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8.572716 - MONIUSZKO, S.: Overtures (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)

Stanisław Moniuszko (1819–1872)


Stanisław Moniuszko was the leading opera composer in Poland during the nineteenth century. His work, as Lennox Berkeley once wrote, may be said to ‘bridge the gap in Polish music between Chopin and Szymanowski’. Born in Ubiel, near Minsk, he began piano lessons with his mother at the age of four. In 1827 he studied music with August Freyer in Warsaw and completed his training with Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen at the Berlin Singakademie (1837–1839). After returning to Poland, he married and settled in Vilnius, earning his living as a piano teacher, organist and conductor of the theatre orchestra.

Moniuszko’s output includes seven Masses, several cantatas and over three hundred songs, the most successful of which were twelve volumes of Śpiewnik domowy (Home Songbook). There are also string quartets, the earliest significant examples of which date from the Berlin years. Also from this period, the operetta Nocleg w Apeninach (A Night in the Apennines) served notice of his gifts as a composer for the stage. After his return to Poland, he wrote further operettas. A visit to Warsaw inspired the grand opera Halka that brought him national acclaim. After European tours, during which he met Smetana in Prague and Liszt in Weimar, he became director of Polish productions at the Wielki Theatre, Warsaw. Work on his major opera Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) was affected by the increasing political unrest that led to the January Uprising of 1863–64. Moniuszko subsequently lost his position at the theatre and The Haunted Manor, perceived as overtly nationalistic by the tsarist censors, was withdrawn after three performances in 1865. A decline in creative powers might explain the failure of Moniuszko’s last major works. Undaunted, he was working on another opera at the time of his death, from a sudden heart attack, on 4 June 1872. His funeral was an event of national importance.

Among Moniuszko’s first stage works, Nowy Don Kichot, czyli Sto szaleństw (The New Don Quixote, or 100 Follies) is a three-act operetta after Cervantes. It was written in 1841 to a libretto by the Polish poet, playwright and author Aleksander Fredro, who devised a farcical plot concerning the comic adventures of a man looking for his one true love. Representative of its composer, the score includes a dashing mazurka.

Moniuszko’s first substantial piece for full orchestra, the overture Bajka (The Fairy Tale) was written in Vilnius in May 1848. One of his few concert works, its fantasia-overture character suggests affinities with orchestral tone-poems of the period, such as those by Franz Liszt. Contrasting themes are interwoven to form an extended narrative. A thematic link between its three unbroken sections is established by the return of the opening march at the overture’s conclusion.

During a visit to Warsaw, Moniuszko met a leader of the local bohemians, Włodzimierz Wolski, who gave him the libretto of Halka, a poem inspired by the 1846 rebellion of the Polish peasantry. It tells the story of a girl from the mountains, seduced and abandoned by a young squire. The resulting opera has music of considerable dramatic intensity graced with an unhackneyed thematic resourcefulness. Weber was a source of inspiration for its choral writing and orchestral style: Moniuszko knew Der Freischütz well and acknowledged it as a seminal influence on his own idea of national opera. Halka was first given in a two-act version at a concert performance in Vilnius in 1848. A staged production followed six years later. Moniuszko later revised the work, enlarging it to four acts, and in this edition it was performed in Warsaw to immediate acclaim on 1st January 1858. In his leading article on Halka in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik published in November 1858, the German conductor, pianist, critic and composer Hans von Bülow (1830–1894) described the overture as ‘brilliant’, before observing, ‘…it is praiseworthy that it is an intelligible prélude to the opera and contains nothing that is out of keeping with the drama’. Halka remains to this day the most popular of all Moniuszko’s operas.

The overture Kochanka hetmańska (The Hetman’s Mistress) was scored for piano (four hands) in 1854 ‘to the story by Lucjan Siemieński’, according to the original manuscript. It was first orchestrated by Zygmunt Noskowski, whose version is presented here, and more recently by Witold Rowicki.

Flis (The Raftsman), an opera in one act to words by Stanisław Bogusławski, dates from 1858 and was first performed in September of that year in Warsaw. This middle-class idyll is set on the banks of the Vistula River.

Hrabina (The Countess) was composed in 1859 and received its first performance in February the following year. It takes the form of a satire on the divisions in Polish society at the start of the nineteenth century, contrasting those who followed Parisian fashions and spoke French with patriots who cared deeply about traditional national dress and customs. A witty libretto prompted Moniuszko to write delightful, relaxed music, full of memorable themes. The overture incorporates a song popular during the 1830–1 November uprising and clearly presents the two divergent attitudes in Polish society. These contrasts introduced in the overture are fully developed in the opera, with its simple songs and polonaise set against coloratura arias and cosmopolitan ballet scenes. Despite its unmistakably patriotic tones and national sentiments, Hrabina is essentially a comic opera, albeit one of more consequence than the average opera buffa.

The one-act opera Verbum nobile (1860) was given its première in Warsaw in 1861. This marked the first collaboration between the composer and the celebrated librettist Jan Chęçiński, whose text gently mocks the customs and habits of the gentry.

Jawnuta, an idyll in two acts, was first performed in Warsaw in 1860. The fact that it is a reworking of Cyganie (The Gypsies), an operetta Moniuszko had written ten years earlier, may account for the vibrant, Hungarian flavour of its brief overture.

The comic opera Straszny dwór (The Haunted Manor) was completed in 1864 and had its première in Warsaw in the summer of 1865, with the composer conducting. Jan Chęciński’s libretto is based on a folktale. There are skilfully constructed trios, quartets and tuneful arias in a score notable for its imaginative treatment of the orchestra and, in particular, the chorus, assigned a rôle of central importance. As opposed to all the other operatic curtain-raisers presented on this disc, the prelude to The Haunted Manor is more in the nature of an atmospheric, scene-setting introduction rather than a full-fledged overture. Though the opera was hastily suppressed by the authorities, alarmed at its patriotic content, it has grown steadily in stature since those early performances and is now widely regarded as the composer’s greatest achievement. On the occasion of the re-opening of the Wielki Theatre in 1965, The Haunted Manor was presented to celebrate the opera’s centenary and, seven years later, a new production formed a key part of the events marking the centenary of Moniuszko’s death.

Paria, to a libretto by Jan Chęciński, was begun in 1859 but not completed until ten years later, when it had its première in Warsaw. Despite its Indian setting, the composer managed to incorporate some familiar, if incongruous, polonaise and mazurka elements into the score. In Moniuszko’s own opinion, Paria contained his best work and he wrote to Oscar Tarwid on 12 December 1869 that it ‘…is without doubt my most successful one [opera]—such is at any rate the opinion of qualified people’. Yet, despite praising its ‘beautiful and inspired’ overture, the critics generally found the opera dull and not Indian enough in character to provide a convincing musical and dramatic experience. After six performances it was not heard again for nearly half a century. To the present-day listener, the overture’s directness of utterance and inspired thematic invention reveal a born melodist as readily as any of the other pieces featured on this disc.

Paul Conway

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