Roman Maciejewski

Work - The works

In the inter-war period, that is at a time when Roman Maciejewski’s musical style was evolving, Polish music was dominated by two strands: folkloristic-national and neoclassical, which became characteristic of his own oeuvre as well. In those years modern use of folklore as musical material, that is creative approach to Chopin’s achievements, became a mark of modern compositional thinking. This trend was consolidated by the authority of Karol Szymanowski, who inspired young composers with his talent. Although Maciejewski was not officially a student of Szymanowski at the Warsaw Conservatoire, he took from him a lot of advice concerning technique and worldview. This prompted him to explore the national style, to understand its essence and – in this context – to understand the role of artistic freedom, which should be marked by independence. Obviously, the young composer’s views were not shaped by a single – even the most outstanding – individual, but by his whole milieu, especially teachers from his youth, Stanisław Wiechowicz and Kazimierz Sikorski.

Maciejewski turned the Szymanowski inspiration into his first masterpieces, Kurpie Songs for mixed choir and 4 Mazurkas for piano. The cycle of mazurkas (which Maciejewski composed almost throughout his life) as well as the songs are the pillars of the folkloristic-national strand in the composer’s oeuvre. The strand also included a number of pieces for piano (two Mazurs; Krzesany; Fairy Tale, a ballet for children; Mazurka for two pianos; Oberek, a ballet scene for two pianos), choral music (Kurpie Songs for mixed choir, Pastoral Mass, Polish Christmas Carols for four-voice women’s choir or boys’ choir and organ) and incidental music for theatre (Polish Bethlehem, sketches for incidental music to Forefathers’ Eve and Jankiel’s Concert).

At the same time Maciejewski wrote pieces which in their aesthetics drew on neoclassicism. They include the very successful Concerto for Two Pianos, but the list is much longer and features other compositions for two pianos (Lullaby and Allegro concertante, Tarantelle, Negro Spirituals, Svenska Danser or numerous transcriptions), as well as:

Obviously, the list would not be complete without piano works: Lullaby, Triptych, the cycle Prelude, Fjättrad (Obsession), Drömmen (Dream), Eko (Echo), Fandango.

However, one composition is missing from the two lists – Requiem, which falls outside all stylistic classifications, although in its case we can speak of a reference to the tradition of funeral masses and regard it as a continuation of the achievements of Polish composers tackling large forms of religious music (like Karol Szymanowski with his Stabat Mater). Yet what matters the most in this case is the fact that we are dealing with a composition which already at the planning stage was intended as Maciejewski’s opus vitae, the greatest example of his talent, his artistic lodestar and, at the same time, musical testament. Everything here is different from his other works – the composer devoted more than a decade to writing his Requiem. Although he usually avoided large form, he wanted the Requiem to reach monumental proportions (symphony orchestra, choir and soloists, approximately 135 minutes of music). Finally, indifferent as he was to the promotion of his oeuvre, Maciejewski hoped that this particular piece would win international recognition. As he predicted, the work indeed became Maciejewski’s calling card – for many music lovers the composer’s oeuvre simply means Requiem. This is what Maciejewski said about the motivation behind the writing of his opus vitae:

Requiem is […] a special work. When composing it, I felt inner pressure to create something that would have an extra- or supra-musical dimension. As I wondered about the phenomenon of war, I came to the conclusion that it is a moral abyss. Ethics, morality regulate the relations between people, while war is a complete contradiction of these good relations. I did not fight in this war, I did not suffer physically, but I did suffer mentally and thought intensely about how to awaken this feeling in others. I decided to do something that would attract people’s attention, if only by virtue of its size. Of course, I could have written a short epitaph, which would have been performed more often, but which would not have generated much interest, would not have become a source of profound experiences and would have gone unnoticed. That is why I decided to write a grand Requiem as a monument to all those who died in all wars. I had no intention of painting the horrors of war like other composers writing their Requiems did. They wanted to show the terror and atrocities of war in their works, whereas I wanted to bring comfort to people. The main motto of my Requiem is the words spoken by Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” So this is a universal human cause. When composing the work I also thought about other victims of this human ignorance; I dedicated it also to those who had perished in tyrants’ prisons, who suffered because of injustice and who died because of ignorance of the laws of nature.

When trying to describe Maciejewski’s oeuvre, we can also speak of (within the established strands) two strong inspirations: religious music and folklore, not only Polish folklore.

When it comes to religious music (leaving aside the Requiem), of prime importance was Maciejewski’s work as a choral conductor. That position prompted him to write the following compositions: Pastoral Mass, Missa Brevis, Missa Brevis a cappella, The Mass of Resurrection, Mass in Honour of St. Cecilia, Carols, two Hosannas, as well as Hosanna, Gloria, Sanctus, America the Beautiful and transcriptions. The other strong inspiration came from musical traditions of other cultures, like the Spanish (two Spanish Songs, Spanish Suite, Fandango, Palabras divinas), Swedish (Seven Swedish Dances for two pianos), American (e.g. Carols or Negro Spirituals) and even Italian (Tarantella) and Chinese cultures (incidental music to Song of the Lute).

