Mieczysław Karłowicz worked on his Violin Concerto in A major Op. 8 from the spring to the winter of 1902. A fully mature composition, crowning the first stage of Karłowicz’s career, it was dedicated to the outstanding virtuoso Stanisław Barcewicz, who was also Karłowicz’s teacher. Barcewicz was the first performer of the work, at a concert in Berlin on 21 March 1903, devoted exclusively to Karłowicz’s music. He was accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic. A repeat performance, in Vienna in 1904, was an overwhelming success, with the composer called onto the stage as many as seven times. The work’s first performance in Warsaw was also a success. A critic for Przegląd Tygodniowy wrote: The Violin Concerto is an exceedingly beautiful work, particularly its second movement, which comes close to the style of Bach’s cantilena. The orchestral accompaniment was subtle and fresh, unlike the banal accompaniments of Sarasate or Vieuxtemps.
[…] As an ex-violinist, Karłowicz has a perfect knowledge of violin technique.
A work with a cheerful disposition, sometimes with a youthful and optimistic character, the Violin Concerto indeed demonstrates Karłowicz’s full grasp of violin technique. The vigorous virtuoso episodes abound in figurations, fast-tempo trills, multiple stops and sequences in high register are placed side by side with cantilena of a Slavonic flavour. The Concerto follows the classical tripartite pattern. The first movement, in the form of a sonata allegro, is based on two themes. The first of them is very untypical as it is played chordally by solo violin (it is probably the only such instance in the history of the genre). It is contrasted with the cantilena second theme. The development is crowned with a cadenza, which, unlike cadenzas of a virtuoso character, is integrally linked to the entire musical material. The second movement is a tripartite Romanza with an introduction and coda, which is based on a lyrical theme presented in various harmonic and instrumentation variants. An emotionally-charged and highly expressive solo part is the characteristic feature of this movement. Preceded by an introduction, the finale is a bravado rondo with a bright theme with a distinct rhythmic structure.
In all likelihood the idea for the symphonic poem Eternal Songs came to Karłowicz during his solitary excursions in the Tatra Mountains. For the Tatras could be justly called the composer’s spiritual homeland, a place where he did not sense his loneliness but relished the wonderful feeling of solitude that was filled with the contemplation of nature and the reflection on the eternal mysteries of death, love and existence. In an article about the Tatras, Karłowicz wrote:
When […] the covers fall, the blue eyes of the mountain lakes start to shine, the snow blushes and the peaks breathe the fresh, eastern wind – then some mysterious, large-size [huge?] hand stretches out to me from mountain heights, seizes me and carries me away. […] And when I find myself alone on a precipitous summit, having only the azure cupola of the heavens above […] then I begin to dissolve into the surrounding spaces, I cease to feel like a separate individual, and am covered by the powerful, everlasting breath of eternity. […] Hours experienced in this half-conscious state are, so to say, a momentary return to non-existence; they give peace in the face of life and death, they tell of the eternal hope of dissolution in the universe.
Irrespective of the work’s Tatra inspiration, the ideology of Eternal Songs is rooted in the key trends in the poetry and philosophy of the turn of the nineteenth century. The poetry of Władysław Tetmajer in particular had a tangible impact on Karłowicz’s outlook. Indeed, it seems to reflect most fully what is the essence of Karłowicz’s music. Schopenhauer’s metaphysical philosophy, which conceived of aesthetic contemplation as a source of solace, also had some influence on the composer’s world outlook.
Eternal Songs is a symphonic triptych, its component movements bearing the titles Song of Everlasting Yearning, Song of Love and Death and Song of Eternal Being. They constitute a cycle with a uniform concept, that of the theme of eternity which permeates the work. The outer movements, with their single themes of everlasting yearning and eternal being follow a tripartite reprise pattern. The middle movement contains two contrasted themes; the love theme of a melancholy character, and the death theme based on a Belorussian funeral folk song. The poignant drama of the composition develops within this framework. Employing the form-shaping principle of recurring motifs, Karłowicz creates, in a highly unconventional way, thematic material with very peculiar expressive tensions and climaxes (in the first movement, for instance, the death theme anticipates the events of the second). Eventually, in the final movement the composer achieves a synthesis, which seems to be also the ideological punchline of the piece. In it, the theme of eternal being, with its open octaves and fifths, enters into a peculiar, musical interaction with the themes of everlasting yearning and death.