The Polish folklore 'discovered'

After arriving in Poland Szymanowski, fully aware of the tasks facing artists in their reborn homeland, became involved in building the foundations of a new artistic programme. During that period he came up with his own idea of nationalistic style, rooted in folklore but also innovative, “Polish”, but also “European” in the adoption of modern musical language. Works from the last period, referred to as “nationalistic”, represent relative uniformity in the range of compositional technical devices and creative aesthetics; for this reason we do not distinguish successive phases here. The whole includes equally the folkloristic current, works inspired by religious texts, and stylistic syntheses represented by works in classical forms. During this period, Szymanowski moves away from the “Baroque” texture and dense chromaticisms , which characterised his previous works. On the other hand, he introduces scale material, bringing in either ready phrases from traditional music, or giving tonal features to the melody. The most important is the so-called Podhale scale (C-D-E-F sharp-G-A-B flat) with the finalis on first or second step and scales with augmented fourth, but pentatonic or church scales, transposed onto various steps of the chromatic scale, also make their appearance. Scales with different centres change quickly and mesh with each other, within one basic scale there appear chromatically changed steps, e.g. an augmented fourth alongside a perfect one, a minor seventh alongside a major one. The densification of these transformations means that all the notes of the chromatic scale appear as a result of the overlapping of various scale elements. The harmony is based on sonorities whose material is independent of the scale, with a structure which goes beyond the tertian principle, preference for sharp, dissonating intervals, and frequent empty fifths as bourdon sounds.
The turning point in Szymanowski’s creative development is the song cycle Słopiewnie [Word Songs], which constituted a turn toward the native, proto-Slavic culture. The neologisms in Tuwim’s poems, which reach back to the proto-sources of spoken Polish, inspired the composer to create their musical counterparts in the form of melodic formulae originating in calling, wailing, or imitating birdsong. In the next song cycle, Rymy dziecięce [Childrens's Rhymes] op. 49, the composer does not introduce folk motifs, but, looking to the simple patterns of children’s songs, uses the characteristic intonations of Polish speech, particularly as spoken by a child. He compensates for this simplicity of melody by the variety of moods and situations depicting the world of childish experiences. It is in the song genre (also taking into account soldiers’ songs and stylisation of folk songs) in particular that one can discern Szymanowski’s new attitude to the text. He no longer identifies with the lyrical subject, but speaks in “someone else’s” name – a child, a peasant, a collective subject, a narrator. Only in the songs to words by James Joyce op. 54 is there a return to the subjective tone of love lyricism, but the melodic-declamatory approach and the transparency of the piano texture confirm the new principle of the song style. Sensitivity to the semantic aspect of the lyrics and their expressivity ensures that, as in the songs from the earlier years, the composer always tries to achieve full harmony between the text and the music. This is in contrast with the method represented by, e.g., Stravinsky, of subordinating the verbal text to the music, without paying much attention to the semantic aspect.
Becoming acquainted with the art of Podhale region, with the singing, the dancing and the sounds of the mountain folk bands, as well as contacts with folklore researchers (A. Chybiński, J. Zborowski, S. Mierczyński all influenced the composer’s fascination with the originality, “barbarity” and exceptional expressivity of the music of the Tatra highlanders. As far back as 1920, in Lvov, Szymanowski became interested in Chybiński’s records of folk melodies; the latter drew the composer’s attention to the oldest of them – the Sabała one. Its motifs were woven already into the Word Songs. In the archaisms of Podhale folklore Szymanowski saw the relics of the ancient, mythical culture of Proto-Slavs, which in this distant region was supposed to have been preserved in its unadulterated, pure form. Although one can discern here a form of idealisation of the mountain folk culture, on the other hand, the composer’s attention was drawn to the perfection of form of Podhale art, providing inspiration toward “renewing” musical devices.
In Szymanowski’s music we find a variety of methods of artistic transformation of folklore. He would quote melodies in crudo, treating them as complete musical creations (Harnasie, Pieśni kurpiowskie [Kurpie Songs] op. 58 and Sześć pieśni kurpiowskich [Six Kurpie Songs] for mixed choir). He also demonstrated other possibilities, shaping the melody along the folk pattern or introducing dance rhythms (the so-called imaginary folklore in Słopiewnie and Mazurki [Mazurkas] op. 50 and 62). However, in large cyclicforms, the motifs originating from folklore provide material for individually developed musical concepts and for shaping larger formal wholes (what is referred to as ‘universal folklore’). The early ideas for the ballet Harnasie came to Szymanowski in 1923, during his stay in Zakopane. Work on the libretto was originally undertaken by J. Iwaszkiewicz, and later M. Rytard presented his ideas. However, during the process of composition, Szymanowski retained only the concept of the ballet itself, and sketched out his own ideas for the plot. As a result of these changes, and the loss of Rytard’s libretto, the only known text of the libretto (published in Dzieła Wszystkie [Collected Works], vol. 24) is that written by the composer.

In the Mazurkas op. 50, and then in op. 62, Szymanowski makes a conscious reference to the tradition of Chopin; however, it is not a stylistic pastiche, but a new approach to the genre. Its innovative nature comes from, on the one hand, the impulses of the Podhale folklore, and on the other – the twentieth-century compositional technique. The mazurka rhythms are alien to the highlanders’ music; however, by laying its melodic features over the tripartite rhythm the composer creates new qualities. In respect of the differentiation of tempo and the richness of expressive character, Szymanowski’s mazurkas are comparable with those of Chopin. Original folk melodies provided the basis for two cycles of the Kurpie Songs (op. 58 for voice and piano and for mixed choir); their source was W. Skierkowski’s Puszcza kurpiowska w pieśni [The Kurpie Forest in Song] (Płock 1928-1929). Szymanowski quotes melodies only in the arrangements of the first stanzas of the songs, and then not always literally, while in the following stanzas he modifies and develops the melodic material, creating finely worked wholes cloaked in original harmonics. Inspired by the folk lyrics, he extracts from them a wide range of moods, from the lyrical reflection and dramatic tension of the song Lecioły zórazie to the energetic vigour of Bzicem kunia, he emphasises key ideas, and grades the sound colour. Folk motifs appear also in works inspired by religious texts and in cyclic forms – in String Quartet No. 2 op. 56, in Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie concertante) op. 60, and in Violin Concerto No. 2 op. 61.