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
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,