dr Maciej Negrey

Songs are a genre that is as old as the hills, perhaps even older, because, as some claim, the act of creation – no matter how it happened – was accompanied by the Word and Harmony. We were not there yet, so we know little about it, but, indeed, songs seem to be a genre that was already there when we arrived. And songs are still very much alive, although they assume various forms, as the fundamental genre of musical – and not just musical – expression, as the first and the most important way to express one’s feelings. And as a witness to history, a chronicle or testimony to attitudes. It is impossible to enumerate their types and functions, which have long been mixed. There are all kinds of songs. There are folk songs and art songs, popular and national songs, choral and solo songs, funeral and wedding songs, religious and secular songs, dance and lyric songs, revolutionary and children’s songs, drinking, frivolous, war and love songs. There is no and there has never been a culture without songs. Songs have always been there – and are everywhere.
That is why we are beginning with songs.

 Songs that may be called forgotten to the nth degree are those composed by Stanisław Hieronim Nawrocki (1894–1950) to words by Xenia Żytomirska (1910–1989), as we know very little about both their authors. Nawrocki – a well-known pre-war pianist, pupil of Aleksander Michałowski and Henryk Melcer, later also of Ignacy Paderewski, who opened the doors of European concert halls to him – studied composition with Roman Statkowski and wrote symphonies, symphonic poems, concertos, operas, piano pieces and about 130 songs. Almost all of these works perished in the Warsaw Uprising. Żytomirska, a poet following her own paths, made her debut with a substantial volume of poetry as early as in 1933 and followed it with another volume in 1938. These are interesting, polished poems, without any exaltation – so frequent in those days – ordinary images of Polish provinces and portraits of people living there. Karuzel, which opens our collection, is precisely such an image, full of joy and movement, presented unassumingly but with taste in a stanzaic form, rhythm of the krakowiak and melodic idiom rooted in Polish musical consciousness. Who turned Karuzela – as the poet had it – into a seemingly archaic Karuzel – we do not know, but whoever did that made the image even more provincial. Krzyż (The Cross) – a serious, atmospheric song flowing seemingly beyond time despite its measured rhythm of solemn chords – too, is a genre image strongly linked to the uniqueness of Polish landscape. By comparison, the joyful Słoneczko (The sun) with lyrics by the composer is what would have been described in the 19th century as a “little song”. Such pieces were numerous in plays staged in outdoor cafe theatres and their purpose was to leave a pleasant impression.
The oeuvre of Zygmunt Mycielski (1907–1987) is being forgotten as we speak. Mycielski, a composer educated in Paris under Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger, as well as an eminent music critic, journalist, memoirist, aristocrat, soldier and member of the opposition persecuted by the communist regime, was one of the most original and respectable figures in Poland’s musical life. Pięć pieśni weselnych (Five Wedding Songs) (1934) is one of his earliest compositions. The composer selected five excerpts from Bruno Jasieński’s poem Słowo o Jakubie Szeli (The Lay of Jakub Szela), published in Paris in 1926, painting a terrifying picture of the Polish countryside in the past, where everything, including the moon, is drunk, and the revellers no longer see the difference between men and domestic animals. In his description of this truly Galician misery and decline Bruno Jasieński (1901–1938), a Polish futurist, communist activist, shot on Stalin’s orders during the Great Purge, used sophisticated poetic means. Mycielski very sensitively provided a neutral background to them, rejecting functional harmonics (using it only once, for characteristic purposes, at the end of the third song, Grajże Josek, grajże Berek [Play Josek, play Berek]), introducing angular melodies and exclamation marks, and reducing stylisation to the minimum. It is difficult to call the Five Songs beautiful, but they are certainly moving. The impression of dullness and desperation created by the second song (Padał deszcz, płakał deszcz [The rain came, the rain cried]) has no parallels in Polish art song.
