Breaking it Down: Karol Szymanowski's 'Harnasie'
small, Breaking it Down:
Karol Szymanowski's 'Harnasie', Ensemble Śląsk - dance zbójecki, photo: Jan Morek / Forum, zespol_slask_zbojecki_fot_jan_morek_forum.jpg
In the untamed Tatra Mountains, a fresh-faced maiden falls in love with an outlaw. He then kidnaps her during her wedding, and they elope to live happily ever after in the wilderness. This typical folk story from the Polish highlands, a manly and mischievous one, also inspired one of the most characteristic and lively pieces of early 20th-century contemporary classical music: Karol Szymanowski’s ballet-pantomime 'Harnasie'.
Szymanowski not only deserves to be widely heard and recognised, but his music also gives us a tremendous opportunity to understand better the development of classical music through the twentieth century.
Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was a well-travelled man. Gifted, born to a noble family, and well-known from his early twenties, the doors of the European pre-war elite were wide open to him. These journeys deeply influenced him, for example, letting him draw inspiration from ancient cultures and oriental music, especially between 1914 and 1919, when he was in his mid-thirties.
By the early 1920s, however, he was undergoing a moment of hesitation, looking for new directions in his music and, again, it was travel which solved this crisis. Yet, the solution had been under his nose the whole time.
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Chybiński, Stravinsky, primitivism & Podhale
Szymanowski Portrait Gallery
After a concert in Lviv devoted entirely to his works, Szymanowski was approached by Professor Adolf Chybiński, who at that time was preoccupied with his studies of the music of the Gorals (people living in the Polish highlands of the Podhale region). He played a few songs on a piano, presenting the harmonic and melodic specifics of Goral music to Szymanowski. Although Szymanowski really liked Chybiński's discovery, at that time he was sceptical about the general value of introducing folklore into contemporary classical music. He was heard referring to it as ‘the easiest way out, undeserving of a real composer’.
In 1921, on his way back from the USA, Karol Szymanowski met Igor Stravinsky, a composer he deeply respected and a mentor who had already changed his way of thinking about music, back in 1913 when Szymanowski heard The Rite Of Spring for the first time. This time, Stravinsky presented him with sketches of his nascent new ballet Les Noces, a work he believed to perfectly reflect the substance of the Russian spirit. The most visionary part of it was that there were no direct quotes from Russian folk melodies or poems. Stravinsky managed to draw out the essence of emotions, nostalgia and Russian character but used his own ways of expression.
This new approach to the idea of primitivism was a much-needed way out for Szymanowski, who had struggled with his average affection for Polish folk music, which was looked down on this those days. On the other hand, he wanted to follow Stravinsky’s path, feeling that accurately re-purposed folklore could be a source of the freshest inspiration. He immediately recalled meeting Professor Chybiński and formulated a plan to give himself a deeper understanding of Polish Goral music and culture. Due to his health problems (a respiratory disease that turned out to be tuberculosis), he was already a frequent visitor to mountain health resorts and had a passion for this region.
Right after his return to Warsaw, he met two poets who had just became mountain enthusiasts – Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Mieczysław Rytard. They were back from a long visit to Zakopane (the capital of the Podhale region) and jumped on the idea of creating an interdisciplinary work that introduced Goral folklore into high art.
What does the Podhale highlanders’ folk music sound like?
The Podhale region has a truly unique folk culture, with clothes, music, architecture, and a dialect very distinct from Polish, as well as strong inclusivity.
The Tatra Mountains – Astonishing Images of a Lost Land
Goral music is no less original. Its melodies are based on a Lydian dominant scale which can be noted like so (in the key of C, for example):
The alteration of its fourth step gives it a very lively feel and makes it instantly recognisable, especially given that it has not been used in Polish folk music anywhere outside of Podhale. The music itself is like no other. Szymanowski wrote of it:
[In the Gorals’ music] there is a bit of primeval wilderness, of the schematic rawness of the primitiveness and of the intransigence of granite, but on the other hand there is no room for improvisational incompetence. [The folk artists of Podhale] achieved what we call métiers d'art; an instinctual choice of the only and easiest way to realise an artistic idea.
