Harnasie ballet-pantomime in 3 scenes for solo tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra (1926-1931)
At the beginning of the 1920s, Szymanowski participated to the full in the social and artistic life of Zakopane, as well as learning about the music of the Polish Highland folk. He would receive invitations to their weddings and christenings, visit the Tatra Museum, and examine the early written records of the melodies played and sung in Podhale, which were then being produced by musicologists, as well as trying to write them himself. He visited the regional theatre directed by Helena Rojówna, which produced a performance of a folk spectacle entitled Góralskie wesele [A Highland Folk Wedding]. However, the idea for Harnasie matured fully in 1923, exactly on 22 April, when Szymanowski spent the day travelling around as a “pytoc” and best man to invite guests to the wedding of the local girl Helena Rojówna to the writer Jerzy Mieczysław Rytard. This, in the words of Iwaszkiewicz, “repetition of the Bronowice parade”, brought together peasants and artists, just as previously at Bronowice, now at the Roj villa “Limba” by Cicha Woda, as in Wyspiański’s Wesele [The Wedding]. The music was provided by the bride’s great uncle, the famous Bartuś Obrochta with his quartet.
Szymanowski, however, did not intend to become the Wyspiański of Polish twentieth-century music. Yes, he did anticipate a short wedding scene in his ballet, but not as a folklloristic image of Podhale customs; instead, it was to be the climax of the conflict between the brigands and the highland folk. In the lightly sketched plot, Harnaś enters with the brigands the cottage where the wedding is taking place and kidnaps the Bride (scene 2). They had met earlier in the mountain meadows and fallen in love (scene 1) – and then they settle in the very same meadow (scene 3). Those who advised Szymanowski in the early stages of the development of this work, Iwaszkiewicz, Rytard and Rojówna, tried to introduce new situations into this modest scenario, but the composer kept to his original plan. He himself added two comic scenes which fill out the character of the Bridegroom, where the highlander, unwanted by the Bride, is being courted by an energetic Widow. In most stage productions of this ballet, these scenes are omitted. Harnasie never actually had a proper, logically structured libretto. The only original scenario, written by the composer in 1936 for the premiere in Paris, was published half a century later by the PWM [Polish Musical Publishing] together with an edition of the score. It is thus beyond doubt that Szymanowski should be regarded as the only author of the whole work, that is, the “ballet-pantomime in 3 scenes for solo tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra,” called Harnasie.
Composing the ballet took an exceptionally long time. A draft of the first scene was not ready until 1927, and Szymanowski dismissed this occupation in an ironic comment when writing to a friend: “I am now writing a dreadful little Polish ballet, rustic (highland), nationalistic and patriotic, for which I have a commission from the opera and for which they pay me a few pennies. [...] Młynarski wants to have the highland folk dancing on the stage, and I find it difficult to get down to this naive debauchery”. However, the more he became engrossed in the difficulties of creating the score, the more certain he became that the “highland ballet is, by the way, my best little piece”, and for Polish music even “revelatory”. He finished the instrumentation for the second scene in the spring of 1931. The final form, consisting of three scenes, was only edited for the Paris premi?re in 1936.
The kind of folklore stylisation used by Szymanowski in Harnasie was truly new and revelatory. He included in it quotations from as many as nine folk melodies. The highland ones include many well known ones, such as Hej, idem w las (in the score of Marsz zbójnicki [The Brigands's March]), W murowanej piwnicy (Taniec zbójnicki [Bandits' Dance]), Ja za wodom, Pocies, chłopcy, pocies bijać, and others, as well as the wedding song Chmiel [Hops] (in an instrumental version). But the melodies are immersed in a dissonant harmony, transformed and at times woven into multi-voiced canons and exquisitely distributed for the enormous instrumentation of a symphonic orchestra and a choir. In spite of this, they are easily recognisable. The recurring motifs, given by Szymanowski to two characters from the ballet’s plot, are also clearly discernible. The unlucky Bridegroom is accompanied by a waggish rhythmic-melodic trumpet figure, also taken up by other wind instruments. To the Girl (the Bride) who is in love with Harnaś, Szymanowski ascribed the beautiful motif of solo violin, which soars like a Tatra peak.
Perhaps then the view that Harnasie, permeated as it is with an energetic rhythm, breadth of timbre, sincere lyricism of the “notes” [melodies] of Podhale and hard-to-define highland ethos, is a masterpiece of symphonic music, and not necessarily stage music, is not without foundations. Jan Lechoń called Harnasie “the musical legend of the Tatra mountains”, and wrote: “This is a masterpiece of Polishness which is strong and dignified, which draws on the folk culture but does not flatter coarseness, which lifts this folk culture to the rank of great art, exactly as was achieved by Chopin”.
Emil Młynarski, who had previously staged first performances of Hagith and Król Roger at the Warsaw Opera, wanted to stage Harnasie. However, before Szymanowski finished the ballet, Młynarski resigned from the directorship of Warsaw Opera. Later, all the opera theatres in Poland, together with their ballet companies, went into decline. The already announced premiere in Lvov did not materialise. In the end, the first theatre to stage Harnasie was Opera Národni Divadlo in Prague (1935), followed by the Paris Opera, with stage design by a young Polish woman Irena Lorentowicz, and with the famous Serge Lifar as Harnaś. During the premiere, on 27 April 1936, Szymanowski, already ill, wearing a tailcoat, took his place in the box of the Polish ambassador, Alfred Chłapowski. The President of France was in the government box, and among the composer’s guests in the theatre were Arthur Rubinstein, Paul Cazin, Zygmunt Mycielski, Zbigniew Drzewiecki, Tadeusz Szeligowski and Anna Branicka née Potocka with her whole family. The Polish ballet was received enthusiastically by the audience, and better than well by the French critics. That evening, with his Harnasie on one of the most distinguished stages in Europe, was undoubtedly Szymanowski’s greatest triumph during his life. The Polish premiere took place at the Poznań Opera in 1938; the next two, with stage design by Zofia Stryjeńska, were produced by Warsaw Opera (1938) and Polski Balet Reprezentacyjny (1939). Out of the total of twenty six premieres of Harnasie in Poland and abroad, the one produced by Warsaw Opera in 1951 with Zbigniew Kiliński as Harnaś and Witold Gruca as the Bridegroom is by now undoubtedly among the legendary performances, as well as that produced by Opera Bałtycka (1960) with the choreography by Janina Jarzynówna-Sobczak under the musical direction of Bohdan Wodiczko. Barbara Bittnerówna was excellent as the Girl (the Bride) and she danced that part on a number of stages (Poznań, Warsaw, Kraków).
Harnasie – Szymanowski