Children’s Rhymes to words by Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna op. 49 (1922-1923)

Przed zaśnięcięm
Jak się najlepiej opędzać od szerszenia?
Ślub królewny
Trzmiel i żuk
Święta Krystyna
Kołysanka lalek
Gil i sroka
Wizyta u krowy
Kołysanka Krysi
Kołysanka lalki
Zły Lejba
Kołysanka gniadaego konia
Nikczemny szpak

Children’s Rhymes, a cycle of twenty short songs for voice and piano (1922-23), were a totally new creative experience for Szymanowski. They bring to mind the masterpiece of this genre, the songs by Modest Musorgsky Detskaja [The nursery]. It is perhaps here that, according to a suggestion by Łobaczewska, “one should look for the direct stimulus” (S. Łobaczewska 1950, p. 506). In both vocal cycles we have the same approach to the events in the world of children, seen from the psychological perspective of their little heroes and heroines – a boy and a girl in Musorgsky’s cycle, Krzysia and her Doll (personified) in Rymy dziecięce. The narrative arrangement of both compositions is also similar, with the main link being the song Przed zaśnięciem [Before falling asleep]. In the case of both composers one is struck by the particular significance bestowed on the selected intervals of the vocal part. The Children’s Room emphasises in particular the minor third, originating from childish intonation in Russian. In Rymy, this role is fulfilled by the fourth, which appears either as the initial interval (e.g., in songs 4, 6 and 8), or the characteristic one (Lydian fourth in songs 1 and 8), or as the ambitus of narrow-range melodic segments (songs 2, 4 and others). The origin of these limited melodic phrases, frequently repeated in Rymy, should be sought not so much in the intonation of the Polish language, as in the structure of nursery rhymes, as well as in the simple schemas of folk songs. This fact almost automatically moves the stresses and defines the basic premises of the composition. Instead of the tendency to psychologise sound, so characteristic of Musorgsky, in Children’s Rhymes we observe a striving for objectivisation of musical expression. In the song Before falling asleep from Musorgsky’s cycle The Children’s Room, Debussy discerned a whole gamut of expressed emotions – “gestures full of grace, the anxiety of a child’s soul, and even the delightful mimicry seen on the faces of little girls when they pose as grown-ups “, but above all “an accent of ardent truthfulness, not to be found anywhere else”. (C. Debussy 1961, p. 32). In Rhymes Szymanowski does not treat such situations seriously. He reproduces them with an awareness of intellectual distance, keeping to one formula and aiming for a naively simple style of expression. But at the same time the composer does identify with his little heroes and the Rhymes audience in some way; he weaves “little melodies”, as if made up by children, and tries to speak their own language. Hence the numerous illustrative effects in these songs, since, for a child “sound is not as yet an expression of emotions, it is related to certain impressions which it receives from nature and the nearest environment” (S. Łobaczewska 1950, p. 501). Thus we find in Rhymes the mimicking of a magpie which “swells with envy”, an imitation of a barking dog (song 11), sound figures illustrating the flight of a hornet (song 2) and the patter of mice feet (song 17). But the cycle also contains scenes and images where the composer wanted to create a mood (Św. Krystyna [St Christina], Wiosna [Spring], Smutek [Sadness], Kołysanka gniadego konia [Lullaby of the bay horse]) or a comical situation resulting from the music itself, such as a conversation with “Mrs. Cow” (song 13), or the walk of a piglet jerking funnily to the rhythm of a mazurka (song 4).
The sound style, which corresponds to the colourfulness of these images, and the caleidoscopic nature of “colourful thoughts” of which Krzysia complains in the song Before falling asleep, the plasticity of the details and the aphoristic compactnesss with which Szymanowski contained the world of childish experiences in twenty short works, place Rymy dziecięce among the greatest achievements in this musical genre.