• LSO Szymanowski: Symphony no.3

thumb-phpKarol Szymanowski: Symphony no.3
programme note written for
London, 11 and 18 December 2012; Luxembourg, 13 and 14 December 2012; Paris, 15 and 16 December 2012



A shorter version of this note was used for LSO performances of Symphony no.3 in Paris, 2 May 2012; Brussels, 3 May 2012; London, 8 May 2012.

The most fertile period in the compositional career of Karol Szymanowski was during the Great War of 1914-18.  It may seem odd that, at a time of great uncertainty and conflict, he should have produced works of otherworldly delicacy and persuasion.  Yet Szymanowski used his music as an escape into these other worlds, bolstered by memories of his recent pre-war travels to Italy, Sicily and North Africa.  The range of these exotic sources included ancient Greek mythology and architecture and the calls of North-African muezzins.  He was also determined to look afresh at familiar genres.  In his Third Symphony (1914-16), he chose to include a vocal soloist and chorus by setting the mystic utterances of a Sufi poet from Persia.

Szymanowski found his text in a collection of German translations, which were then rendered into Polish by his friend, the poet Tadeusz Miciński.  The original verse was from the second Divan by Jalal’ad-Din Rumi (1207-73) and is a paean to the universe and to friendship, as experienced in the open air under a clear night sky.  An earlier source of inspiration, according to one of the composer’s sisters, was Szymanowski’s own experience in 1914 of a summer’s night in the garden of the family’s home in Ukraine.  Where his preceding orchestral works (Concert Overture, First and Second Symphonies) were primarily contrapuntal in texture, ‘Song of the Night’ luxuriates in glowing harmonies, merging the musical worlds of Scriabin, recent French music and the Islamic song that he had encountered in Tunisia in April 1914.

Nowhere is this new alchemy more beautiful or intense than in the sonorous opening, where whole-tone harmony, a high-floating violin line, the voice of the poem’s narrator and choral chanting conjure up Rumi’s night vision of deep peace within the universe.  The opening line contains the three components of this paean: ‘O nie śpij, druhu, nocy tej’ (Oh! Sleep not, my dearest friend, this night).  Soon after there is a specific reference to ‘Jowisz’ (Jupiter) soaring like an eagle.  In Rumi’s original this is ‘winged Ja’far’, an epithet accorded to the brother of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law.

The central section is characterised by an instrumental dance in 3/8, its exuberant if interrupted steps typical of Szymanowski’s many dances in both his songs and instrumental music.  Its increasingly wild passion is twice offset by a swooning wordless chorus.  When calm is eventually restored, the solo tenor begins the final third of the symphony: ‘Jak cicho. Inni śpią’ (How peaceful it is. All the world is sleeping).  His wonderment – ‘Ja i Bóg jesteśmy sami, nocy tej!’ (This night, God and I are alone!) – expresses the core sentiment of Rumi’s poem.

Szymanowski’s orchestral mastery, alongside the flexibility of his motivic design,  captures a myriad of expressive nuances as the music moves between tenderness to passion: ‘Jaki szum! Wschodzi szczęście’ (What clamour! Joy has its birth).  The tenor marvels at the activities of the stars and planets above him and the chorus reaches a tumultuous climax on the final ‘nocy tej!’.  The Symphony finds its ultimate resolution in a luminous perfect fifth on the C natural with which it began.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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