John Allison welcomes Roman Statkowski’s little-known masterpiece ‘Maria’

Even by its own exceptional standards for unearthing rarities, this month the Wexford Festival offers something very scarce. Usually its featured composers are well enough known, even if the works themselves are not (for example, Donizetti and Ambroise Thomas, whose Gianni di Parigi and La Cour de Célimène make up the other two-thirds of the 2011 programme). But what of Roman Statkowski and his opera Maria? It’s fair to say that hardly anyone encountering Maria at Wexford this autumn—the work’s first performance outside its composer’s native Poland—would even have heard of Statkowski before Wexford announced its programme, let alone known of the opera that is held by his few devotees to be his masterpiece. So who was Statkowski, and where has Maria been hiding?

Premiered at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki on 1 March 1906, Maria was one of the last works Statkowski would write—he lived for another two decades—before devoting himself almost entirely to teaching. He had been born on Christmas Eve 1859 in Szczypiorno, near Kalisz (itself near Poznań, and long considered the oldest city in Poland on account of having been mentioned by Ptolemy), into a musical family of landed gentry, and his own talents were recognized early. Piano studies, which may have left their mark on the piano music that forms the bulk of his output, were followed by composition under Władysław Żeleński at the Warsaw Music Institute, and law at Warsaw University. Abandoning thoughts of a legal career, he went to St Petersburg where he studied with Anton Rubinstein (graduating from the Conservatory in 1890) and also became something of a disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov. For some time he taught in Kiev, and much of his music must have been written there, for soon after he settled in Warsaw in 1904, taking up the first of several posts he would hold at the Music Institute, he found all his time consumed by academic work. He gave up composing around 1906, in 1909 taking over as professor of the composition class from the late Zygmunt Noskowski (holding the post until his own death), and in 1911 becoming founder-editor of the journal Kwartalnik muzyczny (‘Musical Quarterly’). By the time he died, on 12 November 1925, he was living in the cramped and poor conditions of his apartment within the Warsaw Conservatory (as the Music Institute had been renamed in 1918) and he believed pessimistically that his life had been wasted. But his many pupils (including such talented composers as Szymon Laks) and friends (among them the composer-conductor Emil Młynarski and no less a figure than Szymanowski) both adored the man and respected his accomplishments.

It is indeed tantalizing to imagine what he might have written in his last two decades, and, if the quality of his surviving works is any indication, a lifetime of composition would have surely added up to make Statkowski’s name more familiar. As it is, he remains one of many Polish composers between Moniuszko and Szymanowski known only at home, and even then not very well. Admittedly lacking that vision found in the finest music of Mieczysław Karłowicz (whose tragic, early death robbed Poland of one its key musical figures of the turn of the century), Statkowski excelled in miniature forms, producing (in addition to a few symphonic works) six well-regarded string quartets, some violin pieces (among them the popular Alla Cracovienne) and a body of around 60 piano pieces. Often grouping these in cycles, he explored Polish dance forms in his Op. 22 Oberki, Op. 23 Krakowiaki and Op. 24 Mazurki, and though the spirit of Chopin is obviously present here, so are the shadows of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Moszkowski and the Russian Romantics. The secondary theme of his impressive Op. 33 Toccata owes something to Rachmaninov—or perhaps to the wider common currency from which Rachmaninov also sprang, for as we shall see with Maria, the Russian music he imbibed during his St Petersburg years left an enduring mark on his work. His Op. 37 Preludes are especially distinctive and attractive, one reason for them remaining on the syllabus for many Polish piano students to this day.

As this summary indicates, Statkowski’s mature Romantic outlook was more conservative in idiom than the neo-Romanticism of his slightly younger contemporaries who made up the Młoda Polska (‘Young Poland’) group—Szymanowski, Karłowicz, Ludomir Różycki and Grzegorz Fitelberg—but that did not prevent them from admiring him. Paying tribute to Statkowski after his death, Szymanowski wrote: ‘Two people—of two generations, separated by an ostensibly insurmountable gulf of diametrically different views and standpoints. And yet, during these long confidential conversations, often staying up until all hours, we were able to find a common language, a shared measure and weight for the essential values …’

Maria was the second of Statkowski’s operas. In 1897 he had written Filenis, which uses a system of leitmotifs and eschews separate arias and ensembles, but is harmonically closer to Schumann than Wagner; its success in winning first prize in the 1903 London International Opera Competition prompted its premiere staging in Warsaw in 1904. By this time, Statkowski had just embarked on Maria, in response to a competition announced by the recently established Warsaw Philharmonic for the best opera inspired by Antoni Malczewski’s 1825 epic poem Maria (Ukrainian Tale), one of the peaks of Poland’s early Romantic literature. Statkowski won, and the other leading contenders were Henryk Opieński, Hubert Rostworowski, Wojciech Gawroński and Henryk Melcer. Alongside Statkowski’s Maria, Melcer’s opera had some early success and the Opieński score received performances in the interwar years but is now considered lost, just one fraction of the huge artistic heritage lost in the virtual obliteration of Warsaw.Statkowski’s work survived—only just—and enjoyed revivals to build on its last pre-war appearance in Poznań in 1936. Though the brief Opera Grove entry on Statkowski by Teresa Chylińska and Marcin Gmys’s fuller notes in the recent Polskie Radio CD release of Maria contradict each other slightly on the subject of revivals, it is certainly the case that Maria resurfaced in Wrocław in 1965 and Bytom in 1989. These performances were given in an edition by Kazimierz Wiłkomirski, one of Statkowski’s leading pupils and a chief of the Opera Wrocławska from the late 1950s (also a cellist and half-brother of the great violinst Wanda Wiłkomirska), who reconstructed the opera from surviving orchestral parts when its full score perished in the fires of Warsaw. Wexford’s edition is based further on the meticulous work the conductor Łukasz Borowicz did in preparation for his concert performance and recording with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in 2008: no stranger to rescuing ‘lost’ works, he is accustomed to the peculiarly Polish problem of working with sparse archival resources. In most countries, the archives of national theatres hold the answers required by operatic archeologists, and though Maria was lucky to survive with at least its orchestral parts intact, Borowicz took issue with some of Wiłkomirski’s cuts and ‘improvements’ and has attempted to return to Statkowski’s original thoughts. (Unsurprisingly, Wexford apparently approached Borowicz for this first international staging of the work, but he was already engaged elsewhere, and Tomasz Tokarczyk will conduct.)

