Forged in the War

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

It has now become commonplace to call the 19th century the “long 19th century,” owing to the fact that its beginning and end are marked not by round years but by events that defined its character and culture. The century is often thought of as beginning in 1789, the year of the French Revolution. The Revolution and its aftermath changed not only the perception of monarchical power that stretched back to the middle ages, but the nature of politics and our sense of history. The 19th century came to a close somewhere between 1918, at the end of the First World War, and 1919, the year of the negotiations at the Versailles Peace Conference.

2014 marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Most Americans, when thinking about the history of the 20th century, focus on World War II as the defining and perhaps most brutal event of the century. The reasons are obvious. For the United States, World War II had fronts in Europe and Asia. It lasted approximately four years. But World War I was, for America, a relatively brief experience: the U.S. entered it only in 1917. American casualties were 117,000, as opposed to 417,000 during the years of fighting in World War II. But for Europeans, it was the First World War that was shocking, traumatic, and transformative, not only because both sides in Europe lost millions (England and France suffered more military deaths than in World War II) and the war delivered an experience of horror and death hitherto unprecedented in history, but also because, as Sigmund Freud noted as early as 1930, it laid the foundation for the next horrific war. For all the pacifism of the 1920’s, World War I was followed by economic instability, the depression, and fascism, lending little hope for a world at peace. World War I also made possible the October Revolution in Russia that brought in communism and ultimately the Soviet Union of Stalin.

If there is a legitimate notion of a “just” war, the Second World War might qualify. The Allies fought against obvious aggressors (Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany) and in at least one case—Nazi Germany—an unambiguously evil regime. Despite the devastating consequences of the Allied nations’ “blind eye” to the dangers Germany posed after 1933, it was soon crystal clear that Nazism was a radical and innovative incarnation of barbarism. The First World War, by contrast, began for reasons that still remain difficult to explain. What could have remained a minor conflict—reprisals for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—exploded because of an intricate web of pacts, treaties, royal family relations, imperial conceits, and economic ambitions that meant little to the ordinary people who ended up doing the fighting and dying. Yet the populations on all sides were initially fired up by patriotic fervor. They embraced a jingoistic rhetoric of honor and glory, defending a constructed sense of national singularity against nebulous threats defined for them by massive propaganda campaigns that even evoked widespread enthusiasm among intellectuals and artists in France, England, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russia. In 1914, everyone expected the war to be short. But the glories of God and country rapidly lost their allure in the wake of the senseless destruction experienced in trench warfare. The war led to the “lost generation” and shattered ideals and cultivated hopelessness.

Although today the actual causes of World War I are still the subject of intense debate among historians, the analysis by the victors immediately following the war was revealing. World War I was of course laid at the feet of Germany’s imperial ambitions, and that country was humiliated economically (to the consternation of wiser heads such as John Maynard Keynes). Large parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were formerly in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were broken out into nations. Some were more heterogeneous than others, such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. But the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Wilson’s emphasis on self-determination, gave a boost to a triumphant and essentialist nationalism in a reconstituted and independent Poland and a crippled Hungary—stripped, after the Treaty of Trianon, of what most Hungarians regarded as their legitimate territory.

Nationalism thrived, despite the carnage of the war, not only among the victors, but also among the defeated. Europe did not embrace Woodrow Wilson’s vision of international cooperation explicit in the League of Nations. The United States never even joined. Nations new and old in the 1920s internally cultivated political solidarity based on race, ethnic inheritance, religion, myth, and territory. While some celebrated the restoration of identity and autonomy once subsumed by dynastic empires (e.g. Poland), others burned with resentment about lands and resources taken from them. This outcome gave some historians pause, and a new revisionist assessment of the causes became widespread, in which the blame was shared. After World War II, new research shifted the blame back to Germany. But once again, after the fall of communism in the 1990s, historical opinion has shifted back to placing the responsibility on all the major European powers.

