The Issue of Orientalism in the music of Szymanowski

The oriental inspirations of Karol Szymanowski’s music have been the subject of numerous in-depth studies, demonstrating that the composer surrendered to the influences of the musical-poetical tradition of the East, consciously building on its foundations his own compositional idiom, which has been referred to as oriental-impressionistic. The source of Szymanowski’s oriental interest is supposed to have been his early contact with Eastern music in Ukraine, which may have contributed to perceptual opening and spiritual sensitivity to exotic sound. The immediate impulse which set the composer on the path to a new stage in his creative development is supposed to have been provided by the crucial journey to Tunisia and Algeria, during which the composer came into direct contact with the music of the East. Scholars also emphasise the significance of the preferences and the artistic quest which characterised Modernism, a period of lively interest in exotic cultures. It is assumed that the process of shaping Szymanowski’s individual style, initiated under Eastern influences, took place during the years 1914-1918, although the first traces of his new interest lead us to Zuleikha from op. 13 (1905-1907) and the song From the singing halls of Mauritania from op. 20 (1909). In 1911 he wrote the Love Songs of Hafiz (op. 24), instrumentalised in 1914 (op. 26), and a year later, also included among the “Eastern” works – Songs of the Fairy-tale Princess op. 31. The Eastern “cycle” also includes Symphony No. 3 “Song of the Night” op. 27 from 1916, as well as the Four Songs op. 41 composed in 1918 and Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin op. 42. King Roger op. 46 (1918-1924) closes the list of works with exotic climate, which, in the general opinion of researchers, became the most important factor in the transformation of Szymanowski’s style. However, a careful reading of the works devoted to the composer’s “Eastern” output, his published writings and extant notes, including the Arabic jottings held at the Warsaw University Library, makes one reflect further on the real connection between the author of Harnasie and the Orient.