Spring Symphonies: 39/60 - Szymanowski: Sym No 3 "Song of the Night"
In this one, big, gesture Karol Szymanowski finally nails his symphonic credentials for all to see. There are a myriad influences in it to achieve it's heady and fragrant harmonic language, the are borrow borrowed variously from Scriabin, Strauss, Wagner and hints - to my ear - of the French masters too. The texts are of Arabian poetry - by Rumi - and reflect on the night with a sensuous ambition and mystery. The symphony seems a world away from the composer's many piano works though some of it's short breathed effects and long melodies might be traced in that direction too. The inspiration of ancient art and texts is clearly important in both too.
Karol Szymanowski (1882 - 1937) was a product of a privileged musical education in his native Poland and seeped in the music of Chopin which influenced his early works, learning was paramount and perhaps the desire to show it marred his first two symphonies. He moved to Vienna to be part of the turn of the 20th Century scene - mostly drawn by the Strauss and Reger crowd, not the Brahmsian set. It must have been a social whirl and a rich environment for the artistic and well travelled composer. This symphony was written between 1914 and 1916 at the time he was working on a now largely lost novel the topic of Greek love. His homosexuality needn't detain us here but his ardent love for a French boy sets to whom he wrote poems - illustrates his highly charged erotic feelings which are a background factor for this symphony.
It's a work in three movements and the first and second are joined. It requires a chorus, substantial orchestra and a tenor soloist. The poem - like much of Rumi's work can be treasured both for it's simplicity and it's ambiguity: the score gives the text in Polish and German. There is much to speculate on in the first line "Oh, do not sleep, friend, through this night....". Eagles, Gods, planets and constellations are drawn on for metaphor - much of it really only fits when we hear the composer's fantastical musical backdrop.
The work opens quietly and portentously - I'm put in mind of Richard Strauss' Salome as the sinuous string line shimmers to a climax. The voice enters and soon the choir enters - I'm reminded of Vaughn Williams and through him Ravel. The mood alliterates between the monumental and the extremely intimate. There's more than a whiff of Debussy here too. And yet there is an original voice in here too. The choral part becomes central again. One look at the score suggests Szymanowski has big ideas in mind as the chorus and choir combine in a heightened climax toward the end of the movement which does take us to the world of Russians and especially Scriabin. The transition to the Vivace scherzando seems to me to be a bit clumsy, but the change in the tone is exquisite once established. A complex patchwork emerges - fantastically orchestrated and abounding in different colours and moods. It ends with a march which slows more or less back down to slithering string lines and blocks of brass. It's bold and heady and unmatched in my experience. The vast orchestra - including piano, organ, two harps, celesta and more often than not multiple string section divisions - engulfs the listener in wave of sound: it is quite intoxicating. The score often with 40 plus staves on it presents a vast sound world tightly controlled and measured - creating moments of sensual heightened effect. It is a masterpiece in it's control of the forces and movement between there's quasi-erotic episodes.
The Largo section which starts the final movement is haunting - soloist intones over a quietly bell like sonority - yet there is little of the borrowed religiosity we get in Mahler here. The menacing climax which follows in waves begins deep in the orchestra. The drama is very different from what has happened before and the following eruption has full orchestra reinforcing the depth and profundity of the moment. It subsides quickly to piano, violin and horn in a hazy chamber-like setting. Even the movies don't make transitions as quickly as this. The tenor strikes out again into near silence and then (as with all these movements) the music builds towards to a bigger climax than ever. This massive onslaught of opposing figures erupts and is sustained on every front - brass and strings in 4 beats to the bar, bells in 6 and trumpets in 3 - it's the kind of climax which is felt as well as heard, I'd imagine.
The last page is a wonder even on paper - the strings split into 15 parts and a sustained organ pedal, support three chords of rich ancestry within the piece. A short coda of lightweight and great meaning.
Szymanowski died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Lausanne. The disease had been diagnosed in 1928 and promoted him to compose at a prodigious rate. The so called Fourth Symphony (1932) is a concertante work for orchestra and piano - it's very attractive and dramatic but nowhere near the scale and ardency of the Third symphony. Had TB not killed Szymanowski one wonders where a man of such cosmopolitan sympathies for the east would have found sanctuary during World War II - certain central Europe would have been no place for him. The works may never have reached these heights - in fact when I think about it - there are few works that are so successfully hedonistic and simple as this big symphony.
Here's the ever reliable Antoni Wit conducting the work: