One of Szymanowski's most famous violin works, the three-piece cycle Mythes Op. 30 was written in the spring of 1915 and dedicated to Zofia Kochańska, wife of the accomplished violinist Paweł Kochański. In fact, originally Kochańska was to be the dedicante of just the first part, The Spring of Arethusa (initially entitled "La source enchantée" / "The Echanted Spring", Szymanowski intending to dedicate parts two (Narcissus) and three (Dryads and Pan) to, respectively, Lord Alington and Lady Dean Paul, i.e. the composer Irena Wieniawska, Henryk's daughter, writing under the pseudonym "Poldowski". The first part of Mythes was performed by Paweł Kochański and Szymanowski himself in Kiev on 5th April 1915. The entire work could be heard for the first time - played by the same two - in Human on 10th May 1916.
"...In 'Mythes' and 'Concerto' Pawełek and myself have created a new style, new expression of violin playing, a truly epoch-making thing. All approximate-in-style works by other composers - be they most brilliant ones - were written later, that is under direct influence of 'Mythes' and 'Concerto', or with Pawełek's direct contribution" [Sergey Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky and others followed Kochanski's advice when writing violin music].1
Written fifteen years after he had composed his Mythes, these words of Szymanowski's underline the work's importance and its unquestionable artistic and historical value. As with the contemporaneous Metopes Op. 29 for piano, Szymanowski borrowed the titles of the cycle's three miniatures from Greek mythology. The mood of the fantastic visions - of the nymph Arethusa, turned into a stream, fleeing from Alpheus; of Narcissus, in love with his reflection in the pool, turned into a flower; of the dancing dryads and Pan playing his pipes - is achieved not only with a sophisticated and at times extraordinarily complicated harmony (including quartertones in part 3) but also with a plethora of means of articulation in the violin part, with numerous trills, glissandos combined with tremolos, and flageolets. On top of that there is the characteristic, delicate and light texture, made of static, yet internally shimmering and vibrant sound planes. Evocative of Impressionistic music, it is particularly audible in The Spring of Arethusa. All the composing techniques serve to produce new qualities of colour and emphasis, with powerful expression existing side by side with beautiful, lyrical melody, and ultimately to the crystallization of Szymanowski's individual style.
Since its first publication by Vienna's Universal Edition in 1921 Mythes have been published several times as a whole and in parts (parts 1 and 3). The first recording of the entire work, made for Orpheon by Eugenia Umińska and Zygmunt Dygat in 1938, was preceded by the recording of part 1, The Spring of Arethusa, by René Benedetti and Maurice Faure for Columbia around 1937. Since then Mythes have been performed and immortalized on recordings by Eugenia Umińska and Zygmunt Dygat, Wanda Wiłkomirska and Jadwiga Szamotulska, Jozsef Szigeti and Nikita Magaloff, Jacques Thibaud and Tasso Janopoul, David Oistrach and Vladimir Yampolsky, Konstanty Andrzej Kulka and Jerzy Marchwiński, Kaja Danczowska and Krystian Zimerman, Krzysztof Jakowicz and Krystyna Borucińska, Piotr Pławner and Waldemar Malicki, and other distinguished musicians. Of note is the performance of Mythes by Zoltan Székely and Bela Bartók himself (who was fascinated by Szymanowski's music) in 1921.
"Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja / Letters", Vol. III: 1927-1931, part 3, p. 113, letter of 5th March 1930 to Zofia Kochańska, ed. Teresa Chylińska, Musica Iagellonica, Kraków 1997.
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.
Myths - three poems for violin and piano Op. 30 is Szymanowski's most popular composition, and also the quintessence of his own original concept of impressionism, one of the first fruits of his collaboration with Paweł Kochański. The composer said on more than one occasion that together with the great violinist, he had created a new violin style. This is in fact true. Szymanowski's compositions for violin were studied in depth by Bartok, and they initially also made a great impression on Prokofiev, who listened to the Myths and immediately asked Kochański for consultation on his own first violin concerto. During their frequent meetings in Zarudzie in Ukraine, Szymanowski and Kochanski came to understand that the violin offered not only expression and virtuosity in the Romantic sense, but also extraordinary and still untapped possibilities of tone colour. Extensive sound mixtures, frequent and imaginatively incorporated flageolets, tremolandos, sul ponticello bowing, simultaneous bowed and pizzicato tones, and even quarter-tones, are effects no avant-garde sonorist from the second half of the 20th century would be ashamed of. All these means, which Szymanowski used as early as 1915, are not an external ornament. Penetrating deep into the sound matter of the composition, they dictate the form of the triptych's individual parts. Liberating the composer's imagination from classical patterns, they create a new world of free, poetic fantasy of sound.
"This is not meant to be a drama, unfolding in scenes one after another, (each) of which has anecdotic significance - this is rather a complex musical expression of the inspiring beauty of the Myth. The main 'key' of the 'flowing water' in Arethusa, the 'stagnant water' in Narcissus (the still and clear surface of the water in which the beauty of the (ephebe) Narcissus is reflected) - these are the main lines of the piece ... In the Dryads one can imagine the content in an anecdotic sense. Hence the murmuring of the forest on a hot summer's night, thousands of mysterious voices, all overlapping in the darkness - the fun and dancing of the Dryads. Suddenly the sound of Pan's pipe. Silence and anxiety. An atmospheric, dreamy melody. The appearance of Pan, the Dryads' amorous [word illegible], their ambiguously expressed fear = Pan skips away - the dance begins anew - then everything calms down in the freshness and silence of the breaking dawn. In all, a musical expression of the dreamy tension of a summer night. ..."
Karol Szymanowski in a letter to American violinist Robert Imandt written in mid-November 1923.
Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.