Demeter for alto solo, female chorus, and orchestra
Demeter for alto solo, female chorus, and orchestra
(b. 6 October 1882 (Tymoszówka, Russia [near present-day Kiev, Ukraine]) – d. 29 March 1937 (Lausanne, Switzerland)
Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszówka near Kiev in the Ukraine, on a family estate dating from the partition of Poland. He received his earliest musical training at home and then from a music school in a nearby village. In 1901 Szymanowski moved to Warsaw to continue his musical studies through private lessons in harmony, counterpoint, and composition from leading, though conservative, Polish musical figures: Marek Zawirski, a professor at the Warsaw Music Institute, and the composer Zygmunt Noskowski. Szymanowski was interested in all that was newest in music and quickly became enthusiastic about the New German School of Wagner and Strauss. When his teachers, as well as the management of the newly formed Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, did not share his excitement, Szymanowski helped found the Young Poland in Music group. Each member, Szymanowski, Fitelberg, Róźycki and Szeluto, was dedicated to promoting progressive musical trends in Polish music in reaction to the conservative cultural establishment then in power. Though the group was short-lived, they had a wealthy patron in Prince Władysław Lubomirski, who helped Szymanowski’s early music be published and performed in both Poland and Germany. In 1906 Prince Lubomorski presented a concert of Young Poland compositions, including Szymanowski’s Concert Overture for orchestra. The program was performed in both Warsaw and Berlin and proved very successful with audiences and critics.
Szymanowski travelled frequently in the years before World War I, particularly to Paris, Sicily, and North Africa. He also settled more permanently in Vienna from 1911-1912. During World War I Szymanowski returned to Tymoszówka and immersed himself in a study of ancient Greek and Arabic culture, inspired by his Mediterranean trips. Here he also composed his First Violin Concerto (1916) and Third Symphony, “Song of the Night” (1914-16). The Russian Revolution of 1917, however, forced him to flee the Ukraine and the family estate at Tymoszówka was destroyed. Szymanowski had no permanent home for the rest of his life and the violence of both World War I and the Revolution shook his faith in the meaning of art as an aesthetic escape from the world. After the war Szymanowski composed no music but wrote a novel, The Ephebe, completed in 1919. Only fragments survive but it shares its theme of a love freed from all social norms with Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger (King Roger, completed in 1924).
Szymanowski found musical purpose again in the 1920s as Poland regained its independence in the wake of World War I. The composer, previously antithetical to musical nationalism, and the use of folk material in particular, began to argue for the creation of a Polish nationalism that would avoid the provincialism he had found stifling in his youth. To prevent this narrow focus Szymanowski desired his music to still have universal appeal. His ballet Harnasie (1925), a setting of the Stabat Mater (1925-26), and a Second Violin Concerto (1932-3), and were the major results of this effort. Szymanowski was invited to become the director of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927 but struggled against its still-conservative administration and left the position in 1929. He was then appointed rector of the Music Institute in Warsaw in 1930 where he was better able to implement his high ideals in teaching but was subsequently forced to resign this position as well in 1932.
Despite having suffering from tuberculosis in 1929 and only partially regaining his health, Szymanowski undertook strenuous concert tours during the early 1930s to supplement his declining income. He performed his own piano compositions, as well as the newly composed Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra (1933), across Europe, culminating in a Scandinavian tour in 1935. The following year Szymanowski traveled to Grasse, on the French Riveria. When his secretary, Leonia Gradstein, arrived there in early 1937 Szymanowsi’s health had failed completely and he was taken to sanatoriums in Cannes and Lausanne. The composer did not recover from this breakdown and died on 29 March 1937.
Szymanowski’s music can be roughly divided into three stylistic periods. The first period lasted from his Young Poland years to the outbreak of the First World War. During this time Szymanowski was heavily influenced by the music of Richard Strauss. Szymanowski’s Concert Overture (1906) and Second Symphony (1911), for example, echoed Strauss’ compositional techniques by using dense chromatic textures scored for a large orchestra with wide-ranging, rhythmically flexible melodic material. Similarly, Szymanowski’s one-act opera Hagith (1913) was closely modeled on Strauss’ Salome. After Szymanowski’s trips to Sicily and North Africa, however, he became intensely interested in the ancient cultures of those regions and made a study of ancient Mediterranean cultures during his time at Tymoszówka from 1914-1918. These years encompass his second stylistic period. Though Szymanowski did not directly incorporate any Greek or Arabic musical devices he did suggest their inspiration through discreet use of “exotic” musical characteristics. These characteristics include melodic arabesques and decoration, ostinato dance rhythms and drones, and the interval of the augmented second. Debussy and Ravel, whose music Szymanowski heard in Paris in early 1914, also influenced the music of his second period. This Impressionism is most evident in delicate and refined orchestration, as well as passages of colorful but non-functional harmonies using whole tone and octatonic scales. Szymanowski’s combination of French and “exotic” influences were presented most powerfully in his Third Symphony, the “Song of the Night,” as well as the song cycles Love Songs of Hafiz, Op. 26 (1914) and Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin (1918, orchestrated 1934).