Jerzy Lefeld (1898–1980) – an outstanding pianist-accompanist, pupil of Aleksander Michałowski and Roman Statkowski at the Music Institute in Warsaw, piano teacher of Witold Lutosławski and Stefan Kisielewski – composed little, revising his two youthful symphonies towards the end of his life. His oeuvre also includes two song cycles: Op. 4 (1921–23) and Op. 10 (1947–48). From the former comes the song Na wyciągniętych deszczu strunach (On the strings of rain), an adaptation of the poem Prządka (The Spinner) by Stanisław Korab-Brzozowski (1876–1901), one of the most decadent poets of the Young Poland movement. It was written in 1921 and is characterised by a truly Young Poland mood expressed in its ephemeral form, fluid melody of the vocal line and lively, seemingly illustrative but, in fact, intricately contrapuntal piano part. The two later songs to words by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) translated by Leopold Staff are marked by thoughtful dramaturgy. The song Zachowaj mnie u swoich drzwi (Keep me by your door) from 1947 reaches its climax with the words “Let me hold my head high in courage and pride”, while the 1948 song Cóż jest prócz nieba (What else is there except for heaven) has the form of a reversed spindle: the first climax comes with the initial apostrophe to the sun and the second – after a long crescendo at the very end. Noble in their expression, Lefeld’s songs meet the classic criteria of the genre thanks to an honest approach to the text and excellent declamation.
The interests of the great Polish composer and virtuoso violinist Grażyna Bacewicz revolved most around instrumental music, yet she, too, was inspired by Tagore’s intricate poetry. Rozstanie (Parting), set to a translation of the poet’s piece by Jan Kasprowicz, was composed in 1949, testifying to the artist’s search for some space for lyrical expression in her constantly evolving, but always anti-romantic musical language. The same can be said about her earlier song Samotność (Loneliness) from a collection of three songs composed in 1938 to Leopold Staff’s translations of anonymous Arabic poetry from the 10th century. Both songs share a nostalgic tone, difficult to capture in terms of neoclassical aesthetics, of which Bacewiczy was one of leading exponents in her day. A different picture can be found in Sroczka (The little magpie) from 1956, inspired by well-known folk lyrics appearing in many variants, and, above all, the “playful song” Boli mnie głowa (I have a headache) from 1955 to Bacewicz’s own lyrics, almost a vocalise and, given its quasi-instrumental nature – perfectly corresponding to the nature of the composer’s talent.
A vocalise in the fullest sense of the word is a composition by Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991), Hommage à Chopin, written to mark the centenary of Chopin’s death in 1949 and performed in Paris on 3 October that year. It consists of five parts, three of which are featured on this recording. They are subtle pieces, written with an assured hand, drawing not so much on Chopin’s music itself, but on an idea of what is commonly believed to have been the main source of his inspiration, folk music of Mazovia. They emphasise features regarded as constitutive also of Chopin’s music – nostalgia, fragility, grief and gloom, at times morbid. Thus Hommage à Chopin consolidates a stereotype, highlighted in Poland especially after the Second World War. Nevertheless, it is a very charming piece, certainly worth bringing back from obscurity. In 1966 Panufnik arranged it for flute and strings. In the 1950s both Andrzej Panufnik and Roman Palester (1907–1989) felt forced to emigrate, although initially, after the end of the Second World War, they enjoyed recognition and high stature among composers in Poland. Proscription, which followed their decision to emigrate, caused their oeuvres to remain unknown in their homeland for many years. Censorship also affected the oeuvre of another émigré of 1951, Czesław Miłosz. The Nobel Prize he received in 1980 was a shock for Polish society and the government of the day, and provided one of the impulses that began the great transformations in this part of Europe. Living in Paris, Palester had access to Miłosz’s oeuvre and as early as in 1975–1977 he wrote music to his triptych Wiara, Nadzieja, Miłość, (Faith, Hope, Love), published in Kraków as Trzy wiersze Czesława Miłosza (Three Poems by Czesław Miłosz) in 1993, i.e. during the poet’s lifetime but after the composer’s death. The piece is serious and significant, but extremely difficult both for the performer and for the audience. There is almost no contrast between the successive parts. The harmony is absolutely dissonant, while the melody makes up a broken line with huge leaps, especially on accented syllables. This reflects the composer’s experiences with the dodecaphonic technique. As a result, the whole is strongly emphatic, stilted, confronted rather than harmonised with the poetry of Miłosz’s verses.
