Journey to Africa. Discovering the Arabic Culture

In the spring of 1914, Karol Szymanowski, together with his friend Stefan Spiess, spent nearly a month in North Africa. The trip to Algeria and Tunisia awoke in Szymanowski a sincere interest in the Arab nations and Arab civilization. After returning to Tymoszówka by the “last normal train”, he began reading relevant volumes, jottings from which take up four notebooks held at the Polish Composers’ Archives of the Warsaw University Library. Notes from his readings show a desire for achieving a systematic overview of the “whole” of the Arab civilisation, its history and religion, the latter being one of the main factors in the cultural differences between the Arabic East and the European West. The notebooks also contain remarks on the subject of Arabic philosophy, science, architecture, medicine and, in passing – art and craft. One is particularly struck by the absence of comments on music, which does not seem to be mentioned at all. Equally interesting is the fact that we do not find in these notes any attempt to collect even the basic information about Arabic poetry.

An analysis of the contents of the notebooks, their arrangement and sporadic mention of the names of the authors, allows one to conclude that Szymanowski relied almost entirely on literature published in French and, to a slight degree, in Polish. Almost certainly his main source was the book La civilisation des Arabe from 1884 by the French sociologist and anthropologist Le Bon, who came to be known primarily as the author of a work on the subject of the psychology of the masses. Another name which appears in the notes is that of Louis-Amélie Sédillot, author of an extensive, two-volume Histoire générale des Arabes, which in the twentieth century was translated into Arabic, and was very well received in Arab intellectual circles. Apart from these two books, Szymanowski’s reading probably also included the Koran in the French translation by Wojciech Kazimirski, with a long introduction devoted to Muhammad and with the translator’s commentaries. In Szymanowski’s Arabic notebooks we also find evidence of his familiarity with another, much older French book, namely, the famous Histoire des croisades by Joseph François Michaud, first published during the years 1812-1817.

The Arabic notebooks provide a fascinating insight into the issue of the oriental influences in the creative development of Karol Szymanowski. His interest in the East was, perhaps, not an isolated incident within the Modernist movement, but his approach to the Arab culture reveals an original and independent mind, which does not adopt the easy stereotypes of the exotic Orient. The volumes which he consulted were above all scientific and objective works, far from the orientalising imaginings and interpretations which saturated literature and many of the orientalistic publications of his day. Szymanowski could not have found artistic inspiration in the books he studied, and neither did he look there for such. His aim was to obtain well-documented knowledge about the civilisation which he encountered as a tourist during his short trip to Algeria and Tunisia.