Fascination with the subject of antiquity in Szymanowski’s creative development had a different dimension from his enthusiasm for the Orient and later for the Polish Highlands. The latter remained within the programmatic, content sphere, and obviously could not be translated directly into the language of his music. The intellectual climate of his home at Tymoszówka with its rich library inspired the humanistic interests of the young Szymanowski, and classical literature was an inseparable component of the education of every erudite youth. He would certainly have been familiar with Homer’s epics, and perhaps also with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, various editions of mythologies, works of old philosophers, as well as books describing the heritage of the antique culture and tales of travellers who visited the countries of the Mediterranean basin. The first work in which the composer refers to the antique tradition is the song Penthesilea op. 18 for voice and orchestra composed in 1908 to a fragment of a classicist drama Achilleis by Stanisław Wyspiański which by now has been somewhat forgotten.
Later came the time for travelling, and for the confrontation between book knowledge and youthful dreams, and the actual images of ancient cultures. Szymanowski never visited Greece, but he stayed in Italy on numerous occasions, absorbing its beauty and developing great affection for its landscape, art, and history. Among his many expeditions to Italy the one which he undertook in the spring of 1911, when he visited Sicily together with his friend Stefan Spiess, was perhaps the most important.
“It is a strange land, bathed in the sun and the sea, parched, covered in flowers from the end of the winter. Whole stretches of cultures lie here on top of each other, next to each other, mixed with each other in the most amazing ways. Beginning with the pre-Greek culture, then the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Arabs, Byzantium, the Normans, the Germans, the French – all blend here, melted in the heat of the sun, the wine, and the scent of the orange flower…” (Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Książka o Sycylii [A Book about Sicily], Kraków 1956)
After arriving in Messina, devastated by a horrific earthquake which had taken place only three years previously, the travellers made their way to Palermo. There Szymanowski admired for the first time the Norman temples with their marvellous mosaics (this was where he later located the first act of King Roger; he also visited Museo Archeologico, where crumbs of antiquity, mainly Greek, made a great impression on him. They included a collection of sculptures, ceramics, as well as metopes: bas-reliefs taken from the frieze of the Doric temple at Selinunte, depicting, among other things, Perseus with Medusa, Hercules, Artemis and Actaeon, and Apollo’s quadriga. The route led further to Segesta, with a monumental Doric temple from the fifth century BCE which was never finished, then along the south coast towards Agrigento (which at that time was called Girgenti), where a parade of ancient Grecian temples had also survived, and to Syracuse the capital of the old Corinthian colony and one of the most important Greek poleis on the island. In spite of the fact that this city had been particularly badly affected by numerous wars and disasters, a number of monuments to ancient glories had also survived there – a temple to Artemis, the ruins of an amphitheatre, and many Roman mementoes. On the island of Ortygia, which is part of the city, in a cave (later a bastion was built around it), not far from the seashore, there is a spring of drinking water, which for thousands of years has been of great importance to the inhabitants of Syracuse. Extolled by ancient poets, it was linked to the myth of the nymph Arethusa, who hid there from the advances of the river god Alpheius and turned into a spring. The Sicilian trip ended in Taormina, one of the island’s most beautiful cities, where the composer particularly admired the well preserved Greek amphitheatre located in an exquisite landscape of sea shore with the natural “decoration” of a snowy Etna in the background.
The fascination with Sicily and its marvels was particularly important and inspiring for the sensitive artist. Soon after (immediately after another great journey in 1914, whose route also ran through Sicily) a great catastrophe was to come – the start of the First World War, and then the Bolshevik revolution; events which were to transform fundamentally Szymanowski’s life, depriving him forever of the sanctuary of his beloved home, the manor house of Tymoszówka in the Borderlands. During the war years which he spent there (and in the nearby Elisavetgrad), memories of the sunny south provided an escape from grim reality, also inspiring him to write amazingly rich and pioneering works which shaped a new, highly individual style, moving away from major-minor tonality, highly sensitive to colour, extraordinarily subtle and full of emotion. Works composed during the war years belong to this innovative current, and are strongly influenced by the echoes of the Mediterranean journeys, in particular the fascination with the Islam and Antique cultures. We find mythological references, undoubtedly reflections of the reminiscences of the Sicilian museums, temples and theatres and the reading associated with them, in two instrumental triptychs: Metopes op. 29 for the piano (whose titles, interestingly, do not refer at all to the particular scenes seen on bas-reliefs at the museum in Palermo – the composer’s independent imagination turned here to motifs taken from the Odyssey) and Myths for violin and piano op. 30, one of the most timbrally unusual of Szymanowski works, which uses the violin-piano texture in an an innovative way. Two works with antique motifs which followed those were the chamber cantatas (Agawe op. 38, preserved in drafts), and Demeter, op. 37bis, to words (not of the highest artistic value) by the composer’s sister, Zofia Szymanowska. The two related works concentrate on selected motifs from the Dionysian myths (which were the object of particular fascination for Szymanowski) and depict the spiritual states of the tragic heroines of the titles, rather than mythological narratives.