Four Polish Dances (1926)

In 1926 Szymanowski composed Four Polish Dances for piano, commissioned by the English publisher Oxford University Press. They were published in the same year in separate issues as part of a planned wide-ranging series Dances populaires de tous pays – Folk Dances of the World, as Nos. 4-7. The first two – Mazurka and Krakowiak – are pianistically easy and are intended for children, as is emphasised by their subtitles. Simplicity and transparency are achieved without drawing upon traditional language and banal melodies, but by employing new sound devices (original melodic phrases, “variable diatonics” and modern sonorities) with restraint and a highly engaging easy charm and grace. These two miniatures should be counted, alongside Bartók’s compositions, among the noblest examples of children’s piano music of the twentieth century. The pianistically more difficult Oberek represents the style (and harmonic language) of the Mazurkas op. 50, although in a somewhat simplified form in terms of texture and expression. Its spectacular character and timbral colouring make it a likely candidate for being a popular show piece in the repertoires of pianists. The demonically-pompous Polonaise is decidedly the least convincing item in this series, both in terms of its timbre (pianistic and harmonic) and melody. The combination of the polonaise rhythm and glaring dissonances sounds artificial, and is far removed from the results achieved in the mazurkas.