Elements in the mazurkas by Szymanowski | Afdrukken |
woensdag, 13 juli 2011 21:31

By Marien Abspoel

While studying at the piano and merely living with the 20 mazurkas Op.50 by Karol Szymanowski for over 20 years I accepted the invitation by the VU-Chamber orchestra to arrange a series of Mazurkas for wind ensemble. This intensified my study of the music of course. Now it seems appropriate to try my hand at writing some lines on the musical elements in the Mazurkas by Szymanowski. While playing this music I now and then try to name the elements that I feel are essential and characteristic of the music. One of the most difficult things to achieve is to grasp the notion that makes you love this music. The same as why should we love Bach, Beethoven, Chopin or Tchaikovsky? But even if this very essential notion could not be caught in words, the relation to more abstract musicological or cultural notions can help to keep in mind your fascination and to dig deeper into this music.
In this table I noted the occurrence of 23 characteristics that I found relevant for the Mazurkas.

1. Tempo di Kujawiak.

Two sources on the Internet deliberately describe that the Polish Mazur contains three variants that are distinguished by their own dance and also their own tempo. The Kujawiak is the slowest dance, that is also most related to vocal Polish folk song (see Trochimczyk). Perhaps we should distinguish between the Kujawiak style and the Chodzony or walking dance style, as Oskar Kolberg did make this difference too. Especially where we find the ‘walking bass’ style element (Nr.21, in my ‘catalogue’ Mazurka Nr.VIII). The Kujawiak is also associated with a parlando style of music and with a rubato manner of playing or singing.

2. Tempo di Mazurka

The mazurka is faster than the Kujawiak but not as fast as the Oberek. According to Maja Trochimczyk, the tempo should be MM.120-140. Of course this is primarily a remark by a musicologist or dance-historian. But it is certainly interesting that from the description of the dance there is a better understanding of tempo in the history of this folk music style. 
The Mazurka is associated with the typical Mazurka rhythms, with irregular accents on second or third beat.
Dziewanowska described the mazur as filled with contrasts: "it combines the fiery spirit with pride and elegance, vivacity with lyricism, dignity with joy, and boldness with gallantry."

3. Tempo di Oberek

The Oberek is the fastest dance according to Trochimsczyk about MM.160-180. It is called furiously energetic. Szymanowski calls Mazurka Nr.VI (Junacko) for which term I can find no explanation, but the tempo and character is certainly in the realm of the Oberek.

4. Waltz

As is stated in the sources about the Mazurka folk dance, the music was sometimes performed as a sequence of dances and mixture of dances. Thereby the waltz was another favorite. The Waltz in the Mazurka is characterized by the avoidance of irregular accents that are so typical for the Mazurka. Also in the Chopin Mazurkas a lot of fragments can be found where there is a Waltz and no Mazurka rhythm. In Szymanowski’s Mazurkas Nr.XIV you feel the Waltz as a citation rather than an authentic Waltz dance. The same could be stated of the limping Waltz in bar 31 of the same Nr. XIV. In Nr. XVIII there are also Waltz episodes.

5. Rubato

According to several sources rubato playing and tempo changes is inherent to the Mazurka dance style. Therefore it is a prickling hypothesis to state that the typical Chopin rubato as used in his Mazurkas, Nocturnes etc. could be not only typical Chopin but binding Chopin to the Polish culture. Szymanowski asks for Rubato for instance in Mazurka I, Sostenuto. Molto rubato. And in almost every Mazurka there are expression signs to ask for tempo changes, like poco ritenuto, rallentando, allargando, tranquillo, sostenuto, as well as avvivando, animato etc. It is also interesting to note there is very often POCO rit and POCO accel. And then there are all the articulations with a line over the note which could be a broad accent but certainly also a sostenuto that asks for a rubato playing.

6. Heroic style

As stated in the sources on Mazurka dance style, the mazurka folk dance is often heroic in character. That can be said of many of the Szymanowski Mazurkas, especially where he asks for the Mazurka type tempo. This can be sometimes for small fragments of some measures, or for the main part of a mazurka.