The Gorals' music is rough, usually very loud and energetic, and is said to provoke extreme emotions only: love or hate, as Szymanowski himself noted.
The Zbójnicki dance
Breaking Down the Polish National Anthem
The Goral dance ‘zbójnicki’ (meaning the dance 'of a robber'. Robbers in Goral folklore have a strictly positive connotation: they are Robin Hood-style outlaws) is one of the most important elements of this heritage.
A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Folk Dances
Dancing in the Polish Highlands is entirely dominated by men. It is up to the man to choose a girl to dance with. He brings her to the centre of the dance floor, the dancer intones a song, the band follows it up and the dance starts. The aim of the dance is for the male dancer to show off as much as possible while his female partner only scampers and turns around. Only at the very end of the dance does the male dancer catch the girl and they spin around insanely fast. It is the only moment when they have actual physical contact.
Maria Małanicz-Przybylska, University of Warsaw PhD candidate specialising in highlanders’ folklore music
Love for folklore
At the beginning of 1922, Szymanowski started visiting Zakopane more and more frequently and began to participate in the town's social and artistic life to the full, as well as learn about the music of the Goral folk. He paid numerous visits to the Museum of the Tatra Mountains and the School of Wood Industry run by Karol Stryjeński, a well-known architect and sculptor whose wife, the formidable visual artist Zofia Stryjeńska, would become the costume designer for the Polish premiere of Harnasie.
Artist, Mother, Man: The Diaries of Zofia Stryjeńska
Szymanowski soon become acquainted with other intellectuals and artists residing in Zakopane, and formed an informal group which he called The Gorals’ Cultural Emergency. Together, they chased down every little piece of the original expression of Podhale’s folk art and became close friends with local artists and the best-known families of the region. Szymanowski became a close friend of Bartuś Obrochta – the most celebrated Podhale folk musician.
Many of Szymanowski’s picturesque letters and diary notes have been preserved, describing the rituals and musical feasts he participated in. The Gorals initially treated him with a certain dose of exaggerated respect and reserve, but thanks to his real passion for discovering their culture, he managed to blend into the society. From the mid-1920s, he was often invited to weddings and christenings, and got to observe Goral culture up close.
The Peak of Artistry: Painters from Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains
'Harnasie' – the libretto
Meanwhile, Harnasie’s storyline had been created by Mieczysław Rytard and his wife, a native Goral. It consisted of two acts and an epilogue only and was just a means of presenting various aspects of Goral culture: its psychological characteristics, rituals, customs and foremost, the music and dance of its folklore.
Goral robbers dance in a glade high in the mountains and are joined by girls passing by, one of whom is soon to be married. Surprisingly, she falls in love with the leader of the robbers and their affection is represented by a fiery dance.
During the wedding party, the bride, now in love the with robbers’ leader, is reluctant to celebrate with the others. Suddenly, someone fires a gun and the robbers enter the cottage. They kidnap the bride and run off into the mountains.
The bride and the robbers’ leader, hidden somewhere in the mountains, cherish their moments together.
'Harnasie' – the composition
Szymanowski used folk melodies as a base material for Harnasie, but went much further than just quoting them. He changed and processed them, as well as creating his own motifs that resembled original folk songs. This method makes the composition constantly shift between folk traditions and contemporary classical music. Firm traditional melodies are often overblown by neo-classical orchestral movements that appear then fade away after a few seconds to leave space for another folk movement. The result is that Harnasie is restless, evoking thousands of associations every minute and leaving a thorough listener unable to break away from following the insane musical narration.
In Harnasie’s score, [Szymanowski] was able to get the core of the most characteristic features of Podhale's music tradition: roughness, rhythmic vigour, craziness in dancing and broad, loud melodies. He managed to present this whole distinct and inarguably exotic world within the frame of contemporary classical music, and through this enabled people to familiarise themselves with it.
polish contemporary classical music composers
breaking it down
Time to listen
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, January 27th 2015