Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski and Musical Life in Nineteenth-Century Poland

By William Smialek. Studies in the History and Interpretation of Music, Vol. 33. Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter. The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991. Hardcover. $69.95.

Dariusz Pawlas

The name of Ignacy Feliks Dobrzynski can be found in encyclopedias but few musicologists know of his contribution to Polish music. The Chopin specialists may recall that in the 1820s, both composers studied under the same teacher, Jozef Elsner. Elsner's comments on the two were as follows: "Chopin - a remarkable talent [szczegolna zdolnosc]....Dobrzynski - an uncommon talent...much talent [zdolnosc niepospolita...wiele zdolnosci]." Of Dobrzynski's compositions, the best known is Andante and Rondo alla Polacca for flute and orchestra which occasionally appears on Polish Radio broadcasts. The recent "rediscovery" of his Piano Concerto and its performance throughout Poland may signal renewed interest in the opus of this composer.

Professor Smialek studied Dobrzynski in Poland where he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar. This resulted in a PhD dissertation on the life and symphonies of Dobrzynski (North Texas State University 1981), a published study on this composer's role in the 1835 Viennese composition contest, and the edition of his Symphony No. 2.

The work under review is path-breaking in many ways, especially considering the fact that there exists no Polish study of Dobrzynski of comparable length. It combines biographical, historical and musical aspects of Dobrzynski's personality and work. Chapter One is an Introduction to the Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Poland, and it discusses cultural life and political conditions in that country in the 1800s. While the problems caused by the partitions are generally known, readers may be interested to find out how the restrictions against Poles, especially under the Russian partition after the 1830-31 insurrection, limited the cultural life and negatively influenced careers of musicians. Also in Chapter One the author begins the discussion on national consciousness and the presence of Polish elements in Dobrzynski's works. The composer's patriotism was expressed not only in Polish rhythms and folk melodies (this was common in the Romantic period), but also "by the appearance of national elements...in conjunction with a specific political event."

Chapters II-VII provide the biographical facts in chronological order together with the examples and analyses of Dobrzynski's music. The story of his early years in Volhynia (present-day Ukraine) brings more details about the cultural life of Polish provinces. E.g., it may be surprising to some to find out that at the turn of the eighteenth century, Dobrzynski's godfather, Count Jozef August Ilinski, employed an orchestra of 120 persons on his family's estate at Romanow. Familiarity with this orchestra contributed to Dobrzynski's knowledge of the orchestral repertoire and to his becoming the most prominent symphony writer in early nineteenth-century Poland.

Most of Dobrzynski's activities as a composer, conductor, pianist, teacher, impresario, critic and opera director took place in Warsaw. The period between his arrival in the Polish capital in 1825 and the Insurrection of 1830-31 is seen as an introduction to his mature life (lessons with Elsner, debut as a performer and composer, early publications). The rising seemed to provide him with a stimulus to express his patriotic feelings both in musical activities (he organized a concert dedicated to those joining the insurrectionist army), and compositions (a Cantata on the patriotic theme of the March of Prince Jozef Poniatowski, and the arrangement of the Dabrowski Mazurka which has since become the Polish national anthem). The nature of Dobrzynski's patriotism ranged over the years "from support of revolutionary activities to constructive work." The author of this monograph spends a good deal of time discussing Dobrzynski’s national consciousness.

Outside Warsaw, Dobrzynski participated in the Viennese contest of 1835 and made a German tour in 1845-47. This resulted in several performances of his Second Symphony(probably Dobrzynski's most representative work) and of other works in German cities, and the publishers' interest in his music. One of the concerts of Dobrzynski's music was conducted by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

Large sections of the book are focused on particular musical works. Dobrzynski's works include piano miniatures in the style of Maria Szymanowska, popular songs and marches, and chamber and orchestral works. He also wrote religious and theater music. Professor Smialek emphasizes the incorporation of national elements such as the rhythms of the mazurka, krakowiak or polonaise, and the appearance of the characteristic Lydian fourth in the melodic structure. The formal construction of Dobrzynski's works reflects the assimilation of the classical style with its symetrical phrasing and the most common key relation of fifth. It is possible of course to find in some of his music the irregular phrases, the mediant key relations, and even chromaticism; however, extensions beyond the classical conventions are rare.

Dobrzynski's style is characterized by usage of the augmented sixth chord, slow introductions thematically related to the material of the first theme, inversion of the usual succession of the inner movements in cyclic forms (compare this with Chopin's Sonatas), and leading the melody in the treble register of the cello.

Smialek also analyzes both the music and plot of Dobrzynski's dramatic works. The chapter on "Monbar or the Freeboters" [Monbar czyli Flibustierowie] includes a brief history of the Polish opera. There is also a digression on Polish Catholicism preceding the presentation of the Cantata "O Holy God" [Swiety Boze] based on the famous plainchant and other religious music.

The book contains a bibliography of Dobrzynski's works, a selected bibliography of the relevant critical works, and an index.

This volume recognizes an unjustly forgotten composer for what he was: a vibrant and valuable representative of late Classicism in Poland. Classical music lovers and performers seeking for unknown music will also find the volume stimulating.

Dariusz Pawlas is a doctoral student at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.


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