The music of Szymanowki’s third period, from the post-war years until his death, dealt finally with Polish nationalism. For this Szymanowski sought inspiration in the music of the Tatra highlands in southern Poland. The rhythmic energy of Tatra folk music infused his ballet Harnasie (1925) and the Second Violin Concerto (1932-3) and is also present, though more reserved, in the Symphonie concertante. The song cycle Słopiewnie (1921, orchestrated 1923-4) likewise makes use of melodic techniques derived from Tatra folk songs alongside a highly idiosyncratic Polish text by Julian Tuwim full of newly coined words.
Karol Szymanowski quickly became acknowledged as the leading Polish composer of the early twentieth century. This success attests to his achievement of universal appeal. Though intensely patriotic, Szymanowski never became merely provincial in his interests. Through his combination of disparate influences, Szymanowski created a personal voice of refined beauty. His music, regardless of stylistic period, is sincere in its ecstatic emotional expression, whether in dance rhythms, wordless arabesques, or the intensity of a single climatic chord.
Demeter was composed in the summer of 1917 and originally scored for voice and piano. Szymanowski later orchestrated the work and added a chorus of women’s voices. This final version was completed in August 1924. Demeter sets a text written by the composer’s sister, Zofia Szymanowska, based on the Bacchae of Euripides. Its title refers to the Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter, and the loss of Demeter’s daughter Persephone to Hades, king of the underworld. Demeter was also the key figure in the Eleusinian mysteries, a mystery cult that pre-dated even ancient Greece; this cult was closely related to other mystery religions of the ancient Near East, especially in Egypt, Syria, and Persia. Szymanowski became fascinated with these Mediterranean cultures, travelling to Sicily and North Africa in early 1914. During World War I he made a serious study of ancient Greek culture, early Christianity, and Islam. Demeter shares this pan-Mediterranean cultural and mystical spiritual focus with other works from the same period including Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, the “Song of the Night,” and his opera King Roger.
Demeter also shares Impressionistic musical techniques with these compositions. The women’s chorus in Demeter sings wordless syllables, as in Debussy’s Sirènes or Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. Divided into three parts each, the sopranos and altos sing augmented triads and a series of non-functional harmonic progressions in which their individual voices oscillate back and forth by half-steps.
Szymanowski scored Demeter for an orchestra rich in “color” instruments, including piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet, triangle, celesta, piano, and two harps. He also heavily subdivided the large string section. Szymanowski used this wide range of timbres to create a kaleidoscopic web of instrumental parts that is always transparent to the ear. This transparency allows each part to color the whole texture but never overshadow the solo voice or the female chorus.
Demeter is through-composed and closely follows the mood of its text. Szymanowski illustrated particular poetic metaphors almost graphically: the oscillating half-steps of the women’s choir, for example, are sobs in the dark. Szymanowski used harp glissandi and string tremolos to depict the rustling wind and quick string figures paired with rolled piano chords represent the waves of the sea.
Szymanowski referred to Demeter as a cantata, claiming that even if it was not traditional sacred music it had a serious, religious character and could be considered a “Greek Stabat Mater.” Demeter’s shares with the medieval lament of the Virgin Mary the sadness of a mother grieving for a lost child. Szymanowski later composed a setting of the Stabat Mater himself in 1925-6. In both his Stabat Mater and Demeter Szymanowksi sustained a mood of hushed pain, longing, and loss through his intense refinement of melody, harmony, and orchestration.
Demeter was first performed on 17 April 1931 in Warsaw. Maria Karnicka sang the alto solo and Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the Warsaw Philharmonia.
Christopher Little, 2016
For performance material please contact Universal Edition, Vienna. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, Munich.