By Thos. Callen
Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Now is the time for us to lay our foundations for the future. . . Let our music be national in its Polish characteristics but not falter in striving to attain universality. Let it be national but not provincial.
When Karol Szymanowski wrote these words in 1920 he was not only calling for a new Polish music worthy of a newly independent Poland. He was obliquely voicing a personal need to break out of a creative impasse that was already two years old: Szymanowski had not completed a major work since the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin of 1918. If Poland was in need of musical rebirth, its leading composer needed a new path leading away from the Scriabinesque exoticism that had culminated in the Third Symphony of 1914-16.
Szymanowski found his way by assimilating Stravinsky’s transformational approach to folk music (the effects of Stravinsky’s ostinatos, of his fragmentized, motivic treatment of Slavic folk music were not lost on Szymanowski when Stravinsky played parts of Les Noces for him during their meeting in London in early 1921). The first decisive step in the new style was Slopiewnie, five brief songs composed in the summer of 1921 to poems by Szymanowski’s contemporary Julian Tuwim.
Michal Bristiger has written that Tuwim’s texts “took the shape of a Slavic Arcadia”. They are not in Polish but in a kind of proto-Polish Tuwim devised by combining the word-roots and altering word-endings. Despite this experimentation, the five poems, with the exception of the concluding “Wanda,” are quitetraditional in rhyme scheme, meter, and scansion (“Slowisen,” for example, is in two quatrains of decasyl-labic abab).
All five of the Slopiewnie reflect an ear closely attentive to poetic syntax. Szymanowski often forges a kind of musical rhyme to match the poetical, that is, sets two rhyming lines in Tuwim’s text to an identical or slightly varied musical phrase, or he varies the same musical motif for two rhyming words. As an example of the latter, in the second strophe of “Slowisen,” the last two syllables of nezaspiewy are sung in a melisma around the note F; at the rhyming ciewy in the last line of the strophe, the vocal line is stripped to two bare E’s. Sometimes, an identical rhythm reappears with no more than the general contour of the melody, making the kinship more difficult to detect, as in the last two lines of the second strophe of “Zielone slowa”. At times, a rhyme is not so much forged as forced out of the vowels alone with disregard for the preceding, unrhymed consonants, as in lines 1-2 of “Wanda,” where Szymanowski makes a rhyme of the final vowels in the words wislana and srebliwa.
In 1927, a year before he prepared the orchestral version of Slopiewnie we are hearing this evening, Szymanowski wrote that the work “was indeed a turning-point” initiating his concern with “ancestral Polish character” and “with crystallizing elements of tribal heritage”. But he had also written, almost a decade earlier, while grappling with the crisis of his own creativity, “I cannot afford a complete abnegation, for my inner life is developed too strongly.” His need to preserve that inner life, no matter where his music took him, make Slopiewnie a work far less “tribal” than personal.