Stabat Mater for Solo Voices, Chorus, and Orchestra, Op. 53 (1926)

By Richard E. Rodda, Case Western Reserve University

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? (II), performed on March 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Karol Szymanowski (pronounced shee-man-ov-skee) was the preeminent Polish composer of the first half of the twentieth century. He showed exceptional musical talent early in life, and began his professional studies in Warsaw in 1901. Seeking wider horizons than he Polish capital could offer, he moved in 1906 to Berlin. His compositions of the years before the First World War were heavily influenced by the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss, though they carry something of his own individual harmonic and melodic stamp. Szymanowski returned to Warsaw from 1909 to 1911, and then moved to Vienna for the next two years. It was during that time that he made several trips to the European Mediterranean and North Africa, and his direct contact with the ancient, early Christian and Arab cultures of Italy, Constantinople, Tunis and Algiers profoundly alters his artistic temperament. He abandoned the Germanic post-romanticism of his earlier works, and turned instead to the music of Debussy and Ravel, Stravinksy, and the Russian mystic Scriabin to help in defining is new tonal language.

The early 1920s saw Szymanowski again reconsidering the stylistic basis of his compositions. Having absorbed the influences of Strauss, Ravel, and Scriabin, he turned to his own country for renewed inspiration, and became intent on finding a national identity for contemporary Polish music based on the songs and dances of its people. He found his richest native source in the music of the mountain folk of the Tatra region, and he spent much time in their chief city, Zakopane. In 1927, he was simultaneously offered the directorships of the conservatories of Cairo and Warsaw, and it is indicative of his loyalties at the time that he accepted the post in Poland. Szymanowski achieved his greatest success and prosperity in the early 1930s, when his compositions found a large audience and he came to be regarded as the most important figure in modern Polish music. However, his health, never robust, began to fail, and he resigned the directorship of the Warsaw Conservatory in April 1932, thereafter devoting himself entirely to his creative work. He died in Lausanne on March 28, 1937.

The seed that blossomed into Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater was planed during his visit to Paris in 1924, when the Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer), heiress to the sewing-machine fortune and a devoted patron of the arts in turn-of-the-century France, proposed to commission from him some sort of “Polish Requiem” based on old religious verses and musical styles. He was still unsettled about the subject of the piece early in 1925 when two events, the death of his teenage niece Alusi Bartoszewiczowna and a commission from the Warsaw industrialist Bronislaw Krystall for a work commemorating his wife Izabela, led him to the traditional church texts, and he settled on the Stabat Mater, a thirteenth-century sequence (i.e. a sacred Latin poem with most of its lines in end-rhyme), usually attributed to the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi, which tells of the piteous anguish of the Mother of Christ as she stands before the Cross. By 1925, the verses has already been treated by Josquin, Palestrina, Lass, Pergolesi, Haydn, Rossini, Schubert, Verdi, Dvorák and others, but Szymanowski chose to set them not in their original Latin but in a Polish paraphrase by Josef Jankowski. (The score, printed in both Polish and Latin, would seem to allow for performance in either language, however.) He chose for the solemn tragedy of the Stabat Mater not the colorful, folk-inspired idiom that touched most of his other works of the 1920s, but an austere language derived both from the Renaissance church polyphonists and form archaic Polish chant and religious music. Though its words were specifically religious, Szymanowski, who was never much drawn to sacred music, intended that his Stabat Mater be universal rather than dogmatic. “I sought an inner experience,” he wrote, “endeavoring to give a concrete, concise form to what is most real and yet most intangible in the secret life of the mind.” The result, according to the French critic André Coeuroy, is “one of the most original religious compositions ever written.”