Stabat Mater, Op. 53, for soloists, choir and orchestra

Karol Szymanowski: Born in Tymoszowka, Ukraine (formerly within the Kingdom of Poland), October 6, 1882; died in Lausanne, March 29, 1937

Karol Szymanowski has often been called, not without some justification, “the Polish Bartók.” The picture is, however, much more complex than that simple comparison would suggest. Szymanowski was a composer of rare gifts whose works virtually defy accurate classification. Chopin and Scriabin were early influences, to which were added Wagner and Richard Strauss, later Debussy and Stravinsky, and still later the folk music of his native Polish soil.

Szymanowski’s early works, mostly songs and piano pieces, pursue a line of expression that strikes a curious balance between the sensitive pianistic textures of Chopin and the hedonistic nervousness of Scriabin, the whole disciplined and strengthened by a remarkable contrapuntal mastery.

Around 1910, Szymanowski began to manifest a lively interest in the East. He was particularly attracted to Arabian culture which, over the next decade, provided him with a descriptive and spiritual source for a great many vocal works, including his first opera Hagith (1912-13) and the two sets of Love Songs of Hafiz (1910-14). This period of lavish, fabulously colourful orchestration, of languid ecstatic melodies, of dense, overripe harmonies and of fastidious, almost Byzantine ornamentation culminates in the massively-scored Third Symphony (Song of the Night), based on poetry of the Persian mystic Jalal ai-Din Rumi (1207-73).

In 1922, Szymanowski rediscovered his roots and entered a final stage of folk-song exploration. “The law has worked itself out in me,” he wrote in that year, “according to which every human being must return to the soil on which he has grown.” The composer’s gradual absorption of Polish folk idioms resulted in a music of brighter, more transparent textures in place of the excessively chromatic density which characterizes his earlier scores. Standing, as it were, on the threshold of this simplified, atavistic style is the Stabat Mater (1925-27) for solo voices, mixed chorus and orchestra. In the words of the German musicologist H. H. Stuckenschmidt, it is “a reconciliation of ecclesiastical - and more particularly Palestrinian - polyphony with Slavonic melody and rhythm.”

The hieratic Stabat Mater, first performed in 1928 in Poznán, points to Szymanowski’s strong metaphysical leaning. Although there is little trace of folk influence in the score, it does reveal an archaic element which suggests the timelessness of folk-music. Much of the time the chorus moves in stark parallel triads within a very narrow melodic range, often accompanied by persistent ostinato figures in the orchestra. The orchestration, although moderate by comparison with the composer’s earlier symphonic works, is extremely colourful. Interesting use is made of a considerably augmented percussion section.

The Stabat Mater, although perhaps not entirely typical of its composer, is a deeply-felt lament for the stricken mother of Christ beneath the Cross. In its six short movements it abundantly reveals the acute sensitivity and sensibility of one of Poland's greatest musical figures.

Robert Markow