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8.223339-40 - SZYMANOWSKI: King Roger / Prince Potemkin

Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937)
King Roger • Prince Potemkin


Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszówka in the Kiev District of the Ukraine in 1882, the son of a Polish land-owner and of a mother of Swedish extraction, born Baroness Anna Taube. The family and their immediate circle had a deep interest in the arts, a fact reflected in the subsequent careers of the five children of the marriage as musicians, poets or painters. His sister Stanislava later became a singer and his brother Feliks a pianist. Szymanowski’s early education was at home, since a leg injury at the age of four prevented him from attending school in the neighbouring town of Elisavetgrad (the modern Kirovograd), where, nevertheless, he had music lessons from a relative, Gustav Neuhaus, who had a school there. In 1901 he went to Warsaw to continue his musical studies, taking lessons from the composer Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpoint and composition and from Marek Zawirski in harmony.

The feelings of Polish nationalism that had inspired Chopin and his contemporaries continued through the nineteenth century, exacerbated by the repressive measures taken by Russia, in particular, in the face of open revolt. Warsaw in 1901, however, remained as provincial as it had been in the time of Chopin, who had sought his musical fortune abroad in Paris in 1830. The century had seen Polish performers of the greatest distinction, particularly the violinists Lipinski and Wienawski. The opera composer Stanislaw Moniuszko, however, a rival to Chopin in his own country, enjoyed only a local reputation, while his successors, in Szymanowski’s esteem, occupied a still lower place. Polish music was to a great extent isolated and provincial, a reflection of the society in which it existed. The new century, however, brought together a group of young musicians of much wider outlook, a circle that included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the violinist Pawel Kochanski and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Rózycki and the pianist and composer Apolinary Szeluto, together with Szymanowski, established, under the patronage of Prince Wladyslaw Lubomirski, the Young Poland in Music group, for the publication and promotion of new Polish music. Fitelberg, by training a violinist and composer, made his later career as a conductor, and directed the first concert of the group in Warsaw in 1906, when Szymanowski’s Concert Overture was performed. He won later distinction as conductor at the Vienna Staatsoper and in work for the Russian impresario Dyagilev, before returning to direct the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and, from 1947, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Kochanski’s support was to prove invaluable, particularly in the composition of the first of Szymanowski’s two violin concertos and in a number of works written for violin and piano. Rubinstein, who, like Kochanski, made his later career in the United States of America, proved an additional champion of Szymanowski, while Paderewski, a musician of more conservative tendency, assisted in the wider dissemination of Szymanowski’s piano music, favouring especially the famous B-flat minor study, a work that owes much of its popularity to his advocacy.

The first Young Poland concert in Warsaw had included performances of Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and his Study in B-flat minor, played by the pianist Harry Neuhaus, and had been well enough received. Berlin, however, proved much less interested, when Fitelberg conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a similar programme in the same year. Szymanowski spent the following two years principally in Berlin and Leipzig, absorbing still further the influence of Wagner, of Reger and of Richard Strauss, composers of whom he later took a cooler view. This period saw the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in F minor, completed in 1907 and given its first performance in Warsaw two years later. The composer subsequently withdrew the symphony and went so far as to destroy the 1907 piano trio, sensing what seemed to him the excessive influence of the post-Wagnerian, a reflection of a predominant aspect of music of the time in Germany. The following years brought periods at home in the Ukraine and abroad. He wrote his Penthesilea, Opus 18, an orchestral work with soprano solo derived from the Achilleis of the contemporary Polish painter and dramatist Stanislaw Wyspianski, in Italy in 1908, and in 1910 completed a very different Symphony No 2 in B-flat, Opus 19, a work in which the influence of Scriabin is noticeable, as it is in the piano music of this period, The new symphony, played under Fitelberg in Warsaw in 1911, proved unacceptable to both audience and critics, but won acclaim in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna, establishing the international importance of the composer, Szymanowski determined, after this experience, to live, at least for a time, in Vienna, where Fitelberg was now employed at the Staatsoper, and where he reached an agreement with Universal to publish his work.

Vienna proved less stimulating than Szymanowski had hoped, but the period changed to some extent his musical outlook, particularly through his experience of the music of Debussy and, still more, of Ravel, and of the Dyagilev company in Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka, In March 1914 he left Vienna and travelled south to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, returning through Rome, Paris and London, where he met Stravinsky. The war years he spent in musical isolation at home at Tymoszowka, turning his attention to a study of Greek civilisation and literature, to the early history of Christianity and to the culture of Islam, the last an extension of an interest aroused by translations of the poems of Hafiz by Hans Bethge, poet of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, some of which he had set to music in 1911, and exemplified in the remarkable Symphony No 3, completed in 1916, using poems by the thirteenth-century Persian mystic and poet Mevlana, Jalal al-Din ar-Rumi.

