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Karol Szymanowski and the Harnasie

Film Score Alternative

by Andy Goldsbrough

It is only in the last 35 years or so that the world of music, outside of his native Poland, has begun to express an interest in the life and works of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Printed music and biographical literature has become available and his representation on recordings issued by US/UK companies is improving. One of the reasons why appreciation of this composer has been delayed might be that Szymanowski's is not the easiest music to play and, particularly, record. His orchestral and choral music is often very dense but delicately balanced with specific instruments often expected to be highlighted amongst an existing thick texture.

Szymanowski has been termed, by Felix Aprahamian (an English music critic, on staff on the Sunday times for over 40 years) as being to Polish music what Bartok was to Hungarian or Sibelius to Finnish. In other words, he has been the major figure in re-establishing and developing a national musical tradition and identity which, in Poland, had previously been formed around the music Chopin. Szymanowski achieved this only later in his creative life when he started integrating music from folk and traditional sources into his scores.

The work perhaps most representative of this is the composer's last for the stage - 'Harnasie' (Op. 55). Its themes, both in music and scenerio, are inspired by the lives and culture of the people in the mountainous Tatra region of southern Poland. Szymanowski visited this area many times from 1894 onwards and began to stay there for extended periods from the winter of 1922. He rented a small mountain cottage in the town of Zakopane, a settlement which was a center of tourism and a favored retreat for many artists. Architects, woodcraftsmen, poets, writers, painters, singers, dancers, ethnographers and museum curators all lived or stayed there; enjoying and contributing to the town and its public events.

At this time, Szymanowski also met and befriended Jerzy Rytard and Helena Roj. This couple were to collaborate on the scenerio of 'Harnasie' and their wedding, at which Szymanowski was best man, probably sold to the composer the germinal idea for the work that would become 'Harnasie'. Reportedly, Szymanowski was enraptured with the spectacle of their marriage day, keenly observing the singing and dancing of the townsfolk for many hours. The composer soon began to keep notebooks of the melodies he heard in the locality of Zakopane with Helena Rytard nee Roj reciting many too him. Szymanowski set numerous of these local mountain (Goral) tunes as dances for piano and other small resources before he used some of them in 'Harnasie'. Other influences you might hear are from Stravinsky (Rite of Spring, Les Noces, Petrushka) and, particularly in the refinement of the orchestrations, the composer's previous experiments with impressionism.

'Harnasie' is designated as a ballet-pantomime and is staged in two acts, framed by a prelude and an epilogue. The inclusion of tenor solos and mixed chorus sometimes give the work the feel of a dramatic oratorio and the repetitive use and extensive integration of thematic material between movements or scenes rivals that of some symphonies.

The simple story concerns (no surprise!) a wedding but this wedding has a reluctant, melancholic peasant bride who is abducted by an outlaw (Harnas) and his followers from a mountain tribe (the Harnasie of the title). The prelude sets the rural scene. A modal, plaintive tune is immediately played on oboe. Low, rustling dissonances are added as an accompaniment. The mountains sound like a bleak place. We hear alpine bells ringing as sheep approach, their bleating noises imitated by brass played flutter tongued. A farmer arrives with a fiddle and starts to shepherd the sheep to a mesh of low pizzicato string ostinatos. The last measures bring a glimpse of a distant highland band - the approaching outlaws.

The first act proper is in four scenes. The first has the bride and her friends dancing to a solo trumpet. Further instruments join in, with some particularly striking orchestrations, before two pistols shots herald the arrival of the highland robbers. A tenor sings about the lawlessness of the Harnasie life to a march rhythm. The accompaniment becomes increasingly noisy and percussive, sounding like an amateur folk band. In the next scene, Harnas and the bride meet to the strains of a new theme of some tenderness - they are falling in love. The intended groom, who is chased off by Harnas, enters and departs to trombone glissandi. The Harnasie then dance energetically to a pair of Goral melodies before the feeling of the prelude returns. The outlaws have vanished for now and preparations for the wedding will continue.

The second act in staged in three scenes using a mountain cottage as the setting. It begins with the orchestra and chorus in full swing, celebrating the approaching wedding. The bride enters to a version of an old Polish wedding song, but played quietly on restrained instrumentation, expressing the girl's misgivings and resignation. A sidedrum pattern introduces a drinking song for choral tenors using a melody that Szymanowski had already set for voice and piano in 1924. Further song and dance ensues, with the highland outlaws singing with increasing intoxication about the freedom granted by their lifestyle. The music continues to escalate towards a conclusion, the Harnasie now singing about those perennial favorites - money, drink and girls. The wedding song returns but stops suddenly as the Harnasie storm the cottage and carry off the bride. The epilogue takes place in the mountains. A tenor solo, with light accompaniment and broken by increasing silence, sings in reflection about the possibilities of love.

'Harnasie' took many years to write and stage. The scenerio was first drafted in 1923 and appears to have undergone numerous revisions. Szymanowski had written the music for the first act by 1927 and the second by 1929. The score was completed in 1931 but was revised for the Paris premiere in 1936 (first performance was in Prague, 11 May 1935), a production which caused Szymanowski many problems. He fell out with several friends and collaborators, and had to do much of the necessary administration himself. When the composer attended the performance in April 1936 (six months after the initially planned date) he was very sick. The work was well received by audience and critics but bought Szymanowski little money. Financial problems followed the composer his entire life and, along with his deteriorating health, meant that he did not write any works in his last three years. He died eleven months after that Paris performance.

Excessive staging demands and costs have severely limited the subsequent appearance of 'Harnasie' in theaters. It may not have been performed again. On CD the best available current version is by the Polish National Opera and Robert Satanowski with Jozef Stepien as soloist (Schwann Musica Mundi / Koch 311064). A cheaper but very acceptable version is on Naxos (8.553686) with the tenor, Henryk Grychnik, and the Polish State Philharmonic conducted by Karol Stryja. In both cases the work ('Harnasie' lasts about 35+ mins) is coupled with 'Mandragora', another Szymanowski ballet, that was only published in the mid 1980s. It is similar in theme to Prokofiev's 'Love of Three Oranges'.

From the Previous Column

See the FSD for January 27, 2000.

A couple of readers noted my confusion of the masculine/feminine (Le/La) genderisations in the French titles of Darius Milhaud's works. It should be 'LA Monde' and 'LE Boeuf'. I always hated languages at school but I did, in fact, know that. It's written on the CD cover! Oops. Apologies.

Bill Whitaker and Preston Neal Jones inform me that Bernard Herrmann recorded 'La Creation du Monde' for Decca, on an album of 'Jazzy Classics'.

Gary Chu wrote me to say that Milhaud had once tutored Georges Delerue. I could not find any information on this. Anybody know anything?

Point of Information

Szymanowski was technically born in the Ukraine, on his family's estate in Timonshovka. They, and other land owners in that area, considered themselves Polish. The borders of Poland had been moved in 1793.


'The Music of Szymanowski' Jim Samson (1990, Kahn & Averill - UK, Pro/Am Music Resources Inc - US)

'BBC Music Guides: Szymanowski' Christopher Palmer (1983, BBC)

'Karol Szymanowski: His Life and Music' BM Maciejewski (1967?, Poet's and Painter's Press)

'Szymanowski' Teresa Chylinska (Eng. trans. 1982, orig. Polish 1973, PWM-Edition, Cracow)


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