Nocturne and Tarantella for violin and piano op. 28 (1915)

In the spring of 1915 Szymanowski composed his Nocturne for violin and piano. The title of the work is misleading, since nocturne episodes are interwoven with passionate ones, imitating Spanish music: the rhythm of the habanera and chordal guitar playing. The nocturnal fragments, on the other hand, awaken associations with oriental music. This is caused by the arabesque melody of the violin in high register, as well as sequences of parallel fifths in the ending acquired by use of harmonics.

In the summer of the same year, when Szymanowski was a guest on the estate of Józef Jaroszyński in Zarudz, he wrote another miniature for violin and piano: Tarantella. August Iwański (to whom the composer dedicated both miniatures) reminisced about the fact that Tarantella was born out of the “excellent mood, produced in Szymanowski and Kochański by a bottle of superb cognac, found somewhere deep in a wardrobe of the absent host”. In that mood the composer probably reached back to his memories of the journey to Sicily, to Taormina, where he greatly admired young people dancing the tarantella. However, the work’s most distinctive features are the clear allusions to Henryk Wieniawski’s Scherzo-tarantella. There also must have been a reason for referring to the Austrian anthem of that time (Haydn’s composition, now the German anthem), recognisable particularly towards the end of the work.

Szymanowski combined Nocturne and Tarantella into a pair, modelling himself on the genre typical of nineteenth-century violin music, where an atmospheric miniature preceded a bravura one. In that shape the composition was swiftly adopted into the repertoires of many violinists. The impressive discography of Nocturne and Tarantella opens with a recording made in 1937 by Yehudi Menuhin.