A completely different atmosphere can be found in the compositions written by Paweł Mykietyn (b. 1971), a pupil of Włodzimerz Kotoński. His Shakespeare’s Sonnets for male soprano and piano (2000), an arrangement of three sonnets by William Shakespeare in their original, 18th-century English-language form, captivate us with the beauty of their sound and continuity of form. The very selection of the sonnets is interesting. Sonnet XXXIV is pure lyricism, not entirely free from the convention, addressed directly to a mysterious young man, the W.H. whose identity scholars have been trying to discover for centuries. The combined Sonnets CXXXV and CXXXVI, addressed probably to the Black Lady, are wrapped in the cotton wool of a pun, “Will” and “will”, which may intrigue the beloved or, perhaps, hide desire, and is certainly difficult to translate. The composer combined these two sonnets by means of the same material – figuration in the piano part and unique, playfully chanted vocal part. Each ends with a tonal coda, resolved in the last sonnet in a whisper on the word “Will”.
Aleksander Kościów (b. 1974), a composer and writer, whose three novels have clearly made their mark on Polish literature of recent years, studied at the Warsaw Academy of Music with Marian Borkowski (composition) and Błażej Sroczyński (viola). He has been very active as a composer, especially of chamber music for all kinds of line-ups. Mood, climate, landscape – inner but also the one captured by the senses – seem to be the main categories of his music, which finds its inspiration in a broad variety of sources, but is filtered through the composer’s strong artistic personality. An example is Shihaikai (Four Haiku) for soprano and piano of 2004, written to words by Basho-Matsuo (1644–1694). It is a very interesting attempt to explore the nature of this aphoristic form, characteristic of Japanese poetry and consisting in capturing the essence of things in just three lines. Thus emerged a miniature cycle made of “touches of several Japanese landscapes with the local senses,” as the compose explains translating the title, Shihaikai, although this can safely be applied to the whole work. Niech młode liście..., Zamiast posągu..., Niech tam idziemy..., Mgły się uniosły... (Let young leaves..., Instead of a statue..., Let us go there... Fog rose...) – each of these pieces is slightly different but none could exist outside the cycle. The solo voice, soprano, often swelling from a pianissimo and reaching the highest registers, draws – as if on some transparent paper – thin and precise lines, going in unpredictable directions. We have here the spirit of Japanese art without a trace of stylisation, at the same time far removed from European habits, for example, by being deprived of any cadenzas. The piano part, featuring figuration and even phrasing in the first piece, becomes increasingly pared-down, pointillistic, at times using only reverberation, and is reduced almost completely in the last piece. An intriguing, astounding and highly original work.
Anna Ignatowicz-Glińska (b. 1968) studied composition with Włodzimierz Kotoński at the Warsaw Academy of Music. Her teachers also included Szábolcs Esztényi, under whom she completed a piano improvisation course. She has composed about 80 pieces representing various genres, including about a dozen vocal-instrumental works, among them songs. Her compositions have earned her a number of awards in Poland and abroad. Malvasia is a motif that appears in her oeuvre several times, sometimes as skotopaska, as the composer describes a vocal-instrumental idyll. These are works to the composer’s own words, in which a substantial role is played by puns, sounds of words, combination of sonoristic effects with rhythmic impulses and fragments of melodic figures, as well as a degree of distance and even tongue-in-cheek. Małmazja (Malvasia) (2016) for soprano and piano is a parody of situations from operas and operettas, full of humour, both in the textual and the musical layer. It features completely tonal recitatives and ariosos, allusions to a funeral march, preparation of the piano, “botched” entries of the voice and the like. The work does not end but just breaks off during falling progressions...
Thus, our CD features a selection of art songs by Polish composers of the 20th and 21st centuries – a Polish Songbook of our times. Among the authors there are more and lesser known, including simply forgotten, composers. The same applies to the authors of the lyrics. However, bringing back from obscurity – which Polish culture and Poles need so much – is just one aim of the recording. It is also about describing the background of Polish songs which have been written over the last several decades, about illustrating their stylistic diversity, variety of sound aesthetics, compositional techniques, in a word – about the richness of which we are usually unaware, because we are preoccupied with other matters, probably more important, or at least we think they are more important...

Maciej Negrey
(translation Anna Kijak)