Stabat Mater Op. 53 – Karol Szymanowski
On this page we present two articles on Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater Op. 53 - by Polish Music Information Center (2004) and by Piotr Deptuch (2002).
Polish Music Information Center:
Karol Szymanowski, Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra, to the lyrics of a Mediaeval Latin sequence translated by Józef Jankowski Op. 53 (1926).
Stabat Mater was commissioned by the Warsaw patron of the arts, Dr Bronislaw Krystall. The piece was meant as a requiem dedicated to the memory of Krystall's prematurely deceased wife. However, the death of Szymanowski's niece Alusia made the composer decide to change the contract, and compose a Stabat Mater instead of a Requiem. Under the circumstances, the theme of the suffering and grief of the Mother of the crucified Jesus was closer to the composer's heart. The work was completed in 1926 and, in accordance with the contract, was dedicated "To the memory of Izabela Krystallowa". The world premiere of Stabat Mater took place without the composer being present, as he was ill and staying at an Austrian sanatorium, on 11 January 1929 at the Warsaw Philharmonic, with soloists Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska (the composer's sister), Halina Leska and Eugeniusz Mossakowski, conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. Many critics hailed the piece as Szymanowski's greatest work. The composer himself spoke of Stabat Mater as a work in which the expression of his creativity had fully crystallized.
The text Szymanowski used was Józef Jankowski's Polish translation, 'Stała matka bolejaca', of the famous Mediaeval sequence 'Stabat Mater dolorosa', but outside Poland the work is sometimes performed with the original Latin lyrics. This is a cantata made up of six parts, with a changing cast. Here is what Tadeusz Zieliński wrote in his work 'Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza' / 'Szymanowski. Lyricism and Ecstasy':
Stabat Mater occupies an important and special place in Szymanowski's output due to its great artistry achieved by a rather ruthless selection of means of expression. The music's huge emotional power reveals itself without any exuberant gesturing, spectacular sound arrangement, or mounting sophisticated chords. The deep, excruciating emotion seeks a direct outlet through simplicity - melody, harmony, texture, often even rhythmic pulse - and concentration. Striving for such an ideal, Szymanowski opted for archaization; work on the composition was preceded by his research into Renaissance music, especially Polish music. There is a clear trace of this in the work's harmonic language, in a fondness for triads (put together outside the classical convention), thirds alone and empty fifths, although archaic sound is mixed with contemporary, fresh combinations of sounds. An unusual economy of musical means and avoidance of flashy elements are prominent at first glance in the very modest picture of the score. However, and this needs emphasizing strongly, the external, sometimes ascetic austerity of the musical shape and means of expression combine beautifully with the internal warmth and delicate tenderness of the expressed content. It is probably this special, intriguing combination of apparent opposites - austere form and tender expression - that moves listeners easily, and means that audiences receive 'Stabat Mater' much more warmly than any other work by Szymanowski.1
1 Tadeusz Zieliński, Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza / Szymanowski. Lyricism and Ecstasy, PWM Kraków 1997, p. 256-257; Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, 2004.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, 2004.
This work, singing of the despair felt by Jesus' mother as He was dying on the cross, is generally considered the most brilliant fruit of Szymanowski's talent as a composer, and since its world premiere in January 1929 it has established contact with audiences in an extremely easy and direct way. For the composer, it was an important though difficult experience - a kind of cleansing catharsis, taking away the odium of the suffocating over-refinement of his earlier works. Stabat Mater is perhaps the most complete reflection of a very important idiom in Szymanowski's work, one that Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski described as 'modus semplice e divoto', or more metaphorically as the 'Franciscan idiom'.
Even Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz noted how strongly influenced the composer was by the simple emotionalism of Polish religious songs, especially those that were lamentations. The Lenten Psalms service, cumulating this kind of pious expression, was one of the deep experiences of his childhood. Another autobiographical element very important for the genesis of Stabat Mater was Szymanowski's extremely deep relationship with his own mother, whose person in the world of the composer's emotions underwent a kind of sacralization. And finally a third aspect, certainly the most painful of the list, was the tragic and irrational death of Szymanowski's niece Alinka Bartoszewiczówna, which threw her mother, the pregnant Stanisława, into unimaginable pain. The image of his suffering sister, who was soon to lose another child, gave the creative inspiration an extraordinarily subjective quality. The theme of a grief-stricken mother had been present in the composer's imagination earlier (which only proves its importance), appearing for the first time in the short cantata Demeter, which Szymanowski himself called a Greek Stabat Mater. Contrary to the earlier piece, the Stabat Mater completed in 1926 can be described as an ethnically Polish "immemorially naive hymn" - to quote the composer again. The striking feature here is a marvellous balance between folk, religious and archaizing inspiration, and a great reduction of means. At the time, Szymanowski was interested in historical composing techniques and music forms - organum (he described Perotin's compositions as modernist wonders!), motet, and Palestrina counterpoint. He also studied the Gloria from the 15th-century mass by Mikolaj of Radom, and the works of Wacław of Szamotuły. What seems the most magnificent thing about Stabat Mater is the beauty and simplicity of the melodic pattern, perfectly connected with the modal harmonic material. The composer drew all possible consequences from the earlier experience of Słopiewnie / Wordsong, primarily invoking 'St. Francis' - the third song in the cycle. The soprano solo of the final, sixth part of the work, later taken up by the choir, was described by Szymanowski himself as the most beautiful of the melodies he had composed. In the history of Polish music, Stabat Mater is of fundamental importance, opening the way for many subsequent works, and especially Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's Symphony No. 3 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs'. The work was composed to the lyrics of the excellent Polish translation by Józef Jankowski (1865-1935), but it can be performed in the original Latin version without any problem.
... like every work by a huge talent, it is a great synthesis of Karol's output, a synthesis cleansed of anything that was not his, and containing in the deepest degree all that is most his own....1
1 Anna Iwaszkiewiczowa in a letter to Helena Kahn-Casella from 11 January 1929.
Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.