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.
It might seem that Karłowicz’s decision to employ the four-movement sonata pattern in this youthful composition was his concession to a musical form conceived in an academic way. This was not, however, the case, as Karłowicz explored sonata form in his entire oeuvre. In his view, because of its close-knit character, it offered the best opportunities to transform a theme in line with the idea contained in the programme, its content and the natural and logical development of the material. It also allowed for the creation of contrasts and climaxes, and of the ebb and flow of tensions. What is striking in the “Rebirth” Symphony is the strict symmetry of its individual movements. This does not clash with the musical narration, which expresses the work’s programmatic content in an evocative way. In the outer movements of the Symphony, cast in sonata form and based on two themes, is the recurring “rebirth” motif in the shape of a fanfare for the trumpets and horns. In the finale, this motif is preceded by a lofty, majestic chorale which is a sort of apotheosis and punch-line of the work – the “rebirth” theme. In contrast, the second movement (Andante non troppo), introducing listeners into the world of dreams, is based on a lyrical theme developed by a solo cello, modified and repeated further on in various instrumental combinations. The extra-musical programme referring to the third movement exhibits an evident influence of the Dionysian myth in its Nietzsche an interpretation. The fast, outer sections of the scherzo (Vivace) express one’s abandon in madness, the idea of frantic elation. The Trio is a vision of the woman desired in one’s dreams, complete with the striving for depersonalization and amorous fascination and ecstasy.
Rhythmic accentuation and dynamics play a fundamental role in the organization of the musical material in what is not an entirely traditional piece. Changes of dynamics and tempo are employed profusely by the composer as important factors of the work’s dramatic continuum. As a result, in its general architectural design the Symphony comes closer to the symphonic poem. The expressive features of the Symphony also bear some similitaries to Karłowicz’s later works. Despite certain borrowings (according to some, these are over-exposed), these features demonstrate the individual stamp of an outstanding composer, notably in communicating the mood of poignant melancholy by selecting specific melodic phrases and instruments (bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, French horns).
It is astonishing and highly regrettable that Karłowicz’s “Rebirth” Symphony – one of the finest works in Polish symphonic music – remains almost unknown. I would not hesitate to claim that, in terms of structural cohesion and logic, as well as its evocative, heart breaking and communicative expression (which exists independently of the work’s subjective programme), Karłowicz’s Symphony is superior to Szymanowski’s symphonies, not to mention some eagerly-promoted contemporary pieces. Not included in the programmes of symphony concerts and recordings sessions, the “Rebirth” Symphony is still waiting for its due place in the world pantheon of the finest works in the 20th-century repertoire.