Kenneth Smith

Szymanowski's Local Mythologies

It is no secret that Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was heavily influenced by the Russian Alexander Skryabin. Just as Skryabin took Wagnerian erotic music to extremes in his Poem of Ecstaty or Prometheus, Szymanowski reached the dizzying heights of King Roger or his Third Symphony – Song of the Night. But while Skryabin drew philosophical inspiration from sources that tried to transcend a sense of local place (Theosophy; Hegelian dialectics), Szymanowski derived inspiration from relatively local sources (Sicillian art; Persian mysticism). And just as Skryabin aimed to transcend local harmonic matters with his famous chord of nature – the mystic chord – derived from the overtone series, Szymanowski delved into local modes such as the ‘Podhalean mode’. But these produced similar results, for the Podhalean mode (McNamee) – a version of the ‘acoustic scale’ – uses #4 and b9 to produce a ‘polytonal’ admixture of dominant-seventh impulses almost identical to Skryabin’s mystic chord. Szymanowski’s popular collection of three pieces for solo-violin, comprising his Myths, Op. 30 can be read as comments on this. Stephen Downes explores how the opening sonority of No. 2 entitled Narcissus (Downes, 1996), with its symbiotic relationship between the violin and piano, and its derivating harmonic flowering, works within the dynamics of the Freudian Identifications of a child/parent during the primal stages of subject formation. The ambiguous harmonies (actually a reordered version of the mystic chord) are here mirrored between instruments, encapsulating the drives of the pre-Oedipal subject. The intimate piece with its inward-facing local (narcissistic) outlook, representing Poland’s isolated position between Germany and Russia, is compared in this paper with Skryabin’s extroverted international sound world.