Very few foresaw the consequences of the war and its aftermath. Most of the resistance to the war at its start came from the left. From a Marxist point of view, the masses had little to gain and everything to lose from a war that was only about chauvinism and national rivalries. But not surprisingly, among those who were enthusiastic for war were the elites of those ethnic and national groups subordinated by the monarchical imperial political structures that dominated Europe for nearly two centuries before 1914. The minorities in the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire welcomed the war; it gave hope to their nationalist aspirations. For the Jews of Europe, the rise of nationalism after 1848 accentuated anti-Semitism, and the futility of establishing a place of safety and equality in Europe for Jews. The outlook for political and social equality dimmed throughout Europe, from England to Russia, and only seemed to deepen as the century turned. But World War I unexpectedly offered a ray of hope in two contradictory ways: by offering an opportunity for Jews to demonstrate their loyalty to the nations in which they lived, and by lending Jewish nationalism, in the form of Zionism, legitimacy.

Tonight’s concert explores the transformation of European culture that began with the outbreak of World War I. By the 1920s, in addition to a renewed nationalism, an entirely new cultural landscape was visible. The seeds of reaction against Romanticism, already present since the 1890s, blossomed into everything from Dadaism, Constructivism, and atonality. The poetics of Tennyson were displaced with those of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; the novel as perfected by George Eliot was supplanted by the achievement of James Joyce. This massive cultural shift was accelerated and in part inspired by the experience of the war. Indeed it might be said that in cultural terms, the 20th century can be understood as having been forged in the crucible of World War I. That claim holds true for music.

In order to illustrate this argument, tonight’s concert begins with a musical mirror of the power of patriotism among the populations within all the combatant countries. Max Reger’s Eine vaterländische Ouvertüre is no longer played because of its embarrassing political intent. Reger was one of the most celebrated composers at the turn of the century. He displayed an unrivaled mastery of counterpoint. He was considered, alongside Richard Strauss, as the great hope of German music. If Strauss was the heir to Wagner, Reger was viewed as the heir to Brahms. Reger’s complex, lush, and densely scored music has had its fierce partisans, including Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin. Yet it has receded undeservedly into the shadows, in part because Reger died suddenly in 1916 and because, as a patriot, Reger was unapologetic concerning his conceit that in music, Germany’s superiority over all other nations and cultures was undisputed.

Following Reger’s overture, Ernest Bloch’s Israel Symphony will be performed. Bloch was by birth a Jew from Geneva, Switzerland. Early in his career he came to the United States, where he taught and wielded enormous influence. Roger Sessions was among his students. Inspired by Wagner, Bloch tried to emulate the Master of Bayreuth’s success in expressing the German spirit through music. Bloch, beginning in 1913 and through the war, sought to write music that would exemplify a shared national identity among Jews. The Israel Symphony was finished just before 1917, when in the context of rising nationalism and plans to rewrite the map of Europe and the Middle East dominated by the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, Zionism found its most powerful source of international legitimacy: the Balfour Declaration. Balfour made clear to the world Europe’s intention to support the building of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The rapid growth of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century throughout Europe in the face of rabid anti-Semitism crystallized during the war. England and other countries had an interest in sending its Jewish population elsewhere, and Jewish national aspirations concurred. These aspirations found their way into Bloch’s music. The Israel Symphony (along with Bloch’s other famous “Jewish” works: Schelomo, Three Jewish Poems, and the later Sacred Service) reveals a synthesis of European compositional traditions and a Jewish national sensibility located in liturgy and folk tradition.

The program then turns to Charles Ives, the eccentric, radical, modernist insurance executive who also was America’s most innovative and iconoclastic compositional voice from the early 20th century. Ives trained with Horatio Parker at Yale, but like Gustav Mahler (who was curious about Ives’s music), Ives developed a musical strategy that allowed him to use fragmentation to create a sort of musical assemblage, creating layers of contrasting sounds that juxtapose past and present and are often evocative of nostalgia and childhood. Inspired by the sinking of the Lusitania, Ives wrote the Second Orchestral Set, a startlingly courageous essay in musical form, one that in its third movement highlights America’s exceptional status and dramatic entrance into a transformative historical event. Ives, a sharp critic of politicians, became a fierce advocate of Liberty Bonds and called on fellow Americans to “fight this war out in a democratic way.”

