Szymanowski composed Masques, the three pieces for piano, in 1915-1916. Originally intended as the first two parts, but finally adopted as parts two and three, Tantris the Buffoon and Don Juan's Serenade were written in the summer and autumn of 1915, whereas Sheherazade, planned as the concluding part yet finally moved to the beginning, was completed in 1916. Szymanowski dedicated each of the three miniatures to a different pianist: the first one to Alexander (Sasha) Dubyansky (who would premiere Masques in St Petersburg on 12th October 1916); the second one to Harry Neuhaus; and the third one to Artur Rubinstein.
Like the few months older Metopes, Masques too contain certain platform statements, as suggested by their titles. This time, however, Szymanowski chose three famous literary characters rather than heroes of Greek myths. As the title suggests, he went for characters marked by insincerity, ones who hide their real faces behind masks.
Condemned by the sultan to death for alleged infidelity, the eponymous Sheherazade, the key protagonist of the Arabian Book of One Thousand and One Nights, extends her life by story-telling. Tantris the Buffoon is Tristan, the character of the medieval story of Tristan and Isolde, in disguise, attempting to get to the castle to meet his beloved Isolde. Finally there is Don Juan, the infamous, unscrupulous, cunning seducer known from a number of plays as well as from a Mozart opera and a Byron poem.
Szymanowski's music, written in what he himself called 'a quasi-parodistic style'1, and expressing the complexity of nature of the characters and their 'masks', is highly dramatic and rich in contrasts, the dominant, expressive sounds being confronted with the sing-song, lyric melodies, some with an Oriental touch (Sheherazade), others evocative of Spanish music (Don Juan).
With one of the most complicated piano textures, Masques are a big skill-testing challenge to pianists and have therefore featured in the repertoires of such top-class musicians as Artur Rubinstein, Andrzej Czajkowski, Bronisława Kawalla, Jerzy Godziszewski, Światosław Richter, Jan Ekier, Andrzej Stefański, Karol Radziwonowicz, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Witold Małcużyński, Zbigniew Drzewiecki, Janusz Olejniczak as well as Takashi Yamamoto, Martin Roscoe, Carol Rosenberger, and others. Szymanowski himself liked playing Masques and did a recording in 1935. It was released by Tonpress in 1976, 1980 and 1982. Recently the work found an outstanding interpreter in Piotr Anderszewski, whose rendering was released on CD Anderszewski. Szymanowski by Virgin Classics / CD Accord in 2005.
In 1942, encouraged by his father Grzegorz, Jerzy Fitelberg made a piano-and-orchestra transcription of Masques, and twenty-two years later Jan Krenz wrote a symphonic version.
Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja / Letters, Volume I: 1903-1919, p. 459, letter to Stefan Spiess of 24th October 1915, ed. Teresa Chylińska, PWM, Kraków 1982.
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.
Manques Op. 34 by Karol Szymanowski - three pieces for piano (1. Scheherazade, 2. Tantris the Buffoon, 3. Don Juan's Serenade), composed in the years 1915-1916.
Everyone wears a mask at least once in their lives: whether it be an actual, physical mask - worn to a ball or a masquerade, or a mental mask in their relations with the world. Szymanowski himself was a master of the mask, a sophisticated self-creator. What are masks on their own, separated from their core figure: empty gestures, a pitiful play of conventions? This kind of fundamental question seems to be the starting point for the piano pieces in Op. 34. The three characters: Scheherazade, Tantris (an anagram of Tristan) and Don Juan, or rather the masks they put on in confrontation with those around them, form the axis of the work's very ambiguously suggested programme. Did the composer imagine them like the characters in a commedia dell'arte? Perhaps he did, if one considers his youthful fondness for family 'formalistic cabarets' and his slightly later fascination with Petrushka - the tragicomic ballet burlesque by Stravinsky. In such an approach, Masques would find a subsequent, more easy-going continuation in the composer's work completed five years later, Mandragora, a grotesque pantomime in 'three scenes'.
In a letter to Stefan Spiess, Szymanowski described the style of Masques as 'supposedly a parody'. The word 'supposedly' is the key. Parody, or perhaps rather irony and sarcasm are an important element of the emotional world of the individual pieces - important, but not the only one. Equally significant here is the agitation, or maybe even the tragedy illustrating how meaningless all those masked grimaces are. Compared to the earlier Metopy / Metopes, the piano style of Masques is more concrete: despite substantial complication (it is often written in three note systems!), the texture becomes more diverse, the articulation is sharper. In many elements, Szymanowski the impressionist enters the territory of Stravinsky and Prokofiev here, creating music filled with a bright piquancy.
Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.