Symphony No. 3 “Song of the Night” for tenor, mixed choir and orchestra op. 27 (1916)

In the summer of 1916, after two years of working on it irregularly (interrupted mainly during 1915 by ideas for new compositions), Szymanowski finished his Symphony No. 3 “Song of the Night” op. 27 for solo tenor, mixed choir and orchestra. The author of the text is the thirteenth-century Persian poet, mystic and Neoplatonist, Jallal-al-din Rumi. The Polish translation by Tadeusz Miciński (of the poem Song of the Night (based on a German translation) appeared in 1905 in the Warsaw monthly “Chimera”, devoted to literature and art.

This mystical-pantheistic text of an Eastern poet must have seemed to Szymanowski to provide the ideal subject in a period of the birth of a new style, as well as providing support for his aesthetic needs and long-cherished desire to write a solid poem-symphony, which would give vent to his tendencies toward expression full of ardour and ecstatic raptures. The vision of “this night”, which brings with it the great revelation, illuminating the mystery of God and Being, the rapture and dazzlement which accompany it, the feeling of the extraordinary, all this provided opportunity and stimulus to create music of exceptional emotional power, reaching a state of ecstasy; at the same time this music was new, strange, uncommon, fantastic, far-removed from the old conventions and even – in its mysterious depth and mood – unique and unrepeatable. At the same time, the beauty of the starry sky and universe being extolled in the poem added a physical dimension to the mystical thrill, which might have corresponded to the very sensual character of Szymanowski’s expression and the modern colour of his music. Finally, using a work by a Persian poet gave the composer a reason for introducing oriental accents, which attracted him at that time, such as characteristic melodic phrases or the sumptuousness of the ornamental patterns, which can at times be heard in the orchestra.

Melody plays an important part in this work, and Szymanowski exhibits great inventiveness in this area – above all in the widely stretched violin phrases in high registers, flowing imaginatively and filled with strong emotion, their interval structure (similar to Songs of Hafiz) possibly bringing associations with some original ephemeral scales which do not stabilise; of greater importance, however, are certain distinctive and recurring motifs. These melodies – exceptionally beautiful, each one different, lyrically songful and new in structure – are contrasted with others – simpler, compact and forceful phrases made up of a few notes; through habit we perceive them tonally and attempt to refer mentally to a particular tonality which, however, does not reveal itself; what is heard instead is the repetition of certain recurrent, sparse-sounding motifs, which creates an individual expressive effect.

The novelty of the style of Symphony No. 3, apart from the level of expression, manifests itself above all in the timbral layer. Szymanowski turns out here to be the master of extraordinarily subtle and sophisticated orchestral colouring, which in its daring often goes beyond the ideas of Ravel and Stravinsky; some “fantastic” timbral effects (such as accumulations of glissandi) constituted at that time a new idea.

The form of the work is original and far from traditional conventions. It is not a typical symphony, made up of separate movements, but a free, vocal-orchestral poem. In it, one can distinguish three different parts, although they are not indicated as such in the score; in each case they are only separated by a prolonged pause. These three individually structured fragments fulfil different functions in relation to the literary subject, imposed by Rumi’s text.

Part I, which uses the first seven verses of the poem (to the words “The hero this night is Your Spirit”) is the introduction, preparing for and encouraging participation in the mysterium. The second part, without a text (apart from the orchestra the choir sings without words), functions as lively and expressively contrasting intermezzos. The finale, beginning with the words “Oh how silently the others sleep” (and thus making use of the majority of the full text), is the act of the mysterium itself, and brings the musical and expressive climax of the work.

Symphony No. 3 “Song of the Night” is original not only in representing Szymanowski’s new style. It is an exceptional work without any counterparts in its unique concept, shape and character, its particular expression and timbral aura, and the nature and the quality of the experience enclosed in music. It is, one might say, a composition which cannot be repeated, a “one off”, in the same way as – in spite of their totally different style and spirit – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or Schönberg’s Pierrot lunaire.

Memories – Lutosławski