Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) has always been ‘No.2’ on the list of 19th century Polish composers, just after Frederic Chopin (No. 1, of course). As a matter of fact, the list has had only two names till now… Anyway, it seems the ongoing process of reminding the Poles about the forgotten Polish composers and their works, will certainly not change anything.
Moniuszko was a great artist, indeed, but he is still underestimated, especially abroad. During his life, he gained much popularity in Warsaw, Prague and St. Petersburg, and was regarded as a prominent Slavic composer. Today he is known only locally. It is true that he liked being a ‘domestic’ artist ( his Śpiewnik domowy / the Songbook for Home Use says for itself), yet undoubtedly, he was also expecting an international fame.
However, even in Poland, merely a dozen or so songs are widely known, out of the three hundred he wrote; just two of his operas – out of the six he composed (the second version of Halka /Helen, staged successfully in 1857, and Straszny Dwór /The Haunted Manor banned by the censorship after only three performances in 1865). Seldom do the theaters stage Hrabina /The Countess,or Verbum nobile, and hardly ever can you enjoy Paria – the last opera by Moniuszko, unjustly regarded as a failure by his contemporaries. His beautiful overture Bajka / A Fairytale is not often well performed. Scarcely can you listen to Widma / The Phantoms or Sonety krymskie / The Crimean Sonnets composed to the challenging poetry by Mickiewicz. It is just not enough. Moniuszko has been locked in a box labeled ‘Familiar hence good’, in order to be taken out regularly but unexcitingly, and never in front of the guests.
And yet his music, by all means, could captivate the hearts of the audiences all over the world. First of all, due to the individuality and exuberant melodic talents of Moniuszko, his music is unique. He skillfully combined the European ‘language’ of 19th century music with Polish folk and patriotic tunes. Then, his work is elegant, for all the above mentioned elements are perfectly balanced. And finally, it is sophisticated, since Moniuszko was a master at counterpoint and instrumentation. What is more, he used to consider the natural capacity and limits of human voice. Such merits are not common to all recognised composers. The fact should be taken into account.