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About this Piece

It doesn’t much help the dissemination of a dead composer’s music for that composer to be identified primarily as the father of his native country’s present musical creators. Yet it is essentially for his influence on the younger generation of Polish composers, such as Lutosławski, Penderecki, and Górecki, that Karol Szymanowski is known. Much to the chagrin of his staunch followers, who argue for performances of works from a large catalog that includes two operas, a ballet, three symphonies, and an oratorio, Szymanowski is represented in concerts, at least in America, mainly by some piano pieces (Artur Rubinstein championed his keyboard works) and compositions for violin. Of the latter group, Mythes has had a place in the repertoires of many renowned fiddlers, and, with a piano part equally as virtuosic as that for the string instrument, it has attracted important pianists as well.

As conspicuous in Mythes as its admittedly showy virtuosity is the gorgeous, sensual beauty of the music. Having gone through a period of emulating his idol Chopin, then of following in the footsteps of the Germans Richard Strauss and Max Reger, Szymanowski next came under the influence of the Impressionists (Debussy and Ravel) and of Scriabin, whose orientalism and mysticism color the present work. It was during this latter period, in 1915, that Mythes was written, and the work clearly speaks with a French accent. The fleeting, darting images, the exquisite instrumental and harmonic colors, the free yet logically controlled form, all stem from the style of the dynamic Impressionist duo. But in Szymanowski’s hands, the manner is not the whole message; the Impressionism emerges in highly original and ingenious ways. Many years after he wrote the work, the composer, exhibiting no false modesty, said, “ the Mythes and the Violin Concerto, Paul [Kochanski, his close friend and violinist collaborator] and I have created a new style, a new idiom, in violin playing; in this respect an epochal matter.”

Concurring with this appraisal, musicologist Adam Walaciński explained, in part, that “The essence of Szymanowski’s novelty lies in his creative application of those [violin] techniques already worked out in the virtuoso literature of bygone epochs, in detaching them from the substratum in which they had originated and in putting them into the service of his own refined sound coloring.... For all their technical complications, Szymanowski’s violin compositions bear no traces of composing in defiance of the nature of the instrument... the parallel fourths/fifths, sevenths and second double-stop progressions, conditioned by modern harmony and unheard of in earlier literature, which occur also in combination with trills, are composed in full accordance with the natural system of violin fingering and the natural posture of the left hand, and they often, as it were, spring directly from it.... [One assumes Paul Kochanski’s advice on violin technique played a meaningful role in Szymanowski’s string writing.] “The composer sets different effects together into kaleidoscopic arrangements and forms of uncommon variegation of colors...”

Scenes from Greek mythology are the programmatic/symbolic stuff of the Mythes. In the first, “La Fontaine d’Aréthuse,” which tells the story of the nymph who, in escaping the pursuit of the god Alpheios, is transformed into a spring, the violin sings quietly and loftily in very high range with the piano murmuring gently and constantly below. The instruments are deployed in fascinating, extravagantly complex passages that build to an enormous outburst (the chase?). A varied repetition of the opening material culminates in the violin executing a tremolo glissando and then a chain of trills that ripple very quietly into nothingness.

In “Narcisse,” rhythmic displacement and mirror sounds in the instruments are suggestive of the handsome young man whose admiration of himself in his reflection in the water leads to an unfortunate fate. Intense climaxes are countered by ravishing pianissimos, and this piece too ends in a whisper.

The “Dryades et Pan” movement is the most pictorial of the three, with contrasting themes depicting Pan’s wooing, which begins with the violin alone, as the score directs, imitating his flute, and a section of abandoned energy portraying the orgiastic dance of the Dryads. Its energy spent, this section, as the other two, ends quietly. (It’s evidence of his artistic integrity, I think, that Szymanowski didn’t end this major work with bravura fireworks, but instead allowed the subject matter to determine the form.)

—Orrin Howard