Symphony No. 3 (“Song of the Night”) (1916)

By Adrian Corleonis, Contributor, Fanfare

Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the summer of 1914, Szymanowski returned from an extended visit to Sicily and North Africa, stopping over in Paris, and going to London to stay some weeks with Artur Rubinstein and meet Stravinsky, before leaving on the very day of Archduke Rudolph’s assassination for Tymoszówska, his family’s estate in the Ukraine. As war engulfed Europe, Szymanowski carried into his retreat the latest nuances of cosmopolitan culture, which he was to transmute into his middle period, and most intensely personal, style.

Szymanowski’s aesthetic is Symbolist, an influence imbibed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, a favorite and closely-read book, which prompted a “Dionysian” style almost wholly preoccupied with the ecstatic apprehension of mythically-blazoned moments as symbols of an ineffable mystery.

Song of the Night places the Symbolist mysterium in the fabulous Persia of the Sufi poet Jallal al-din Rumi. A symphony in name only, this single three-part movement opens with the mystic’s exhortation to watchfulness, for “the great secret is revealed in this night.” Rumi is generally credited as the founder of the Mevlevi order of Dervishes, whose “whirling” occasions the highly stylized dances, now contemplatively attenuated, now vehement, which mimic the passage of the planets and constellations, raptly heralded by the tenor solo of the first part, in a circling whose effect is intoxication and whose center and goal is God.

A Warsaw concert in January 1920, giving his compatriots a first hearing of his Dionysian works, was poorly attended and tepidly received, wringing from Szymanowski the complaint that “there is no real contact between myself and the Polish (or at any rate Warsaw) public, I seem strange, incomprehensible to them.. .The European climate of my art does not suite this local provincialism.” In the upshot, Song of the Night received its premiere in London under Albert Coates on November 26, 1921, and was not heard in Warsaw until April 1924, by which time Szymanowski was quite a different composer.

In writing of Song of the Night it has become almost obligatory to quote from Kaikhosru Sorabji’s glowing effusive encomium in Mi Contra Fa (London: Porcupine Press, 1947), if only because such unequivocal praise from such a critic may hardly be ignored: “Here is no European in Eastern fancy-dress, but one who, by a penetrating clairvoyant insight and sympathy, an astonishing kinship of spirit, succeeds in giving us in musical terms what we instinctively know and recognize as the essence of Persian Art.”

One might more aptly call attention to Szymanowski’s “clairvoyant insight and sympathy” with the latest works of Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, whose innovations and refinements he turned, almost as they were being made, confidently and eloquently to his own use. Thus, Szymanowski in his Dionysian guise offered a newly emancipated Poland, in search of a cultural identity, the not entirely welcome example of a fluently cosmopolitan Europeanism, a highly sophisticated consolidation of what was best and most brilliant in pre-war, post-Romanticism, couched in a legacy of exotically powerful, exquisitely realized, and radiantly intense works.