Metopes. Three poems for piano op. 29 (1915)

Szymanowski composed the piano triptych Metopes in 1915, a full four years after Sonata No. 2. This relatively long breake – taking into account the clear dominance of piano music in his output until then – saw a profound change in the composer’s style. It expressed itself in breaking out from the influence of German Neoromanticism and reaching, in the search for inspiration, toward the music of French impressionism, and also, in the wider perspective, the antique Hellenic and Romance cultures. The impulse toward discovering new artistic horizons was provided by four trips to Italy, undertaken during the years 1908-1914. During the third of them, in the spring of 1911, Szymanowski, together with a friend, Stefan Spiess, admired in a museum in Palermo (link do Trveller: Palermo) some Old Grecian metopes, bas-reliefs from the friezes of Doric temples, depicting mythological scenes.
The programmatic content of all the three piano poems was taken from Homer’s Odyssey. Wyspa syren [Isle of the Sirens] (dedicated to his cousin Eleonora Rościszewska), which opens the triptych, refers in its title to one of the dangers lurking in wait for Odysseus as he wanders across the seas. This was the enchanted song of the sirens, luring sailors to places where death by water awaited them. The sensible hero, sailing past the treacherous island, sealed his companions’ ears with wax and had himself tied to the mast, thereby avoiding disaster. The second part, Calypso (dedicated to the composer’s older sister, Anna) depicts the episode of the unlucky encounter between Odysseus and a nymph from the island of Ogygia who, having rescued him from the shipwreck, offered him generous hospitality in her cave and imprisoned him there for seven years; it was only when the gods ordered her to do so that she helped him build a ship and showed him the way home. The last composition in the cycle, Nausicaa (dedicated to Marianna Davydova from Kamionka), recalls in turn the young daughter of the king of Phaeacians who found Odysseus, half dead, after he was washed onto the shore when his raft broke up. Having dressed him and having taken him to her father’s palace, she fell in love with him. However, her love remained unrequited, as by then Odysseus’s only desire was to return home.
In the music of Metopes we find not so much a direct illustration of the particular adventures of the mythical Odysseus, as a “painter’s” aura of antique frescos. These are thoroughly impressionistic works, where the sound material combined with a free, asymetric form (totally free from the classical-romantic schemas cultivated in the earlier piano works) is particularly striking in its originality. Alongside the atonal harmonic language one should emphasise the numerous colouristic effects. The composer boldly exploits the extreme piano registers (some fragments of the work are notated, as in the case of Debussy, within three staves), weaves a rich scale and passage figuration around the capricious arabesque of the melody, and, finally, differentiates the dynamic and volume of sound.
Metopes, which at that time constituted a turning point in Szymanowski’s musical career, may also be regarded, from today’s perspective, as one of the most “modernist” works in the history of Polish music at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were a powerful manifestation of modern musical language, testifying beyond any doubt to the fact that Szymanowski’s works may be measured with the same yardstick as the achievements of his contemporaries, the main representatives of the avantgarde of the day, such as, above all, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky.