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… and even if it is not strictly church music, then it still has a serious religious character (something like a Greek Stabat Mater).
Thus Szymanowski described Demeter in a letter to Universal Edition in 1932. He chose the myth of the Greek goddess for the piece, influenced by the important classical philologist Tadeusz Zielinski. While staying in Jelisawetgrad (now Kirovograd) in 1918, Szymanowski read Zielinski’s book Is shisni idej (“From the Life of Ideas”), underlining the places he found especially intriguing, such as the sentence “The entire magic of human motherly love was devolved to form the goddess – the true mater dolorosa of antiquity.” Zielinski continues, “The Greek religion of Demeter carried a feeling within it – one of religiosity, called forth by the mysterious phenomenon of the crops regenerating.”
Demeter is a piece created within a sphere of vague yet keen apprehension. The style is sombre, its art personal, in which the highest degree of subtlest shading is at work, basically in playing the principal role. Jim Samson trenchantly characterised Szymanowski thus: “His genius is in the creation if subtly drawn, flexible and intensely refined harmonic experiments.”
Szymanowski took many of the poetic purports from the symbolical text and wove them into his music; but more importantly, he encompassed the theme in its entirety with the rich, highly differentiated, “impressionistic” use of the orchestra. The vocal line is purged of the shallowness of verbal substance and ennobled – as befits the theme.
Translation Copyright © 2012 by Grant Chorley