Moniuszko, Stanislaw


Moniuszko, Stanislaw

Halka Overture

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Stanisław Moniuszko

(b. Ubiel nr. Minsk, 5 May 1819 – d. Warsaw, 4 June 1872)

Overture to the Opera Halka

Instrumentation: 1 flute (pic), 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bn, 4 hn, 2 tpt, 3 tbn, tuba, strs, timp, perc

Duration: ca. 9 min.

Vilnius, 1846. The Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko, writing to the influential Warsaw musicographer Józef Sikorski (1813–1896), had a special request to make: he wanted Sikorski to help him find a suitable librettist in Warsaw. Moniuszko had long toyed with the thought of writing an opera, but he never found anyone in Vilnius capable of producing a libretto that matched his ideas. Soon thereafter he set out for Warsaw and met Włodzimierz Wolski (1824-1882), who gladly accepted the assignment and turned out a libretto based on his earlier poem, Halka.

The story relates the fate of the young Halka (Helen). It opens with celebrations for the engagement of Janusz and Zofia, a young, highly regarded, well-to-do aristocratic couple. Suddenly a peasant girl bursts into the merry company. It is Halka, who is in love with Janusz. He once promised to love her forever, but in reality she was no more to him than a brief and insignificant fling. Jontek, who is in love with Halka, tries to convince her of Janusz’s faithlessness. But only with Janusz und Zofia’s wedding does she realize the truth. Seeing no escape, she takes her life in abject despair.

By clearly underlining the contradictions and problems inherent to society at that time, Wolski’s libretto wields a sharp social critique. All the more surprising, then, that it was later developed into such a successful and seminal opera. What is it that makes Halka so special, that raised it to the level of myth and made it the Polish national opera?

To examine this phenomenon, we must turn to the opera’s genesis. Moniuszko wanted his first opera to be premièred in Warsaw as early as 1848. Yet although it had already entered rehearsal, the performance never materialized, presumably because of the critical depiction of the aristocracy. In the end, the première took place on a smaller scale in Vilnius. The opera, consisting of two acts, was heard for the most part in a concert performance without sets or costumes. The music was given a rousing reception, but the libretto was almost uniformly reviled. In short, at first the opera failed to meet Moniuszko’s expectations of success. This, too, had to do with its strong critique of society. But most of all, the staging failed to kindle the emotions that would have arisen from a lavish mise en scène. Nor was the work seen as particularly Polish: Vilnius, being a city in Lithuania, was not part of Poland’s native culture, and the audience saw no connection with “nationalist” music. This setback ensured that many years had to pass before Moniuszko composed another opera.

With the political liberalization that set in with the royal succession in 1855, Halka finally received its Warsaw première on 1 January 1858. The libretto was again heavily criticized, but the criticism was far outweighed by enthusiasm for the music. To quote a popular Polish columnist of the time, Józef Kenig (1821-1900), “This dramatic, ever-artful, and well-conceived music immediately ingratiated itself into our heart” (Gazeta Warszawska, 2 January 1858). In short, the Warsaw performance was far more warmly received than the one in Vilnius.

Another reason for this was presumably that Moniuszko had revised and expanded his opera. It now consisted of four acts and contained nine numbers that were “Polish” in character. For example, a Polish folk dance, a mazurka, was incorporated into Act 1. Besides the Góral dances, which originated among the like-named western Slavic people, an important role was played by a scene at the beginning of Act 4. Here a musician from the people appears with a kobza (a lute-like folk instrument) and strikes up an aria. The sound of the kobza considerably heightens the original “Polish” character of this aria. Again to quote Józef Kenig, “These few bars

[…] so marvelously capture our character, […] and are so imbued with originality, that we must delve into them at greater length.” His words make clear how important it was for the Poles to hear national elements in the opera. The national music made it possible for them to feel something akin to solidarity – a feeling all the more important in that Poland did not exist as a sovereign state at the time.

The success of Halka has remained unparalleled in Poland to the present day. No other opera, either by Moniuszko or anyone else, has achieved similar significance. In Warsaw alone it was given forty times in the first year after its première. The critics found the enthusiasm for the opera reason enough to proclaim it a work of genius. Moniuszko was made the artistic director of the Warsaw Opera, which gave him greater opportunities to have his works performed. But Halka remained far and away the most successful work ever to proceed from his pen. Its late nineteenth-century anniversary performances were events of great pomp and circumstance. In eastern Europe, Moniuszko was even mentioned in the same breath with a “native” composer of international stature, Frédéric Chopin. Yet his popularity was limited to eastern Europe; in western Europe he was, at best, an insider’s tip among musical connoisseurs.

It was because of this incredible success that Halka came to be viewed as the Polish national opera par excellence. It was discussed in idealized terms: the plot was either ignored or simply reinterpreted by the critics. Janusz’s dishonorable behavior was classified as wholly legitimate. It was claimed that he had to behave that way and had no alternative but to abandon Halka. Halka herself was construed as a naïve peasant girl with no grasp of reality. Besides the plot, there was another problem: the fact that it took ten years for the opera to receive proper recognition seemed like a “blot” on the history of its reception. So its genesis was to a certain extent reinvented.

Warsaw’s rejection of Halka in 1848 was left unmentioned; instead its reception in Vilnius was criticized as wrong-headed. The opera, it was said, had failed there because audiences were unable to appreciate it. In compensation, Warsaw was placed in a more flattering light: the Warsaw stage director Leopold Matuszyński (1820-1893), it was claimed, was chiefly responsible for the fact that the work could be performed there at all. The myth of Halka was thus deliberately contrived; its originally less than flattering reception history was rewritten, its critique of the aristocracy blunted, the obstacles to its mythification removed. The phenomenon is captured especially well in the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Myths have no author; once they are perceived as myths, whatever their origins might have been, they exist only as incarnated in a tradition.”

This interpretation changed fundamentally in the aftermath of World War II. In Communist Poland, the things that were deliberately concealed after 1858 caused Moniuszko to be cast as a fighter for social justice. His opera, it was alleged, was designed to foment revolution. This interpretation is highly controversial, especially because the sources shed practically no light on the composer’s intentions. Still, there is enough slender evidence to convey a vague picture. It is known, for example, that the librettist Wolski belonged to an artists’ collective named Cyganeria Warszawska that consisted mainly of littérateurs whose writings dealt with current social problems, especially those of the peasantry. However, for all their critique of society, they did not call for a revolt. As such questions had hardly been posed before, their writings could be expected to attract attention. In short, dealing with material of this sort was a passing “fad.” Wolski’s libretto, for all its critique of society, was not a revolutionary pronunciamento…

Translation: Bradford Robinson

Read full preface / Komplettes Vorwort > HERE

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210 x 297 mm