[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.
Szymanowski composed Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin in late 1918, setting a collection of poems by the Polish poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980). The song cycle was first performed in its original version for voice and piano on January 17, 1922, in Lvov by Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska (soprano) and Edward Steinberger (piano). In 1934 Szymanowski orchestrated four songs from the larger cycle of six (the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth), reprinted here.
Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin was among the “exotic” works inspired by Szymanowski’s travels in Sicily and North Africa. The poet Iwaszkiewicz was also sensitive to the lure of exoticism as shown in the work’s title: in Islam a muezzin is the man charged with calling the faithful to prayer five times a day through musical proclamations. This infatuated muezzin, however, blends religious devotion with desire for an unnamed beloved. His calls to prayer praise his beloved as much as Allah, claiming Allah created her for the purpose of inspiring the muezzin to prayer. Szymanowski was drawn to this combination of divine and erotic love, responding with music of unusual intensity. The blurring of identity between sacred and sensual object of desire forms a common theme among Szymanowski’s works ranging from the Love Songs of Hafiz, to the Third Symphony and the opera King Roger.
As in these other works, Szymanowski included allusions to Arabic music throughout Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin. The most prominent of these allusions are improvisatory melismatic vocal lines. Not merely decorative, these coloratura passages signify specific emotional moods. The extended melismas that open and close the first song, for example, demonstrate the muezzin’s passion for both Allah and the beloved. The fact that Szymanowski modeled them on Islamic calls to prayer only emphasizes the emotionally charged atmosphere they create. In the third song, as the city sleeps, the muezzin sings a gentle refrain of “o olali” to improvisatory ornamental figures. In the final song these figures become extended cries of despair as the beloved departs for the “western deserts” beyond the muezzin’s reach. The second song, in contrast to the others, is more rhythmically active. In it Szymanowski employs other stylizations of Middle Eastern music: reiterated dance rhythms above a drone bass, melodies prominently incorporating the interval of an augmented second, and scoring for oboe, triangle, timpani and snare drum in imitation of Arabic instruments. In each song solo woodwind and string instruments weave their own melistmatic lines around that of the singer creating a combination of textural delicacy, instrumental color, and emotional intensity.
Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin was Szymanowski’s third and last song cycle on “exotic” themes after the Love Songs of Hafiz and Songs of a Fairy Princess. Only the opera King Roger would continue their blend of exoticism and erotic charge. Szymanowski turned increasingly in his later years to music drawn from his newly independent homeland of Poland. Nevertheless, the idea of a transcendental connection between divine and human love gave rise to some of Szymanowski’s most individual, refined, and expressive compositions. The four orchestral Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin number among his best.
Christopher Little, 2016
For performance material please contact Universal Edition, Vienna. Reprint of a copy from the Musikbibliothek der Münchner Stadtbibliothek, Munich.
Deutsches Vorwort lesen > HERE