• (1995) Szymanowski: works for orchestra
Karol Szymanowski: works for orchestra
programme note written for
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
On 6 February, 1906, the Warsaw Philharmonic mounted a concert in response to pressure from a group of composers called ‘Young Poland in Music’. The group had criticised the Philharmonic for being unpatriotic – Poland was then still under foreign control and would not become a free country until after World War I – and of ignoring in particular the music of Polish composers still in their twenties. Foremost in the group were Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) and the brilliant conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879-1953), who not only conducted Szymanowski’s Concert Overture (1904-05) in this concert but also was the dedicatee (and conductor of the premiere on 7 April, 1911) of Szymanowski’s Second Symphony (1909-10). Together with several other composers, Fitelberg and Szymanowski were intent on dragging Polish music out of the isolated mire it had inhabited in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Although later in his career Szymanowski was to develop a highly distinctive voice drawing on French, near-Eastern and Polish music, it is not surprising to find that his early compositions were dominated by German influences. From the opening bars of the Concert Overture the parallels with Richard Strauss’s flamboyant Don Juan (1988-9) are very evident, with connections also with Arnold Schoenberg’s more dark-hued tone poem Pelleas und Melisande (1902-03). Like these two predecessors, the Concert Overture, despite its objective title, has programmatic associations. In Szymanowski’s case, these are poetic rather than narrative. Several of his works, including the First Violin Concerto (1916), arose from the exotic world evoked by his friend, the poet Tadeusz Miciński (1873-1918). The score of the Concert Overture is prefaced by lines, so apposite to Szymanowski’s position, in which Miciński declaims the power of the new man over the old gods:
I shall lead you with the sound of horns to the land of the Aurora borealis –
and stain the sacrificial altar with blood –
and recast you, the people, as demi-gods –
with a wild song from the heart I will enrapture you,
and give into your hands thunder – and the eagle.
Szymanowski responds to these vibrant images with music which alternately seduces and menaces. The grand sweep is set against passages of complex counterpoint, there are markings such as estatico, amoroso, and mesto (sad). The ultimate impression is one of intense heat and passionate anguish, of an over-riding impatience to get things moving.
The Second Symphony still lives and breathes in the Germanic world, with the influence of Max Reger also becoming evident (the version we hear today has revised orchestration and some cuts from the original score). The Symphony is rather unusual in a number of ways. Its outline structure consists of only two movements, the second of which consists of a set of variations with a fugal finale. The tone of the Symphony is set at the start of the first movement, which begins with a high-romantic melody for solo violin and its sensuous atmosphere soon provokes the full orchestra to respond in kind. Szymanowski was to show a lifelong attachment to the expressivity of a soaring violin, whether it be in the two violin concertos, the chamber music, or in his other orchestral works. For Szymanowski, the instrument seems to have held a position akin to that of a Muse, constantly to be adored and evoked. In these early orchestral compositions, the solo violin is complemented by a host of other solo colours elsewhere in the orchestra, frequently in highly contrapuntal textures.
After the sombrely grandiose world of the first movement, only occasionally interrupted by lighter moments, convention might suggest something of contrast in the following movement. The contrast comes not so much in mood as in form. Szymanowski was extremely fond of variations: here there are six variations on a luxurious theme played by the strings. From the outset, it is clear that we are in the same Straussian world of the first movement, although the mood is more indulgent and less fraught. What is striking are the unusual proportions of the movement. The theme and first two variations are over fairly quickly, forming a brief slow movement. Variation 3 is much larger and seems to fulfil the function of a traditional scherzo, complete with trio section (anticipations of Ravel). Szymanowski’s love of the dance has by this stage become very apparent, and the following two variations are a gavotte and a minuet.
The sixth variation serves as a brief preparation for the Fugue, and together they act in effect as the finale. And the thematic cross-referencing back to the first movement, already heard in the initial variations, continues in the fugue with its five separate but related themes. The symphony comes to a rousing if frenetic conclusion, full of riches even if, to our taste today, somewhat overworked in its melodic ideas. But few would deny Szymanowski’s mastery of the orchestra (he was still only 27), and this Symphony was to be the last orchestral work before he embarked on those pieces from World War I which were truly to lift Polish music from its stagnant position on the peripheries of European music.
© 1995 Adrian Thomas