Karol Szymanowski, Symphony No. 3

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 3, 1882, in Timoshovka, Ukraine
Died March 28, 1937, in Lausanne, Switzerland
Composed from 1914 to 1916
Premiered on November 24, 1921, in London
Approximate performance time: 25 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 contrabass trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, tamtam, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, tambourine), 1 piano, 1 celesta, organ, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, and tenor vocal soloist

At a time when World War I forced most composers to emphasize their national, ethnic, or religious identities, Karol Szymanowski—the youngest of the four represented on tonight’s program—took a radically different path. A proud Pole who was just as committed to cultivating a national style as were any of his contemporaries, Szymanowski nevertheless drew some of his most profound inspiration from geographically distant sources. He was an enthusiastic reader of the medieval Persian poetry of Rumi (1207–1273) and Hafiz (1325–1389), both of whom had a profound impact on his music. In the course of his travels in the Mediterranean region, he visited Sicily, whose Norman-Arab-Byzantine traditions inform his later opera King Roger, and North Africa, where he was exposed to Arab culture.

Retreating to the family estate of Tymoszówka (Timoshovka) in Central Ukraine at the outbreak of the war, Szymanowski immersed himself in Eastern mysticism and composed, next to a second set of love songs after Hafiz, his Third Symphony (Pieśń o nocy or ‟Song of the Night”) for tenor, chorus, and orchestra, which sets a text by Rumi in the Polish translation of symbolist poet Tadeusz Miciński (1873–1918).

In the words of Polish conductor and writer Piotr Deptuch, the symphony is “an ecstatic night-time love song in which eroticism and transcendence meld into an indissoluble whole. Wagner’s Tristan, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, and Messiaen’s Turangalîla frame the space into which the poetics of Symphony No. 3 is inscribed.”

The one-movement work is divided into three sections, the first and last of which, slow and mystical, employ the singers, with a faster, purely orchestral section in the middle. In addition to the tenor, the concertmaster is another true soloist throughout the work, which opens with a soaring violin solo in a high register, setting the stage for the magical evocation of night by the tenor and chorus. The music luxuriates in seductive orchestral colors and harmonies hovering in between keys, growing in intensity and finally exploding in an ecstatic blaze of sound. In the central section, the mysteries of the night seem to take on a more definite shape, as a characteristic motif in dotted rhythm temporarily brings the music closer to earth, before the solo violin takes us back into a more ethereal realm. The voices re-enter to another wonderfully sensual paean to the Night, culminating in a second climax even more powerful than the first, before a final violin solo ushers in the transfigured conclusion.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.