Set in the 17th century on the eastern frontier of the Polish-Lithuanian Republic—territory of present-day Ukraine—the operatic Maria is fairly faithful to Malczewski’s poem. While the score was almost universally praised, Statkowski’s own libretto had its critics, among them Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the Polish writer (Szymanowski’s cousin and co-librettist of King Roger), who would probably have first heard the work at its 1919 revival. Statkowski acknowledged some of these faults and tinkered with the text during his later years (there was another revival in 1924, just one year before his death).

Such feelings about the libretto are indicative of the high esteem in which the Byronic—but still more gloomy and Gothic—Maria, Malczewski’s only major work, has always been held in Poland. Its admirers included the Polish-born Joseph Conrad. The poet (not to be confused with the major Polish painter Jacek Malczewski—or his artist son Rafał Malczewski) lived a tumultuous and tragically short life, dying in 1826, aged 33, just a year after the publication of Maria. An acquaintance of Byron and founder of the so-called ‘Ukrainian School’ of poets, he established the vogue for drawing inspiration from the natural beauty and colourful history of Ukraine, and Maria is full of the melancholy of the steppes. Had he written more, or not been so closely followed by such great literary figures as Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki, his reputation would probably be even higher.

The pessimistic plot centres on the grotesque contrast between two fathers and their love for their children, Maria (soprano) and her husband Wacław (tenor). Wacław’s father is the Wojewoda (bass), a proud old Palatine who wants his son to marry into much greater wealth and status than the family of Maria, daughter of Miecznik the Sword Bearer (baritone). Plotting to murder Maria, he sends Wacław off in the company of the Sword Bearer and other knights to repel a Tatar invasion. Although Maria’s father had been in despair when he witnessed his daughter’s suffering at being separated from Wacław, patriotism helps him overcome his melancholia and he rallies his men before battle by leading them in the ancient Polish hymn Bogurodzica (‘Mother of God’, the words of which do not appear in Malczewski’s verses but were added by Statkowski). The Wojewoda, meanwhile, uses their absence to abduct and drown Maria. Wacław is determined to avenge his beloved wife’s death by murdering his father, but at the last minute Maria’s ghost appears and dissuades him. In Malczewski’s original, Wacław deserts home and is never heard of again, but Statkowski has Wacław commit suicide, thus dying for love and transforming the end operatically into a Liebestod.

Right from the start, the score was praised for its freshness and sincerity. At the time of its 1919 revival, the leading critic Franciszek Brzeziński wrote that the chief merits of Statkowski’s opera were ‘the fluidity of melodic invention, the melodiousness of the vocal parts, which allow the soloists to show their skills, the outstanding use of the choirs and the orchestra, excellent instrumentation, great harmonic order, a wealth of rhythmic patterns, clarity of forms, and, last but not least, the dramatic power of expression, especially in the orchestral preludes …’. Brzeziński was also one of the first to note Tchaikovsky’s influence on the three-act opera, which is hardly surprising given Statkowski’s exposure to the Russian master’s operas during his years in St Petersburg. In places Maria does recall Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa, fittingly since both deal with Ukrainian subjects. There are also shades of Mussorgskian monologue. Perhaps most strikingly, the influence of Wagner is felt, and not only in the virtual absence of ensemble singing (the Act 2 trio is an exception here); the prelude to Act 2 pays tribute to the opening of Die Walküre, which was performed at the Maryinsky during Statkowski’s time in the city. Statkowski remained true to his Polish roots, however, and the spirit of Moniuszko (who himself set Malczewski’s words in his ballad Song of the Masks) is there in such episodes as the first act’s invigorating choral polonaise and mazurka.

Given Poland’s precarious political situation, with Warsaw still under the Russian yoke in 1906 and other parts of the country ruled from Berlin and Vienna, the significance of the Bogurodzica would not have been lost on Maria’s audiences. The oldest Polish religious hymn, it was famously sung before the decisive Battle of Grunwald in 1410 and at other battles during this era. Subsequently losing its significance, it regained its position as a hymn of the motherland during the 19th century. The tsarist censors, probably unaware that it would not actually have been sung in 17th-century Ukraine, could do little about its presence in the opera, and they may not even have noticed the ingenious allusion to the Mazurka Dąbrowskiego (‘Dąbrowski’s Mazurka’, adopted as the Polish National Anthem in 1926) contained in the central section of the mazurka. Clearly, there are layers to be explored in a work that already counts as the missing link between Moniuszko’s operas and Szymanowski’s King Roger.

‘Maria’ opens on October 22 at the Wexford Opera House, conducted by Tomasz Tokarczyk and directed by Michael Gieleta.