The Snowslide for tenor and piano
To celebrate the 150th birthday of Alexander Pushkin in 1949, the
board of the Polish Composers’ Union announced a closed competition for a song
composed to one of his poems. Lutosławski provided a brief explanation of his
participation in the competition in a letter to composer Grzegorz Fitelberg:
“[...] they pay for participation, so one can earn reasonably and easily.” The
song he submitted was The Snowslide
for tenor and piano to a poem of the same title translated by Julian Tuwim.
Written in the style of Lutosławski’s music at the time (Symphony No. 1, Recitativo e
arioso), the piece won second prize.
Pushkin’s poem describes a fight between the elements in the mountains: A snowslide becomes a dam for a rapid river. However, the current is unstoppable and eventually prevails over the glacial element. This expressive image, which is not without tragic overtones, is an excellent metaphor for conflict.
Lutosławski’s composition opens with a decisive “signal” – three sonorous piano chords that will later return in key points of the piece, at the beginning of the third stanza (announcing the climax) and in the epilogue (signalling that the piece is coming to an end). The first episode of the song owes its dramatic expression to rapid figures in the piano part (right hand) juxtaposed with slow “steps” (left hand). The entire arrangement resembles Chopin’s Etude in C major op. 10, No. 1. Against this background the tenor spins a declamatory melody of the first two verses (“Dashing against the gloomy rocks / The breakers howl and froth [...]” then “[...] And with heave rumble fell down, / And the whole pass between the rocks / Blocked up” [translation by B.A. Rudzinsky]). The movement of notes calms down (“Though didst check thy roaring”), but then, aroused by a return of the “signal”, it rises again (“But the stubborn wrath of the waves behind / Pierced the snow. / Thou, becoming furious, didst overflow / Thy banks”).
The verse “overflow thy banks”, sung emphatically by the soloist is accompanied by furious figures in the middle and high register of the piano (both hands). This climax is followed briefly by the music of the first two stanzas (“And for a long time the broken avalanche / Lay in an unmelted mass, / And the angry Terek under it was running”) and then comes a quiet ending (the “signal” returns here like an echo of earlier events): “And with the spray of the waters / And noisy froth it splashed / The icy vault”.