7. Improvisation

Many of the Mazurkas by Szymanowski sound as if the vocal lines and ornamentation are improvised at the very moment of performance. Nr. I is famous for that. Szymanowski certainly uses variation as a compositional procedure when a theme or motif is recapitulated.

8. Uneven accents

As already mentioned at the Mazurka style the Mazurka rhythms are characteristic for their uneven accents at the second or third beat. In Szymanowski’s hands, this becomes very flexible and has all details and nuances that you could expect of a composer bringing all his creativity and love for the Polish music into these pieces. So these accents are sometimes in ostinato accompaniment, sometimes in the treble voice or even in the vocal lines. Besides, it is very interesting to see that Chopin’s mazurkas abound also in variation on these rhythmic patterns.

9. Bourdon

Szymanowski is certainly looking for a widened tonality in his music. But on the other hand he relies very much on the bass line, on which the chords and vocal lines build their harmony. Even if that harmony is traveling far from tonality, there is often that bass drone that temporarily gives you the feeling of tonal center.
To that bass line often a quint note is added. That’s why I find the term Bourdon adequate. Interesting to note that in early times the Mazurka dance was mainly performed with a Dudy, a kind of bagpipe.

10. Ostinato

Connected to the Bourdon and certainly to the fact that this is music inspired by folk dance, there is often a ostinato on the bass line or even on complete chords, that gives the music vitality. It is also the place where all those mazurka rhythm accents can be placed. Mazurka Nr.VI is of course a good example, where the ostinato is really hammered into the ears.

11. Double lead solo

This term I derived from the article by Timonthy J. Cooley in the Polish Music Journal (see the sources document (in Dutch)). In many places the solo voice is not alone. Sometimes one voice becomes two, or fugato e.g. canonic phrases occur. In the named article it is stated that double lead solo could be seen as a style element in traditional Goral folk music, where (most often) two violins play “mostly the same thing”, but both varying on the melody and looking for extended harmony, rhythm and little canonic playing.
I did not only find this element interesting in analysing Szymanowski’s music, but also added some lines in the orchestration, inspired by this concept.

12. Prall triller / mordent ornamentation

Typical for not only the Polish folk music, but also in Hungarian or Rumanian music is the use of a prall triller e.g. mordent. Szymanowski also uses this frequently in the Mazurkas. These trills should never be played before the beat, but always on the beat. If prall trillers are on short notes they mostly become a kind of tuplet (triplet). If the mordent is on a quarter note the mordent can be adequately played as a tuplet on the first quaver. In Szymanowski’s music the prall triller has a function as ornamentation, variation and improvisation as well as adding a burst of energy to the music if it is becoming fast.
The Prall triller is more often used in the Kujawiak and Mazurka style episodes.
Szymanowski sometimes writes Prall triller and sometimes writes down explicit tuplet notation, e.g. Mazurka I bar 5, when the mordent is used in an upbeat. See also Mazurka X.

Grace Notes

Like the Prall triller the Grace Note is often used in the Mazurkas by Szymanowski. Where the Prall triller is often within the vocal line of the music, the grace notes are most often used with greater intervals.
For the typical Mazurka rhythms using dotted quaver – semiquaver patterns, Szymanowski almost never uses the Grace note as notation convention. There is even in very many occasions the combination of semiquaver and grace note (see Mazurka XIX).
Where the Prall triller is more in the slower tempi, the grace-notes are mostly used in the faster Mazurka and Oberek tempo episodes.

14. Fugato / canonic development / polyphony

Szymanowski frequently uses small and very inventive fugato or canonic lines in the melody and harmonic structure. This is really an element of Szymanowski’s music from the earliest compositions onwards. His second symphony even starts with a fugue! Not to mention the dazzling fugue in his third piano sonata.
This inspired me in turn to add some canonic / fugato lines in orchestration of the Mazurkas.
It is not always easy to see when Szymanowski uses a kind of canonic / fugato cell or that the structure of the music is inherently polyphonic. I tend to think that his musical thoughts are innate polyphonic but in the Mazurkas Szymanowski uses a more free form where association of musical material and improvisation gets a place.

