After the Union of the Polish Crown with Lithuania, signed in 1569, large numbers of Polish gentry settled in the area of Kievan Rus’. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was joined to Poland by a real union – there were separate central offices, treasury and army, but they had one monarch, one parliament (sejm) and one foreign policy. The regions of Podlasie, Volhyn and Kiev became part of the Crown Kievan province. The river Dnieper was the south-eastern border of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, and Kudak was the southern-most fortress. Lands “on the outskirts of the Commonwealth”, i.e., the enormous Dnieper valley area and the so-called Wild Fields (Dzikie Pola) were known as Ukrainian. One of the participants in that historical act of the union was an ancestor of the composer, a member of the gentry, Marcin Szymanowski, judge from the town of Sochaczew .
For over two centuries, on the enormous territory of the conjoined Rus’ (with nothing to equal it in central Poland), some truly royal fortunes were built up by magnates from the Rus’ (the Wiśniowiecki, Ostrogski, Zasławski families) and those arrived from Poland; with time, the Sobieskis and the Koniecpolskis died out, while others, such as the Lubomirski, Jabłonowski, Czartoryski, Tyszkiewicz or Sanguszko families, grew in importance; these were followed by the Rzewuskis, the Poniatowskis, the Potockis, the Branickis. Peasants in these latifundia estates prospered; significant numbers of serfs had been freed before the end of the eighteenth century. Although this was quite a turbulent period, the last three decades of the eighteenth century saw intensive settlement of Polish gentry in the eastern areas of the Rus’ land. Agriculture improved, trade flourished, the magnates set up manufactures, and then factories of cloth, faience, arms etc.
One such illustrious family, numerous, well-connected both in the Crown lands and in Ukraine, were the Rościszewskis. For three generations they held large estates and important offices in the Kiev voivodship. Thus, in 1777, Franciszka, the daughter of Kajetan Rościszewski and Marianna, the sister of Bishop Ignacy Krasicki, married Dominik Szymanowski, a gentleman from Mazovia. As her dowry she received out of the enormous property of Kajetan Rościszewski the Motyga [?] demesne, situated 50 km from Kiev.
Dominik Szymanowski, although not quite as rich as his wife’s family, was, however, a gentleman by birth from a noble family of long standing. The Korwin-Szymanowskis bearing the Ślepowron [The Raven] coat of arms belonged among the very ancient Mazovian families. The name comes from the village of Szymany in the Szczuczyn district; in the first half of the sixteenth century it was inherited by Mikołaj Szymanowski. In a later period, the Szymanowskis also settled in the Rawa voivodship. Family members took part in the life of the state; they became delegates to the Sejm, undertook diplomatic missions, held various offices, including senatorial ones, and were regarded as dedicated patriots and model citizens. Dominik was the only member of the family to leave the Mazovian homeland and follow his wife to Ukraine, becoming the ancestor of five generations of the Ukrainian branch of the Szymanowski family, which was to produce its greatest member in the person of Karol Szymanowski and his musical genius.
When Karol Szymanowski was born, the Commonwealth of Two Nations, Poland and Lithuania, had already ceased to exist nearly a hundred years earlier, and the Borderlands, annexed to the Tsarist empire, were regarded by the Poles only as the Lost Lands, the Cut-off Outskirts. Tymoszówka, Karol’s home, was located in the easternmost area of the old Commonwealth, the Southern Rus’, on the boundary between Kiev and Bracław voivodships and Zaporozhe. Szymanowski was not impressed by the legend, popularised by Sienkiewicz, of the warlike and chivalrous past of these lands. That past, still living in the tradition and personal memories of the generation of his grandparents, by the end of the nineteenth century belonged among historical knowledge, literature and poetry. Neither was Szymanowski moved by the Ukrainian “folklore”; the native folk song did not leave a trace of its influence on him, although he was familiar with it from childhood, having been nursed by Ukrainian nannies.
Years later, asking himself about the essence of the spiritual “baggage” carried from that “little fatherland”, the composer said: “I often miss Ukraine, its sun, its distant spaces, [...] I felt it with all my soul, I loved its beneficent climate, its abundance and its sweetness.” It is true, Ukrainian land was rich, fertile and abundant; on the humous soil, fields of wheat undulated as far as the eye could see, carpets of millet grass covered the land, yellow walls of sunflowers stood tall, the steppe orchards proudly displayed watermelons, pumpkins, melons and grapes, which filled the air with a sweet aroma.
Wypłynąłem na suchego przestwór oceanu,
Wóz nurza się w zieloność i jak łódka brodzi,
Śród fali łąk szumiących, śród kwiatów powodzi,
Omijam koralowe ostrowy burzanu.”
Across sea-meadows measureless I go,
My wagon sinking under grass so tall
The flowery petals in foam on me fall,
And blossom-isles float by I do not know.”
That steppe, described by Mickiewicz, survived until 1917, and that is how Karol Szymanowski saw it and experienced it. The summer there was dry and hot, the autumn long and warm, the winter sharp but short, while the spring came suddenly and irrevocably. Nature imposed the abundance and the intensity of living.
But this distinctive natural environment, landscape and climate were only one characteristic of the Borderlands. The cultural separateness and individuality of that area went even deeper. For centuries, different nationalities coexisted here, with different ethnic elements, social strata, religions and customs coming into contact. The peasants were Ruthenes, the gentry – Poles, but also Russians and Russianised boyar families; however, beyond that there was a true ethnic conglomerate: Tartars, Cossacks, Armenians, Germans, Jews. They traded, travelled, carried customs from one community to another, created unique enclaves. Layers of the cultures of East and West overlapped without pushing each other out, creating a very special unity in diversity. Here, Byzantium combined with Rome, in the ways of life and thought, in art and philosophy. One can hear it clearly in the choral chants which open the opera King Roger.
After Poland regained its independence in 1918, with new territorial boundaries, the concept of the Borderlands totally changed its content. Now it referred to the areas lying along the eastern border of the state – the true Borderlands remained in Soviet Russia, together with hundreds of thousands of Borderlanders. Those who, like the Szymanowski family, came to Poland, left behind everything they owned and were forced to build a new existence for themselves starting from nothing. They had a characteristic Borderland chant-like way of speaking and a nostalgia, known only to them, for open, unattainable horizons. “What might I show you here?” wondered Anna Branicka, welcoming Szymanowski in her chateau Montrésor. “Perhaps you would like to see one of the chateaux? Blois, Amboise, perhaps Chenonceaux, Loches?” In response, having looked around, Szymanowski said quietly, “Couldn’t you show me simply a large field of wheat?”.They greeted each other like true countrymen from “there”, from the Borderlands. Where space did not limit the eye, where, under the hot sun, the steppe plants would blossom out with dazzlingly bright, sensual colours and aromas, where the wind carried its unstoppable message of freedom.
That is why, for Karol, Tymoszówka remained forever the only place on earth where composing was as natural and obvious as breathing. Only here, and nowhere else, could he “calmly, lazily, immerse [himself] in the only worthwhile thing – in inspiration.” With a poet’s intuition, Jan Lechoń provided the most apt description of the composer’s Borderlands soul: “Whenever I attended a violin recital with The Fountain of Arethusa in the programme, I would always be dazzled anew by the eternal newness and by the staggering, sensual and at the same time mimic lyricism of this work. There was in Karol that erotic lyricism, both Eastern and ours, just like our Romantic poetry from the Borderlands, something so human that in that respect the great Stravinsky is not as great as Karol.” – Teresa Chylińska.