• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 19: "The Song of the Night"

Last week, I talked a bit about one of my favorite graduate school mentors, Halina Goldberg, and we covered the Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz. This week, we're covering one of Bacewicz's teachers, Karol Szymanowski, who was perhaps the most celebrated Polish composer of the early twentieth century.

Szymanowski was heavily influenced by the music of Wagner, Strauss, Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel, and of course, his fellow countryman, Chopin. All of this resulted in a modern musical language that was uniquely his own, on full display in his dazzling Third Symphony.

Szymanowski's Third Symphony, dubbed, "The Song of the Night," is a musical setting of a poem by the 13th-century Persian mystic, Rumi. The poem, reproduced below in a new English translation by Ann and Adam Czerniawscy, depicts the sublime beauty of the Eastern night.

"Oh, do not sleep, friend, through this night.

You a soul, while we are suffering through this night.

Banish slumber from your eyes!

The great secret is revealed in this night.

You are Jove in the high heavens,

Round heav’n’s starry dome you circle, in this night.

Like an eagle fly above!

Now a hero is your soul in this night!

Such quiet, others sleep …

I and God alone together in this night.

What a roar! Joy arises!

Truth with gleaming wing is shining in this night!

[Oh, do not sleep, friend,]

If I slumbered until sunrise,

I should never, never see this night again!

Thorough-fares, on earth are silent.

There behold the starry roads of this night!

Leo, Orion,

Andromeda and Mercury

Gleam blood-red through this night!

Saturn binds with fateful powers,

Venus floats in golden rain through this night.

Silence binds my tongue with fetters,

But I speak though tongueless in this night!"

The symphony employs a large orchestra, solo tenor, and optional choir. When considering Rumi's text -- which Szymanowski had translated into Polish by his friend, the poet Tadeusz Miciński -- Szymanowski knew that it didn't make good musical sense to marry Western musical language with 12th-century Persian poetry. Instead, he opted for something distinctly more Oriental and, musically speaking, chromatic. Indeed, rather than relying on the dominant-tonic trajectory that is the hallmark of Western harmony, the climax of Szymanowski's symphony is built upon a simple, yet stunningly powerful half-step motion.

The performers are a real dream team for this work: the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, the tenor Ryszard Minkiewicz, and the conductor Antoni Wit. Enjoy! :)

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