15. Parallel movement

In some places Szymanowski uses parallel movement of vocal lines, but certainly in more places in harmonic development this parallel movement of tones is used as a style element. That is not unequal to some music of Bartók among others. Perhaps it is connected with folk music, and the double lead solo principle discussed earlier.

16. Bitonality / modality

Szymanowski often uses modal themes or motifs, even if they are varied and improvised and changing in a more chromatic manner. Typically for these Mazurkas there often is a bitonal structure. Sometimes between two vocal lines as in Mazurka Nr. III. More often there is a bitonal harmony between the bass line or chords and the vocal line. As in Nr. V, VII, VIII.
Sometimes the bitonality arrives by alternating bass notes in a tritonus interval as in Nr. XII.
The first motif in Nr.XII is an example where the motif itself like a kind of exclamation consists of two different modalities, creating a bitonality in its own cell.

17. Lydic modus

The lydic modus is sometimes also called the Polish modus because it is associated with folk music from these regions. Indeed this modus can be found too in the Szymanowski Mazurkas. As it can in many Chopin mazurkas by the way.
In Szymanowski’s treatment this lydic modus is –more than Chopin – embedded into harmony that embraces that modus. There is often a tension between the bass line and chord harmonics and the entrance of lydic mode motifs. Also more than Chopin’s mazurkas this lydic modality arrives in little cells, that keep their own form, sometimes as a kind of exclamation or walking bass line.

18. Chromatic Chord Sequence

With Chromatic Chord Sequence I mean the use of chords, often with four or more notes that support the vocal line or even become the most important event of that phrase. These chords follow each other in a chromatic progression (as seen from the bass line). This creates often expressionistic, colorful intermezzi within the music, adding of course tension to the harmonic development. This is also an important element in creating a symphonic radiance in the music.
Sometimes as in Mazurka Nr.IV this procedure is not unlike the widened tonal system of Hindemith.
Sometimes it sounds familiar to the world of Francis Poulenc as in Mazurka Nr.XII where Chords are spiced with ‘wrong notes’.

19. Disturbed consonance

With Disturbed Consonance I mean the use of chords and especially bass notes that do not fit into one tonal chord. But Szymanowski uses it in such manner that you feel a kind of tonality as if there were consonance, where in fact there is dissonance in the chord itself. The start of Mazurkas VIII and XII are good examples of this.

20. Exclamations / phrases

Szymanowski uses often motifs or themes that do not appear as melodic inventions but merely as derived from vocal or even textual exclamations. Thereby it becomes a cell, an entity in itself keeping in mind and recognized everytime it occurs. Mazurkas III and XII are good examples of these exclamations.

21. Knock on the door

In Mazurka IV and XIV in particular there is a motif that could be no better named than a knock on the door. This gives a expressionistic tension to the music. But also in other Mazurkas the heavy accents on dissonant bass notes give more than only dynamics. There is a feeling of threat or anger sometimes even if it could be a “playful anger”.

22. Walking Bass

In some Mazurkas there is a very characteristic ‘walking bass’ where the bass gets a simple modal motif and the other lines fit in. Mazurka VIII and XIV are good examples.

23. Intimate rubato endings

According to sources on Mazurka dance culture the Mazurkas often do not end properly with a great cadenza and tonica finalis. If Mazurka music is indeed improvised you can also expect a kind of ending as it occurs often in jazz groups where everyone stops more or less on their own, and a drummer gives some last signals.
Of the 20 Mazurkas in the series of Op.50 there are only 6 with a energetic end, and even in those cases as in Nr.II and X there is first a rubato and intimate passage in the end where there is abruptly a fortissimo. For Szymanowski the rule appears to be to let the music calm down and end in an intimate reminiscence, coming to rest.

