Chopin In The Shadows: The Supernatural Adventures Of Byron Janis

Aug 5, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 10:25 am

The celebrated pianist Byron Janis has always felt a special pull toward Chopin. As a child of about eight or nine he remembers breaking out in tears after playing a Chopin waltz, then asking his mother to find him a book about the composer. Now, after a seven-decade career, the 89-year-old pianist has his share of Chopin stories to tell – some are astonishing and others downright spooky.

Talking with NPR's Scott Simon, Janis recounts the unlikely events surrounding his chance discovery – twice – of the same pair of Chopin Waltzes. It's a focal point for his memoir Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal, which he co-authored with his wife, Maria Cooper Janis.

In 1967, Janis visited the French chateau of a friend. While rummaging through an old trunk of clothing he stumbled upon two manuscripts. The friend brushed them off, saying his grandmother had dabbled in writing music. But Janis knew otherwise. "Oh no, this is not your grandmother," he told him. "This is Chopin." What Janis found were earlier versions of the well-known Waltzes in G-flat, Op. 70, No. 1 and in E-flat, Op. 18 – apparently gifts from the composer to a member of the family around 1833.

What are the chances, then, of finding alternate versions of those same two waltzes across the Atlantic six years later? That's exactly what happened to Janis while visiting the Yale University Library in 1973. This time, however, Janis says it was more than just chance.

"I felt I was drawn to that somehow," he says. Janis was about to leave the library when he spied something on top of a file cabinet. "They took a ladder and said 'It's marked Chopin'," Janis recalls. After looking through the papers, Janis was shocked. "I must have turned many different colors," he says. "They said, 'What's wrong? You don't look well.' I said, 'This is not possible!' And there were the same two waltzes in different versions, written a year earlier."

Janis' stories take a decidedly more supernatural turn when it comes to Chopin's death mask. But Janis doesn't care for terms like "supernatural."

"I don't like the word 'paranormal,' I like 'unknown normal,'" Janis insists. "Because that's what it really is. Things are unknown, and once they become known then they become normal after a bit."

A rare cast of Chopin's face was given to Janis by the proprietor of Nohant, the summer estate of Georges Sand (born Amantine Lucile Dupin), the French novelist with whom Chopin was romantically involved.

"You're not going to believe this if you don't believe in the unknown normal," Janis begins. Two friends joined Janis, his wife and their 17-year-old son one day. The guests inquired about the mask sitting on the piano and, Janis says, that's when things began to get weird.

"Suddenly, out of one of the eyes, a fluid started coming," Janis recalls. "We were all amazed, shocked. I put my hand into this fluid and it was salty. There was no question in my mind these were tears. And then the mouth started to bubble up with, almost, froth. It was quite strong and unbelievable. So we were terribly shocked and I put it back on the piano and we sat down to talk about what had happened. What I felt was that Chopin was happy he could communicate, somehow, with the current world."

Janis' career has been filled with successes, but also with setbacks. At age 16, after Vladimir Horowitz heard him play Rachmaninoff with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Janis became the legendary pianist's very first pupil. At 18, he was the youngest artist to sign with the RCA Victor label and at 20 he made his Carnegie Hall debut.

Later, Janis was nearly sidelined by psoriatic arthritis, but he soldiered on. "As long as I kept my standards, I did keep playing," he says. Still, he didn't talk openly about his ailment for 12 years until Nancy Reagan, at a White House Luncheon, announced Janis as the Arthritis Foundation's National Ambassador to the Arts. "I have arthritis, but it doesn't have me," he said at the time.

The pianist made something of a comeback in 1996 when he released an all-Chopin album, including a performance of the Yale version of the G-flat major Waltz. It also appears on his new album, Byron Janis Live on Tour. In the works at present is a film based on Janis' life, produced by Martin Scorsese.

"Music is and was my life," Janis says. "Fortunately I was born with a talent. I am passionate about making music. At moments I was going to give up, because it was very difficult, but I persisted. I said, 'No, no, no keep going, come on. You'll be able to do it.' It was like a mind over matter thing. And it works."