The concert closes with the Third Symphony of Karol Szymanowski. Szymanowski saw himself as the true successor to Frederic Chopin. Indeed, Szymanowski became the musical voice of the Polish nation that was created after 1918. He became director of the Warsaw Conservatory. Szymanowski helped shape the vibrant modernist culture in independent Poland. Poland had been partitioned in the late 18th century by three monarchies: Germany, Russia, and the Habsburg Empire. The most significant public partisan on behalf of an independent Poland on the eve of World War I was another musician, Ignaz Paderewski. Poland may be the only nation ever to have had a great musician as its president (though Paderewski’s success in politics did not rival that of his musical career).

But it was Szymanowski, not Paderewski, who would define the cultural renaissance of Poland after the war. Szymanowski’s early music reveals the enormous influence of Richard Strauss. But Szymanowski moved on and incorporated into his musical language the sonorities and strategies of Scriabin and Debussy. During the First World War he perfected his own distinctive musical voice. The Third Symphony is one of Szymanowski’s wartime masterpieces (others are Myths and the first Violin Concerto) and reveals a decisive shift in harmonic language and the sense of form from his less well-known but equally impressive Second Symphony. Among those who believed deeply in Szymanowski’s importance and originality as a European composer were his close colleague, the violinist Paul Kochanski, who spent many years teaching in New York; the violinist Roman Totenberg (a younger protégé); and the great pianist (himself an ardent Polish patriot) Artur Rubinstein—all (ironically) highly assimilated Polish Jews.

This concert therefore reveals how politics and art interacted during a period of intense suffering, violence, and change. The First World War ushered in a new era. The effects of that era can still be seen in the politics of Europe today. And its echoes can be heard in the music on this evening’s program.

Max Reger, A Patriotic Overture

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born March 19, 1873, in Brand, Germany
Died May 11, 1916, in Leipzig, Germany
Composed in 1914
Premiered on January 5, 1916 in Wiesbaden, Germany
Approximate performance time: 16 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 6 trumpets, 6 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, triangle), organ, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses

The outbreak of World War I was greeted by feelings of euphoria by large segments of the German population—certainly by the upper and middle classes. ‟The spirit of 1914,” as it came to be called in history books, was a mixture of national pride, deep contempt for the enemy countries, and an unwavering confidence in a German victory that seemed a foregone conclusion. Max Reger, normally not a very political person, was also swept up in this whirlwind. Rejected by the military for medical reasons, he picked up his pen and composed a Patriotic Overture which he dedicated ‟to the German Army.”

Reger’s works have become something of a rarity on concert programs these days, yet he must be counted among the leading German composers of his generation, with a unique late-Romantic voice that brings together elements that were seldom combined in quite the same way. One cornerstone of Reger’s musical universe was J. S. Bach. A prominent organist, the Bavarian native was a master of counterpoint and wrote chorale preludes, passacaglias, and fugues like his great predecessor. At the same time, Reger was also very much a child of his own time, heavily influenced by Wagnerian chromaticism, and also revering Brahms (then considered Wagner’s antithesis), whom he followed in eschewing program music and cultivating the traditional forms of sonata, quartet, and concerto. His huge catalog contains close to 150 opus numbers—an astonishing productivity, especially if one considers that his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 43.

