16

Exactly how many concerts Albert performed will probably never be known. To date sixteen reviews have been found—no reviews from Germany, three from England, and thirteen from the United States. In terms of announcements and advertisements for upcoming concerts, over seventy have been found so far—none from Germany, ten from England and over sixty from the US. Some of the ads and announcements publicized a series of several concerts in one city. Considering the difficulty in uncovering this material, it seems quite probable that what has been located represents only a small portion of Albert’s performing career.

Albert was also known for his interpretations of Beethoven, to whom, coincidentally, he bore a striking physical resemblance. So marked was the likeness that a young acquaintance of the New York musician once exclaimed upon seeing a bust of Beethoven, “Oh look, there is Mr. Pieczonka!17

Albert Pieczonka was a well-known and popular teacher of piano. Besides instructing his daughters and members of British high society, Albert reportedly directed a conservatory in London, taught at the New York Conservatory and directed a music school in the Bronx. He had many private students in New York—who were charged as much as $10 a lesson—and he continued to teach into his 80s.

Family Tragedies

Albert Pieczonka with his wife (“Nanny”), daughter Emily, and some of their grandchildren. Photo circa 1900.
Albert Pieczonka with his wife (“Nanny”), daughter Emily, and some of their grandchildren. Photo circa 1900.

Albert and Nanny's eight children provided for them both immeasurable happiness and unimaginable sorrow. Their firstborn child, a son named Ernst, suffered a debilitating fall at a young age. The accident left him paralyzed and with a festering infection in his hip, which would kill him by the time he was twenty. Another child, probably male, may have been born with spina bifida and likely died in infancy.

Their daughters also suffered hardships, and sadly, Albert and Nanny lived to witness most of them. The eldest, Fanny, began to lose muscle control around age 22, which necessitated her leaving the Kempa Ladies’ Orchestra. She eventually became paralyzed, and died from infected bedsores six years later in a Buffalo rooming house. Helene also died young, in her late 20s, after only two years of marriage. Alice developed breast cancer, which struck her down at age 49, leaving behind young children. Emily suffered through a bitter divorce, and was run over and killed by a truck at age 54 as her children watched. Kaethe was widowed after 10 years of marriage, and lost her only child Jack in a head-on automobile accident. Four years later, she was struck and killed by a streetcar, while crossing the tracks.18 Eva, the youngest daughter, had been the shining star of the KLO. Her troubles began when she married a physician who became a morphine addict; she subsequently became a morphine addict herself. Tragically she died young (probably in her late 20s or early 30s) from an overdose of anesthesia during an operation—having neglected to inform the surgeon of her addiction. Albert and Nanny, both elderly at the time, took in her young children. Albert’s sorrow and mourning over Eva’s death can be heard in some of his compositions from this period.

Death Under a Titanic Shadow

On April 12, 1912, Albert died from pneumonia at his home in New York City at the age of 84. He left behind his wife Nanny, only two of his six daughters, Emily and Kaethe, and twelve grandchildren. A few days later, in the midst of his family’s bereavement, all of New York—indeed the world—was rocked by the news of the Titanic’s sinking. Surely this terrible event intensified their sadness. It likely had a role in displacing the news coverage of Albert’s death as well. To date I have found only three articles memorializing this fascinating pianist, composer and teacher in print.19 Unfortunately these three tributes were never indexed in reference texts and the ensuing 96 years have only served to increase his obscurity. Significantly, his grave in New York remains unmarked to this day.

Pieczonka’s Music

Works by Albert Pieczonka

Works presented in alphabetical order. Most dates of composition are unknown. Dates given reflect years of publication and⁄or Hofmeister's Handbuch der Musikliteratur. Leipzig: F. Hofmeister, 1844-1943.

L’Ame Perdue. (The Lost Soul) Grande Sonate Infernale
I. Allegro maestoso e con terrore
II. Scherzo: La Danse des Diables
III. Miserere mei (Grave con angoscia)
IV. Dies irae (Con furia)
Exact date unkown, this is likely Pieczonka's last work. In manuscript, unpublished.

