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8.573610 - MONIUSZKO, S.: Ballet Music (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)

Stanisław Moniuszko (1819–1872)
Ballet Music


Stanisław Moniuszko was the leading opera composer in Poland during the 19th century. His work, as Lennox Berkeley wrote in his Foreword to B.M. Maciejewski’s 1979 book on the composer, 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 (1837–39). 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 Lizst 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. He 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lost his position at the theatre and The Haunted Manor, perceived as overtly nationalistic by the tsarist censors, was withdrawn after three performances in 1865.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 his last major works. Undaunted, he was working on another opera at the time of his death, from a sudden heart attack, on 4th June 1872. His funeral was an event of national importance.

In addition to the sequence of operas and operettas for which he is most celebrated, Moniuszko wrote a number of purely orchestral works. They demonstrate his grasp of instrumentation and prove that his essential lyrical style could be translated successfully into a nonvocal medium.

The Concert Polonaise in A major exists in three incarnations: the original score for large orchestra presented here; an arrangement for piano, and a version for four hands. The subtle harmonic shifts and modulations between major and minor in the recurring principal theme recall Schubert but the piece is entirely characteristic of its composer and nowhere more so than in its majestic and assured conclusion.

The four-act opera Hrabina (The Countess) was written 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 19th century, contrasting those who followed Parisian fashions and spoke French with patriots who cared deeply about traditional national dress and customs. These divergent attitudes in Polish society are developed throughout 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. A witty libretto prompted the composer to write attractive, relaxed music full of memorable themes such as the haunting barcarolle-like melody at the core of the number entitled Neptune on the Vistula River.

The composer’s serious side is revealed in the deeply felt Funeral March for Antoni Orłowski. His varied treatment of the stately main theme juxtaposing soft and loud phrases mirrors the intensely private and public aspects of such an occasion. A judicious use of brass, timpani and modest percussion reminds us that, when required, this born man of the theatre was able to temper his naturally extrovert musical personality to suit more formal, solemn utterances such as a Requiem, religious songs, hymns, psalms and prayers.

The Civic Polonaise in F major is a typical blend of elegance and ebullience. Its convincing adoption of the quintessential rhythms of Polish dance into a distinctive musical voice denotes a composer of marked individuality.

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. The vigorous Mazurka comes at the end of Act One of the opera and the nimble Highlanders’ Dance of the mountain peasants appears at the heart of Act Three. They are both representative of the strong Polish flavour of Halka which may help to explain why it remains the composer’s most popular stage work. Writing in The Musical Quarterly in January 1928, Zdzisław Jachimecki observed of Halka that ‘no Polish dramatic composer had previously expressed by dance-scenes the Polish national temperament so perfectly as Moniuszko has done.’

The rare instances when Moniuszko found inspiration in non-Polish sources include a number of Shakespeare-based projects. He composed incidental music for Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and in around 1849 he wrote ballet music for The Merry Wives of Windsor by the German composer Otto Nicolai (1810–1849). Themes by the latter which appear in the evergreen Overture for this operetta are deftly quoted by Moniuszko in his own engaging and finely wrought material.

Jawnuta, an idyll in two acts, was first performed in Warsaw in 1860. It is a reworking of Cyganie (The Gypsies), an operetta Moniuszko had written ten years earlier, hence the Hungarian flavour of the overture (featured on Naxos 8.572716), the orchestral Mazurka and the vibrant Gypsy Dance.

The delightful Leokadia Polka is representative of the various short dance movements which Moniuszko composed throughout his creative life. Mostly written for piano, these include occasional pieces for friends.

Moniuszko’s four-act comic opera Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor) was completed in 1864 and premiered in Warsaw the following summer with the composer conducting. Jan Chęciński’s libretto is based on a folk tale concerning two soldier-brothers Stefan and Zbigniew who foreswear marriage so that they will have no ties if called upon again to fight for their country. There are skilfully constructed trios, quartets and tuneful arias in a score notable for its imaginative treatment of the orchestra. In addition the chorus is assigned a role of central importance. Though the opera was hastily suppressed by alarmed authorities because of 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. Among several overtly Polish elements in the opera, including a polonaise and a choral ‘krakowiak’, is the lively Mazurka. The jewel in the crown of the festive finale, this spirited dance finds the composer drawing freely and inventively from his national heritage.

Paul Conway

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