• Szymanowski, vol.2 (Chandos, 2013)

CHSA 5123

Muzyka polska, volume seven

Szymanowski (vol.2)
Chandos CHSA 5123 (2013)
Lucy Crowe, Pamela Helen Stephen, Robert Murray, Gábor Bretz
BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Stabat Mater (1925-26)
• Harnasie (1923-31)


Szymanowski and the new Poland

The First World War devastated much of Europe, tearing apart its social and political fabric. In the case of Poland, the changes were particularly dramatic because it regained its independence in 1918 after over a century of occupation and subjugation by Austria, Prussia, and Russia.  The country’s borders were redrawn, and it had to reconcile three different currencies and education systems and many other fundamental aspects of its divided self.  Small wonder, then, that the early years of the Polish nation state were turbulent (three uprisings in Silesia, war with the new Soviet Union to the east).  While dealing with the very real problems of daily existence, Polish creative artists also tried to work out their own role in shaping the new Poland.

It fell largely to Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937) to articulate what Polish music might be after 1918.  Certainly, he had his critics, who were reactionary in their tastes.  Szymanowski was no revolutionary – indeed, his artistic interests too were on the conservative side, but he had views on how Poland might regain a place in the wider discourse of European music by asserting its musical independence.

In the early 1920s, Szymanowski wrote a number of articles in which he distanced himself, and Poland, from the Austro-German cultural hegemony to which he had subscribed as a young composer.  Instead, he held up Chopin as a model of musical independence, partly, but by no means wholly, because of the ethnicity of his predecessor’s output.  Without totally abandoning certain aspects of the music of his first period, and still maintaining the non-Germanic sensuality which had characterised his music since 1911 (melding Arabic and Greek culture with musical impulses from France), Szymanowski began to explore his native heritage more assiduously.

In 1921 he composed a short cycle of songs, Słopiewnie (Wordsongs), Op. 46b, which introduced new scalic elements and showed an affinity with folk-related works by Stravinsky, such as Les Noces (premiered in 1923).  In 1925, Szymanowski responded to one of Chopin’s favourite genres with his Twenty Mazurkas for piano, Op. 50. This was followed in 1927 by the Second String Quartet, Op. 56, which was imbued with folk idioms from the Polish Tatra mountains.  This approach continued in two concertos: the Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra, Op. 60 (1932, already issued on the first CD in Chandos’ Szymanowski series, CHSA 5115) and the Second Violin Concerto, Op. 61 (1933).  In amongst these works are the two on this CD, both of them involving vocal forces, one of a sacred nature, the other balletic.

Stabat Mater

Towards the end of his life, Szymanowski turned several times to sacred topics, among other works composing two short cantatas: Veni Creator, Op. 57 (1930) and Litania do Marii Panny (Litany to the Virgin Mary), Op. 59 (1933). Undoubtedly, however, his vocal-instrumental masterpiece is the Stabat Mater, Op. 53 (1925 – 26).  Despite its modest size and forces, it is one of his most expressive and resonant works and is one of the glories of twentieth- century sacred music.

In 1924 Szymanowski received a commission from the French music patron the Princesse de Polignac (1865 – 1943).  In what might be regarded as a parallel with Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, his first real thoughts centred on a Polish ‘Peasant Requiem… some sort of mixture of naive devotion, paganism, and a certain rough peasant realism’. In the end, this plan came to nothing, but the following year he accepted a different commission, which resulted in the Stabat Mater.  This more modest project developed his vision for a ‘Peasant Requiem’, its six short movements combining folk elements with archaisms such as Renaissance contrapuntal practices.  The orchestra is modest too, not even playing in the fourth movement, and the three soloists (soprano, alto, and bass) sing together only in the last movement.

Szymanowski was spurred on by the Polish translation by Józef Jankowski (1865 – 1935), whose poetic imagery spoke more vividly to him than did the Latin.  The poignancy of the orchestra’s opening bars – the subdued register and keening harmonies – anticipates the text’s pain.  But Szymanowski also brings a compelling beauty to Mary’s lament, as the melody for the solo soprano (supported by the choral sopranos and altos) movingly demonstrates. The tolling bass line of the second movement (baritone and chorus) upholds a more declamatory mode, the music building to a sonorous climax.

The solo contralto opens the third movement, in plangent duet with a clarinet.  The entry of solo soprano and female chorus, pianissimo, is breathtaking.  The prayerful heart of the Stabat Mater is the fourth movement, composed for a cappella chorus joined partway through by the female soloists.  This essentially homophonic music, with its wondrous chord sequences, brings to mind the church songs that also inspired Szymanowski, as he once commented: ‘The essential content of the hymn is so much deeper than its external dramaturgy… one should preserve a state of quiet concentration and avoid obtrusive, garish elements’.

The solo baritone returns in the fifth movement, accompanied by chanting chorus, to provide the second climactic moment of the Stabat Mater.  The sixth movement brings reflection and an opening for the solo soprano that Szymanowski described as being ‘the most beautiful melody I have ever managed to write’.  With soaring melody and deep cadences, as well as a brief return of a cappella singing, the work resolves on a major triad that resonates into silence.