All of these influences and artistic tendencies are on display in the ‟Patriotic Overture.” Far from being the potboiler the title and the dedication might suggest, it is a work of considerable complexity, as if Reger had wanted to put all his learning and all his craft in the service of the Fatherland. In his overture, he wove together several national melodies, all well known to his audiences, starting with the Deutschlandlied (‟Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”). This, of course, is the famous Austrian Imperial hymn composed by Joseph Haydn that had become a popular patriotic song in Germany with new lyrics composed by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1841. (In 1922 it became the official German national anthem, and was re-adopted after World War II.) According to the often repeated but probably untrue story (that Reger must have read in the papers), German soldiers sang this melody as they marched into the battle of Langemarck, Belgium in October 1914, where they suffered heavy losses at the hands of the British. Others claimed that the soldiers sang the Wacht am Rhein (‟The Guard on the Rhine”), another famous anthem—and Reger used that as well, as he did the Lutheran chorale Nun danket alle Gott (‟Now Thank We All our God”), which Bach had also arranged, in addition to Gelübde (‟Vow”), familiar from Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (1880). Reger combined all these melodies with the contrapuntal art for which he was famous; the extensive motivic transformations and fragmentations to which he subjected his material were themselves perceived as quintessentially German compositional techniques. (He sent several of his friends a draft that shows the combination of the chorale with the Deutschlandslied, with the comment: ‟It’s very good that it fits!”)

In its formal outline, too, the overture avoids the obvious. It opens with a lengthy slow introduction where the traditional melodies are presented, and the ensuing Animato section, with its intense counterpoint, is interrupted by a Tranquillo section where a new, and original, melody is heard (an early commentator dubbed this the ‟theme of peace”). Halfway through the piece, the tempo even drops down to Largo before it picks up again for the final apotheosis. At one point, Reger calls for two extra trumpets and two trombones to be placed in the hall.

Reger conducted the first performance of the overture in Wiesbaden on January 5, 1916. Predictably, the work was very successful; nor should it surprise anyone that it remained a favorite during the Nazi era, which in turn made it anathema in Germany after 1945. Yet in 2014, one could hardly imagine a better lesson in history or a more palpable demonstration of what ‟the spirit of 1914” really meant.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Ernest Bloch, Israel Symphony

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 24, 1880, in Geneva, Switzerland
Died July 15, 1959, in Portland, OR
Composed from 1912 to 1916
Premiered on May 3, 1917, at Carnegie Hall conducted by Bloch
Approximate performance time: 31 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 4 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, low tamtam, triangle), 1 celesta, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, female chorus, and bass vocal soloist

Between 1904 and 1913, Ives composed a monumental ‟Holidays Symphony” that portrayed four major American holidays. His contemporary, Ernest Bloch, younger by six years, embarked on a somewhat similar project in 1912, setting to music some of the major Jewish holidays. (His original title for the work was Fêtes juives; it was the famous writer Romain Rolland who suggested the definitive title.) World War I broke out while Bloch was working on his symphony, and within a year of its completion, the composer moved from his native Switzerland to the United States, where he would spend most of his life. He conducted the first performance of his Israel Symphony in New York on May 3, 1917.

Bloch’s quest for a musical expression of his Jewish identity took center stage in his life during the 1910s. These were the years where he composed his most frequently performed work, Schelomo for cello and orchestra, among other Jewish-inspired pieces. The idiom he created in his so-called ‟Jewish cycle” was largely independent from Jewish traditional music. Instead, Bloch relied mostly on his intuition in addition to some scattered childhood memories, constructing an imaginary identity where Biblical inspiration is intermingled with the image of the prophetic artist who represents the Jewish people but at the same time remains distinct from the people. Thus, Bloch’s concept of Jewishness is built upon the opposites of individuality and community, of simultaneously belonging and not belonging. (Musicologist Klára Móricz writes fascinatingly about Bloch’s contradictions in her 2008 book Jewish Identities.)

The elements of Bloch’s Jewish style include short motifs consisting of simple, repeated intervals without a strong rhythmic pulse that evoke, if not actually replicate, the liturgical recitative of the synagogue. He works with these short motifs in a grand symphonic manner, elaborating them extensively and orchestrating them sumptuously.

