This cycle has to be regarded as Szymanowski’s opus vitae among his piano compositions. The composer himself frequently expressed in letters and conversations his awareness of the challenge presented by undertaking a dialogue with the Chopin tradition of the mazurka genre, and, as a consequence, took an exceptionally long time preparing the final version of the work. The dating of the mazurkas to the years 1924-25, adopted in the catalogues of Szymanowski’s works, is not quite accurate when one takes into account the fact that the last parts of this cycle, published in a series of issues, were sent to Szymanowski’s publisher in Vienna as late as 1930. The composer’s method of working on the mazurkas was fundamentally different from the way he wrote his earlier compositions (which, after all, included large forms, such as sonatas or variations); they were written in parallel, at times as a sequence of loose fragments which were only later linked into closed wholes. It is worth adding that particular issues, or parts of them, were dedicated to different people, which seems to support the hypothesis that the full cycle emerged from these “closed wholes” only gradually – consecutive fragments were dedicated to: Arthur Rubinstein, the composer’s brother Feliks Szymanowski, Zbigniew Drzewiecki, Jan Smeterlin, Anna and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Henryk Toeplitz and lastly Professor Adolf Chybiński.
The originality of Szymanowski’s mazurkas lies primarily in combining the mazurka dance rhythms, belonging to the folk music of Mazowsze and Kujawy, with the musical folklore of Podhale. Underlying this peculiar synthesis was a desire to renew the traditional form of the mazurka which, after Chopin, found many imitators, but no creative continuation either in Polish or European music. According to Adolf Chybiński: “Szymanowski regarded this form as ossifying in stereotype and destined for dying out in artistic music. He once said (in Lvov) that an ‘interbreeding of races’ might regenerate it.”
The formal construction of the mazurkas is based on the Chopinian model of ternary form (ABA). However, literal repetitions are much fewer than in Chopin’s mazurkas, and there are more variants, particularly in the case of reprise. As a rule, the middle part introduces multiplied contrast, since it usually consists of a number of separate melodic sentences. Moreover, it is characterised by a prolific use of developmental devices, most frequently in the middle part and in the coda.
The special style of the mazurka, however, relies mainly on rich melodic inventiveness and harmonic language which makes use of modal scales, primarily the so-called highlander scale, a variation of the Lydian scale (with a characteristic augmented fourth) with lowered seventh degree (e.g., F-G-A-B natural-C-D-E flat) and other modal systems, including pentatonic scale. The juxtaposition of two layers in different keys (usually in the right-hand part and the accompaniment in the left-hand part), the co-called bitonality, is another frequently used method. As well as the harmonic ostinato, consisting in persistent repetition in the accompaniment of a particular chordal figure which contrasts with the melody flowing in the higher register. All these devices together result in a totally new, atonal and timbrally rich sound language, which has no analogy in any of Szymanowski’s previous works, and not just the piano ones.
Mazurkas op. 50 undoubtedly represent one of the most valuable achievements of the last period of Szymanowski’s creative career, where the folklore of various regions of Poland underwent masterly stylisation using a rich arsenal of techniques of modern musical language. This cycle resulted in a vivid interest in the genre of piano mazurka among the younger generation of Polish composers; during the twenty years between the two world wars, mazurkas were being written by such musicians as Tadeusz Kassern, Bolesław Woytowicz, Alfred Gradstein, Jerzy Fitelberg, Roman Padlewski, Jan Ekier and Roman Maciejewski.
THE MAZURKA IN B FLAT MINOR OP. 50 NO. 13
The Mazurka in B flat minor Op. 50, No. 13 opens the fourth book of mazurkas dedicated to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. This is one of Szymanowski’s loveliest miniatures. The single-voice melody that appears in the beginning undergoes constant harmonic transformation. The piece follows the ABA formula, which is typical for the mazurka, with a lively middle section leading to a dramatic climax. This is one of only two pieces ever to have been recorded in the composer’s performance (the other was Mazurka Op. 62 No. 2).