The Russian revolution put an end to Szymanowski’s period of war-time seclusion. The family was compelled to move, for reasons of safety, to Elisavetgrad, and the property at Tymoszówka was destroyed by the revolutionaries, In 1919 they moved to Poland, after the proclamation of the new republic, Kochanski and Rubinstein prudently chose to settle in the United States, but Szymanowski determined to stay in his own country and to seek there a further source of inspiration, particularly in the more primitive aspects of indigenous music. His reputation grew at home and abroad, and in 1927 he rejected the offer of a position as director of the conservatory in Cairo in favour of the financially less rewarding position of director of the Warsaw Conservatory, which in 1930 became the Warsaw Academy of Music, an institution of which he remained rector until his resignation in 1932.

The five years that Szymanowski spent at the Conservatory and the Academy brought many frustrations, particularly in dealing with musicians of a conservative turn of mind, and these difficulties finally led to his resignation. The remaining years of his life were not easy, without any regular source of income, and he therefore made more public appearances as a performer, writing the piano part of his Symphony No.4 in 1932 to suit his own relatively modest piano technique, no longer adequate for the more taxing compositions of his earlier career. In the same year he was greatly encouraged by the performance in Prague of his opera King Roger, a work that deals imaginatively with a struggle in medieval Sicily between Christianity and an Eastern Dionysian religion, a further example of his absorption of the essence of other cultures than his own, and of his reading of Euripides.

Szymanowski’s final years were clouded by illness and he sought an alleviation of the effects of tuberculosis abroad in Davos, Grasse and Cannes, and finally in Lausanne, where he died on 29th March 1937. His last orchestral work was the Second Violin Concerto, completed in 1933, followed by two Mazurkas for piano, written in the following year. The ballet Harnasie, inspired by the primitive folk-music of the people living in the Tatra mountains, was staged in Prague in 1935 and the following year, with much success, in Paris, with choreography by Serge Lifar. It became a popular part of Polish ballet repertoire after its first performance in Poznan in 1938, a year after the composer’s death.

King Roger

The opera King Roger was first conceived by Szymanowski and his distant cousin Jaroslav Iwaszkiewicz in June 1918 in Elizavetgrad. It was here that Szymanowski wrote his homoerotic novel Efebos, which remained unpublished and was lost in the disturbances of 1939. In August Szymanowski was in Odessa and there received from Iwaszkiewicz, now in Warsaw, a sketch of the libretto for the new opera. The latter, engrossed in the Warsaw activities of the Skamander group of poets, lost interest in the project, leading Szymanowski to rewrite the second and third acts. The composition of the work took some seven years and King Roger was finally performed for the first time in Warsaw in June 1926.

The subject of the opera is the conflict between King Roger, Norman ruler of Sicily, and the Shepherd, revealed finally as Dionysus himself, in a plot that echoes the legend that was the source of the Bacchae of Euripides, where King Pentheus opposes the power of Dionysus and is killed by the followers of the god, who include his wife and his mother. In more modern terms the conflict between Dionysus and Apollo, the wild and orgiastic as opposed to the serene in Greek art, had been the subject of Friedrich Nietzsche’s controversial Die Geburt der Tragodie aus dem Geiste der Musik (The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music). In this book he had maintained that Greek music and tragedy were essentially Dionysian, with the serenity formerly considered the leading feature of Greek art to be found in architecture, an expression of the Apolline. The conflict later found noted literary expression in Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig, the source of Britten’s opera Death in Venice, and in the work of the psychologist Jung. The subject of King Roger and even more its musical construction have a parallel in the contemporary work of Franz Schreker, where similar conflicts are recognised, as in other writing and music of the period.

