Masques op. 34 (1915-1916)

This cycle, composed during the years 1915-1916, has much in common with Metopes op. 29 finished a little while earlier; it also is in the form of a triptych, has complicated harmony, free narrative form, “impressionistic” timbral effects and rich piano texture. However, the programmatic “content” of the work is different: it recalls in an allusive manner three famous literary characters from different eras and cultures. These are, consecutively: Queen Scheherazade, the narrator of the Arabian tales from One Thousand and One Nights; Tristan – the hero of the most famous Celtic legend, and finally, the equally legendary Don Juan – the greatest seducer and rake in the history of modern European culture. Moreover, when compared to Metopes, more evocative of a painter’s static imagination, in Masques we encounter a more dramatic form of particular works – they contain many sudden turns of the “musical action”, which draw in their wake numerous culminations of emotional tension and expressive contrasts. According to the original plan, the cycle was to begin with Don Juan’s Serenade, and finish with Scheherezade; in the end, however, the composer adopted the reverse order, which follows the chronology of these three great topoi of world literature.
Scheherezade, dedicated to the young Russian pianist Alexander Dubiansky (one of the first pianists to perform Masques), maintains a rhapsodic form, in which one can distinguish a number of segments contrasting in rhythm, tempo and character. The work’s cohesion relies on the clear dominance of two lyrical themes. The first one maintains the rhythm of a siciliana (bar 44), while the second, equally peaceful and subtle, is based on bass ostinato of notes d and a (bar 142).
The second work in the cycle, Błazen Tantris [Tantris le Bouffon] (dedicated to Henryk Neuhaus, refers to a drama by a somewhat obscure German writer Ernst Hardt, Tantris der Narr, dating from 1907, which represents a type of parody of the early medieval story of Tristan and Isolde. The music in this part of the triptych is characterised in particular by changeability of rhythm, sharpness of sound and sarcastic tone of expression – as if it might have come from early Bartók or Prokofiev.
The last part of the triptych, Don Juan’s Serenade, was dedicated, like the previous ones, also to a pianist – Artur Rubinstein. It begins with a virtuoso cadence, notated ametrically, i.e., without division into bars, which hints at the style of guitar improvisation. After this introduction there appears a four-bar theme of distinctly Spanish character. It returns five times within the work, interwoven with contrasting episodes, thereby indicating its association with the rondo form.
Szymanowski himself placed a higher value on Masques than on the stylistically related Metopes. In a latter to Stefan Spiess, dated 7 November 1915, he wrote: “I have just fully completed my Don Juan and I am emormously pleased with it! In spite of its parody-like style, it is worth a lot more than those Odyssean tricks.”