Penthesilea to words by Stanisław Wyspiański op. 18 (1908)

Penthesilea, a song for soprano and orchestra (1908), was composed to the text from scene 14 (Nad Skamandrem [By the Scamander]) of a drama by Stanisław Wyspiański, Achilleis. Although, as it seems, the work was composed as a response to Wyspiański’s death, or as a commission from the organiser of an evening devoted to the memory of the poet in Lvov, where Penthesilea was performed for the first time (on 20 March 1908), the composer’s interest in the heroine of the Trojan myth may be associated with the symphonic poem Penthesilea by Hugo Wolf, which in that year entered into the repertory of Grzegorz Fitelberg. Otherwise one would have to assume that such a marginal scene from Achilleis, and one which is awkward to set to music, inspired the composer without any additional associations. The short speech by Penthesilea used in Szymanowski’s song is virtually unintelligible when taken out of the context of the scene. It would not be easy to guess that Penthesilea directs these words to Achilles at the moment when he, having pulled her out of the waters of the Scamander, brings her briefly back to life, only to return her, dead, to the river. One might suppose that Szymanowski was attracted by the mood of transience and melancholy present in this text, in tune with the aesthetic tendencies of that period, or he may have been interested in a detail susceptible to musical characterisation – the element of water conveyed in the song through the measured movement of triplets. Penthesilea does not bring new elements to our knowledge of Szymanowski’s compositional technique during the first period of his musical career. Saturating the vocal part and the accompanying orchestra with chromaticisms brings this work close to the Songs of German texts op.17, and takes it some way towards op. 13 (Stimme im Dunkeln).