CD 1

[1] The first act is set in a great Byzantine church. In the middle background stands the high altar, separated from the nave by a row of slender columns of pink marble, their capitals richly ornamented. In the middle is an opening leading to the altar, which is lit by numerous lamps, while the rest of the church remains in darkness. The vaulted roof and arches are supported by great stone columns taken from ancient temples. Over the altar is a massive representation of Christ, his face pale and ascetic, with darkly shining eyes, the right hand raised in menace. On either side stand rows of carved stone angels, smaller in size. The walls of the church are gilded and darkened with age, coldly shining in the light of the candles in the candelabras. There are mosaics showing the lives of St Peter and St Paul. The church shows signs of later intrusion. In the foreground are carved wooden beams, painted in lively colours, with verses from the Koran in Kufic script. There are representations of four resting lions on the walls and the chancel and arches are rich with mosaics. Before the slow rise of the curtain, hymns can be heard. The rays of the setting sun and the light of many candles illuminate at least part of the church, with the gilding of the mosaics and the splendid vestments of the priests shining like stars in the subdued light. There is a crowd of people, kneeling, their heads bowed. In the middle of a group of nuns is the Deaconess. The Archbishop, clad in gold vestments, stands unmoving before the altar. Acolytes and altar-boys make their way between the columns that mark off the sanctuary and silver thuribles swing, giving off clouds of incense.

The choir sings to God, the Lord of Sabbaoth, in the ancient words of the Byzantine liturgy (Hagios! Kyrios Theos Sabaoth!), their voices in contrast, with the boys’ choir. The Archbishop leads the assembly in prayer, answered by the choir, their voices hushed as the sound is heard of the King’s approach. King Roger and his courtiers enter in procession, welcomed by the people. To him the Archbishop addresses his petition, supported by the Deaconess and the assembly: a strange shepherd is leading the people astray, destroying their faith and enticing the women into sin. King Roger turns to the Arab sage Edrisi, who explains that the shepherd wanders far and wide through the land, teaching and preaching a strange foreign faith in his own God. The Archbishop intervenes, claiming that the shepherd preaches false doctrine in front of the church itself. The Deaconess adds her own harsher judgement of this blasphemy and the people call for his destruction. The Queen Roxana here intervenes (Krolu, nie!): the King must not have the shepherd imprisoned and must do no injustice: rather should he be called into the royal presence to explain his doctrine. Edrisi praises the wisdom of the Queen (Królowej ustami), and after a short deliberation the King agrees and orders the man to be brought before him, to the increased agitation of those assembled. Edrisi describes the stranger to the King: he has long hair, in red locks, wears a goat-skin like any shepherd, but his eyes shine like stars and his smile hides mystery, which the Queen confirms. King Roger seeks to know more of the God the man preaches, but this, Edrisi says, he must hear from the shepherd. The assembled people become restive as the Shepherd is brought near, murmuring that he should be stoned.

The Shepherd appears, pausing at the threshold before boldly striding to the foot of the throne, to the murmurs of the assembly, as the King now questions him. He preaches a god who is young and beautiful, as he is himself. At the Queen’s plea, King Roger quietens the people, so that the Shepherd may speak: his God is gentle, a good shepherd, and wanders over the hills and stones seeking a lost lamb and guarding his flock. As he speaks, the people press closer around him, while he continues, calling on all to turn to this new joy and love, the delight in his smiling countenance. The Queen seeks to learn more, and King Roger attempts to silence her, warning her against lies and deceit, but the Shepherd interrupts, claiming to set free all those who are poor and heavy-laden. The assembly express their discontent: the blasphemer must be destroyed and the Queen close her ears to lies, not look on the man as a Saviour. The Archbishop exhorts her to look on the image of Christ above the altar, but the Shepherd continues unmoved: his God is the cool shade of the woods, the gentle waves of the wide sea, thunder, lightning and storm. Roxana is over-whelmed, but King Roger declares that the Shepherd must die, a popular decision, welcomed by those present, although the Queen protests that the Shepherd speaks the truth. At the highest point of popular clamour, King Roger calls for silence, and sinks back on his throne, struggling in his own mind. Eventually he declares his decision: the Shepherd may go free to his own land. A wonderful smile lights up the Shepherd’s face and he looks into the King’s eyes with mysterious understanding, before going slowly out. King Roger calls him back: that evening he must present himself for judgement: coming to the palace gate the watchword will be Shepherd (Pasterz) and the reply Roger. The Shepherd warns the King not to forget that the invitation is his. His voice is heard singing of his God, as he makes his way out and the act comes to an end.

