Despite the true sumptuousness and impetus of the symphony and the variety of musical concepts manifest in it, the piece has a clear structure. Its three monumental parts (Paderewski intended for the symphony to comprise four movements, but fourth, a scherzo, was never finished) are bound together by a characteristic ‘motif of violence’, appearing in the first part and subsequently emerging in all the remaining ones as a Wagnerian leitmotif. It is performed on four contrabass sarrusophones and a thunder sheet – a ‘rustling’ percussion instrument in the form of a thin sheet of metal. The main theme of the introductory allegro, composed to celebrate Poland’s heroic past, is notable for its dynamism and expressiveness. The solemn tone is further emphasised by the pipe organ introduced in the ending. The beautiful, lyrical middle andante con moto symbolises the poetic nature of the Polish nation. Its dense, elegiac theme, intonated by a solo clarinet, is contrasted with the ‘motif of violence’ that abruptly breaks it. The finale Vivace is a commemoration of the events of 1836 and 1864 – the January Uprising and heroic fight for liberation. The music in this part is particularly dramatic and strong, which stems from the juxtaposition of two opposing ideas: the hope for victory, envisioned in the motifs based on the melody of Poland Is Not Yet Lost, with the ‘motif of violence’ and the funeral march. The piece is finished with a brilliant coda symbolising victory. All parts of the Symphony in B minor are exceptional because of the mastery of its instrumentation and the versatile tones of the orchestra.
Paderewski’s monumental work was performed for the first time on 12th February 1909 in Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Fiedler. Soon after it reached the stages of London (conducted by Hans Richter) and the Conservatoire de Paris (conducted by André Messager). Having heard the piece, Jules Combarieu, a renowned French critic, wrote:
Paderewski’s symphony is a very personal work. It is manifest mostly in the formal layer, as – except for a few bars when I unintentionally thought of Berlioz – it stems from pure inspiration and doesn’t owe anything to anybody. It is a personal work for higher reasons. Paderewski is one of those who write because they have something to say – and their talent is an emanation of their character. I have once heard Paderewski say, very seriously, ‘I love music, but I love my homeland even more’. It can be easily guessed what happens with such a feeling in the soul of a great Polish artist. … In Memoriam, Sursum corda – under these modest titles of the first and last part of the symphony, a current of hot emotion flows.
The Polish audience heard the Symphony in B minor ‘Polonia’ for the first time in 1910 in Lwów. The performance, directed by Henryk Opieński, took place during a congress of Polish musicians commemorating the 100th anniversary of Frédéric Chopin’s birth. A year later, it was performed in Warsaw.
Due to the monumental length of the piece, the first recordings were of shortened variants of it. One of them is the interpretation by Ignacy Jan Paderewski Pomeranian Philharmonic in Bydgoszcz conducted by Bohdan Wodiczko, released as an LP by Polskie Nagrania in 1974 (Muza SXL0968). The world premiere of the complete version took place as late as 2001. The album, recording the performance of Sinfonia Varsovia orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk, was released by the Polish Radio (PRCD 142). In the same year, an interpretation of the symphony by the Chamber Orchestra of the Academy of Music in Kraków conducted by Wojciech Czepiel was published by DUX (DUX 0304).
Written by Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, July 2010, translated by NS October 2016.