Karol Szymanowski's operatic masterpiece is coming up at the Royal Opera House next week, and not a moment too soon. My God, what an impossibly gorgeous score it is. I nearly died of joy the first time I heard it. So I had a chat with its director, Kasper Holten - and wasn't sorry to hear about his passion for early 20th-century opera, or the fact that one of his happiest experiences to date was with Korngold's Die tote Stadt (his production, for the Finnish National Opera, is on DVD).
Tony Pappano conducts, the wonderful Mariusz Kwiecień is the King, Georgia Jarman is Queen Roxana and the production opens 1 May. NB the live streaming on the Internet on 16 May.
Here's my piece from today's Independent.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Outside the ICC in Birmingham yesterday there snaked a massive queue. Thousands upon thousands of of eager young people had turned out to support the CBSO, Karol Szymanowski and your blogger doing her pre-concert yak....oh, hang on. Across the mall from Symphony Hall were, um, auditions for Britain's Got Talent.
Ironic that inside Symphony Hall all afternoon the CBSO Youth Orchestra - 110 young people aged 14-21 - were rehearsing Berg and Bartok and Bruckner, and they really do have talent. And, being mostly teenagers, the chances are that they don't regard angstful, emotional, challenging music as difficult, but identify themselves with it something chronic. We who remember what that was like sometimes wonder if those who wish to stop youngsters from facing that type of art were ever teenagers themselves.
Anyway, a grand turnout for the evening event too, and huge thanks to the super Symphony Hall & CBSO team for all their help.
Below is my script, for anyone who couldn't make it, or anyone who could and wants to have another look.
It’s a great pleasure to be back in Symphony Hall to offer an introduction to an extraordinary composer of whom most of us know too little. He was much of his time, yet he was also ahead of it - to many he seems to be coming into his own today. He was much of his country, and yet his country barely existed except in his imagination. And he was part of an entire generation of composers who were marginalised in the philosophical and musical atmosphere that ensued after the second world war – a generation that it has taken decades to rehabilitate to the deserved degree. He is, of course, Karol Szymanowski.
He is one of those composers that most of us have heard of, though it’s by no means certain we’ll ever have attended a concert containing his music, nor that we’d be aware of what he wrote, when he wrote it, or why. Of course, to say this must be tempting fate here in Birmingham, because you probably know more about Szymanowski than audiences anywhere else in the country! That’s because perhaps his most important champion has been Sir Simon Rattle, whose performances and recordings with the CBSO, in the early 1990s, were vital in putting this wonderful composer back on the map where he belongs.
I’d like to read you a little of what Simon Rattle himself said about Szymanowski, and specifically about the Stabat Mater, which we will hear tonight. Here he describes his first encounter with the music:
"I was having lunch with my friend Paul Crossley, the English pianist. Paul was a man whose advice I used unscrupulously. He said, 'I've got something special for you', then sat at the piano and played a bit of some piece. I had no idea what it was, but it got me very excited and I knew it was love at first sight. It was the last part of the Stabat Mater.”
Rattle duly put the Stabat Mater into one of his first concerts with the CBSO, but he later felt he’d made one mistake:
“I must admit with shame that the choir sang in Latin. We knew, though, that a Polish language version would need to be prepared. And we struggled with that difficult language. Only Finnish and Hungarian are said to be more difficult, and there is not too much similarity between the Birmingham dialect and the Polish language. Only ten letters are pronounced the same in English and in Polish. So it was a character building experience on all counts. It took a year to work with the choir, but apparently the sopranos can now be understood. I suppose that if Poles tried to sing in Welsh, they would understand our problems. We reached a point where language started to impact on the sound of the music, its rhythm. For instance, the holding out of the vowels and the proper start of the consonants has lent this music a specific pulse. The choir was no longer a group of English singers feeling aloof about a strange, obscure composition. They began to penetrate the music. It was an extraordinary trip. Szymanowski's music bought the ensemble, the choir and the orchestra.”
Then Rattle adds:
“I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reasonability from someone in love. And reasonability is out of place when this music is concerned.”
So, for Sir Simon it was love at first sound. I think I know something of what he felt. I was about 14 when I first heard any Szymanowski, and what I heard was THIS:
[We didn't show this extraordinary little 'Cinephonie' film by Emile Vuillermoz last night, but I can't resist posting it this morning!]