The Israel Symphony is in three movements. The first, ‟Prayer in the Desert,” is the shortest of the three; it sets the stage for the two more elaborate statements to follow with a meditative opening melody that is developed in a solemn manner. The second movement, ‟Yom Kippur,” surprises with its wild dissonances and angular rhythms, presumably representing the sins for which Jews have to atone on this highest of the high holidays. The ‟wild” theme contrasts with a more lyrical second idea suggesting heartfelt repentance. Bloch’s vision of this day of judgment unfolds with great dramatic power; the lament of the sinner begging for forgiveness is strikingly portrayed by a plaintive oboe solo introducing an intensely emotional slower section, from which we once again awaken to the horrors of that fearsome day. The movement ends with a moment of quiet prayer. (In an uncanny coincidence, the three-movement structure of the Israel Symphony—brief slow introduction, dynamic fast movement, introspective finale—almost completely mirrors that of Ives’s Second Set.)

In the Jewish calendar, Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, comes only four days after Yom Kippur. Unrelated in their origins, the two holidays are nevertheless connected by their temporal proximity as the austere day of atonement is followed by a celebration of life. In contemporary observance, the eight days of Sukkot are marked by happy family gatherings in sukkot or tents especially built for the holiday, with roofs made of, or decorated with, different kinds of fruit and green leaves. But in ancient Israel, it was a solemn festival where sacrifices were offered at the temple in Jerusalem, with pilgrims from all over the country in attendance.

In Bloch’s representation of Sukkot, we hear the voices of the ancient pilgrims in peaceful and heartfelt melodies played by solo violin, harps, and woodwinds, rising to a majestic climax where the solo voices (first two sopranos and two altos, followed a little later by the bass) enter: ‟Adonay, my Elohim, hear my prayer, Alleluia…” The recitative singing at one point grows more elaborate and melismatic, but the ending returns to a simpler style as the prayer turns increasingly from public worship to internalized, private expression.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Charles Ives, Orchestral Set No. 2

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, CT
Died May 19, 1954, in New York City
Composed from 1909 to 1915
Premiered on February 11, 1967, in Chicago
Approximate performance time: 16 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 French horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, light gong, chimes, heavy gong, triangle), 1 harpsichord (scored for zither), 1 accordion, 2 Theremins, 2 pianos, 1 organ, 1 harp, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, and chorus

Born one year after Reger, Charles Ives was every bit as American as his contemporary was German. And he was even more fond of quoting traditional melodies, as American folk songs, march and hymn tunes are constant points of reference in his works. Yet there is a great difference: Ives treated his traditional materials with a certain detachment, somewhat in the manner of a collage, unlike Reger, who never put his chorales in any kind of quotation marks. Ives scholar Thomas Brodhead has suggested that Ives’s approach has something ‟surrealistic” about it in that ‟common, familiar objects are painted extremely realistically in bizarre or improbable combinations or in strange contexts.”

Distinct from his symphonies, Ives’s ‟orchestral sets” are programmatic triptychs, slightly analogous to Debussy’s orchestral Images. The first orchestral set is better known as Three Places in New England. The second set, unpublished and unperformed during Ives’s lifetime, was not heard until 1967 (when Morton Gould conducted it with the Chicago Symphony) and not printed until the 1990s. (A third orchestral set was sketched but not completed by Ives, and was eventually reconstructed by David G. Porter and Nors Josephson).

Like many of Ives’s works, the Second Orchestral Set had a long and complicated genesis. The three movements were written as separate pieces in 1909, 1911, and 1915, respectively; only later did Ives decide to unite them under a single title. The second movement also shares material with such earlier works as the Ragtime Dances, the First Piano Sonata, and the Set for Theatre Orchestra.

The brief first movement (‟An Elegy to Our Forefathers”) places isolated fragments from a number of traditional songs within an eerie, multi-layered orchestral texture. (In his score, Ives included a zither, a rare guest in a symphony orchestra.) The second (‟The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting”) is a rambunctious scherzo in the form of a ragtime that is a true collage of hymn fragments, boldly transformed and distorted. Brodhead emphasized the singular metamorphosis that turned a couple of revival hymns into a ragtime.

