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The composition of the Princess Songs marked the beginning of a particularly productive phase for Karol Szymanowski. Since he was ill, he was not conscripted into the military; he spent the World War I years on his family’s country estate. Thus he was able to withdraw in seclusion from the political events around him until 1917, when the Russian Revolution ended the idyllic phase.
Before composing this work, he had journeyed through North Africa in 1914. Despite his copious notes on the Arab culture, Szymanowski did not confront the music of the Orient in a scholarly or theoretical way; he integrated it into his new, personal listening experiences and stylised it. This period of Oriental influence began in 1914 with Hafi’s Love-Songs, to translated Persian poems.
Based on a series of poems by his sister Zofia, Szymanowski composed this colourful and glittering music 1915, its exotic, lyrical and fantastical world expressed in the coloratura soprano’s many passages, featuring trills and rapid runs. The princess herself remains mysteriously undefined; Love is her only, recurrent theme.
By withdrawing into internal phantasy during a time of war, Szymanowski found an opportunity to retreat into a dream-world, and composing songs remained an important part of his lifelong work; in 1933 he arranged three of the six Princess Songs for voice and orchestra. (Sakari Oramo orchestrated the other three and conducted their first performance in 2012).
Translation: Grant Chorley