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Symphony No. 3, Song of the Night, Op. 27 – Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski's mystical work takes the beauty of night as a metaphor for the mystery of God, inspired by Sufi poetry and Oriental rhythms and melodies

Symphony No. 3 Op. 27 Song of the Night by Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska (2007)

Szymanowski began drafting his Symphony No. 3 Song of the Night, a work dedicated to his mother, Anna Szymanowska née Taube, in Tymoszówka in the summer and autumn of 1914. He continued working on it in the spring and summer of 1916, to complete it by the end of July of that year. Symphony No. 3 sets Tadeusz Miciński's (one of Szymanowski's favoured poets') translation of the poem Song of the Night by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi.

Szymanowski uses highly emotional, sensuous, at times even ecstatic music to convey the poem's vision of the night, with its unravelling of the mystery of God and supernatural atmosphere. Numerous Oriental elements - special (falling) melodic turns, rhythmic (dance) formulas, melismas and embellishments - create a unique flavour. The melodious, emotional tunes are intended not only for the singers but also for violin, and then they run in very high registers. Wrote Tadeusz A. Zieliński, the acclaimed researcher of Szymanowski's music:

Besides the sphere of expression, the novel style of the '3rd Symphony' manifests itself in the sound aspect. Here Szymanowski proves a master of extraordinarily subtle and sophisticated orchestral colour ideas whose boldness at times surpasses those of Ravel's and Stravinsky's; certain 'fantastic' sound effects (such as accumulations of glissandos) were a complete novelty at the time.1

Symphony No. 3 is also a product of Szymanowski's search for new dramatic effects in a symphonic cycle. The single movement is broken down into three phases, the first one (for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra) standing for an introduction, the middle (orchestral) one composed in the style of an Oriental, colourful dance and scherzo, and the last one (orchestral again) having the characteristics of an adagio with a culmination (mystery) and coda. The whole work is more similar to a symphonic poem than to a conventional symphony, an observation made by Szymanowski himself in a letter to Aleksander Siloti, pianist and conductor who planned to do the first performance of the 3rd Symphony with his orchestra in Petersburg on 19th November 1916 (nota bene the event did not take place, even though the preparations were quite advanced):

The 'Symphony' lasts 20-22 m. and it could be called a symphonic poem. (Its other title is Chant de la Nuit [...]). However, as I am organically averse to 'Symphonic poems' (as a title), it had better stayed a symphony (the third one in order). [...] The tenor's solo in the 'Symph.' is very significant and lasts for a little less than half of the symphony's duration. It seems a very satisfying material for a singer; it is more melodic than declamatory and takes quite a big and graceful, lyrically coloured voice. The choir is rather episodic, except for the initial part, where it has a major role; the style is more harmon[ic] than polyphon[ic]; there is no text in several places.2

Regardless of the aforementioned plan to have the first performance in St Petersburg, Symphony No. 3 was first performed - without the solo voice and choir - in London on 24th October 1921, with Albert Coates conducting. A full and complete presentation did not take place until seven years later, when it was performed in Lvov on 3rd February 1928, with Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, a choir and an orchestra under Adam Sołtys. Later that year it was performed again in Buenos Aires under Grzegorz Fitelberg, in New York under Leopold Stokowski, and elsewhere. Its lasting world-wide popularity took off.

Although the Polish Radio Archive has a 1951 recording of Szymanowski's Symphony No. 3 with Alina Bolechowska in the solo part (done during the Polish Music Festival in Warsaw), the first recording to have been released is the one with Stefania Woytowicz, the Cracow Philharmonic Choir and the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Witold Rowicki. Recorded in April 1952, it has had a few releases by Polskie Nagrania, Muza and other labels. More releases followed, with outstanding singers in solo parts and excellent conductors, notably Wiesław Ochman and Jerzy Semkow (EMI - a few issues), Jadwiga Gadulanka and Tomasz Bugaj (Schwann / Polyphonia), Ryszard Karczykowski and Antal Dorati (Decca) and, last but not least, Jonem Garisson and Sir Simon Rattle (EMI, a few issues).