This is one of Szymanowski’s better-known pieces: one of his Mythes for violin and piano, composed in 1915, a period of his compositional life that is sometimes termed his “oriental impressionist” phase. It is entitled 'La fontaine d’Arethuse' – the fountain of Arethusa being a Greek myth about a nymph, whose virtue is saved from a pursuer by Artemis, who transforms her into a fountain. Szymanowski wrote that his aim was to capture not the narrative but the beauty of the myth – perhaps the aura of it. But it’s worth noticing that Szymanowski visited the actual fountain itself – it is on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily, a place where his travels may have had much personal significance. More of that later.
There’s exoticism in here, without a doubt: the attraction of the ancient, the mythical, the magical, as well as the sensuality of the story and its watery imagery. This percolates into the music from several directions: the harmonies being the most obvious, then the extended and unpredictable lengths of the phrases, and the sheer range of subtle colours that he draws out of these two instruments through his exploration of texture and timbre. You can feel that unique personality, with its mix of emotional and intellectual intensity, that suffuses Szymanowski’s greatest works.
Szymanowski was born in 1882, in what’s now the Ukraine and was then Russia. A lot of Polish landed gentry had settled in that region after Poland was partitioned in 1795, divided up between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The family estate was called Tymoszowka and one wonderful description of their lifestyle says: “It was an aristocratic, cultured household, where music and literature were practised with a passion which drove less artistically-inclined guests to distraction.”
Part of what forms any composer’s outlook, and hence his legacy, is how he deals with the changing world around him. As you can imagine, a lifespan from 1882 to 1937 encompassed some of the biggest upheavals in European history. And how Szymanowski dealt with them contains its own fair share of paradoxes. As he himself said, he had a “fanatic love for the idea of Poland” – note the IDEA OF, rather than Poland itself.
Indeed, Poland at this time was more an idea than a place. But its spirit lived on in its music, especially that of Chopin, which is full of national dances, such as the mazurka, the krakowiak and the polonaise. Szymanowski in his early years certainly showed hints of influence from Chopin. However, let’s just come back briefly to the question of actual language.
I think it’s true to say that every great composer is influenced to some degree by the ebb and flow of his native language. Think of Bach’s cantatas or Schubert’s songs in German, or the way the French language permeates Fauré and Debussy; imagine Tchaikovsky without his Russianness. And Bartók could never have been Bartók without being Hungarian. This strain was especially true of music written in the late 19th century, when a sense of nationalism – usually in a relatively benign form – became increasingly crucial to many composers’ concepts of their own identity. The inflections of Polish, as much as Polish folk music, as Rattle noted, helps to give Szymanowski’s works their particularly plangent, pungeant quality – listen for the flow of the stresses and crunchy consonants during tonight’s performance. And it could be that because of the language, Szymanowski would have "sounded" Polish whether he liked it or not.
Szymanowski’s attitude towards Polishness in music was anything but nationalistic in the usual sense. He went to study in Warsaw, but found the general approach provincial: he preferred to follow the latest developments in western European music, especially German music. In 1905, when he was about 32, he joined a group of young Polish composers who sought to rise above any obvious folk element and wished to take the notion of a national music onto a higher plane.
So it wasn’t national dances that were the prime influence from this idealised Poland, but more the world of aestheticism, religion or spirituality, and nature, and the interrelation of them as they crystallised in Szymanowski’s inner world. Describing his First Violin Concerto, he once said: "Our national music is not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka … It is rather the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night in Poland." It’s clear that this has little to do with reality – it’s all about dreams, images, abstractions, even escapism, a train of thought that puts Szymanowski virtually in the line of the Symbolist movement, like Debussy.
Perhaps it’s ironic that much later in Szymanowski’s life he turned to extremely real Polish folk music to reinvigorate and reinvent his creativity after the traumas – political, personal and emotional – that beset him around 1918. In 1924 he became enchanted by the folk music of the Tatra mountains. He settled in Zakopane – it is now a famous resort, popular with keen hikers, and his house is now a museum. He chose the resort for its good air, because the one all too real thing that he had in common with Chopin was tuberculosis. But there was more to keep him in the mountains; he described the revelation of this indigenous Polish music as “the discovery of one’s own jewels”. The music of the Tatras is irresistibly rhythmic, intricate, filled with discord and astringency – he termed this ‘Polish barbarism’. Yet even towards the end of his life, interviewed in 1936, Szymanowski responded to a question about this by saying: “Folklore is only significant for me as a fertilising agent. My aim is the creation of a Polish style in which there is not one jot of folklore.”
