Stanislaw Moniuszko's Symphonic Heritage in the Space of European Romanticism

Publikuota: 2019-06-10 Autorius: Olga Savitskaya (Belarus)
Stanislaw Moniuszko's Symphonic Heritage in the Space of European Romanticism

Assoc. Prof. Olga Savitskaya, works at the Department of Music Theory at the Belarusian State Academy of Music, art critic, member of the Belarusian Composers‘ Union.


The creative personality of Stanislaw Moniuszko, an outstanding composer, conductor, musical and public figure, is perceived today, during the celebration of his 200th birthday, as a symbol uniting the cultural space of Belarus, Lithuania and Poland.

Moniuszko's life can be divided into three, approximately equal periods, each being an important milestone not only in the composer's biography, but also in the history of the musical art of these three countries.

His childhood and youth passed in the land of Belarus. The future composer was born in a picturesque place of Minsk region, on the old estate of Ubel, where, already at his early age, he had a chance to get acquainted with the uniqueness and beauty of his native land's vocal folklore. The years of his study at the Minsk Male Gymnasium and the Dominik Stefanovich's music school, contacts with young writers, artists and musicians contributed greatly to the formation of his talent and professional self-determination. When leaving Minsk, the seventeen-year-old Stanislaw Moniuszko was already firmly aware of his destiny as a composer.

The following eighteen years spent in Vilna made a period of his extremely energetic and fruitful work in a variety of genres. Here, he created operettas and orchestra pieces, chamber instrumental and church music, lyric songs and operas. Moniuszko's creativity was gaining broader and broader recognition; his works became popular both among professionals and amateurs. Having become a resident of Vilna, Moniuszko preserved his strong ties with Minsk; he used every opportunity to visit his parents and friends and to perform his works there.

It was in Minsk that Moniuszko's music to the plays "Bureaucrats" (1834) and "The Lottery" (1843) was first performed. His creative friendship with Vincent Dunin-Marcinkievich, the founder of the new Belarusian literature and theatre resulted in writing music for his plays "The Jewish Conscription" (1841), "The Musicians' Struggle" (1842) and "The Miraculous Water" (1842). In 1852, the opera "Idyll" (Sielanka), for the first time written completely in Belarusian language, was staged with a great success in the Minsk theatre. In 1848, the landmark concert premiere of the two-act version of "Halka" opera took place in Vilna; and in 1856, it was staged in Minsk.

And finally, Stanislaw Moniuszko's final fourteen-year period in Warsaw – the heyday of his creative activities as the founder of the Polish national opera. His European-wide recognition, performance of his works on the best stages of Warsaw, Prague, Lvov, Saint Petersburg and Moscow put Moniuszko forward as an undisputed leader of the Polish musical culture of the mid-19th century.

The symphonic creativity of Stanislaw Moniuszko fell on the Vilnius period. It is based on three orchestral overtures, written by the composer for his concerts performed in Saint Petersburg in 1848, 1856 and 1857: "Bajka" (fantastic overture "Winter Fairytale"; "Bajka", "Conte d'hiver"), "Cain, or Abel's Death"[1] and "The Military Overture, or Hetman's Mistress" ("Uwertura wojenna albo Kоchanka hetmaṅska").

Moniuszko's highest achievements are related to opera, vocal lyrics and cantatas. However, his symphonic works, which still often remain on the periphery of scientific research, are, in our opinion, of considerable interest[2]. Their inherent interweaving typological, regional and national traits have manifested themselves as both the most important musical and artistic tendencies of their time and individual originality of author's style.

Moniuszko addressed the genre of concert overture – the leading genre of the European Romantic programmatic music, widely represented in the works by Mendelssohn-Bartholdi, Berlioz, Liszt, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Dvorak, Churlionis, etc.

In all his orchestral works, Moniuszko relies on the so-called "generalized" programme type, which opens up a wide space for a free flight of fantasy and outlines its semantic boundaries just with contours. The literary prototypes of his works are vividly reflecting the various facets of composer's creative individuality and demonstrate his artistic and aesthetic priorities. Moniuszko borrows plots from the romantic Byron mystery "Cain", from the novel "Kochanka hetmanska" by Lucyan Siemienski, a Polish writer and poet, folklore researcher and a participant of the November uprising, and "intrigues" the listener with the unsolved mystery of undeclared programme of "Bajka".

The genre and compositional features of Moniuszko's overtures evidence an essential influence of the works by F. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. It is known that, while studying in Berlin under the guidance of K. F. Rungenhagen, Director of the Berliner Sing-Akademie, Moniuszko had a chance not only to study the scores of the famous Berliner, but also to listen to them in concert performance. Years later, in Warsaw, he himself conducted "A Midsummer Night's Dream" overture. However, the range of genre-and-style prototypes of Moniuszko's overtures is certainly broader and more diverse. His attention was captured by orchestral innovations of H. Berlioz (this, in particular, is evidenced by the use of the "personal" instrument of the French composer – and ophicleide – in his Vilna scores), and F. Liszt's experiments with the musical form. The deep, "generic" features bring Moniuszko's works closer to the Polish ballad tradition (M. Szymanowska, F. Lessel, F. Chopin).

Moniuszko's searches in the above genre sphere prove that the composer was "at the forefront" of new trends in European symphony art of the first half of the 19th century. However, while perceiving and comprehending the achievements of his great contemporaries, Moniuszko transformed them in his own way, in line with his own creative individuality. His overtures appear as an integral part of the spiritual and artistic space in which they were created. From the historical viewpoint, these works are perceived as vivid offspring of the so-called romantic and ethnographic period, which emerged in the Belarusian culture in the first half of the 19th century on a powerful wave of interest in the history and folklore of the native land. "Romanticism, while entering the life, resolutely denied the elitist ambitions of classicism in relation to the oral poetic creativity and, in fact, created an original cult of folklore," Vladimir Markhel, a Belarusian literature scholar, has noted[3].

