King Roger is Szymanowski's largest and richest score - subtle, grand, glowing, and evocative of an archetypal dimension that places it among such other testaments in music as Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Berg's Lulu, Pfitzner's Palestrina, Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, and Busoni's Doktor Faust.
As Nietzsche gave up the ghost on August 25, 1900, a generation was discovering itself in his vision of the ▄bermensch - including composers Delius (Eine Messe des Lebens), Mahler (Symphony No. 1, "Titan"), Busoni (Doktor Faust), Richard Strauss (Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben), and Scriabin (Symphony No. 3, "Divine Poem," Prometheus - Poem of Fire). Though the works of Strauss and Scriabin were close models for Szymanowski's early compositions, he absorbed Nietzsche more thoroughly than either of them. Through the war years, Szymanowski explored what Nietzsche had identified as the Dionysian pole of human experience - Eros, ecstasy, intoxication, the chthonic -- in such works as the Masques for piano, the Symphony No. 3, "Song of the Night", and the Violin Concerto No. 1.
When his cousin, poet Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, proposed in June 1918 a libretto to be written around "the initiation of the hero...into the Dionysian mysteries...against the background of the ruins of the theatre at Syracuse or Segesta," Szymanowski was enthusiastic, embracing the idea as a way of making his preoccupations articulate, explicit, and testamentary. Euripides' Bacchae provided a point of reference, though the libretto was spun around twelfth century King Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154), both for the cultural crossroads suggested - Byzantine, Arabic, Greek, European - and scenic effect ("...the Byzantine-Arabic palace interiors would be perfect," Szymanowski wrote. "Just imagine: tarnished gold and rigid patterns of mosaics as background, or Moorish filigree...."). Despite Iwaszkiewicz's rapid loss of interest and piecemeal delivery of the libretto, Szymanowski composed the first two acts of King Roger between 1918 and 1923.
Meanwhile, having welcomed Poland's independence and taken up residence in Warsaw at the end of 1919, he became deeply identified with the creation of an ancestrally rooted, modern, specifically Polish music, for which he found inspiration in the raucously eloquent folk music of the Tatra mountains. Subjective concerns were supplanted by responsibility, with a new emphasis on the Apollonian pole of Nietzsche's philosophy, which Szymanowski tried to incorporate in King Roger, rewriting the libretto of Act Three in 1921. He failed to find, in T.S. Eliot's phrase, the "objective correlative" for the new viewpoint - Roger's final monologue remains dramatically and musically unconvincing - but realizing that a large portion of his most powerful music lay in King Roger, he forced himself to finish it with rising irritation. To Zofia Kochanska he wrote on August 12, 1924, "I am terribly tired, because that bit of the third act which remained to be done is a real instrumental-contrapuntal hocus-pocus, so unfortunately I am not sure that I have extricated myself from it with honour!" The self-parodying third act aside, King Roger is Szymanowski's largest and richest score - subtle, grand, glowing, and evocative of an archetypal dimension that places it among such other testaments in music as Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Berg's Lulu, Pfitzner's Palestrina, Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, and Busoni's Doktor Faust. The premiere was given at Warsaw's Teatr Wielki on June 19, 1926, conducted by Emil Mlynarski, with Szymanowski's sister, Stanislawa Szymanowska, taking the part of Roxana.
Opera in 3 acts Libretto: Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz World premiere: Warsaw, 19 VI 1926