His Op.50 consists of 20 superb and rather difficult mazurkas for piano. I still remember with absolute horror the time I was faced with one of them as a sight-reading test at university. The harmonic language is so rich and subtle that it is very hard to predict what the next chord should sound like if you’ve never heard it before. It’s that very richness, though, the extreme headiness of his personal language, that seems to get us hooked on him.
Here is an extract from no.2, played by Arthur Rubinstein.
Also in Zakopane, the area’s early church music began to make a profound impression on Szymanowski. This is reflected strongly in the Stabat Mater – its incantatory lines and primal types of rhythmic progression all suggest that it plucks at heartstrings that are very deep-rooted and very ancient. I’d contend that this gives Szymanowski a special place in the evolution of the music of today, and perhaps helps to account for his increasing recognition just at the moment. This Orthodox Church influence is something that he shares with more recent composers who are sometimes termed “Holy minimalist” – that label is admittedly not always a good representation of their work, and certainly Szymanowski himself is not remotely minimal. But we could consider Arvo Pärt, from Estonia, the late Henryk Gorecki, who was Polish too, and the British composer John Tavener on whom the influence of these eastern and exotic ancient sounds has been considerable. If you've enjoyed Tavener works such as The Protecting Veil - a magnificent cello concerto - the chances are that you will also get along well with the sound of Szymanowski. That brings Szymanowski closer to home than ever before.
So, what sort of person was Szymanowski and what impressions and influences spurred him on his personal journey? One musician who knew him well and championed his music was the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein. One night Rubinstein, aged about 17 and spending the summer in Zakopane, was startled by what he thought was an intruder in the garden. It turned out to be a medical student named Bronislaw Gromadzki, who just wanted to listen to him practising the piano. The two became friends and Gromadzki, a keen amateur violinist, asked if he could introduce the young pianist to his school friend Karol Szymanowski, whom he described as a composer of genius. Here’s how Rubinstein described the incident in his autobiography:
“Having had quite a few disappointments with so-called geniuses, I nodded patronisingly and said “I am working now, on some very serious works, but come tomorrow and let us see some of your friend’s little pieces.”
“It is difficult to describe my amazement after playing only a few bars of a prelude. This music had been written by a master! We read feverishly all the manuscripts, becoming more and more enthusiastic and excited, as we knew we were discovering a great Polish composer! His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations.”
Rubinstein wrote to Szymanowski to tell him what a great impression his music had made, and the young composer wrote back, saying he would soon be arriving in Zakopane. Rubinstein and his friends went to the station to meet him:
“We awaited the arrival of the train with great excitement. Then there he was: a tall, slender young man. He looked older than his 21 years, dressed all in black, still in mourning for his father, wearing a bowler hat and gloves – appearing more like a diplomat than a musician. But his beautiful, large, grey-blue eyes had a sad, intelligent and most sensitive expression. He walked towards us with a slight limp, greeted his friend cordially but without effusion and accepted our warm welcome with a polite but aloof smile.”
It took Rubinstein a little while to get Szymanowski to open up, but once he did, in a more private setting, the two became fast friends.
They could scarcely have been more different. Rubinstein had a fun-loving, earthy, sensual nature which enabled him to get along with anyone and everyone. Szymanowski, by contrast, was a gay Catholic, a combination which perhaps contributed to the fact that he possessed a relatively tortured soul. He was deeply sensitive and intuitive, and had constantly the feeling of being an outsider. He didn't conform. So, for all his love of Polish culture, Polish culture and its officers did not always love him back. Later, as head of the Warsaw Conservatory from 1927 he struggled to introduce the idealistic reforms he sought, in the face of the traditional, conservative attitudes that got there first. He resigned after just five years.
He was a real Renaissance man, enormously cultured and with a profoundly enquiring mind that gave him a great appetite for travel, philosophy, writing about music, engaging with leading writers. His spheres of musical knowledge and the cocktail of influences he could draw upon was suitably broad as well – Debussy is very much there, Scriabin too, and later Stravinsky. And don’t forget Wagner. No composer of that era could forget him and Szymanowski was no exception. When Rubinstein met him he had just been to Bayreuth and heard Tristan und Isolde – a rite of passage for many composers. But his early passion for Wagner, and for Richard Strauss, was soon supplanted by the atmospheres he absorbed from travelling in Italy, Greece and North Africa, which represented a sort of liberation which is generally thought to have been sexual as well as cultural.