Ned Wharton and Jennifer Liberto produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF BYRON JANIS PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S WALTZ, OP. 70: NO. 1 IN G-FLAT MAJOR)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is the "Waltz In G-Flat Major" by Chopin. It was unknown to the world in this version until it was discovered at a chateau in France in 1967 by the man who plays it here, Byron Janis. And the circumstances of that discovery are at the centerpiece of his autobiography, "Chopin And Beyond: My Extraordinary Life In Music And The Paranormal." Byron Janis turned 89 years old this year. He celebrated with the release of his album "Byron Janis Live On Tour." He joins us from New York. Mr. Janis, thanks so much for being with us.

BYRON JANIS: I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: And how did you find this piece of music?

JANIS: This was found in a very old chateau dating back to 1500. Count La Panouse, whose property it was, showed us around and took us in to the old antique room, where there were all kinds of letters and things. And there was a box marked old clothes. We opened the trunk, and that was something that looked like a manuscript. I said, I found a waltz here. He said, oh, my grandmother used to write down music all the time and fool around. I said, no, no, no. This is not your grandmother. This is Chopin (laughter).

SIMON: So do you feel that you were drawn somehow to find that manuscript? Or what happened?

JANIS: I found - no, not the first time. But the second time, when I found them at Yale - the same two waltzes again in different versions - I felt I was drawn to that somehow.

SIMON: So you unexpectedly and by coincidence found two versions of the same Chopin waltz years apart from each other?

JANIS: Yeah, six years between the time I found the first one at Thoiry and the later one at Yale.

SIMON: You do feel a special connection with Chopin, don't you?

JANIS: Actually, I do. Many things have happened to me. I don't like the word paranormal. I like the word the unknown normal because that's what it really is.

SIMON: So it's extraordinary that you should discover two different versions of a Chopin waltz that was previously unknown.

JANIS: I agree. I was shocked - really shocked - when I found them. And then many things happened to me with Chopin through my life.

SIMON: Such as?

JANIS: Well (laughter), you're not going to believe this if you don't believe in the unknown normal. But I had a death mask of Chopin given to me. Some friends came over, and they said, what's that? I said, it's death mask of Chopin. That's what they used to do in those days. When someone died, they'd get someone to put wax on his face and make this death mask as a memorial. I took it off - down. I said, please be careful with it because it's, you know, very unique. There are only two or three in the world. My wife was there. My son was there - he was about 17 - and these two friends. And, suddenly, a fluid started coming out of one of the eyes. And I put my hand into this fluid, and it was salty. So I guess there was no question in my mind these were tears. What I felt was that Chopin was happy that he could communicate somehow with the current world.

You know, I learned one thing. People who are negative about these kinds of unknown normal things - they will never change. They'll always find another way that it could've happened or try to find another way that it could've happened. But I just give up try to convince them because they won't ever be convinced. The ones who are skeptics - once they hear about it, they say, oh, actually, it's real.

(SOUNDBITE OF BYRON JANIS PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S NOCTURNE, OP. 27: NO. 1 C-SHARP MINOR)

SIMON: You've been afflicted with arthritis in recent years, I gather.

JANIS: Yes.

SIMON: But you've continued to play.

JANIS: Yes. I can speak about it - the fact that I had arthritis for some 12 years. And then it was announced - Arthritis Foundation, when I was one of the spokesmen. It was announced at a lunch at the White House by Nancy Reagan. So she announced it. And I remember one of the things I said was, I have arthritis, but it doesn't have me (laughter). And it was very difficult.

SIMON: Yeah.

JANIS: It got worse and worse. The joints were affected. I had to have injections. I will not to try to tell you what that pain was like (laughter). But I managed somehow to play and to keep my standards. You know, music is and was my life. And I had fortune. I was born with a talent. And, secondly, I am passionate about making music. And when you're - you've got to be passionate about something, so you just keep trying. At moments, I was going to give up because it was very difficult. I couldn't do what I wanted to do. But I persisted. I said no, no, no, keep going. Come on. You'll be able to do it. It was kind of, like, a mind-over-matter thing. It worked, to the amazement of the doctors.

SIMON: Byron Janis - thank you so much for being with us, Mr. Janis.

JANIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BYRON JANIS PERFORMANCE OF CHOPIN'S NOCTURNE, OP. 27: NO. 2 IN D-FLAT MAJOR) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.