Six songs to words by Kazimierz Tetmajer op. 2 (1900-1902)

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Szymanowski’s earliest songs, for voice and piano, composed before 1900 to words by Verlaine and Nietzsche, have not survived. His next series of songs, composed shortly after the lost juvenile works, were written to the poems of by Kazimierz Tetmajer from the then popular volumes of Poetry (series I and III), later recognised as “a generation’s manifesto” (K. Wyka 1977, p. 124). Szymanowski worked on them during different periods: 1898? (Nos 1 and 2), 1902 (Nos 3-6), 1910 (edition of the whole cycle).
The composer himself did not attach much importance to the songs in op. 2. Reviewers and those who wrote about Szymanowski were of a different opinion. Songs to Tetmajer’s poems were valued primarily for the originality of their style which, while linked to the tradition of romantic song-writing, was unlike any of the composers of that period. Commentators were struck by the lyricism “of a particular kind” and “already his own contemplative note”, similar to that found in the Preludes. Attention was drawn to Szymanowski’s special interest in the genre of vocal lyricism, “Where the main problem naturally concentrates on the issue of expressiveness in music, which could be understood in the romantic sense, as supplementing the meaning of the words used in the song” (S. Łobaczewska 1950, p. 221). Another feature discerned was “a tendency which developed even more strongly in Szymanowski’s later songs: a thematic treatment of the piano part, which for this reason becomes, in a sense, a little symphonic poem in miniature” (H. Opieński 1911).
The songs to words by Tetmajer are all the more important since they are the first extant vocal works in which one can discern an outline of the musical poetics developed and modified in Szymanowski’s later songs, depending on his particular aesthetic orientation and adopted compositional technique at the time. The main characteristics of Szymanowski’s attitude to the poetic text in songs op. 2 are apparent primarily in his general approach: in the thematic distribution of the cycle movements, linked by the romantic motif of wandering and Weltschmerz, in the choice of each song’s basic model of piano texture, and in the key melodic-harmonic ideas, the expressive value of which does not overshadow the structural possibilities they contain. On the detailed plane, in the minutiae of composition, Szymanowski’s sensitivity to the text can be discerned particularly in the musical “metaphors”, apparent in the extensive range of similarity relationships, which, however, do not indicate a revival of the Baroque concept of rhetorical-musical figures. What they do demonstrate is a conventionalisation of verbal-musical syntax, to which the Romantic and post-Romantic songs made their contribution: compositional practice consolidated those seemingly forgotten emphatic and onomatopoeic expressive devices which solo art song repertoire of the first half of the nineteenth century inherited without discovering their provenance, or, more exactly, with their identifying references missing.