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It is 1914 and Europe is marching toward the abyss of the First World War. Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) hastily concludes a tour through southern Europe and races back home to his family estate in the Ukraine, just as free travel across the continent becomes impossible. As the darkness of the conflict descends, Szymanowski, inspired by his visit to Greek ruins and subsequent personal study of Greek arts, creates one of his greatest compositions, Métopes, Op. 29. Coincidentally, on the other side of the continent, Ezra Pound has taken an interest in the career of an expatriate Irish author who has also just begun work on a masterpiece imagined around Homeric themes; Joyce has commenced writing Ulysses.
Strictly defined, metopes are the spaces found on Doric friezes, often decorated with figures – they are not the figures themselves. Szymanowski’s music encompasses more than the specific descriptive characters of the Odyssey; the surrounding narrative is integral to the music.
We are immediately aware that this is part of the tradition of “water” music, the continued heritage of Liszt, Debussy, and Ravel. Szymanowski’s early career was heavily influenced by Chopin and Scriabin, but recent immersion in the music of the French Impressionists was reforming the composer’s musical vocabulary.
In Island of the Sirens we hear the bird-like song of the half-bird/half-woman temptresses. Unmistakably, we also hear the treacherousness of the passage for Odysseus and his doomed crew, their ears stopped with wax and their captain lashed to the mast.
When ship and mates are lost to Scylla and Charybdis, Odysseus is washed ashore, alone, on Ogygia, the island home of Calypso. The nymph will beguile Odysseus into staying with her for seven years, tempting him with the gift of immortality. A stasis pervades, interrupted only by Odysseus’ memories of home and longing for his wife Penelope. The emotional pain this engenders is so great that the gods take pity and demand that Calypso release him. Odysseus is again put to sea.
Shipwrecked yet again, now on the shores of Phaeacia, Odysseus is found by Nausicaa, daughter of the king, who has come down to the water with her handmaidens to wash clothes and entertain themselves with games. Princess of a kingdom known for its generous hospitality as well as the quality of its dancers, Nausicaa is represented with youthful rhythmic vitality. But the call of home is again more powerful than the temptations to remain and Odysseus once more resumes his journey to Ithaca.
Written during a time of continental uncertainty, it is no wonder that Métopes does not accompany Odysseus to the end of his journey. There is no finality or security to be found. The music ends, unresolved, at sea.
- Annotator Grant Hiroshima is the executive director of a private foundation and the former director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.