Amor et Psyche. Grande Valse d’Octaves

The Angel of Peace. Nocturne for the Pianoforte (1863) Also The Angel of Peace. Nocturne Transcribed for the harp by C. Oberthur (1895)

Cupidon. Nocturne Erotique, Op. 23 (1889; Hofmeister lists 1868-1875)

Dancing Waves. Morceau de Salon pour le Piano, Op. 27 (1869)
Also known as La Danse des Ondes. Third edition in 1880; also appeared with the heading: "Newly arranged in brilliant, yet not difficult style."

Danses de Salon pour Piano. (1879)
Tarantelle in A minor
Valse brillante
Danse des Fantômes
Noce Polonaise
. (Wedding Polonaise) Mazurka de Concert
Grande Polonaise Héroïque
Wanda. Mazurka Brillante
Salon-Walzer über den Namen ‘BACH’
Elfentanz. Caprice (Also known as Scherzando)
Hommage à la Pologne
. (Homage to Poland) Mazurka Also known as Polish Chivalry and Poland Echoes
Second Tarantella in E Minor

Eight Characteristic Tone Poems. (1903)
Berceuse
Scene de Ballet
Valse caprice brillante
Rondoletto ‡
Barcarole ‡
Gavotte ‡
Dance des Cossaques ‡
Serenade ‡

 

The Emperor. Grand Fantaisie Héroïque on “Die Wacht am Rhein” (1871)

Fleur de Lis. Polka de Salon

Grande Marche Triomphale pour Piano(1880)

Grande Valse-Etude. Concert Piece for Piano (1912)

Harmonies Angéliques. Morceau de Consolation

Kundry. Concertstück für Clavier (1904)

L’Avalanche. Morceau Brillant

La Danse des Sylphes. Morceau de Concert pour le Piano (1862)

L’Echo. Morceau de Concert pour Piano(1880)

La Sylphide. Morceau Gracieux

Murmuring Cascade. Grand Morceau de Concert (1881)

On Horseback. Morceau Caractéristique

Perpetuum Mobile. Valse Grande Etude de Perfectione (1881)

Petits Danses tirées de l’opéra “La vie pour le Czar” de Glinka.
Polonaise ‡
Mazurka ‡

Polacca

Polish Dance for Pianoforte (1906)

Prière. (Prayer) Grande Etude (1881)

Ronde Villageoise Op. 24. (1869)‡

(Scherzando 1897 — the renamed Elfentanz from Danses de Salon)

Serenade for the Piano (1880)

Souvenir de Calais. Mazurka pour Piano(1863)

‘Tis the Moonlight Sleeping. Morceau d’expression transcrit pour le Piano(1866)

Valse brillante for small hands

Vie pour le Czar de Glinka: Fantasie. ‡

Vive l’amour. Morceau Chevaleresque Op. 21 (January, 1869) ‡

Voice of the Siren. Descriptive Piece ‡

Works by Albert Kempa for the Kempa Ladies’ Orchestra

Pizzicato Polka for string orchestra (1883) ‡

Xylophone Polka for xylophone and piano (could be a transcription of the Pizzicato Polka) c. 1887 (date illegible).

 

   ‡ Works that have been documented but not examined to date

An Overview

Pieczonka's known published works date from the 1860s to 1912 and are almost exclusively for the piano (see List of Works). His musical style is striking for its playability and thin texture, especially when compared to the more complex works of his contemporaries like Gottschalk (1829-1869) and Rubinstein (1829-1894). These elements reflect Albert’s intention to publish music that was idiomatic and effective, as well as readily marketable.

Some of his earlier works were obviously written for his own use. These pieces demonstrate a thicker texture, are more extended in length, and have more brilliant passagework, bravura octaves, and exciting endings. Despite the outward appearance of virtuosic display, these pieces are surprisingly not that difficult to play. Pieczonka had a good sense of acoustic balance, and even in the bravura passages, the texture does not become overbearing or muddy. Technically awkward passages are noticeably absent. To be sure, this highly pianistic writing would ensure good sales.