The First World War years at first brought him a positive form of isolation: Szymanowski had a bad knee, which meant that he was not conscripted, and he was able to spend several years on the family estate devoting himself to composition. It was then that he created some of his most enduring works, among them the Mythes, the First Violin concerto and the Third Symphony, as well as the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin, the very title of which should be some indication of the degree to which the composer was in love with the orient and its sensual impressions. Then, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tymoszowka was ransacked in the family’s absence, the house was destroyed and the composer’s grand piano met a watery death in the lake.
Depressed and traumatised, Szymanowski found escapism in a different kind of creativity. He wrote a novel. A homosexual novel, for that matter. It was apparently inspired at least in part by his relationship with the librettist of his opera Krol Roger (King Roger): this was his cousin and a well-known poet, Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, who himself wrote a number of poems about the pair’s travels together. They both evinced a deep passion for Mediterranean lands and were well versed in the region’s history. The degree to which Szymanowski’s musical sensibilities were affected by his homosexuality is a topic that merits probably more discussion than we have time for, but I’d like to offer that thought for those of you who are intrigued by it to take away and investigate further.
Much of the novel’s manuscript was destroyed by fire in 1939. But the opera, which is usually considered Szymanowski’s greatest work, has lived to convey a powerful legacy. It began to take shape in 1918 and was eventually premiered in 1926, the year in which he also wrote the Stabat Mater.
Szymanowski’s quest for self-knowledge, plus his obsessions with the orient, folk music and spirituality, were very much of their time, and indeed represent a link, if an indirect one, with an important strand of philosophy that ran through much music of the 1920s and before. Gustav Holst, whose music we also hear tonight, was one of many creative artists who involved themselves with Theosophy – a movement that claimed to be a sort of pan-theological short-cut to the spiritual heart shared by most world religions, by-passing the superficial trappings of religious tradition but also extending towards spiritualism, the occult and so on.
Were they around today, this would be regarded as rather New Age, but in the first decades of the 20th century it was an influential force embraced by such figures as the poets Rabindranath Tagore and WB Yeats, besides composers such as the flamboyant Russian Scriabin, the rather quiet and modest Holst, and John Foulds, who was born in Manchester but eventually emigrated to India. Szymanowski’s own passions do not seem to have extended to theosophy, but I suspect that those who followed it could well have argued that they shared basic roots with the spiritual journey depicted in King Roger.
The opera is set in 12th-century Sicily – not far from the Fountain of Arethusa – and concerns the conflict in the king’s soul between duty and sensuality: a shepherd initiates him into Dionysian mysteries, gradually leading him towards greater self acceptance. In the end the King is able to embrace the full richness and complexity of life, as represented by Apollo.
The music is strongly influenced on one hand by Debussy and on the other even more by Stravinsky. Certain phrases and effects seem to have stepped straight out of The Firebird. And yet you never feel that Szymanowski is lifting things gratuitously from other composers; rather, these feel like conscious references with which he is building up his own distinctive world which can’t be divided from everything he has found on his travels, be they physical or spiritual . Here is Queen Roxanna's song:
Tuberculosis eventually killed Szymanowski at the age of 54, well before his time. But perhaps he was ahead of his time. His time may be now. And today we can appreciate his art as part of a full and varied tapestry of music from the past century that goes much deeper and much wider than perhaps was initially realised. He once wrote: “I should like our young generation of Polish musicians to understand how our present anaemic musical condition could be infused with new life by the riches hidden in the Polish ‘barbarism’ which I have at last ‘uncovered’ and made my own’. And that did happen to some degree. Witold Lutoslawski and Roman Maciejewski were two composers who did just that early in their careers; and tangentially a tribute to Szymanowski lives on in the form of the composer Andrzej Panufnik’s daughter, Roxanna, now a prominent composer herself, named after King Roger’s queen.
There has never been such a rich musical century as the 20th, with such an array of different styles and approaches and philosophies, and it is wonderful to find long-underrated or misunderstood composers, such as Szymanowski, finally finding the audience they deserve. Perhaps Szymanowski himself is the shepherd who can lead us to embrace the full richness and complexity of musical life.