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Litany to the Virgin Mary Op. 59 - Karol Szymanowski

On this page we present two articles on Karol Szymanowski's "Litany to the Virgin Mary op. 59" - by Polish Music Information Center (2004) and by Piotr Deptuch (2002).

Polish Music Information Center:

Karol Szymanowski, Litany to the Virgin Mary, two fragments for soprano, female chorus and orchestra with lyrics by Jerzy Liebert Op. 59.

This piece, a two-part cantata, was written in 1930-1933. The first performance took place in Warsaw on 13 October 1933 and was conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. Szymanowski took the text of a young poet, his contemporary Jerzy Liebert, Litania do Najświętszej Marii Panny / Litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first drafts of Szymanowski's piece come from 1930, but he set it aside, and it was probably the poet's premature death in 1931 that made the composer take it up again. The composer incorporated two verses from Liebert's poem into his work. The first part of Szymanowski's Litany, "Twelve-toned cithara", introduces an archaic climate through the opening duet of the soprano and the instrumental score, and the ascetic chords of the chorus and the strings. One important form-creating factor here is the dynamics, which develops from the initial ppp to f in the song's point of culmination, and then returns to ppp. In part two, "Like a dwarf bush", the composer excludes the chorus, leaving a very expressive solo of the soprano with the accompanying orchestra.

Tadeusz Zieliński writes:

"In the final period of Szymanowski's output, this work is distinguished by the greatest simplicity and self-restraint of gestures and means, or even an asceticism of artistic expression. At the same time, its very gentle, intimate and subdued lyricism seems to testify to the composer's genuine, 'private' emotion when he was writing these notes, even if this emotion does not infect the listener easily or immediately".1

During the work on Litany the composer's sister, the singer Stanislawa Szymanowska, who was also an unfailing interpreter of his lieder, acted as his consultant and advisor. Szymanowski spoke of this piece as being unfinished, that is until the first performance of Litany, after which he left it as it was. The composer valued this work very highly, considering it to equal his earlier piece, Stabat Mater. In a letter to Zofia Kochańska he wrote about Litany:

"it is perhaps the deepest, most focused piece of mine."2

1 Tadeusz Zieliński, "Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza" ["Szymanowski. Lyricism and Ecstasy"], PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 325.
2 "Karol Szymanowski. Correspondence" vol. IV 1932-1937, part 2, p. 219, letter of 8 September 1933, ed. Teresa Chylińska, Musica Iagellonica, Krakow 2002.

Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union.

Piotr Deptuch:

Litany to the Virgin Mary Op. 59, two fragments for soprano, female chorus and orchestra with lyrics by Jerzy Liebert1 (1. "Twelve-toned cithara", 2. "Like a dwarf bush"). 1930-1933.

Szymanowski started sketching the work in 1930. His attention was drawn to the subtle poetry of Jerzy Liebert (1904-1931), filled with religious imagination, by Anna Iwaszkiewiczowa, who thought she could thus stimulate the same string of musical inspiration that had played so well in Stabat Mater. Szymanowski initially planned a larger work - something between a song cycle and a solo cantata. Ultimately he wrote music to just two of the seven verses of the original poem, whose author died prematurely a year after work on the composition had begun. Contrary to the original plan, Litany became a tribute to yet another talent in Polish culture who was not destined to develop fully. Completed in 1933, the score includes a certain mystery - every great reviewer of Szymanowski's music sees something different in it. It is most often linked to Stabat Mater, having the same economy of means, a tendency towards archaization and a religious dimension - the last embodiment of the "Franciscan idiom", to use a term coined by Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, in the composer's output. It is also recognized as an attempt at synthesising the style of the composer's national period with distant reminiscences of impressionism. The most prominent feature of this work is its melodic element which creates an intensive elegiac quality. The first part is shaped by broad melodic arches. The almost bel canto stylisation of the Polish religious hymn idiom resounds against the background of the archaizing "organal" female chorus and the orchestra's focused sound. Part two, in which elements of polyphony can be heard, combines the aura of Wanda's plaintive lamentation from Słopiewnie / Wordsong with a prayerful concentration.

"What sets the Polish composer apart from other great Western European contemporaries like Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky, is his cohesive attempt at 'singing' in a broadened melodic style: regardless of whether the inspiration is oriental or national. […] It is enough to invoke a work that can be recognized as his greatest lied, namely the second fragment of 'Litany to the Virgin Mary' Op. 59, to find there the fruit of a long search for an expressive melody. The subtlety and beauty of the melodic lines spreading across the vocal score and the accompaniment, is just one more reason to dwell upon the composer's untimely death, as it is clear that so many more melodic gems could have been extracted from this reserve". (Stephen Downes)

1Jerzy Liebert (1904-31) - poet. His focused poems of religious reflection are marked with the motif of death, linked to the poet's incurable disease. It was Anna Iwaszkiewiczowa who got Szymanowski interested in Liebert's poetry. The composer wrote music to two of the seven verses of his Litany To The Virgin Mary.

Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.

Tags: Litany to the Virgin Mary Op. 5karol szymanowski

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