Polish Music Information Center:
Karol Szymanowski, Harnasie (1923-1931): ballet-pantomime in three tableaux for solo tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra, to a script by the composer and Jerzy Mieczysław Rytard, Op. 55.
Szymanowski became acquainted with highland folklore from his youngest childhood years. He was attracted to the original charm of this extraordinary culture. He wrote that
when one understands the genuine highland passion for giving visual shape to everything that surrounds the Highlander, when one penetrates those rough, angular forms, which are as if they were carved in resistant stone, this music reveals the true nature of its staunch, tough, specifically highlander 'lyricism', the strangely 'epic' character of its calmly undulating surface, and the deeply hidden, almost theatrical 'drama' of the content that finds its expression in dance.
Traces of Podhale folklore - from very slight to easily identifiable - are found in many of Szymanowski's works: the mazurkas, String Quartet No. 2, Symphony No. 4 'Symphonie Concertante', Violin Concerto No. 2, and also in Stabat Mater, and even in the Kurpie Songs. But the most obvious inspiration of highland music is present in the ballet Harnasie - in direct quotes, elements borrowed from folklore, or in the composer's own motifs and phrases.
Szymanowski's first impulse to think about creating such a piece came from contact with the music of Stravinsky in 1912. The ballets The Firebird, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps were well-known by then. In 1913 Stravinsky himself presented his Wedding to Szymanowski in London. Finally, his contacts with Diaghilev's famous Ballets Russes prompted Szymanowski into more concrete action, and in 1922 he was in Zakopane collecting the first material for his ballet.
In 1923, a female highlander friend of Szymanowski's - Helena Gąsienica-Roj - was married to Jerzy Rytard. Szymanowski was the best man and performed all the duties linked to that role, such as inviting the guests to the wedding on the eve of the marriage, including drinking vodka at each invited person's home. The idea for his ballet finally crystallized at the Rytards' wedding. The Rytards took care of the script, developing the composer's detailed plan. Work on Harnasie lasted eight years, and the ballet was completed in 1931.
The script of Harnasie is a kind of mythological generalization of highland culture - the plot is symbolic, the characters have no names, they are simply 'the Girl', 'the Shepherd', 'the Robber'. The ballet comprises three tableaux - the third one is an epilogue, and Szymanowski was unsure what its character should be. Ultimately, he expanded the final scene of tableau two ending the work, giving the dancers the opportunity to show off their skills in a spectacular third tableau. Tableau I - In the Mountain Pasture - begins with the redyk (driving the sheep). One of the girls meets a highland stranger whom she later recognizes as a harnas - a robber. He confesses his love for her. Tableau II is the Girl's wedding. At the climax of the wedding fun, the highland robbers burst in - the stranger abducts the bride. Tableau III shows the lovers in a mountain pasture deep in the mountains, among the robbers.
The great musicologist Adolf Chybiński wrote of the music in Harnasie:
This small though slender score, in its piano transcription counting just 86 pages, moreover mostly flying at a rapid pace, is filled so tightly with such condensed and substantial content of such poignant and inspiring expression, born of fiery fantasy and an atmospheric painter-like hearing and seeing of the beauty of Podhale and the Tatras, that even the most receptive musical mind has to listen to this music with bated breath. There is no time here for any reflection, nor any rest for the emotions.
The ballet's world premiere took place in 1935 in Prague, and a year later the famous dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar produced Harnasie at the Grand Opéra in Paris. This was a huge success for the composer less than a year before his death. The Polish stage premiere took place at the Teatr Wielki in Poznań in 1938, and Harnasie was also produced in Warsaw in the same year. Today the work is performed as a whole or in parts, with a chorus and soloist or without. The most popular excerpts are the following scenes: "Redyk" / "Driving the Sheep", "Marsz zbójnicki" / "The Robbers' March" and "Taniec zbójnicki" / "The Robbers' Dance", "Taniec góralski" / "The Highlanders' Dance", and "Hala" / "In the Mountain Pasture". The Dance from Harnasie is also very popular, being a transcription of two fragments from the ballet for violin and piano, written by the composer and violinist Paweł Kochański.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, January 2002.
Szymanowski fully discovered Zakopane and its magic in the winter of 1922/23 - though he had been in this town in the Tatras many times before. He became interested in Podhale music through musicologist Adolf Chybiński - the first result of that fascination is the beginning of the song St. Francis from the Słopiewnie / Wordsong cycle, which was derived from a very characteristic highland melody, original in its ruggedness, known as the Sabała tune.
The grand wedding of Jerzy Mieczysław Rytard, a friend of Szymanowski from his Ukrainian days, and Hanna Roj, a native highlander, took place in April 1923. The ceremony itself, full of folk splendour, was widely believed to be a replica of the famous Bronowice wedding of Lucjan Rydel which, as we know, was the direct inspiration for Wyspiański's greatest play, The Wedding. That was when, fascinated with the folk rituals, Szymanowski decided to compose a highland ballet, which he then worked on for 8 years - breaking the creative record of the King Roger ordeal. The famous words "this very moment I have written Fine on the last page of 'Harnasie' and am glad that I'm finally rid of this problem of many years" - were not offered until 31 March 1931, in the composer's letter to Grzegorz Fitelberg.
The ballet's script is very simple: preparing for her wedding, not very happy in love, a highland girl falls in love with a Harnaś - a highland robber, who reciprocates her love. However, she decides to do her duty and go on with the marriage, having given her word. The colourful, ritual wedding celebration is interrupted by the sudden raid of a group of highland robbers who abduct the bride.
Even as it was being written, the script was the subject of many discussions. Iwaszkiewicz unsuccessfully suggested that Szymanowski forget the story line and focus exclusively on the colourful symbolism of a folk wedding, which was to have given the work a more universal character. Today the score of Harnasie is regarded as the fullest manifestation of the last, national and folkloristic period in the composer's output. The work itself, the idea for which was born under the influence of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, is the result of Szymanowski's fascination with the music of Stravinsky, its rhythm, colour, and very innovative approach to folkloristic material. Harnasie is often mentioned together with Le Sacre du Printemps, but the Polish composer seems to have been closer to the idiom of Petrushka, a ballet full of bright, grotesque piquancy that makes use of folk quotes. Writing this kind of music was quite a challenge for the composer. His characteristic tendency towards exuberant expression, and his love of a counterpoint texture, did not always go well with the character of the widely invoked genuine highland melodies. As we know, Szymanowski did not believe it was possible to directly transfer folk material into a space that was alien to it. Therefore he first tried to distil its most idiomatic qualities, in order to re-create them later in the new medium of high art. Perhaps that is why the clash between opposite elements and the special "friction" between melody, harmony and rhythm, so characteristic of many compositions of the "late" Szymanowski, reaches a special dimension in this score. For its composer, Harnasie is a work involving a difficult compromise and an attempt to find himself in a new aesthetic perspective. In retrospect, this was an invaluable though certainly difficult experience on his road as a composer. As he worked, Szymanowski's attitude towards his ballet kept changing, the emotional scale fluctuating like a sinusoid, moving from initial euphoria to complete negation in the latter stages of the creative process. A sense of duty well done prevailed in the end, and soon after he had finished the work, the composer - admittedly, rather immodestly - wrote
[...] I myself know that for 'Polish' [Szymanowski's emphasis] music this is brilliant, it's a granite pillar that cannot be toppled.
After many organizational problems, the work's world premiere took place in Prague in May 1935. The delayed Paris premiere came a year later. With choreography by Serge Lifar and stage design by Irena Lorentowicz, the production was a great success, bringing a ray of sunshine into the sad life of Szymanowski, who was practically dying by then.
Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.