Vienna's Universal Edition published the 3rd Symphony in 1925 in two languages: Polish (in Tadeusz Micinski's translation) and German (authored by Hans Bethge). In 1967 the Polish music publisher Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne published it in three languages, adding the English translation by Anna and Adam Czerniawski to the Polish and German versions. 

Symphony No. 3 Op. 27 Song of the Night by Piotr Deptuch (2002)

Symphony No. 3 'Song of The Night' Op. 27 for solo tenor, chorus and grand orchestra is one of the greatest projections of Szymanowski's talent as a composer, and the most mature fruit of the composer's fascination with Eastern mysticism. The work, which has little in common with the traditional idea of the symphony form, is an ecstatic, night-time love song in which eroticism and transcendence meld into an indissoluble whole. Wagner's Tristan, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, and Messiaen's Turangalila frame the space into which the poetics of Symphony No. 3 is inscribed.

In this work Szymanowski very clearly moves away from the fundamental principles of Western European music - primarily its evolutionary character. This song of the night seems to drift in the huge space of the cosmos of sound. Its status quo is more a contemplative suspension than a determined drive towards any goal. The brief oriental motifs are subjected to constant permutation, they are modified and "coloured"; in its ultimate expression however, the kaleidoscopic changeability of this music and its phantasmagoria of sound create the impression of something static - in which the composer undoubtedly comes close to the ideals of Eastern art. Experiments with "suspended - standing" form would only become characteristic of music in the second half of the 20th century (e.g. Stockhausen), while Szymanowski and his whole "Eastern" period of creativity are an original presentiment of this. Often distinguished from the whole piece, the sound of the two harps, the piano and the celesta evoke associations with the specificity of the Indonesian gamelan, which again anticipates the later experience of Messiaen. The spirited world of post-Romantic emotionality left its strong mark also on this score, and the consequence are powerful, orgiastic discharges of expression which are a practically unprecedented phenomenon in the entire history of 20th-century music. These extraordinary culminations make use of the powerful, concentrated orchestral tutti strengthened with the sound of the organ and the chorus, whose emotional power should almost verge on an ecstatic scream.

The literary basis for this work is the poem by Jalal'ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273), recognized as one of the greatest Persian mystic poets of his time, translated into Polish by Tadeusz Miciński. Rumi, the spiritual leader of the whirling dervishes, was one of the exponents of Sufism - an evocative form of Muslim mysticism giving importance to an ardent, almost erotic relation between man and God.

Szymanowski's Symphony No. 3 is a one-movement work divided into three links. The extreme episodes, maintained at a slow pace, in which an erotic and mystical transcendence occurs, form the framework for the lively scherzo - a brief intermezzo filled with a tumult of sound and sumptuousness.

Szymanowski took a poem celebrating the beauty, the enigmatic and transcendental beauty of the Eastern night, the like of which one never sees anywhere in Europe, except Sicily which belongs just as much to the East as it does to the West. Based on this poem, he wrote music with a radiant purity of spirit, elevated ecstasy of expression, music permeated with the very essence of the choicest and rarest specimens of Iranian art - the entire score glows with a wonderful colour, rich but never blinding, nor severe, like Persian paintings or silk rugs - this intuition is unprecedented in Western music. (Kaikhosru Sorabji [Iranian composer - ed.])
[...] Today again, after all that the Symphony moved inside me, I am torn by a 'metaphysical longing' as Witkacy calls it [...].1

 Tadeusz A. Zieliński, Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza, PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 95.
Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja, Tom I: lata 1903-1919, s. 472-473, list z 10 VIII 1916 do Aleksandra Silotiego, ed. Teresa Chylińska, PWM, Kraków 1982.

Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.Notes:

Anna Iwaszkiewiczowa, Notatki. Wiadomości Literackie 1938 No. 1 p. 5, Dzienniki, Twórczość 1992 No. 4/5 p. Piotr Deptuch, 2002.

Tags: symphony no. 3song of the nightOp. 27karol szymanowski

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