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Twenty Mazurkas Op. 50 – Karol Szymanowski

On this page we present two articles on Karol Szymanowski's Twenty Mazurkas Op. 50 - by Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska (2007) and by Piotr Deptuch (2002).

Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska:

Composed in the course of 1924 and in early 1925, Szymanowski's Twenty Mazurkas for piano are a conscious revisiting of Fryderyk Chopin's heritage and a continuation of a key genre of his music. Rather than imitating Chopin's style, however, Szymanowski's mazurkas represent a new, extended approach to the genre created by that 19th century composer. Their originality and innovation is born out of a perfect marriage of the generic features (triple rhythm, varied tempo, ABA reprise form, wealth of shades of expression) and Szymanowski's individual style with its 20th century composing technique, strong emotionality and elements of the Podhale folk music style (melodies leaning to double rhythms, sharp syncopes, staccatos, aggressive chords and modal scales, including the Podhale one - i.e. a major scale with a raised 4th and a lowered 7th step ). As the musicologist Tadeusz A. Zieliński was right to notice,

"although his music paid a tribute to Chopin and evoked (not for the first time) his heritage, Szymanowski proved that the piano mazurka form was not a 'historic' concept forever tied with Chopin and his age (and subject to mere imitations) - no, it was a living and dynamic thing that developed just as well as other music forms".1

Besides, Twenty Mazurkas Op. 50 are a true treasury of music ideas and composing techniques, including diverse kinds of piano texture, harmonic formulas and multiple shades of mood - from the oberek-like vitality to dramatic expression to subtle, pensive, kujawiak-like lyricism. One is in awe with the beautiful cantilenas in mazurkas Nos. 1, 3, 13 and 15, broad humour of Nos. 6 and 14, mountaineer temper in Nos. 2, 16, 18 and 20.

Szymanowski dedicated the first four mazurkas to Artur Rubinstein, Nos. 5 and 6 to his brother Feliks Szymanowski, Nos. 7 and 8 to Zbigniew Drzewiecki, Nos. 9-12 to Jan Smeterlin, Nos. 13-16 to "Hania and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz", Nos. 17 and 18 to Henryk Toepliz and Nos. 19 and 20 to Professor Adolf Chybiński. First published by Universal Edition in 1926-31 as five brochures containing four mazurkas each, they have always been tremendously popular, both with those to whom they were dedicated (Artur Rubinstein and Zbigniew Drzewiecki) and with other great Polish pianists, including Mieczysław Horszowski, Witold Małcużyński, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Sviatoslav Richter, Felicja Blumental, Andrzej Stefański, Krystian Zimerman, Józef Stompel, Jerzy Godziszewski, Jan Ekier, Jerzy Marchwiński, Piotr Anderszewski, Andrzej Kurylewicz, and foreign piano virtuosi such as Martin Roscoe and Marc-André Hamelin.

Of the several dozen mazurkas recordings of special note is the one of Mazurka No. 13 done by the composer himself in 1933 or 1934. It has had a few releases on LPs (Columbia, Polskie Nagrania Muza, Tonpress) and has recently come out on a CD-Rom released by Polskie Radio as "Karol Szymanowski. Dokumenty".


1 Tadeusz A. Zieliński, Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza, PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 247.

Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, wrzesień 2007.

Piotr Deptuch:

Mazurkas Op. 50 is Szymanowski's second such prominent attempt, after the Preludes, to invoke the great Chopin tradition. The two miniature cycles were composed 24 years apart. Coming full circle across a wide range of stylistic transformations, the composer's piano music returned to its source. Szymanowski almost completely assimilated the rhythmic idiom of Chopin's mazurkas - it is the same kind of synthesis of the mazurka, oberek and kujawiak. However, he did this within a completely different aesthetics, one originating from the rough sound of the music of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.

Thus, 19th-century romanticism and 20th-century anti-romanticism carry on a game in these piano miniatures - as is actually the case with many other works from the composer's "national" period. Here however, the game is played on a folklore plane as well. In his stylisation, Szymanowski imaginatively combined elements of highland melody and harmony with a typically "lowland" dance rhythm. As Stefania Lobaczewska noted, the experience of the mazurkas was a source of a certain rhythmic regeneration for the composer - remember that he was in the middle of writing Harnasie at the time, shedding the odium of the quasi-oriental stillness of the recently completed King Roger.

This was also an extremely important harmonic experience, involving taming the modal scales that were still new to Szymanowski. Most of the Mazurkas from Op. 50 (Chybinski says the first sixteen) were composed in 1924, and the other four came two years later, according to Golachowski. The first performer of the incomplete cycle was Zbigniew Drzewiecki. Four mazurkas were played by Artur Rubinstein almost as soon as they were written. Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, usually so enthusiastically disposed towards Szymanowski's music, did not conceal his reservations this time. In a letter to his wife dated 13 October 1924 he wrote "this is murky water in which embryos of Chopin swim like sleepy fish".

Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.

Tags: karol szymanowskiMazurkaspolish classical music

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