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The programme of Polish music presented by the Monnaie this autumn to mark the Polish Presidency of the European Union comes to a close with a series of fascinating concertini during the month of December and with a recital by the soprano Elżbieta Szmytka, a singer who has already appeared several times at the Monnaie. Accompanied by Levente Kende, she will offer us a superb journey through Polish music, the romantic compositions of Fryderyk Chopin and the bewitching music of Karol Szymanowski.
During the recital you will perform Chopin’s songs, a composer known primarily for his compositions for piano.
Chopin only composed nineteen songs, and it is possible that one of those was not actually written by him. They are very simple songs inspired by folk music and intended to amuse the ladies in their drawing rooms. In Chopin’s time there was no radio or television and people entertained themselves by playing music with family or friends. Chopin, therefore, wrote music that was pleasant to listen to and easy to sing. The composer spent most of his adult life abroad, and his songs, like all his music, are strongly tinged with nationalism and steeped in the melancholy he felt for his beloved Poland…
But you have also included some of Chopin’s solo pieces for piano in this recital.
In his compositions for voice the tunes are certainly less complex than in his work for the piano, but the harmonies are not less interesting or the accompaniments less brilliant. The pianist, Levente Kende, and I wanted to point this out by including in the programme those pieces for which Chopin is so famous.
The other composers in the programme are Karol Szymanowski and Mieczyslaw Karlowicz.
Szymanowski and Karlowicz were members of Young Poland – a nationalist and modernist movement of the type born all over Europe at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Both of them studied in Berlin and Karlowicz also in Heidelberg. Once back in their own country they tried to create a new, original nationalist style based on their cultural roots. They wanted to distinguish their music from the ‘music of everywhere’ an expression coined by Szymanowski, meaning a style that was practised by everyone. With this goal in mind, they drew on the musical heritage and traditions of Poland and they tried to depict this heritage in their compositions. Karlowicz was particularly drawn to the form of the symphonic poem. Unfortunately he was a passionate climber and died whilst climbing a mountain when he was only thirty-three years old. He was not a joyous young man, more inclined towards moroseness which is clearly reflected in his chamber music and orchestral works. Questions about life, love and death are everywhere with the underlying message “ We are suffering, perfect happiness is unattainable, but we hang in there as it will not last for ever”. Karlowicz thought about death every day of his short life. For his sad songs he turned deliberately to the poetry of Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, one of his contemporaries with whom he shared a love of mountains. We can, in some ways, compare his work to the modern day death metal genre of music: “Everything leads to death, and death is our deliverance” – except that Karlowicz and Tetmajer provide a more beautiful verbal and musical interpretation of that idea.
All of that is a million miles from Rimes enfantines by Szymanowski…
These songs by Szymanowski are closer to Moussorgski’s song cycle, Les enfantines. They are not really songs for children: Szymanowski rather tries to describe the world through the eyes of a child. In this work he has incorporated numerous popular songs and set out to write in the style of nursery rhymes. They are rather intellectual songs which seek to penetrate the emotional world of the child. Szymanowski resorts to a very colourful language: he uses notably the noises made by animals such as the pig and the cow… Vocal virtuosity is not central to these songs. For once the singer has to forget that he or she studied at the conservatory and try to sing with a maximum of simplicity but without naivety. That appealed to me and I wanted to confront these two worlds: the world as seen through the eyes of a child and poignant songs about love, life and death.
In recent years we have seen a resurgence of interest in Szymanowski’s work.
That is easy to explain: everything has it time. Why do we sing operas by Dvořák and Janáček in Czech and give recitals in Czech and Russian, languages easily as difficult to access as Polish for most western Europeans? That apparently poses no problem and yet Polish is seen as too difficult. But, at the heart of the repertoire, as there are fewer and fewer undiscovered works, it is Szymanowski’s turn to arouse interest. Besides some fantastic oratorios, there is, sadly, only one opera, Król Roger. I think that Szymanowski is as much an impressionist as Debussy, he creates marvellous tones. It is just necessary to possess enough sensitivity to interpret his work.
interview by Frederic Delmotte