No 1: L'île des Sirènes
No 1: L'Île des Sirènes
No 2: Calypso
No 3: Nausicaa
The title Métopes denotes the square panels in a Classical (Doric) frieze. The late Christopher Palmer suggested that the composer here recalled a Sicilian example which he had seen in the museum at Palermo. In his Mythes, Op 30, for violin and piano (dating from the same year), Szymanowski conjured an anthropomorphic world in which landscape and living presences mesh, so that it becomes hard to disentangle an intuitive study of character and emotion from the expressionistic extension of these into natural surroundings. Rather in the way that Beethoven in his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony alternated peopled landscapes and human states of mind with raw elemental impressionism, the move from Mythes to Métopes is from a living world to one stylized into a kind of impersonal, frigid brilliance.
A recurrent feature of Szymanowski’s music is its disjunction between harmonic density and a luminous weightlessness of actual texture. In the context of piano writing, this relies upon a performer of fastidious polyphonic instincts and acute subtlety. L’île des Sirènes typifies this. Intricate, visually inconsistent on the page and languorously fitful in its activity, the music is mostly deployed over three staves, abounding in what Palmer lists as ‘watery trills and tremolos; atmospheric use of the pedal to form a haze of sound; fine sprays of arpeggio; voluptuously spread chords; fine threads of melismata and arabesque on the one hand, sonorous climaxes on the other, all spun from the merest motivic fragments’.
Calypso embodies explicit reference to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, particularly in a recurrent passage seemingly related to the closing stages of Ravel’s Ondine, the water sprite evoked in his triptych Gaspard de la nuit. There are hints also that Szymanowski might have studied the transient, misanthropic late piano pieces of Liszt: a possible source for his frequent use of tremolando effects. The chosen subject-matter seems tailor-made for Szymanowski’s hermetic world, since it was Calypso’s island where Ulysses was held captive for seven years. Apparent attempts by the salient motifs of the piece to extend into open space are regularly met with obstruction, in the form of a quietly peremptory resurfacing of various fragments of material heard already. Almost like musical sliding doors, these contradictory planes suggest a mirroring of narrative through musical metaphor.
Nausicaa, daughter of the King of Phaeacia, danced for the shipwrecked Ulysses as he awoke from slumber after being cast up on another beach. Initially halting, but then by turns buoyant and sinuous and with a kind of ambivalent decorum, the dance brings a measure of welcome contrast with the hothouse oppression of the preceding movement; and yet, at the climax, after a wild escalation of activity, the principal idea of Calypso suddenly combines with that of Nausicaa. Palmer ingeniously suggests that this denotes their common erotic interest in Ulysses, since in narrative terms they were otherwise unconnected.
Throughout Métopes, freewheeling spontaneity of gesture co-exists paradoxically with the sense of a claustrophobic inner world. The music embodies echoes of Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op 1, while diverging perceptibly from the language of Scriabin—a composer for whom the shackles of inherited sonata structure remained a sometimes insoluble problem in the face of an increasing distance from tonal thinking. That Szymanowski perceived no imperative to replace tonality with some other overarching means of organizing structure remains in itself an arresting aspect of his personality.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2014