The melodic, harmonic, and passage-writing characteristics are enormously varied, and his scores always maintain the engaging charm that is pure Pieczonka. His style is difficult to categorize for it ranged from what was called “popular” music to flashy display pieces and to more serious concert works. Even in Albert’s lifetime, it was difficult to make distinctions of musical styles, as the categories were not very clearly defined. In their 1905 Catalog of Perforated Music Rolls, the Universal Music Company offered five Pieczonka selections for player pianos. Those five pieces by Pieczonka were divided into three separate categories: “Classic,” “Popular,” and “Miscellaneous.”20

A survey of his repertoire reveals some intriguing highlights: the frenetic Second Tarantella was probably written in response to the popularity of his first Tarantella in A Minor; his Chopin-inspired Grand Polonaise Héroïque was considered a formal concert piece at the Leipzig Conservatory. His Leipzig years were commemorated in the clever Waltz on B.A.C.H. His Xylophone Polka, written under the pseudonym Albert Kempa, was so popular with the KLO audiences that he published it both in the United States and in England. One Pieczonka theme had a circuitous trip onto our present day football fields—having been transformed into a beloved gridiron fight song. These works give a marvelous window into Pieczonka’s life and times.

Tarantella in A Minor

The Tarantella in A Minor was the piece that brought fame to Albert in his lifetime. In 1902, it was featured in the popular music magazine The Etude as the lead musical selection, and was described as a “brilliant form of composition . . . musicianly, and yet thoroughly attractive to the average player."21 The overall design of this work is based on a form template that Pieczonka would use for the bulk of his compositions: a short introduction, a simple ABA form, and a coda. Everything is tuneful, well-crafted, rewarding to play, with cleverly written and effective passage work. He seldom strayed from this model.

In a relatively short time, the Tarantella in A Minor for piano had become so popular that transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles were inevitable. Albert's daughter Kaethe said in 1937, "His ‘Tarantella in A Minor’ is known throughout the world and is played by orchestras even in small towns.”22The Story of the Tarantelle, a chapter from the 1910 educational book, Stories of Standard Teaching Pieces, describes the history of the dance and lists the popular teaching examples (as well as the concert versions). It notes that a “Tarantelle in A Minor by Pieczonka has met with immense favor in America.”23

Albert framed his 1879 collection Danses de Salon with his only two tarantellas: The Tarantella in A Minor was placed first and the set of ten dances ended with the Tarantella in E Minor. Of the two, the A Minor is somewhat more technically accessible but both are equally exciting. In between, he included mazurkas, a polonaise, waltzes, the Elfentanz (Dance of the Elves), and an evocatively titled Danse des fantômes. (See List of Works.)

Other Significant Works

Pieczonka’s mazurka in A Minor, Hommage à la Pologne, was the ninth of the ten Danses de Salon and is a highly stylized example of the Polish dance. Typical of the Pieczonka style and in ABA form, it has an introduction but lacks a coda. Because of its rewarding, impassioned and robust effect, as well as its lack of technical demands, “Polish Chivalry,” (as it is also known) became very popular. It quickly found a place in local concerts around the country and was featured in the February 1915 issue of The Etude.

Dancing Waves (1869) falls into a separate category of Pieczonka’s compositions that are constructed in a persistent etude style. Many of his works exhibit this type of uninterrupted florid writing that one would expect to see in a volume of studies. To be sure, a fixation on etude practice was in vogue at the time, and Albert’s teacher, Moscheles, certainly augmented the etude repertoire. After the appearance of the barrier-breaking etudes of Liszt and Chopin, performing concert etudes became a rite of passage for all aspiring virtuosos.

Other examples include Prière—Grande Etude (1881) (see Excerpt 1), and Perpetuum Mobile (Valse—Grande Etude de Perfectione) (1881) (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 1
Excerpt 2

The interlocking motives of Dancing Waves (Excerpt 3) in D-flat Major show Albert at his most inventive. Again the effect is impressive while the technical difficulty remains minimal. It is easy to understand why this piece became popular and strongly identified with Pieczonka in his lifetime.

Excerpt 3

Late Works

In his late works, Albert appears to have been preoccupied with the strikingly disparate impulses of creating music for teaching children while at the same time mourning his own lost child, Eva. In Eight Tone Poems (1903), the only three extant pieces appear to be among the simplest written by Pieczonka. Their style suggests pedagogical use for beginners: very thin texture, rare use of large intervals or chords, short length, and content that would appeal to younger students.

