Mieczysław Karłowicz – Symphony Rebirth

Mieczysław Karłowicz – Symphony Rebirth
Cat. No. CDB042
Music disc: SACD


Mieczysław Karłowicz

Mieczysław Karłowicz


Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia
Jerzy Maksymiuk – conductor

Disc content:

“Rebirh” Symphony in e-minor op.7

  1. Andante. Allegro – 17’42”
  2. Andante non troppo – 14’54”
  3. Vivace – 5’06”
  4. Allegro maestoso – 12’08”

Total time – 49’52”

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© ℗ 2008 Bearton

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.

Sinfonia Varsovia

Sinfonia Varsovia

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).

Jerzy Maksymiuk

Jerzy Maksymiuk

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.

Marek Wieroński


Bearton continue to unearth little-known Polish composers in their ‘Pearls of Polish Music’ series.

I have never heard of Miaczylaw Karlowicz, and most Poles would apparently have no idea of who he was either. Karlowicz was born in 1876 of an aristocratic family, in what is today Belarus and was then Lithuania. The family moved to Heidelberg, then Prague, then Dresden, finally settling in Warsaw in 1888. Miaczylaw manifested significant musical talent during his childhood, taking up the violin at age 10 and later studying harmony. His first composition was presented to his parents in 1891, a piece for violin and piano. Leaving Warsaw to study music, arts and sciences in Berlin, he finally decided to specialise in composition.

The ‘Rebirth Symphony’ was completed in 1903 (he was 27) and performed most successfully at a concert in Vienna, together with several other of his works. Regrettably, Karlovicz had poor relations with the members of Warsaw’s musical establishment; his frank and uncompromising views on musical matters led to his ultimately being ostracised in his home country. He remained a Late Romantic to the end in his own compositions, although he encouraged many of the modernist tendencies in his contemporaries. Tragically Karlovicz died in 1909, still in his early 20s, victim of an avalanche while hiking in the Tatra Mountains. […]

I urge any listener partial to Late Romantic symphonies not to miss this recording of Wieczylaw Karlowicz’s Rebirth Symphony. Without a shadow of doubt this is a Master’s work, and for me was equivalent to the shock and pleasure of discovering a previously unknown and superb symphony by, say, Elgar or Tchaikovsky. It deserves the widest possible international exposure.

John Miller, HRAudio.net
Over the past few years the orchestral music of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz (1876-1909) has seen something of a revival, certainly on disc if not in the concert hall. Chandos, Hyperion and Naxos have recorded all of the few compositions completed by the time of the composer’s untimely death at the age of thirty-three in a skiing accident in the Tatra mountains. Now for the first time on SACD we have a sumptuous new recording of the ‘Rebirth’ Symphony. This recording, the latest in BeArTon’s ‘Pearls of Polish music series, was produced to mark the 90th anniversary of the regaining of Poland’s independence on the 11th November 1918 so the choice of music is most apt.

Karlowicz’s reputation as one of the leading Polish composers of his generation rests almost solely on the six large-scale symphonic poems that he wrote during the final five years of his short life, the last of which, ‘Episode at a Masquerade’, was completed by Grzegorz Filtelberg. The ‘Rebirth’ Symphony pre-dates all these symphonic poems and the influences of Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Wagner, as well as early Scriabin, are apparent throughout the work. Though ostensibly a four-movement symphony, it is closer to a huge symphonic poem of the ‘darkness to light’ or ‘death to life’ variety beloved of late-romantic composers, but Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony is most clearly the model here. […]

There are two points that should be mentioned. Maksymiuk’s passionate account of the piece lasts ten minutes longer than that given by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic on the rival CD version. However, not for one moment did I feel that his performance was, at any point, too slow or lacking dynamism, but those who own the Chandos CD may feel differently. Secondly the playing time of 49’52” for a full price SACD is, to say the least, meagre and it is a shame that that the opportunity was not taken to add one or more of Karlowicz’s other works as a filler to what is a pretty short disc.

Marek Wieronski, the producer of this recording, whose admiration for the work is clear, wrote the informative notes on the composer and his music in the accompanying booklet, and those with a penchant for late-Romantic symphonies recorded in lustrous sound should certainly investigate this release.

Graham Williams, HRAudio.net

Music discs recorded by BeArTon