[2] The second act is set in the inner court of the King’s palace, which bears all the marks of the time of the Caliphate, to the Oriental character of which later European influences have been added. There is an Oriental opulence in the colours and arabesques, the yellow-blue majolica tiles on the walls and the rich Syrian and Mosul carpets that fit well with the vaulting and architectural power of the entrance gate. Here and there are Byzantine mosaics and in the foreground a marble pool and fountain, surrounded by flowers and palms. A two-storey gallery surrounds the courtyard, with slender pillars and richly ornamented capitals. At the back is the great entrance-gate, with smaller doors covered with hanging tapestries. The main door and the windows have ornamented lattice grilles. On the right are steps to the upper gallery, to the left a raised daïs and throne. Nearby is a great window, half covered by hangings, through which the shadows of trees can be seen.

The introductory music has a mood of anxiety and agitation, already suggesting the influence of the Shepherd. It is night. Alabaster lamps shed a dull light over the court. The King sits on the throne, dressed in splendid robes. By the window stands Edrisi, looking occasionally through the window. Knights of the royal guard stand unmoving by the door. The King waits anxiously, sensing his own mood in the paleness of the stars. He calls to the watchman (Straze!), bidding him bring the Shepherd in at once, and reminding the watch of the password. Edrisi tries to calm the King, who has been apart from Roxana too long, but he had seen her response to the words of the stranger. Edrisi seeks the reason for his fear. King Roger, though, fears now the stars, the darkness, like a child, trembling at the unknown: in the eyes of the Shepherd was a fire that burnt his heart. Edrisi, the level voice of reason, reminds him of the beauty of the night. Tambourines and zithers are heard, and then the rhapsodic voice of Roxana, seeking to soften King Roger’s heart, with mercy for the young Shepherd: this night no falcon preys on dove, serpents sleep in the scent of lilies, and grace descends from heaven earthwards.

The King pulls himself together, seeing a shadow, Edrisi tells him the Shepherd is coming before his Judge, The watchmen’s signal is heard from afar, then the voice of the Shepherd proclaiming the password: Roger! The King leaps up, staring at the door. Edrisi is at his side, and both wait in silence. There is a long pause: the knights shift uneasily. In the doorway stands the Shepherd, with four companions, while behind him presses a band of soldiers, some with torches. The Shepherd stands and casts a sharp glance over the whole court, then approaches the King. His companions carry musical instruments and stop some distance behind their master, waiting for him to call them to play their music. The Shepherd is clad in a rich robe of bright yellow colour, his long red-blond locks falling round his shoulders. His companions are similar in appearance, if less richly dressed. He addresses the King: see, he came to him, to greet him in the name of eternal love. The King seeks to know whence the Shepherd came. From the far South, bright and clear, taking his way through the world he has prayed for him in white Benares, brought greetings from the lotus-flowers of Indra, and from his reflection in the waters of the Ganges. In answer to another question, he explains that the source of his might must be sought from the tree of the forest, the heat of noon, the rose and the sweet grape: God has sent him, called forth, like a flower. The King trembles as he listens to this blasphemy, which calls for divine retribution. The voice of Roxana is heard again in ecstatic rhapsody, while gradually young men and women, and eunuchs, enter, forming a semi-circle in the background, all with their eyes on the Shepherd, awaiting his command. He urges the King to heed the voice of Roxana, like a nightingale, heavy with longing, but King Roger is convinced that the Shepherd is a false prophet, cheating his followers, blaspheming. The Shepherd, however, continues, against the increasingly angry objections of the King. He claims to know the dark secret power of life, his followers around him like butterflies round the purple chalice of the rose, drunk in the light of his eyes: he calls on his musicians to play and his people to dance, which they do in a measure that becomes ever wilder. In the course of the dance Roxana appears in the gallery above, and makes her way down. When King Roger sees her, he angrily rises from his throne and gestures to her to stop. The Shepherd, who has gazed fixedly at the King, now turns his gaze on Roxana, who responds. The King sinks back on his throne, his face buried in his hands. Roxana sings with ever greater strength and power, joined by the Shepherd (W radosnym). King Roger tries to interrupt their ecstasy, and as the dance comes to an end, he calls on the guard to seize the Shepherd. Soldiers push the crowd aside and bind him with fetters, but he tears himself loose and stands by the side of Roxana. Now in anger he turns to the King, asking who it is that dares bind him. He breaks the iron chains and throws them at the King’s feet. Raising his hands, calling them to go with him on flower-strewn paths to his country, to the cool shade of valleys, in answer to the mysterious call they hear, in the stillness, in the sound of the sea. The King is silent as Roxana follows the Shepherd, who walks slowly to the door, others going after him. King Roger calls them back, but he too should follow. The Shepherd, his followers, with Roxana, go, leaving the King alone, his head in his hands. Edrisi looks out into the darkness, but they have soon disappeared into the night. The King suddenly casts the crown, royal mantle and sword from him, resolved himself to follow as a pilgrim.