The third movement (‟From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose”) commemorates the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by the German Navy on May 7, 1915, where 1,200 civilians perished. (This tragedy played a role in the United States’ eventual entry into the war.) In his Memos (personal jottings collected and published posthumously), Ives related how, the day of the disaster, he was waiting for the ‟L” train at Hanover Square when a barrel-organ player began to play:

Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn’t seem to be singing for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came and everybody crowded in, and the song eventually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed. Almost nobody talked—the people acted as though they might be coming out of a church service. In going uptown, occasionally little groups would start singing or humming the tune.

Now what was the tune? It wasn’t a Broadway hit, it wasn’t a musical comedy air, it wasn’t a waltz tune or a dance tune or an opera tune or a classical tune, or a tune that all of them probably knew. It was (only) the refrain of an old Gospel Hymn that had stirred many people of past generations. It was nothing but—‟In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” It wasn’t a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music—but by a man who was but giving out an experience.

This third movement is based on this, fundamentally, and comes from that “L” station. It has secondary themes and rhythms, but widely related, and its general makeup would reflect the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience, together…

In this movement, Ives calls for a separate ensemble of unison chorus, horn, chimes, piano, harp, and strings, physically removed from the main orchestra and playing in a different meter. The chorus intones the Te Deum in English, and the distant ensemble provides what Brodhead interprets as ‟background noise of New York rush-hour traffic.” The main orchestra then enters with ‟In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” getting gradually louder and louder until the hymn is intoned in a full tutti—only to thin out immediately as a lone accordion is left to finish the melody. Finally, all that remains is the distant ensemble with their rush-hour traffic noises.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.

Karol Szymanowski, Symphony No. 3

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 3, 1882, in Timoshovka, Ukraine
Died March 28, 1937, in Lausanne, Switzerland
Composed from 1914 to 1916
Premiered on November 24, 1921, in London
Approximate performance time: 25 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 6 French horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone, 1 contrabass trombone, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, tamtam, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, tambourine), 1 piano, 1 celesta, organ, 2 harps, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, and tenor vocal soloist

At a time when World War I forced most composers to emphasize their national, ethnic, or religious identities, Karol Szymanowski—the youngest of the four represented on tonight’s program—took a radically different path. A proud Pole who was just as committed to cultivating a national style as were any of his contemporaries, Szymanowski nevertheless drew some of his most profound inspiration from geographically distant sources. He was an enthusiastic reader of the medieval Persian poetry of Rumi (1207–1273) and Hafiz (1325–1389), both of whom had a profound impact on his music. In the course of his travels in the Mediterranean region, he visited Sicily, whose Norman-Arab-Byzantine traditions inform his later opera King Roger, and North Africa, where he was exposed to Arab culture.

Retreating to the family estate of Tymoszówka (Timoshovka) in Central Ukraine at the outbreak of the war, Szymanowski immersed himself in Eastern mysticism and composed, next to a second set of love songs after Hafiz, his Third Symphony (Pieśń o nocy or ‟Song of the Night”) for tenor, chorus, and orchestra, which sets a text by Rumi in the Polish translation of symbolist poet Tadeusz Miciński (1873–1918).

In the words of Polish conductor and writer Piotr Deptuch, the symphony is “an ecstatic night-time love song in which eroticism and transcendence meld into an indissoluble whole. Wagner’s Tristan, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, and Messiaen’s Turangalîla frame the space into which the poetics of Symphony No. 3 is inscribed.”

The one-movement work is divided into three sections, the first and last of which, slow and mystical, employ the singers, with a faster, purely orchestral section in the middle. In addition to the tenor, the concertmaster is another true soloist throughout the work, which opens with a soaring violin solo in a high register, setting the stage for the magical evocation of night by the tenor and chorus. The music luxuriates in seductive orchestral colors and harmonies hovering in between keys, growing in intensity and finally exploding in an ecstatic blaze of sound. In the central section, the mysteries of the night seem to take on a more definite shape, as a characteristic motif in dotted rhythm temporarily brings the music closer to earth, before the solo violin takes us back into a more ethereal realm. The voices re-enter to another wonderfully sensual paean to the Night, culminating in a second climax even more powerful than the first, before a final violin solo ushers in the transfigured conclusion.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.