JULIUSZ ZARĘBSKI – AN OUTSTANDING IF UNKNOWN COMPOSER
In any talk about 19th-century Polish music two names inevitably crop up: Fryderyk Chopin and Stanisław Moniuszko. Adding a third name into the picture, that of Juliusz Zarębski, all too often provokes astonishment and sometimes even consternation. The fact that Poland boasted such an outstanding composer and pianist, a cosmopolitan artist who studied with Liszt and a citizen of Europe, who followed, in a certain sense, the path of Chopin is not present in the public consciousness. This despite the fact that the high artistic merit of his musical output earned him the top place among Polish composers of the post-Chopin period. Zarębski indeed represented innovative concepts of European calibre which appeared in Polish music in the second half of the 19th century. It was Zarębski’s highly original oeuvre that served as a bridge of continuity between Chopin and the achievements of Mieczysław Karłowicz and Karol Szymanowski at the start of the 20th century, composers who, like Zarębski, drew on the contemporary trends in European music of their time.
The prominent Polish musicologist Zdzisław Jachimecki wrote that Zarębski’s numerous piano compositions are a continuation of Chopin’s style in terms of instrumental technique and the character of harmonic writing. The young composer, however, also developed the kind of devices that constitute the foundation of present-day French music; he sensed the exotic character of Debussy’s whole-tone scale and his harmonies based on that scale. With his compositional concepts Zarębski indeed was ahead of his time. The trail-blazing nature of his technique was also praised by another outstanding authority on music, Józef W. Reiss. He wrote: Juliusz Zarębski’s compositions contributed so many new elements to music and on account of the boldness of technique were so much ahead of their time, not only in our country but on a broader European scene, that they could not have won instant popularity.
[…] A Romantic by nature, Juliusz Zarębski became a representative of radicalism in music. […] Zarębski employed techniques which were to be introduced into music by French impressionists, notably Claude Debussy.
A virtuoso pianist himself, Zarębski composed mainly for the piano. The three works on this CD are very representative for this piano output.
Grande Polonaise in F sharp major Op. 6., dedicated to Liszt, is one of Zarębski’s best known and most popular pieces. It is meticulously crafted and renowned for its refined sound world, a sense drama marked by mounting dynamics and expression, as well as evident references to the style of Chopin and Liszt. Often likened to Liszt’s Polonaise in E major and to Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Zarębski’s work indeed exhibits many links and similarities with both of these pieces. First of all, this concerns the formal features stemming from the tradition of the genre. Like the two polonaises by Liszt and Chopin, the Grande Polonaise in F sharp major follows a three-movement ABA’ pattern, in which the central movement, a trio, is contrasted with the outer movements. All the three works have an introduction. The type of thematic and motivic material used by Zarębski is proof that he drew extensively on Liszt and Chopin. In terms of expression, the three polonaises also have much in common, their mood being lofty and serious, while their brilliant virtuoso technique makes them ideally suited to concert performance. All in all, the Grande Polonaise shows Zarębski as the continuator of Chopin and Liszt, his work being an individual synthesis of the stylistic devices typical of these two great composers.
Roses and Thorns Op. 13 (original title Les Roses et les Épines] is among Zarębski’s showcase compositions and his most important creative achievements. It is a cycle of five piano miniatures. The roses and thorns of the title do not refer to any extra-musical content but to the general truth about the experience of love in which moments of disappointment and doubt usually occur alongside moments of sensuous rapture. The subtitle Cinq improvisations underlines the character of poetic transience of these atmospheric pieces which communicate the dynamic nature of feelings by means of highly refined devices. The inner cohesion of the work is achieved through the use of original tonality and harmonies, as well as the principle of expressive contrast in juxtaposing the work’s successive parts. Throughout the whole cycle, the composer gives prominence to timbre, to which other elements, including dynamics and articulation, are subordinated. Several original timbral ideas, meticulously planned and executed, testify to Zarębski’s mastery in differentiating sound and evoking a diverse palette of moods and colours. Roses and Thorns anticipates musical impressionism.
The Piano Quintet in G minor Op. 34 (1885) is universally hailed as the work of a master. It is scored as a traditional four-movement sonata form, freely elaborated in its details. The first movement, with its loosely treated form of a sonata allegro, is based on a distinctly folk-rooted theme, whose character is highlighted by the Lydian scale and the austerity of harmonic consonances. The movement is rounded off with a stunning fugato. The second movement – Adagio – is a tripartite structure. Its main theme and interlude refer ‘integrally’ to the second theme of the first movement. The third movement – Scherzo – is based on strong contrasts, The Finale is a freely-elaborated rondo, which is a kind of synthesis of the material used throughout the work, stressing its formal and integral cohesion.
Written towards the end of Zarębski’s life, the Quintet is an example of the composer’s original musical idiom at the height of its development. It was an avantgarde idiom for its time, one which anticipated the impressionistic style. The individualized melodic line, rich harmonies, peculiar rhythm, original form and the subordination of craftsmanship to deeper emotional content fully justify placing Zarębski’s last major work among the most valuable compositions of chamber music of the second half of the 19th century not only in Poland but in a pan-European context.