The string quartet, the main musical form explored by the composers of the Classical period (in addition to the symphony), did not play as prominent a role in Polish music as in other countries. This resulted from a combination of historical factors. Following the loss of independence at the end of the 18th century, there was an evident tendency, until the 20th century, to focus on vocal music, which was considered better suited to communicate the current national and patriotic message. Nonetheless there was a long-standing tradition of composing and performing instrumental chamber music which goes back to the 18th century and before. It centred on the magnates’ courts and found such great enthusiasts as the composers Michał Kleofas Ogiński and Antoni Radziwiłł. In the 19th century this tradition was continued by bourgeois circles, where chamber music enjoyed tremendous popularity. The chamber music output of that period was far more extensive than is usually thought. Many compositions, including those of outstanding merit, have been lost; there are most probably those that still wait to be discovered.
The 19th century can be divided into two distinct periods in the development of music. The household names of the first are Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński and Wincenty Studziński. Their styles were influenced by the Viennese classics, notably Haydn. This was particularly true in terms of form and texture, and less so as regards harmonic and melodic language, which harked back to early Romantic music. The later period is represented by the music of Władysław ˙eleński and Zygmunt Noskowski, composers who were influenced by Brahms and neo-Romantics and were keen on arranging dances.
Without belittling the contribution of 19th-century composers to the development of chamber music, there is no doubt that it was members of the Young Poland group in the early 20th century, notably Karol Szymanowski, who imbued string quartet writing with a stamp of freshness and originality, giving it a new and important role. From that time onwards, the string quartet has never ceased to be an area of exploring innovative and experimental ideas by all prominent Polish composers.
The string quartets by Stanisław Moniuszko, Karol Szymanowski and Grażyna Bacewicz featured on this CD are very representative for the periods in which they were composed. They are examples of various kinds of musical expression and form of the string quartet in its specifically Polish shape.
String Quartet No. 1 in D minor is one of two quartets by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872). It was written in 1839, during the composer’s studies in Berlin, and is dedicated to Józef Elsner. The work has a conventional four-movement design and a homophonic texture, enriched with a simple canon in the trio of the Scherzo. The colourful Finale (entitled Un ballo campestre) employs folk elements in a manner characteristic of Moniuszko. The essence of the composer’s idiom lies in his melodic writing, which can be described as the essence of Polish national identity. It stems from a specific treatment of folklore, without quotations and borrowings from folk material. His First String Quartet owes its charm to its song-like, unpretentious melody brought out thanks to simple construction. Its formal features and expressive devices are typical of its period and give good insights into the overall character of 19th-century Polish chamber music.
The next piece on the CD is the Second String Quartet Op. 56 by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). Its precise date of origin is not known but the main features of this outstanding work point to the third and last period of the composer’s life. It is more technically mature than the Symphonie concertante, one of Szymanowski’s last pieces, by far more popular and more expressive than the Second String Quartet.
A work of strongly polyphonic texture, the Quartet explores the problem of structure and form. It falls into three movements. The first is a sonata form with two themes, the first of which is expansive and lyrical and the second a motif which becomes a theme as a result of its repetition with a different ending. The second movement is a scherzo in the form of a rondo, while the third is a double fugue. All the movements are motivically linked. There are two thematic nuclei in the whole work, each of which is subjected to different methods of transformation. The first is the first theme of the first movement; the second is the motif from the bridge passage of the scherzo. It is worth noting that the first theme is similar to the one used in the ballet Harnasie with its typical features of a highland melody, whereas the ‘motivic nucleus’ is simply a quotation of an original tune taken from the collection Melodie Podhala (Melodies of the Tatra Foothills).
The technique of stylization in the Second String Quartet is far more advanced than in Szymanowski’s other works. The folk inflections and fragments serve only as material from which the composer ‘weaves’ his own musical ideas. He does not use entire phrases as his material but rather their non-autonomous elements, which serve to construct self-contained melodies of a shape determined by the composer. His compositional technique consists in simplifying (rather than complicating) folk inflections and subjecting them to variational transformations and therefore should be seen as an experiment in the treatment of folk material. In Harnasie and The Kurpie Songs prominence was given to the material derived from folklore. The Second String Quartet is the composer’s individual statement in ever-new formulas. In Harnasie and The Kurpie Songs folk scales, developing into 12-tone scales, served as a point of departure. In this work, on the contrary, the foundation is the 12-tone scale, coloured with Lydian elements.
It may be said that Szymanowski’s technique highlights the direction of the development of the specifically Polish form of string quartet. This is achieved not only by imbuing the music with a national (folk) element but also through the composer’s intention of giving it a universal character, in line with his message: Let our music be national in its Polish characteristics but not falter in striving to attain universality.
The Fourth String Quartet by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) dates from 1951. In the same year it won FirstPrize at the Composers’ Competition in Liège. It is one of the finest achievements of the folk-inspired period in the composer’s career. Its main features are a distinctive form, a traditional pattern of tensions and respite, highly individual rhythmical and harmonic devices and a blend of classical rigour with the modern approach to compositional craft. The Fourth String Quartet is a close-knit, tripartite structure which develops around two lyrical themes of folk provenance, which first appear in the first movement. The second movement sees the development of the first theme. The third movement introduces new musical material, rhythmically contrasted with these themes, even though the transformation of their motifs is continued.
The technical devices applied in the work in relation to the folk material, basically similar to the ones used by Szymanowski, constitute yet another attempt to define an originally Polish form of string quartet, this time in the style of the middle of the 20th century.