24. Form

Szymanowski does not use a form like sonata, rondo or thelike. Also the thematic relations, connectedness of phrases are not always clear. Should we speak of a longer theme with two or more phrases, or are there more than one themes? Perhaps the best statement could be that the dance and expression is on the lead, and that Szymanowski uses variation within small phrases to make each mazurka into an entity of itself. And certainly within all this freedom the entity and well-formedness is out of discussion!

25. Tonality

In the writing of Szymanowski for some mazurkas a tonality could be expected simply because of the explicit key signature. But even in those cases Szymanowski is not always consequent. As in Nr.XIII the first exposition has 6 flats so could be G-flat major or E-flat minor (or Lydic mode in G-flat major being C-flat – D-flat – E-flat – F – G-flat – A-flat). But when it is repeated almost similar (we do not know if the D-natural in bar 73 is intended or an wrongly written D-sharp) it has no key-signature and uses all sharps instead of flats for the same tones. Best to say is that the fragments on a certain tonal center to vary so often that Szymanowski did not bother to much on denoting tonality in key-signature or ending the piece in the same tonality as it started.

26. Phrasing

Szymanowski uses frequently a typical folk-like phrasing, that also reminds sometimes of the music by Francis Poulenc. For Instance in Mazurka Nr.XII there is a four-bar phrase starting in Bar 98. It goes up in dynamics two bars, like an opening, and closes in the next two bars.
In Bar 79 of the same mazurka is an example of a six-bar phrase, with a 3 bar opening and 3 bar closing. In Bar 106 the same phrase of bar 98 is lengthened and is now an 8-bar phrase, with opening in 4 and closing in 4 bars. I suppose Szymanowski uses this style figure as a reference to folk-dance principles. As in most of the Western-European music four-bar periods are the standard, but in dance music perhaps even more a standard pattern, because in the (improvised) dance, the dancers should interpret and anticipate the music. Mazurka Nr.V Bar 24 and 40 are other examples. As these patterns are intended style figures the forms of these phrases should be very clear in performing the Mazurkas.

27. Expressionism and Romanticism

Whereas Expressionism is more a typification of the Third Symphony, the first string quartet or the exuberant piano-trilogy Maskes, in the Mazurkas also some idea’s can be found that relate more to expressionist feelings than to impressionism, folk-music or Lisztian rhapsody. E.g. Mazurka 4 or 14: Knock on the door, or the Chromatic Chords episodes that pass like an intermezzo leaving the listener with an uncertain feeling like a ghost or remembrance went along.
In VIII Sounds ascend from the dark holes of the earth
Whereas in Nr.IX wild angry feelings seem to surpass the folk-like expression of joy or dance.
Pathos appears to be a mood that comes like an intermezzo in for example Mazurka I bar 37.

28. Dancing Character and groundly

With all the technical elements described we should not forget that some characteristics are more about texture, sound itself than about structure. Szymanowski frequently uses very light dancing music where both the piano-hands play in the discant of the keyboard. Together with Prall trills or grace-notes this creates a weightless music. E.g. Mazurka XIX.
In contrast there are passages as in Mazurka XX, VIII, XVI, X where the music is heavy, with chords or even clusters stamping in the bass-line and mid-range.
In several places the lowest octave of the piano has an important role, not only to create a very rich spectre of overtones, but also to offer a feeling of heartbeat and percussionist, pitchless sounds. Examples: Mazurkas XX, X, XIX, XII, VIII

29. Unisono

In some mazurkas there are important Unisono episodes. As early as Bartók and Enescu and earlier than Messiaen we see here the importance of the vocal line bringing everything else to the background literally.

30. Minor / Major ambiguity

The traditional romantic minor-major issue did not disappear completely in the Szymanowski mazurkas. There is a brilliantly semplice ending of Nr.XIX.
Of course the modulations in Nr.XIII changing lydic C-flat minor feelings into B-major is heart-breaking.
In Nr. XII bar 98 the vocals are in undoubted A major, but the accompaniment is in chromatized lydic mode D.

Marien Abspoel, August 2006

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