In the circle of German Modernism

Significant changes in Szymanowski’s style took place during the years 1906-1908. Contacts with the Berlin and Leipzig artistic communities, closer knowledge of German Modernism, as well as an inner need to re-evaluate traditional compositional principles, turned the composer’s attention to post-Wagnerian ideas. The choice of such a creative path seems understandable when one takes into account the fact that, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the literary ideas of the “Young Poland” movement were strongly influenced by the cult of Wagner. His idea of a synthesis of the arts, equally with Baudelaire’s poetry, became a source of new artistic quests. To composers from the Young Poland movement, the works of Wagner and Strauss, with their overflowing expressivity and metaphysical subtexts, seemed to indicate the perspectives for further development. Autonomy of art, understood in the Nietzschean sense as freedom from all utilitarianism, became a counterweight to the positivist slogans of the “nationalist” idea, regarded as a patriotic duty.

It was during this period that Szymanowski discovered German modernist poetry. Poems by R. Dehmel, A. Mombert, O. J. Bierbaum, became the basis of song cycles op. op. 13, 17 and 22. Characteristic textual threads of loneliness, reverie, wandering, or erotic experience, link the sensual experience with the sphere of the unknowable. Tristan-like chromaticisms loosened functional connections between chords, unsteady tonality, dense linear texture, blurring the clarity of harmony – these features bring Szymanowski’s songs close to the vocal lyrical style of Arnold Schönberg and Alban Berg from those years. Thus, in spite of the generally unfavourable judgement pronounced on these songs by the critics, one should emphasise the innovatory nature of their harmonics, which contributed toward shaping the composer’s new musical language. These features deepened further in the song cycle op. 20 to poems by T. Miciński.