The "Bajka" overture, as noted above, is a work of a generalized-programme type. Nevertheless, the assumptions about the existence of some original specific literary source accompany it literally from the moment of creation. The Polish musicologist W. Rudzinski emphasizes that the composer "... by the very name (fantastic overture "Winter Fairytale" – O. S.) clearly suggested to the listener the character and mood of the events described ... From the first sounds the imagination takes us to some secluded manor … then, follows a beautiful winter picture: frost is outside the window, and sparkling snow …"[4]

Similar or slightly different the implied musical "plot" associated with the images of his native land clearly appears in a series of contrasting episodes: narrative, lyrical, dramatic, scherzo-fiction and heroic, which define not only the originality of the figurative world of the piece, but also the peculiarities of its dramatic structure and composition. The music of "Bajka" captivates with its melodic richness, brightness, relief, and genre specificities of character themes. The musical tissue of the work is permeated with the currents of vocal folklore. However, the composer is not fond of direct citation of folklore: he prefers to freely embody individual elements of the folklore vocal melos. By citing an apt expression of Ramuald Padbiareski, we can say that Moniuszko "was not a collector of legends, but a presenter thereof in his arts"[5]. A comparison of the thematic material of overtures and songs presented in the capital collection of M. Federowski "Lud Białoruski" allows us to get closer to understanding of the depth of composer's comprehension of the nature of the folk song-writing, in which the folklore intonation organically enters the author's lexis as its integral component.

A remarkable feature of Moniuszko's musical thinking is the organic combination of the breadth of symphonic development with the theatrical visibility of the imaginative structure. In this sense, we should note one of his characteristic compositional techniques: an alternation of clearly structured and tonally-defined episodes with much freer sections, saturated with various harmonic "complexities" and "surprises": elliptical turns, chords of the alteration system, modulations into distant tonalities. Such constructions perform an important dramatic function: they comprise a kind of "change of perspective", a "switchover of presentation plan", which evokes associations with theatrical drama, with a combination of more static scenes (portraits, monologues and genre sketches) with dynamic event nodes and action focal points. It seems that this dramatic feature reflects not only his theatrical experience (let us recall that the time of Moniuszko's creation of symphonic overtures coincides with his work on the opera "Halka") but also, first and foremost, his theatrical nature of thinking, which can also be clearly seen in other genres (cantatas and romances)[6].

The principle of portrait characterization of themes-characters, inherent in both the vocal and instrumental music of the composer, is connected with the theatricality of his thinking. The use of the genre-intonation complex of "reveille" is indicative in this respect. As is known, this kind of signal music that existed in the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 1790s experienced a "rebirth", by acquiring a new meaning and new status in the national-cultural consciousness, having transformed into a musical metaphor, a symbol of the idea of national liberation. In the overture "The Hetman's Mistress", the fanfare signals, set off by sharply rhythmic dance motifs, define not only the courageously proud image of the main party, but also the emotional and semantic dominant of the composition as a whole (let us recall the initial name of the overture – "Military"). The reveille becomes a kind of a "leit-symbol", an "emblem" of the hero, the epoch, and the state of the soul.

Moniuszko's overtures, created at the crossroads of the European musical and historical roads, which assimilated and absorbed most diverse and varying national-cultural elements, gave impetuses to the further advancement of symphonic music in different national schools. A certain progress vector of Belarusian symphonic style was outlined in them. However, due to the dramatic "break of epochs" (in the words of Olga Dadiomova), which slowed down and changed the formation trajectory of the national professional music, the creative achievements of the 19th century remained practically non-demanded for throughout the whole subsequent century. It was only at the end of the 20th century that the forgotten pages of the past began to unfold and were perceived. An understanding arose that "... the Belarusian musical culture is an integral component of the pan-Slavonic and all-European historical and cultural formation, and in many ways it is the common heritage of several nations, who took part in the formation thereof, and who now perceive it as an organic part of their past[7]."


[1] The whereabouts of the musical score is unknown

[2] See: Mazur, K. Uwertura Bajka Stanisława Moniuazki w swietle nowych badan // Kultura muzyczna Warszawy drugiej polowy XIX wieky. – Warszawa: PWN, 1980. – S. 240 – 248;

Mazur, K. Muzyka instrumentalna w tworczosci Moniuszki // Szkice o kulturze muzyczney XIX wieky. Studia materially pod ved. Z. Chechlinskiej. – Warszawa, 1980. T. 4. – S. 126; Rudzinski, W. Moniuszko. – Moscow, 1969; Topolska, A. Zupełnie inna ksiązka o StanisŁawie Moniuszce. – Warszawa, 2016. – 119 s.

[3] Markhel, V. Foretoken: Belarusian-Polish Literary Interaction in the First Half of the 19th Century. – Minsk, 1991

[4] Rudzinski, W. Moniuszko. – P. 127

[5] Padbiareski, R. Belarus and Jan Barszczewski // Aristocrat Zavalnya, or Belarus in Fantastic Stories. – Minsk, 1990 – P. 355

[6] It is noteworthy that sometimes Moniuszko's off-stage works also obtained their visual-theatrical embodiment. Thus, the "Ghosts" cantata was staged in Lvov at the S. Skrabok Theatre, and then sustained several performances on the stage of the Warsaw Opera

[7] Dadiomova, O. V. Musical Culture of Belarus: Historical Fate and Creative Ties / O. V. Dadiomova [in Russian and English]; Resp. Ed. N. A. Kopytsko. - Minsk: ICC of the Ministry of Finance. 2018. – p. 25

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