Tatra mountains

A seemingly minor accident, such as happen to everyone in childhood, was perhaps decisive in shaping the whole life, as well as the untimely death, of Karol Szymanowski. As a teenager, running about the garden with friends, he fell and badly hurt his knee. The wound would not heal, the pain in the leg intensified, and in the end an operation proved to be necessary. Although the Moscow surgeon, Sklefasovsky, performed the operation with his usual mastery, the patient never returned to full physical fitness. He walked with a limp, often with a stick, and longer walks used to tire him. Hence, out of all the delights of life in Zakopane, at least one was closed to him – that of taking trips into the Tatras…

Of course, the beauty of the mountains affects also those who admire them from the valleys. On the walls of the villa “Atma” hung many beautiful photographs of the Tatras, mainly by Adam Wieczorek. Szymanowski carried some of them with him when travelling abroad; apparently, even in the Austrian or Swiss resorts, with the majestic peaks of the Alps visible from the window, he would put up on the wall or on the table a panorama of the Tatras. His friends in Zakopane, knowing how much his disability limited his opportunities as a tourist, but wanting him in spite of that to experience the delight of the Tatra environment deep among the mountains, used to organise trips for him to the valleys by horse-drawn droshky. Szymanowski thus visited the Chochołowska and Kościeliska valleys, visited the Meadow under Wysoka in the White Water Valley, above which rises the highest Tatra peak – Gerlach, he also went (by car) to the Szczyrbskie Lake. He was also taken by sleigh to Hala Gąsienicowa (via Brzeziny). However, it was not given to him – unlike his older colleague, Mieczysław Karłowicz – to know the hardships and dangers of mountaineering, and he would never know the rapture of seeing the wide views from high peaks…

One would thus look in vain in Szymanowski’s works for inspiration resulting from his Tatra experiences. However, this was not the result of his limitations as a tourist, but rather of conscious artistic choice. You do not need to be a bird to write about flying, or a mountaineer to be fascinated by the emotions evoked by the mountains. Reverse dependencies are not so simple either. Karłowicz, although he was one of the best all-round Tatra mountaineer and mountain skiers, did not force the Tatras into his scores, and the ascribing of Tatra connotations to his “Odwieczne Pieśni [Eternal Songs]” by later analysts is an example of a typical a posteriori deduction: Karłowicz was a Tatra mountaineer, and therefore the Tatras inspired him… In truth, Szymanowski sought inspiration in the Highlander culture rather than in the Tatra landscape, while Zakopane – as in the case of many other artists – released in him a creative flow, although the effect of that creativity did not have to be, and in fact was not, connected to the Tatras, or even the Highland folklore.

“There is a great deal of exaggeration in that “reaching out toward the folk song” which is ascribed to me” – said Karol Szymanowski with some exasperation in an interview with the weekly magazine “Antena” in 1936. However, some twelve years earlier, perhaps influenced by fashion, or perhaps sharpening his arguments in the struggle against the stagnation in Polish musical thought, he had written about the music of Podhale, regarded at that time as “barbaric”:

“I would like the young generation of Polish musicians to understand what riches, which would regenerate our anaemic music, are hidden in this Polish ‘barbarism’, which I have finally ‘discovered’ and understood – for myself.”

Lack of consistency? Not at all. Szymanowski could not be further away from schematic simplifications; at the same time he was a connoisseur and a professional who could appreciate and analyse Highlander music from the viewpoint of its musical, most essential values. He wrote about it in his introduction to the “Music of Podhale” by Stanisław Mierczyński:

You can either understand and feel the Highland dance music through some mysterious racial instinct: you then love it, long for its vitality, pulsating with rapture, concealed in an angular form, as if hewn in stone. Or you do not understand it: and then it is impossible even to be indifferent, of patronisingly “taking into account” its unique value as in any other manifestation of folk art. You then hate it, regard it as ugly par excellence, as an intrusive barbarity which is offensive to civilised ears and nerves, as something which constitutes the opposite pole of our normal ideas of beauty in music.

(…) Everyday necessity of the highest effort naturally demands the achievement of maximum result. In the area of artistic creativity this is interpreted as a striving and a desire for achieving the unconditional perfection of “form.” This concept of “form” is what I am concerned with, since from that viewpoint the dance music of the Podhale people is not, in my opinion, “folk music” in that sense in which I tried to characterise it above. First of all, it lacks any “customary” lyricism, i.e., that infallible mirror in which “civilised people” are in the habit of reflecting their own sensibilities.

