The music

Szymanowski’s musical language in his works inspired by the East presents an equally complex problem as the orientalisation of their verbal layer. We know for certain that the composer did not conduct ethnographical studies into the music of any Asiatic cultures. Neither did he seek knowledge about it in ethnomusicological literature, which by then was considerable, and to which he could gain access without much difficulty. Moreover, the Polish composer showed no interest at all in the documentary material of the early field research conducted in the Arab countries, and which provided an abundant source of information for such composers as Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. Arabic songs, modified in the melting pot of the European interval, tonal, metric and motivic-melodic systems, and forced to fit European instrumentation, lost their poetic sense in multiple translations from Arabic into Russian through the intermediary of French, and froze in stereotypical formulae which symbolised the Orient. This was what Szymanowski wanted to avoid; he did not succumb to the “sweetish East of all those Rimskys e tutti quanti”, he did not follow the path of fashionable stylisation of oriental music, and he was not particularly interested in its sound or compositional techniques. It is thus difficult to conclude that a passing, “tourist” contact with the song of the muezzins and Tunisian dance music might have become deeply reflected in the new stylistic idiom described as oriental. Linking a technique reminiscent of the “oriental” one with any true musical tradition of the East is justifiably suspect. Similar shaping of the musical material can, of course, be found in Arabic music, although we must remember that the very concept of “Arabic music” includes a great variety of styles and genres to be found in the expanse of the Middle East and North Africa. In all the Arab cultures, music exists both in the folk and in the professional-classical traditions, which in turn exhibit further differentiation of style and genre, conditioned by historical and ethnic circumstances. The folk music heard by Szymanowski at the end of Ramadan was not only totally unlike the classical Tunisian nauba, which the composer had no opportunity of hearing, but it would not, in any aspect, correspond to a general model of “oriental music” either. A universal oriental music, generally defined through the categories of “melismas”, “coloraturas” and other devices of compositional technique, does not exist in reality; rather, it is a topos originating from the ideas of the West about the music of the East.

Like many artists from the Modernist era, Szymanowski was interested in the Orient, which formed an integral part of European literature and art. However, there is much evidence to show that his attitude to the Orient was intellectual, his interest friendly but objective, and free from emotionally laden artistic hopes. This state of affairs seems to be confirmed not only by the composer’s dispassionate notes from his Arabic readings, but also by his views on the subject of the “exotic” in music, given in the article Zagadnienie “ludowości” w stosunku do muzyki współczesnej [The issue of "folklorism" in relation to contemporary music].The main argument of this article is that, while turning to the musical traditions of the East introduced some interesting artistic impulses into European music, it never went beyond its superficial, external layer. According to Szymanowski, folk music provided a more promising source of the “exotic” in music, although including it in the professional musical language resulted at first in an “academic” folklore, lacking in artistic depth.

What can become the source of real art are the deeply experienced and creatively transformed spiritual values and characteristics of a nation (a “race”). Their purest manifestation is folk music, “that,” – in the words of Szymanowski – “eternally beating heart of the race […], which an artist, close to the soil of his culture, should create anew in the form of a perfect, generally intelligible work of art”. Taking this statement into account, we are forced to conlude that Szymanowski could not “orientalise” his compositional style with full conviction, belief and awareness. The “fascinating, rich and mysterious” culture of the Orient would always remain alien, and as such could not fulfil itself in a true aesthetic experience or become transformed into a perfect work of European art.

Sławomira Żerańska-Kominek