Composed in the summer of 1921 and dedicated to his sister (and the work's first interpreter) Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, Słopiewnie Op. 46 bis - five songs to poems by Julian Tuwim - mark a breakthrough in Szymanowski's music as they initiate a new, folk-and-national trend looking to pre-Slavic culture and to what Szymanowski considered its embodiment: the art and music of the Podhale region.
Szymanowski got fascinated with its modality, simplicity, vitality and energy going side by side with lyrical expression, and Słopiewnie were the first demonstration of this fascination. Representing his own, individual style, Szymanowski's music is in ideal harmony with Tuwim's poetry of extreme grace and rich in resounding neologisms that resemble the Polish speech. While striving to capture the specific features of the Podhale folk music, Szymanowski never directly quoted or plainly styled any folk tunes. Instead, he evoked the characteristic mood with sparing means, such as simplification of motifs, elimination of vivid colours and use of uncomplicated, melodic phrases based on modal scales. Despite such "limitations" Słopiewnie carry a huge emotional load. The first song, Słowisień, delights with its lyricism and subtle, almost ascetic, sound - in contrast with the more expressive and picturesque second song Zielone słowa. The third song, Święty Franciszek, starts with the characteristic turns of melody and ornaments in the piano part that emulate the singing of the birds, and introduces the famous Sabała tune which will appear in the ballet Harnasie a few years later. The fourth song, Kalinowe dwory, introduces the special, exuberant rhythm of mountaineer dances that culminates with the vigorous, youthful 'Hey!'. Wanda, the last song, its mood that of a quiet lament evoking the monotonous folk wailing, moves one with profundity of emotions achieved with a minimum of means, that is with single piano sounds intricately interlaced with voice in piano dynamics.
Emphasizing the flawless composition of Słopiewnie, Tadeusz A. Zieliński wrote:
What one encounters in 'Słopiewnie' is artistry of the top calibre both in terms of originality of experience and structural sophistication. It is undeniably one of the most interesting twentieth-century masterpieces of the miniature form of the song and one of the most innovative, 'avant-garde' works in terms of harmony and expression.1
In 1924 roku Szymanowski instrumented Słopiewnie for chamber orchestra. The entire cycle was first performed by Alice Miriam and Allan Tanner in New York on 20th January 1922, but was preceded by Szymanowski's sister singing two of the songs, Święty Franciszek and Wanda, with Edward Steinberger at the piano, in Lvov on 17th January 1922. Universal Edition first published the original version in the Polish, French and German languages in 1923 and the orchestral version in 1929.
Szymanowski's masterpiece, Słopiewnie has featured in the repertoires of the best singers, including Zofia Kilanowicz, Izabela Kłosińska, Jadwiga Gadulanka, Bożena Harasimowicz, Andrzej Bachleda and Iwona Sobotka. Sobotka's interpretation can be heard on the four-CD album of complete Szymanowski songs, released by the Dutch label Channel Classics in 2004.
Tadeusz A. Zieliński, Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza, PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 212.
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.