That is perhaps why the description of Szymanowski – his stylistic synonym – as the “creator of Harnasie”, used so often, as well as being hackneyed, is inadequate in its content. Szymanowski himself, in an interview with Józef Munclingr for the Czech Radio in 1935, before the world première of “Harnasie” in Prague, was still distancing himself somewhat from this “folklorism”:

You ask me why I chose such a folk subject, so far removed from the kind of works I usually compose. I will tell you that it is a matter of feeling and affection for the Podhale folk, who for me have become, so to speak, my folk of choice since, although I was not born there, I have lived there now for some time. Unfortunately, the forms of folk, peasant culture, are destined for oblivion. It is our task, the task of the artists, to preserve them for posterity. I note here that this is one of our tasks, not the only one. That is why, in all of my output, “Harnasie” is perhaps the only work which I based exclusively and totally on folk song and folk tradition. Of course, I am opposed to a purely mechanical transfer of these things; we must present these forms of folk art and culture in some sort of, so to speak, “sublimated” shape, with the various accidental accretions cleared away.

And yet another look at the “Antena” interview from 1926:

“Literal folklore quotations are isolated events in Harnasie, and they are there because they are appropriate to the storyline. I doubt whether I will ever do that again, since I am opposed to shutting oneself within folklore. [...] For me, folkore is only a fertilising factor. [...] Artistic music does not necessarily have to draw on folklore. The national character of the composer does not rely on folkloristic quotations, and Chopin’s works provide the most superb evidence for this.”

It is indeed a fact that – apart from Harnasie (and the Pieśn siuhajów, written and published earlier, which was then included in Harnasie), Szymanowski’s music does not contain Podhale motives longer than a few bars. And even in that Highland ballet, the folklore is not taken all that seriously, as the title itself testifies: in the Podhale tradition, harnaś is the leader and the organiser of the activities of the zbójnicy [brigands]. Using this title in the plural (Harnasie) indicates either lack of understanding of the dialect, or perverseness on the part of the authors: how many leaders can there be in a band of brigands? Only one… This confusion between the words “harnaś” and “zbójnik” is also apparent in the plot of the ballet, and is its characteristic feature. In the Czech premiere of the work the title was much more appropriate: Zbojnici [Brigands]…
However, Szymanowski’s first contact with the music of Podhale, and the first – not altogether successful – attempt to incorporate the Highland folklore in a composition, took place much earlier. This was a very superficial contact, made through numerous intermediaries. Thus, issue No. 12 of “Pamiętnik Towarzystwa Tatrzańskiego [Memoirs of the Tatra Society]“, published in 1888, which contained an extensive article by Jan Kleczyński on the subject of the “Melodies of Zakopane and Podhale”, with the musical notation of 86 melodies and variants of Highland “notes”, the majority of them provided with piano accompaniment by the author, somehow found its way to the manor house at Tymoszówka. One of them, example No. 19, caught the attention of Karol Szymanowski, at that time still a young boy:

After a few years, probably at the age of 18, Szymanowski started working on this motif, and on its basis he produced his Variations on a Folk Theme op. 10 for piano. However, the theme of the variations sounded even less like Podhale music than Kleczyński’s record.

It is not quite certain whether in the later years Szymanowski “admitted to” the Podhale origin of these variations. On the other hand, the first motif from the song “St Francis” (nb. composed in Bydgoszcz, a long way from Podhale) undoubtedly comes from Podhale, and was probably heard in an authentic song (although not necessarily from the Zakopane folk). This motif returned a few years later in the initial phrases of “Harnasie”.

All the compositions which sometimes “sound” like Podhale music do not contain any quotations, but are highly stylised – in the sense of evoking the style of the Highland music, its individual construction of the phrases, the rhythm, and the structures … We are talking about works such as String Quartet No. 2, Violin Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 4 for piano and orchestra or, above all, Mazurkas for the piano op. 50.

When the famous Podhale musician Bartuś Obrochta heard how Szymanowski transformed the Highland music for “Harnasie”, he is supposed to have expressed high praise for the composer:

“You’ve done a good job there, Mr Symanoski! You’ve got something in your ear, something not quite like mine, but also good!”

Maciej Pinkwart