The gestation of Harnasie, Op. 55 was more prolonged than that of the Stabat Mater.  Szymanowski worked on it for eight years (1923 – 31).  Its two main tableaux were given concert performances in Poland in 1929 and 1931 respectively, while the stage premiere did not take place until 1935, in Prague.  During its composition, Szymanowski immersed himself in the life and culture of the Podhale region of the Tatra mountains.  He lived in the villa ‘Atma’, in the main town of the region, Zakopane, and was invigorated by the sheer exuberance of the local góral (highlander) musical tradition.  As a result, Harnasie has a rawness and energy that go beyond those of the other folk-related works of his third period.  It certainly is earthier and more garish than the Stabat Mater.

Many people were involved in encouraging Szymanowski to compose a góral ‘frolic’ in music.  These initially included the folk fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850 – 1926) and a cousin of Szymanowski’s, the writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894 – 1980; he had been involved in the libretto for the opera Król Roger), but the two most closely involved in the early stages were the poet Jerzy Rytard (1899 – 1970) and his wife, Helena Roj (1899 – 1955; Szymanowski was best man at their folk-infused wedding in 1923).  Roj, who came from near Zakopane, sang highlander songs for Szymanowski and Rytard drafted the first scenario, since lost.  Because the composer did not wish to confine the imagination of future directors, the detailed scenario for Harnasie has changed during its performance history.  Nevertheless, Szymanowski did proffer his ideas on the story (‘an unpretentious picture of folk life’) and this note draws on his version.  The story revolves around the Harnasie, legendary robbers with the hint of a Robin Hood reputation.

Tableau I – ‘In the Mountain Pasture’ – is divided into five scenes.  The first, ‘Redyk’, depicts the driving of sheep up into the high Tatra valleys in the spring.  Its opening idea – a drone with a characteristic góral melody on the oboe – develops into a contrapuntal evocation that recalls the opening of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.  Picturesque elements – Alpenglocken, frullato motifs on the woodwind – emerge as the curtain rises, and an Old Fiddler plays a dance tune.

‘Redyk’ flows straight into ‘Courtship’, as a Bridegroom runs onto the stage to the sound of a trumpet solo.  The Bride (violins, dolce) responds to his courtship with considerable reluctance.  The Widow – as ridiculous a figure as the Bridegroom – vies for his attention (oboe theme).  The scene becomes more frantic but is cut short by off-stage gunshots.

The ‘Robbers’ March’ – the first appearance of the tenor soloist (as the lead, Harnaś) – is a scene of confusion as the Bride resists all attempts to flee the imminent arrival of a band of robbers (Harnasie) with Harnaś at the head.  She remains alone on stage to face them.

In the fourth scene, ‘Harnaś and the Girl’, Harnaś soon sees off three timid attempts by the Bridegroom to intervene and insistently presses his own case to the apparently resistant Bride.  Once again, oboe and violins play prominent roles.  At the climax – high violins underpinned by a robust horn melody – she falls into his arms.  As his companions light a bonfire and begin to tune their instruments, Harnaś tears himself from the Bride in readiness for the final scene of Tableau I.

The ‘Robbers’ Dance’ is one of the set pieces of Harnasie, its vigorous rhythms, melodies, and orchestration conjuring up the image of highland robbers waving their ciupagi (long-handled hatchets) in the air and jumping over the flames – a scene depicted brilliantly in the woodcuts by Szymanowski’s contemporary, Władysław Skoczyłas (1883 – 1934).  As the fire dies down, Harnaś promises to be back, leaving the Bride alone.  The Old Fiddler returns and leads her slowly back to the village.

Tableau II – ‘In the Inn’ – follows after a percussion interlude. It has four scenes (the first of these is subdivided into three).  In the first scene, the villagers sing in the character of the Bride (‘Wedding’), who wants nothing to do with the Bridegroom and thinks only of Janek (Harnaś).  The song is interrupted early on by some tipsy old villagers (horn theme).  The old women then lead in the Bride for the ‘Cepiny’ (Capping the Bride).  A gentle flute melody and subdued dance rhythms reflect the Bride’s introspective mood, before the music animates itself (with a return of the chorus) as the third subdivision approaches.  Here, Szymanowski catches the extraordinary sound of góral voices in ‘Song of the Siuhaje’, in which the lads of the village come in search of the girls.

The second scene of Tableau II, ‘Góral Dance’, is led off by the tenor solo (the Bridegroom).  A typical string band texture follows, with the Bridegroom’s melody elaborated above.  A celebratory dance ensues, to be interrupted by yet more gunshots off-stage.  The women huddle together in fear, the men reach for their ciupagi.  Only the Bride is radiant with expectation.  Suddenly, the Harnasie burst through the doors and windows.

The ‘Raid of the Harnasie. Dance. Abduction of the Bride’ is the culmination of the drama.  The Harnasie intimidate the wedding party, order the musicians to play a robbers’ tune (high violins with syncopated brass and percussion), and dance wildly with the young girls (this climaxes in the entry of the chorus).  The men of the village respond with their ciupagi and a proper fight breaks out (wordless chorus).  One of the Harnasie smashes the lamp and the stage is plunged into darkness.  As the confusion eventually subsides, the Bridegroom is seen cowering in the corner.  The Widow seizes her chance, and the Bridegroom, and bundles him into another room, locking the door behind her.

The final scene is an epilogue.  The stage is empty, the wrecked inn illuminated by moonlight.  Harnaś sings a love song in the distance.  The Old Fiddler stands in the doorway, counterpointing the song with an introspective melody of his own.  The story-telling is over.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas


(repertoire list)

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