CD 2

[1] The third act takes place amid the ruins of an ancient theatre. To the right rise long tiers of stone seats, the sky dark above. There are broken stones, and weeds growing in cracks of the old masonry. The ground has a rich covering of grass, like a carpet. In the background, to the left, are the remains of a stage, with half-ruined columns, capitals, fragments of friezes. The steps, that once led from the proscenium, are almost undamaged, and there is ruined masonry in the background. In the middle of the orchestra are the ruins of an altar. There is a trace of smoke, as from a recent offering. Through a gap in the amphitheatre the blue sea can he seen. Moonlight falls on the ruins and the gentle sound of the sea can be heard.

Edrisi and the King enter, the latter in a dust-stained tunic, his hair dishevelled. Tired out, he sinks down on a stone, his head in his hands, then, raising his head, he exclaims on their surroundings, only dead stones, the boundless sea and mysterious silver stars: is it only an echo that they follow? The King is a pilgrim, a beggar seeking alms, hoping again to find Roxana, whose ecstatic voice is now heard. A ship draws near the shore, and now the voice of the Shepherd is heard from the distance. Mysterious unseen voices tell of the King’s change of heart, as the voice of Roxana proclaims, bidding him cast aside his anxiety, as he has his sword. The moon suddenly emerges from behind the clouds, casting a mysterious light over the ruins. The King looks about him in silent amazement, wondering at the heavenly light, to Edrisi an enchantment. Roxana is seen, clad in a grey mantle, greeted by King Roger, who sees her beauty, as she draws nearer out of the surrounding darkness. She calls on him to give her his hand, so that he may go with her. The King asks where the Shepherd is, and now the sound of distant voices is heard again. Roxana tells him that the Shepherd is in the light of the stars, in the storm, in the stone tiers there, a golden spirit, the fire that dances on the altar, calling King Roger to him. The voice of the Shepherd is heard, calling Roger. He and Roxana feverishly start to throw lowers at the foot of the altar onto the fire burning there, which flares suddenly brighter. At the same moment there appears among the ruins the Shepherd as Dionysus. Behind him all is in darkness, but ghostly figures can be discerned. The sound of flutes and singing is heard. The Shepherd summons King Roger to enlightenment. The latter stares fixedly at him and raises his hands to heaven, as in prayer, while the Shepherd continues to urge him to follow over the blue sea and the endless ocean, to eternal wandering and the holy dance.

After the appeal of the Shepherd, mysterious figures are seen in the dim light, filling the amphitheatre, surrounding their master, who is soon hidden from sight. At the height of the singing, Roxana casts aside her mantle, revealing herself in the dress of a maenad. She holds a thyrsus, that lay, covered in flowers, before the altar, and mingles with the crowd. The King stands spellbound. The crowd disappears, and the King and Edrisi are left alone. The fire on the altar dies down, dawn breaks, with the amphitheatre still in darkness. Edrisi rouses himself: the dream is over. The King moves to the raised stage, now lit by the rays of the morning sun, which he greets in a hymn of praise, to which he offers his heart. He has sacrificed to Dionysus, and now praises Apollo, strong in a synthesis of these two contrasting elements.

[2] Prince Potemkin

In 1925, after the completion of King Roger, Szymanowski wrote incidental music for the fifth act of Prince Potemkin, a play by Tadeusz Micinski. This was not the first collaboration with the poet. Micinski, associated with the Young Poland movement, appealed particularly to the composer and his interest in the esoteric and Oriental may have influenced Szymanowski in King Roger. In 1904-5 he had set four poems by Micinski, another of whose poems provided the literary inspiration for the Concert Overture, Opus 12. In 1909 he set poems from Micinski’s In the Darkness of Stars and his Violin Concerto of 1916 again draws on Micinski, the fantasy of his May Night, while the text for his Third Symphony made use of translations from the Persian by the same writer. The music for Prince Potemkin, left in manuscript at Szymanowski’s death, makes use again of a version of a Tatra folk-tune, here transformed for an evocative dramatic purpose in music that has a valid existence apart from the play for which it was originally intended.

Keith Anderson

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