Concert Notes

Karol Szymanowski’s Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin

Notes by Sebastian Danilla

During World War I the music of Karol Szymanowski took a decidedly intense stylistic shift. Gone was the late-Romantic tone of his earlier works, with its dense orchestral polyphony and highly chromatic idiom, abandoned now in favor of the lush colors and opulent sonorities of the modern French and Russian music. Szymanowksi’s enthusiasm for composers like Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin, coupled with his life-long passion for Greek and Oriental antiquity, opened entirely new aesthetic perspectives for him. The resultant language—bolder harmonically, texturally more voluptuous than anything he had attempted before—announced triumphantly the emergence of a distinctive voice of a now fully mature composer.

Szymanowski’s song-cycle Pieśni muezina szalonego (“Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin”) consists of six songs for voice and piano to a text by his distant cousin, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Much later, towards the end of his life, Szymanowski orchestrated four of these songs (Nos. 1, 4, 5, and 6 of the original cycle), in what proved to be one of his last creative acts.

The “Muezzin” songs represent perhaps the high point of his fascination with exoticism. His imagination fired by extended visits in Italy, Greece, and North Africa, Szymanowski developed a world in which dream and fantasy coexisted in a luxurious landscape of exotic imagery. What distinguishes this music from other, more “clichéd” explorations of orientalist subject matter (like Ravel’s Shéhérazade) is the unabashedly erotic overtone. From the opening song, the muezzin—the person calling the Muslims to prayer in a mosque—is portrayed as conflicted between religious duty and erotic desire for his “beloved.” The constantly changing meters highlight the tension, the sense of inner turmoil. In the following song the eroticism becomes more pronounced, with the protagonist musing over the naked body of his beloved. The repeated sixteenth-note patterns in the accompaniment are highly suggestive of this obsessive desire for her, an obsession that culminates in the final song with the same body now buried in the desert sand, in what is arguably a compelling illustration of an oriental version of Liebestod. Tellingly, this is the only song in the cycle in which Allah’s name is not mentioned, reinforcing the muezzin’s complete immersion in hedonistic pursuits. 

The “Muezzin” songs are a crystallization of the aesthetic forces that define Szymanowski’s mature style: richly orchestrated, with an adventurous, yet sensual harmonic language, in which non-tonal symmetries predominate; testimonials that at least this work is worthy of a central place in the repertoire, far from the periphery it is currently relegated to.