Late great works

In 1924 Szymanowski accepted a commission from Bronisław Krystall to compose a requiem in memory of his wife Izabella, who suffered an untimely death. Even earlier, the composer was considering a work which would combine religious and folk features, to which he gave a provisional title Chłopskie requiem [A Peasant Requiem]. However, in May 1925 we find the first mention of Stabat Mater in one of Szymanowski’s letters. The Polish translation of the medieval sequence, published in “Świat” ["The World"] by Józef Jankowski, rustically simple, even “naive” (to use Szymanowski’s description) fitted in with the composer’s idea of combining a familiar liturgical text with the Polish religious tradition. The religious-folkish climate of the work results from the melody, related to the chant melodies used with the text of Stabat Mater (not so much the sequences as the later hymn) and their paraphrases in Polish religious songs (e.g. Stała Matka boleściwa [Stabat mater dolorosa], Gorzkie żale [Bitter Sorrows]). Szymanowski does not introduce literal quotations, but places diatonic chant phrases in a more developed, chromatised melodic course. As to its genre, Stabat Mater might be described as a six-movement cantata, but without the typical arias and recitatives. The casting of the solo voices, choir and orchestra in the different movements has been differentiated in accordance with the expressive character – the lyrical melodious quality of parts I, III and IV, and the dramatic sublimity of parts II, V and VI. The nature of the text made Szymanowski break through the modern principles of compositional technique by using the stylisation techniques of early music, manifesting themselves in the diatonic foundation of the melody, in using empty fourth and fifth sonorities and simple triads, as well as the texture of the choirs (especially in part IV).
The hymn Veni creator to words of Stanisław Wyspiański, written for the ceremonial opening of the Music Institute in Warsaw, is a continuation of the style of Stabat Mater, but without its subtlety and prayer-like concentration. The patriotic message and the pathos of this text caused Szymanowski to use an enlarged performance apparatus and somewhat gaudy instrumentation; he commented on this in a letter (2 September 1930) to Z. Kochańska, describing it as “such an enormously ceremonial-spectacular humbug”. What draws attention in this work is the opening melodic phrase, intoned by the wind instruments and then taken up by the choir, based on a descending scale with an augmented fourth (E-D sharp-C sharp-B natural-A). This motif clearly shows a kinship to the melody of the introduction to Harnasie, as well as to the themes used in Violin Quartet No. 2.
Litania do Marii Panny [Litany to the Virgin Mary], to words by Jerzy Liebert, is of a different character. The work consists of two parts, although the composer planned it as a five-movement cantata, in which the existing fragments were supposed to constitute parts two and four. The lyrical softness and muted emotion evoke some parts of Stabat Mater, but without the latter’s folk intonation.

Violin Quartet No. 2 op. 56, Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie concertante) op. 60 and Violin concerto op. 61 constitute a synthesis of the output of the third period. Each of these works is different in terms of the detailed realisation of the principles of the large cyclic form, but they share many features, such as folk inspirations, or linking the whole with a uniform thematic substance. The folk material is most clearly apparent in Violin Quartet No. 2, where one can discern the motifs of the Podhale songs drawn from Harnasie (in part II and in the theme of the fugue in part III). In Symphonie concertante, folk inspirations are evoked only in part III, with its oberek rhythm, while the melody of this part is reminiscent of the imaginary folklore of the piano mazurkas. Similarly, in Violin Concerto No. 2, the rusticity manifests itself in melodic intonations containing the augumented (Lydian) fourth, and also in the vitality and “barbaric” roughness of part II (Allegramente); these works constitute an example of the universalisation of folklore.

Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie concertante) is closest to the traditional model – it consists of three movements, with a two-theme sonata allegro in the first movement and a slow middle movement, and ends with a rondo.

The presence of classical forms in that period is not the result of neoclassicist influences. In his search for a renewal of musical devices at the beginning of the 1920s, Szymanowski was moving closer to Bartók from the Russian ballet period in terms of technical solutions. The points of contact with the aesthetic of Neoclassicism in his artistic awareness consist mainly in stressing the role of compositional craft and emphasising formal-constructional values, which for him had a time-transcending significance. However, the move toward classical forms has its source in Szymanowski’s works from earlier periods, and results from the continuity of the classical tradition present in his music since the beginning; moreover, the synthesis in the works of the last period has a highly individual character. The composer did not accept the fashion for dry and anti-emotional music which was being promoted in the 1920s, or persiflages of old styles. Even though he himself wrote about “anti-Romanticism” as the attitude corresponding to the needs of the “new man”, modernity spoke to him only when there was room in it for emotion and for a spiritual message as features irrevocably linked to great art. He always maintained the attitude of an aristocrat of the spirit, valuing the highest culture and believing in truth in art.