Mieczysław Karłowicz's A Sorrowful Tale is a short, free-form composition. It does not have a clear narrative, however, in its concept, it is supposed to express the last moments, thoughts and experiences of a man taking his own life.
Mieczysław Karłowicz wrote the penultimate poem for his A Sorrowful Tale Op. 13 (Preludes to Eternity) symphony between April and July 1908. This short, free-form composition does not have a clear narrative, however, in its concept, it is supposed to express the last moments, thoughts and experiences of a man taking his own life. A commentary to the piece, based on an interview with Karłowicz, was published in 1909, in the Scena i Sztuka (Scene and Art) journal:
The author of this free-form poem depicts the psychology of a person committing suicide. The gloomy introduction conveys the mood and feelings of a man who starts thinking about taking his own life. It crawls out of the deepest corners of his conscience, fed on apathy and disheartenment. It slowly seeps in through the mind like a drop of water and provokes a fight between the will to live, indicated by the beautiful memories of the past, and the idée fixe of suicide. This battle pans out between two contradictory themes. The latter wins, we hear a gunshot… Then, following a short moment of scuffle, the last impulse of life fades out. The man falls into the state of unconsciousness, deeper and deeper, into nothingness.
In a letter to Adolf Chybiński, the composer wrote that because of the chosen programme, he will have to look for 'bright colours in the field of instrument 'pyrotechnics'. This description refers to the illustration of the gunshot which, in the end, was replaced by a fff stroke on tam-tam. Even though it is the only literal illustration in the piece, the orchestra's sound plays a key role here. The dark sound of the instruments, dominated by low registers, decides about the poem's characteristic, gloomy and ominous mood and about the strength of its expression. Karłowicz masterfully operates the sound of the orchestra which is emphasized by the dissonant harmonics. The narrative takes its time and covers a wide array of themes while the composer makes the best use of the subsequent movements.
The piece consists of an array of episodes derived from three basic themes: the first one – gloomy, in low registers and in a dark tone, the second – melancholic, filled with sadness and the third, ominous and dissonant, is the 'suicide theme'. Each of the episodes reaches a culmination which is why the listener feels the tension rising as the tragic finale approaches.
The first execution of A Sorrowful Tale took place on 13th November 1908 in the Warsaw Philharmonics (Grzegorz Fitelberg was the venue's director at the time). A month later, in December, the composer presented the piece in Vienna. The next performances took place after the artist's death on 8th February 1909. For many years, the piece's content raised speculation about the circumstances of the artist's death in the mountains. In a 1924 ballet based on A Sorrowful Tale, staged in the Poznań Opera, the character of the composer commits suicide in the ending.
A LP recording of the piece was first published only in 1965, as performed by the National Philharmonics Symphonic Orchestra led by Witold Rowicki (Polskie Nagrania Muza XL 0179). Among newer recordings, it is worth singling out the one performed in Wellington in 2006 by New Zealand's Symphonic Orchestra led by Antoni Wit (Naxos 8.570295, published in 2008).
Originally written in Polish by Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, Dec 2009, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Sep 2018