No 1: Shéhérazade
No 2: Tantris le Bouffon
No 3: La Sérénade de Don Juan
Shéhérazade enchants its audience in a slow-moving dance-like narrative which builds to a pair of linked climaxes, each preceded by an escalation of tempo. Between comes a lengthy slower passage, in which D as tonal anchorage is unexpectedly announced via a cadence so conventional that, here, it sounds wholly new. D persists as an undertone to what follows, without ever consolidating its sovereignty. Ultimately the music returns to its openings. The pitch D is balanced by the monotone A heard at the outset, yet without ever suggesting a conventional tonic–dominant relationship. No explicit programme is suggested for this luminously sculptural music, but the context of 1001 Nights, where Shéhérazade’s survival depends upon keeping her new royal husband entertained, lends a subcontext of danger, like that supernatural heightening of sensory awareness heralding an expected extinction.
Tantris le Bouffon is derived from a parody of the Tristan legend by Ernst Hardt, published in 1908. In possibly conscious antithesis to Shéhérazade, who cannot escape the royal chambers, Tantris attempts to break into Isolde’s quarters but is recognized by the dogs, which give the game away. The fact that Isolde is later handed over naked by the King to the lepers is perhaps more than enough (never mind its explanation) to indicate the worm-in-the-rose ambivalence of Szymanowski’s aesthetic, and is of relevance here only because, rather than strictly narrating events, the composer sets out to contrast the coarsely knockabout (in an apparently ugly, rather than humorous, light) with the despairing and the helpless. Perhaps too strange to conjure pathos, this ferociously demanding music hints in its fast passages at odd melodic glimmers of Petrushka. Stravinsky was a recent discovery for Szymanowski at the time of the Masques. Their chosen title may well nod towards the commedia dell’arte tradition to which Petrushka and Russian puppeteering are more generally related.
Sérénade de Don Juan is essentially a rondo. As Alastair Wightman notes in his critical biography of Szymanowski, this is the perfect form for a piece about an egomaniac, since its recurrent theme can stand as the antihero’s ongoing love affair with himself. Moreover, the solitary note D flat (much laboured in the theme) may itself represent the ego of one unwilling to let attention rest elsewhere for very long—even though the theme does appear at other pitches later in the proceedings. If humour is in short supply elsewhere in these works, it is sardonically evident in this movement. The D flat makes a meal of itself in the introduction, like someone very consciously conjuring ‘an entrance’. Palmer notes a possible evocation of someone making a great kerfuffle of tuning up (although in fourths rather than fifths, affording the interesting possibility of a Don who plays double bass rather than violin). Later the music invites comparison with Debussy’s Violin Sonata and, in its repeated-note evocations of flamenco tradition, with the jester figure in Alborada del gracioso, from Ravel’s Miroirs. The gracelessly peremptory ending hints at a petulant flouncing out when initial attention has waned. Describing Scaramouch, an antecedent of Don Juan in English theatre (famously borrowed in music by Darius Milhaud), Brewer’s Dictionary resoundingly dismissed him as ‘very valiant in words, but a poltroon’, a description which fits Szymanowski’s feckless protagonist equally well.
from notes by Francis Pott © 2014