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8.570724 - SZYMANOWSKI, K.: Stabat Mater / Veni Creator / Litany to the Virgin Mary / Demeter / Penthesilea (Wit)
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Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937): Stabat Mater, Op. 53 • Veni Creator, Op. 57
Litany to the Virgin Mary, Op. 59 • Demeter, Op. 37b • Penthesilea, Op. 18


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 Stanisława 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 Kirowograd), 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 M. 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 Lipiński and Wieniawski. The opera composer Stanisław 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 Kochański and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Różycki and the pianist and composer Apolinary Szeluto, together with Szymanowski, established under the patronage of Prince Władysław 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. Kochański’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 Kochański, 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 Stanisław Wyspiański, 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 Skryabin 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 Tymoszówka, 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 13th century Persian mystic and poet Mevlânâ Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rûmi.

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. Kochański 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 29 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 Poznań in 1938, a year after the composer’s death.

Szymanowski set a Polish translation of the Stabat Mater over a period of two years, from 1924 to 1926 and it was given its first performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929 under the direction of Grzegorz Fitelberg. The work calls for soprano, contralto and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra, and makes use of traditional Polish musical ideas in its treatment of the medieval poem, integrating modern and earlier techniques.

Szymanowski wrote his setting of the Veni Creator, in a Polish version by Stanisław Wyspiański, in 1930 for the opening of the Warsaw Academy of Music, of which he was the first rector. On the same occasion he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Kraków. Wyspiański’s text is a paraphrase of the Latin sequence, written in 1905 at a time when Poland was striving for national independence. The music in consequence has both a national and celebratory character, a mark of the occasion of its composition. The Veni Creator is scored for soprano solo, chorus, organ and orchestra.

The more meditative Litany to the Virgin Mary, with words by Jerzy Liebert, was completed in 1933, when it was given its first Warsaw performance. It is based on two verses of the original seven-verse poem. Szymanowski had originally intended to set the whole poem, but later changed his mind. The first two fragments of the Litany were performed with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Grzegorz Fitelberg on 13 October 1933 with the composer’s sister, Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, as soprano soloist. The first part of the work preserves the mournful character of the form of the litany, while the second includes a heartfelt prayer. The mystic character of the music is accentuated by the archaic use of parallel intervals and a relatively simple use of the orchestra. These choral works are as firmly embedded in Christian musical tradition as they are recognisably of their period, the Stabat Mater more passionate and the Litany more lyrical in its use of soprano soloist, female chorus and orchestra, rising at times to a level of rhapsodic intensity.

Demeter, with a text by Szymanowski’s sister Zofia Szymanowska based on the Bacchae of Euripides, is scored for contralto soloist, female chorus and orchestra and was written in 1917 during the period of war-time seclusion at Tymoszówka. The work was reorchestrated in 1924 and first performed in Warsaw in 1931. It was the theme of the Bacchae, with its conflict between Eastern mysticism and the more pragmatic West, that was given later expression in the opera Król Roger.

Penthesilea, for soprano and orchestra, was written in 1908 at Nervi on the Mediterranean to words taken from a scene of Wyspiański’s play Achilleis. It was first performed in Warsaw in 1910 under the direction of Fitelberg and with the composer’s sister as soloist. In 1912 Szymanowski re-orchestrated the work. The choice of text, dealing with the confession of love for Achilles by the Queen of the Amazons, is characteristic of the first period of the composer’s creative life.

Keith Anderson


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