Demeter. Cantata for solo alto, female choir and orchestra op. 37 bis (1917, 1924)

A short cantata (or, if you prefer, a long song) lasting several minutes, Demeter op. 37 bis for solo alto, female chorus and orchestra is a continuation of the fantastic-colouristic style of the Love Songs of Hafiz op. 26 and Symphony No. 3, although without the ecstatic raptures of the latter. The emotional expression of this work is far from the passionate lyricism characteristic of Szymanowski’s compositions dating from the early years of the First World War. This is primarily due to the subject matter of the work.
Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and harvest (worshipped in the Eleusinian mysteries) was the mother of Persephone. When Persephone was gathering flowers in a Sicilian meadow, Hades, the ruler of the underworld, fell in love with her. Suddenly the ground opened and he abducted the girl to his kingdom. Demeter, who heard the girl’s cry, began a long search for her, and because of the mother’s despair, plant life on Earth came to an end. Zeus intervened and, as a result of an agreement between the gods, from that moment Persephone was to remain for half a year with Hades as his wife, and then return to her mother for the other half. Hence, nature blossoms each year with the coming of spring, and dies at the end of the autumn.
Zofia Szymanowska devoted her poem (not of the highest quality, somewhat pretentious and lacking the lively charm of the lyrics of Songs of the Fairy-tale Princess) to only one episode of the myth: the search by the grieving Demeter for her lost daughter.

Słońce na mrocznym szafirze niebios kona
i pełznie szara mroku pleśń
wiatr cichą załzawioną bólem pieśń
gra na zwichrzonych strunach moich włosów.

The sun expires in Heavens’ dark sapphire
and the gloom’s grey mould spreads out
the wind plays a tear-stained song
on the tangled strings of my hair

Pokorna bólem idę w poniewierce śladami dziecka
już do swych gniazd wracają ptaki
zimne oczy gwiazd patrzą w me biedne okrwawione serce.

Submitting to my pain, abused,
I follow in my child’s footsteps;
birds are already returning to their nests
the cold eyes of the stars look into my poor bleeding heart.

W mroku mię płacz twój doleciał dziecino
idę więc w pustkę wyciągnąwszy dłonie
i pustkę tulę na zmartwiałym łonie.

In the dark, I heard your cry, my child
and so I go into the void, stretching out my arms,
and I press the void to my deadened bosom.

Morze szlochem w dal uderza siną
wstępuję w Nocy bezgłośną Nirwanę
gdzie jeno serce dzwoni serce łzami szklane.

The sea sobs into the blue distance
I step into the silent Nirvana of the Night
where only the heart rings, a heart glazed with tears.

The composer treated these lyrics in an emotionally restrained manner, without powerful drama, but creating more of a mood of an atmospheric painting. The orchestral part (where the harps, celesta and the piano play an important role) delights the ear with rich, “impressionistic” colouring, particularly in the 19-bar instrumental introduction with a light and mobile texture , where the orchestral colours change with almost every bar, and often even after half a bar; here one is aware of the composer’s extreme distance from the traditional technique and texture . The choir constitutes also an element of the colour, as it sings the chords without opening the lips – with mouth closed or on the vowel a. The melody of the solo vocal part is atonal, with various combinations of intervals typical of Szymanowski; we recognise there elements of diatonic, whole-tone, semitonic and Arabic-Persian scales. No motif returns within the course of the cantata; new material keeps coming in. The development of the composition, in a slow tempo and dynamics muted almost throughout, passes through various phases of mood: from the fantastical introduction and the first stanza, through the painful severity of the second stanza, to the somewhat sharper drama and climax in the third one – the only point in the work reaching forte and fortissimo. After the dynamics die down, there follows the most beautiful, final lyrical segment, linked to the last stanza. The violins, very high, repeat the simple motif on three diatonic notes, accompanied by the fragmented trills of the lower strings and the sophisticated, multiple-note chords of the piano played arpeggio. The last verse of the text closes on a C sharp-E-G sharp- A sharp chord distributed melodically, and simultaneously one can hear the quiet, rhythmic drumming of the kettle-drums, which clearly illustrate the word “heart”, used twice in the last line of the poem.

The first performance of Demeter did not take place until 17 April 1931 at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall. It was conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg, the soloist was Maria Karnicka.