In this context it is worth mentioning another important division – into artistic and functional oeuvre (i.e. music for theatre, ballet, transcriptions or even the masses). The composer wrote quite a lot of functional pieces of varying quality. Why? To put it simply: in the case of choral music the composer adapted the musical material to the capabilities of the performers, but his piano pieces reveal his knowledge of the instrument and its capabilities – after all, Maciejewski was (perhaps only from time to time) a very good pianist. Excellent piano playing as well as the ability to quickly sight-read music enabled him to work as an accompanist at dance schools, which led to various compositions, sometimes unusual, like Fairy Tale, a ballet for children written when he was working at Janina Mieczyńska’s school.

Maciejewski was a pianist, so it is hardly surprising that piano pieces predominate in his oeuvre; however, he also wrote chamber music, sporadically also orchestral, with songs occupying the peripheries of his musical interests. Significantly, choral music (of which there are so many examples) was not just a result of his work with amateur choirs in the United States. His love for choral singing had begun much earlier, during his childhood in Leszno and then was developed thanks to Stanisław Wiechowicz, through whom Maciejewski began to explore professional conducting. He used this knowledge also in the Requiem, which is the only example of a large form in his oeuvre.

I have been the same since the moment I started composing, I’ve even ceased to date my compositions, because I haven’t changed my aesthetic views, nor have I changed internally sufficiently to believe that a composition from a given period has some characteristic features.

These words by Maciejewski best sum up his oeuvre, as we look at it from the perspective of his musical language. He used tradition in a creative manner, not being afraid at the same time of solutions characteristic of inter-war modernism. However, expanded major-minor tonality or even bitonality never brought him to the avant-garde. His melodic lines oscillate around a tonal centre, although they often undergo chromatisation. The structure of chords is shaped in a similar fashion – although it is based on thirds, colouring notes are its essential component, with minor and major thirds being used interchangeably. Signatures placed right next to the clef suggest the key – this tribute to tradition can also be seen in the rhythm or choice of musical forms and genres (concerto, sonata, string trio, quintet, song, suite, nocturne, lullaby, sonata allegro, mass for the deceased). This is also associated with the use of polyphony and variations. Maciejewski likes to develop the form of the entire work from one or two basic motifs; he is no stranger either to the ABA structure. Melody is a distinctive feature of this oeuvre – Maciejewski shapes it by using diatonic as well as modal or narrow scales; in addition, he uses chromatic, whole-tone or second-third-fourth passages. This influences the colour of a piece (sometimes even moving towards impressionism). An important element of Maciejewski’s oeuvre is emotionality, associated with concern for the expressive side of works, which was noted by listeners and experts already in the inter-war period. Konstanty Regamey saw in Maciejewski’s music a manifestation of a modern Polish style:

The three […] most outstanding Polish compositions performed in recent years: Woytowicz’s Funeral Poem, Palester’s Quartet and Maciejewski’s Concerto for Two Pianos, are works by composers with very different creative personalities […]. And yet despite undoubted and crucial differences in style, one can sense something they have in common, something that makes it possible to place them next to one another and regard as models of what we might call the present Polish style. They have become almost completely independent of Szymanowski reminiscences, [this and] a very high formal level and characteristic new romanticism […] allow us to see in them representatives of a new Polish style.

Although Maciejewski often failed to date his compositions, we can (on the basis of surviving letters or reviews, for example) reconstruct the progress of his creative journey. In the inter-war period, when he was viewed as a modernist, there emerged in his oeuvre a division into two strands, neoclassical and folkloristic-national; this was also the time when some of his most important works were written (Kurpie Songs, 4 Mazurkas, Krzesany or Concerto for Piano). How intensely he worked as a composer – we do not know, because some of his youthful compositions were lost (as a result, among others, of theft of a suitcase which was kept in the cellar of his brother Zygmunt shortly after the war). From the moment of his inner breakthrough and thus the beginning of the composition of Requiem, other works seemed to have ceased to exist for him. True, new composition did appear at the time (we know little about the circumstances in which some of them originated), but it seems that most of them were written in connection with gainful employment or other obligations (scholarship?) and not as a result of an artistic stimulus. After his retirement Maciejewski basically lost all interest in creating new pieces; instead, he modified older ones. The only exception is the Mazurkas, which he continued to write and improve all his life. What was the reason behind this? We do not really know… Fond memories of his youth? Patriotism and longing for his homeland? Or perhaps love for the piano and need to play it?

To sum up, a conglomerate of old and new elements, a combination of local and European traditions – these are distinctive features of Maciejewski’s music. An original approach to using elements of Polish folk music enriched his compositional technique. In addition, Maciejewski drew in an original manner on the achievements of neoclassicism. A lack of major turning points and experiments as well as a very coherent artistic philosophy determine the stylistic proximity of his works. The situation is similar when it comes to his views on music – they did not evolve but were only made more precise over years. We could even say that at the beginning of his artistic journey the composer’s musical language was more radical (especially in comparison with the times in which he began his career). It seems that this artistic and worldview “freeze” made it difficult for Maciejewski’s compositions to make their mark on and be appreciated in the world in his day, as the world was seeking progress and did not adhere to the old order. But perhaps this is precisely what has saved them?