The “Rebirth” Symphony
The soul stands triumphant and serene, looking into the world ahead, and showing to all men the way leading to r e b i r t h.
Mieczysław Karłowicz – from the extramusical programme to the work
Karłowicz started composing his only symphony in 1899-1900 towards the end of his training with Henryk Urban in Berlin and he completed it after returning to Poland and after the death of his teacher. The “Rebirth” Symphony constitutes therefore the crowning achievement of his studies. The work had its first performance in March 1903 in Berlin. Its Polish premiere, in Lvov the following month, was preceded by the publication of the work’s extra-musical programme in the journal Słowo Polskie. The programme to the “Rebirth” Symphony is most probably the most extensive commentary to a musical piece ever written. It reflects the concept of music as an art form that was particularly suited to communicating ideas, a notion which was shaped under the undeniable influence of Schopenhauer. The literary commentary to each movement of the Symphony is a highly original compendium of the composer’s views, which comprised a romantic approach (the coffin of shattered dreams), the pessimism typical of the Young Poland movement in Polish arts (grief and unending sadness), the echoes of positivist thinking (slow work building up from the foundations) and the metaphysical look into the beyond. This somewhat strange commentary, with its profusion of cliches, also reflected Karłowicz’s patriotic feelings and his dreams of a free Poland. In the disputes about the nation’s strivings for independence between the positivists and the Young Poland romantics, Karłowicz sided with the latter. Proclaiming the “cult of the soul”, he seemed to share the dilemmas and sufferings of his generation. His answer was a desperate escape into hedonism, his ultimate conclusion, however, being different: Invigorated, the fortified soul joins battle bravely, like a knight in steel armour. This kind of approach was very rare in modernist philosophy and art, cast, as they were, in the dichotomous desire for both love and an abyss of despair. All the more so that, in the end, The soul stands triumphant and serene, looking into the world ahead, and showing to all men the way leading to rebirth. Karłowicz’s seems to conclude that rebirth is something more than the idea of national freedom. It is rather an absolute freedom; a state of nirvana, a person’s “melting into nature”. This main message of the Symphony, stemming from the then popular pantheistic concept of the religion of nature (Nietzsche), has lost nothing of its topicality. It is indeed of a universal character as it can be referred to Buddhist enlightenment, Taoist unity, Nirvana Yoga or the “Ocean of the Spirit” of the Gnosis.