In contrast, what is probably his last work, L’Ame Perdue (The Lost Soul)—Grande Sonate Infernale seems to express his great personal sorrow over the tragic death of Eva. The texture is more straightforward than his earlier works and the motivic writing and developmental aspects are more pronounced. This four movement piece is Pieczonka’s only known work in sonata form.24 The emotional content is powerful, with many passages marked con furia, con angoscia (anguish), and supplicando. As with most of his works, it lies well in the hand and is very rewarding to play. Nevertheless it was never published. Perhaps it represented something too personal and painful to share with the public.

Conclusion

This purpose of this article is to illuminate the life and works of a mysterious nineteenth-century musician who created some very popular piano music of his day and ours. From his beginnings as a store clerk in East Prussia, to studying and mingling with some of the greatest musicians of the nineteenth century, to performing across America in concert halls and Dime Museums, to running music conservatories in London and New York City, Pieczonka’s story is an amazing portrait of a remarkable musician.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I want to thank the members of the extended Pieczonka family for all their help in assembling this article. Bringing Albert Pieczonka out of obscurity and being able to describe his life in detail would have been impossible without their help and support. In addition to being very talented and accomplished, the Pieczonka family is also wonderfully warm and gracious. I count myself lucky to have met them and come to know them.

I also want to thank: Linda Ujifusa for her many contributions to this article—including her encouraging me to find Albert’s living descendents; Nancy Bachus and Dr. Peter Jutras, editors at Keyboard Companion, for their patience and hard work; Peter Towey, for all his help in London; Dr. Gary Fisher of Rochester, NY, and Dr. Thomas Day of Newport, RI, who were very generous with their expertise and suggestions; Joe Miklovic at Studio Chromatique and Fred Guarino at Tiki Recording for their assistance with the recordings; and Gerry Widell Mahler, whose guidance in genealogy was invaluable.

Notes

1 The New Giantess Titanic. (1912, April 14). The New York Times, p. 6.

2 Looked Like Beethoven. (1912, May 25). Musical America, 16 (3), p. 2.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Translation by Lutz Pieconka. Originally: Der Fleiss and die Aufmerksamkeit des Herrn Pieconka bei

meinem Unterricht ist lobenswert. (1848) Hochschule für Musik and Theater Leipzig, Archiv Bestand

A, I.3. Zeugnisse.

8 Pier, Lily. Letter to A.D. (1977, August 20). Personal Correspondence .

9 Kackley, V. (1937, September 19). Notable Artist Now Long Beach Resident. Long Beach Press-Telegram,

p. 5.

10 Ibid.

11 Society. (1886, December 19). The Washington Post, p. 4.

12Musical Times and Singing Class Circular. London (1871, May).15 (339) , p. 85.

13 Pier, Lily. Letter to A.D. (1977, August 20) Personal Correspondence.

14 InThe New York Times, Outing magazine, The Brooklyn Eagle, American Chess Magazine, and others.

15The Boston Globe (1882, December 29). p. 3.

16 Amusements. (1886, October 16) The Washington Post, p. 2.

17 Musical America,16 (3), p. 2.

18 Kaethe lived the longest of Albert’s children. As a concert cellist, she performed extensively in the United States and Europe and

continued performing into her 70s.

19 Since the United States was where Albert was living and acquired most of his fame, it is not surprising that these articles came from

American publications. From abroad, no obituaries or tributes have yet been found .

20 Catalog of Perforated Music Rolls for Standard 65 Note Pianos. (1905, July) Universal Music Company, New York.

Note: The Pieczonka selections were:
Miscellaneous: Elfentanz—Scherzando and Noce Polonaise Mazurka de Concert
Popular: Tarantella in A Minor and Valse Brillante in A-Flat
Classic: Grand Polonaise Héroïque in E-Flat.
The use of a “miscellaneous” category points to the difficulty in classifying the music of his day.

21 Publisher’s Notes. (1902, February). The Etude, p. 72.

22 Kackley, p. 2. Note: To date, two arrangements of the Tarantella in A Minor have been documented:

one for military band and one for solo violin with piano accompaniment.

23 Perry, Edward Baxter. The Story of the Tarantelle (1910). Stories of Standard Teaching Pieces Theodore Presser Co., Philadelphia, PA. p. 220.

24 Pieczonka’s L’Ame Perdue is an example of an uncommon Romantic piano sonata written in the United States.

 

In the next issue: How do you make student recitals a joyful, rather than fearful experience?

 

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