Written in 1930-2 and dedicated "to the memory of my brother Feliks", "Twelve Kurpie Songs op. 58" are Szymanowski's last cycle of vocal music.
Written in 1930-2 and dedicated 'to the memory of my brother Feliks', Twelve Kurpie Songs op. 58 are Szymanowski's last cycle of vocal music. A year after he had completed his Six Kurpie Songs, he reached out again for Father Władysław Skierkowski's collection Puszcza kurpiowska w pieśni and selected twelve folk tunes as a basis for his twelve lyrical miniatures. He made sure to retain the original folk colour, poetic aspect of text and the properties of the Kurpie dialect as well as reproducing the beautiful melodic lines characterized by an almost archaic simplicity and sparing use of motifs combined with a wealth of particular ornaments and rhythmic turns. He used direct - or indirect - quotes from Skierkowski's collection just at the beginning of every song, later on modifying and developing them in an elaborate fashion through rhythmic changes and figurations as well as transpositions of harmony and accompaniment. The expressiveness unfolds, the drama builds up, yet it is the folk singing that defines the style of the composition, the composer yielding to its restraint and austerity, its lack of exuberant expression, of eloquence, of ecstatic outbursts, and its nevertheless powerful, moving effect.
In his very own way Szymanowski emphasizes and accentuates the emotionality of the songs - from the lyrical reverie of no. 1 Lecioły zórazie and no. 3 Uwoz, mamo... to moments of deep and painful reflection in no. 5 A pod borem siwe kunie... and no. 7 Ściani dumbek to the vigorous and occasionally playful motorics of no. 2 Wysła burzycka, no. 6 Bzicem kunia..., no. 11 Wysły rybki, wysły. All of these moods are present in song no. 4, U jeziorecka, whose extremely varied character changes from carefree cheerfulness to escalating drama to subdued lyricism.
This is how Tadeusz A. Zieliński, musicologist and Szymanowski researcher, assessed the artistic merits of the composition:
One of the most valuable and original of all Szymanowski's works, the Kurpie Songs are a worthy culmination of his rich and evolving song production. A masterful combination of genuine folk with profundity and expressiveness of 'high' art, they are an unsurpassed phenomenon; a similar work is not easy to find in the 20th century music.1
Numerous transcriptions are a solid testimony of the popularity and artistic rank of Twelve Kurpie Songs. Song no. 1 Lecioły zurazie has three versions for voice and orchestra - by Grzegorz Fitelberg, Kazimierz Wiłkomirski and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati - and two for violin and piano (Roman Padlewski's and Irena Garztecka's and Stanisław Jarzębski's). Wiłkomirski produced a voice-and-orchestra transcription of song no. 2 Wysła burzycka; Irena Dubiska and Jerzy Lefeld transcribed the same song for violin and piano. Song no. 4 U jeziorecka also has two variants for voice and orchestra: one by Wiłkomirski, the other by Haubenstock-Ramati. Song no. 7 Ściani dumbek was transcribed for voice and orchestra by Fitelberg and for violin and piano by Dubiska and Lefeld. Fitelberg and Padlewski are also the respective authors of the voice-and-orchestra and violin-and-piano transcriptions of song no. 8 Leć, głosie, po rosie. Likewise, Fitelberg transcribed song no. 9 Zarzyjze, kuniu for voice and orchestra, while Paweł Kochański produced its violin-and-piano version. Furthermore, the songs no. 3 Uwoz, mamo..., no. 5 A pod borem siwe kunie... and no. 12 Wsyscy przyjechali have their versions for voice and orchestra by Fitelberg.
Given its unique cast and numerous transcriptions, one cannot possibly list all of the performances and recordings, complete or selective, of Twelve Kurpie Songs. It goes without saying that the work has enjoyed unflagging popularity and has featured in the repertoires of top musicians.
Tadeusz A. Zieliński, "Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza", PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 314-5.