Karol Szymanowski


Karol Szymanowski was a composer and writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His music shows clear influences, in distinct phases, of late German Romanticism, French Impressionism and Polish nationalism.

Szymanowski was born in 1882 near Kiev, in the town of Tymoszówka, to a Polish family that had settled in Ukraine after the partition of Poland. Szymanowski’s musical education began at home at a very young age. From the age of four, Szymanowski attended his relatives’ music school in Elisavetgrad (now Kirowograd). He continued his harmony studies in Warsaw, from 1901, with Marek Zawirski from the Warsaw Music Institute which would later grow to become the conservatory. He also received lessons in counterpoint and composition with Zygmunt Noskowski, a well-regarded, yet conservative composer.

An important element in Szymanowski’s education was the arrival of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, though this quickly proved to be a disappointment to the young progressive composer. Szymanowski and three of his contemporaries (Fitelberg, Róźycki and Szeluto) set out to encourage the advancement of Polish music by forming the group Young Poland in Music. This group was short-lived, but still had an important effect on music in Poland. The four composers actually had very little in common aside from their interest in more progressive Polish music and a shared idolization ofRichard Strauss.

Young Poland attracted the attention of Prince Władysław Lubomirski, who supported them financially, enabling Szymanowski’s music to be heard in Germany and Poland. In addition, he was able to have his earliest works published. These include a number of piano preludes 1899-1900) and etudes (1900-02), piano variations (Variations in B minor Op. 3 [1901-3] and Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op. 10 [1900-04]), sonatas for piano (1903-4) and violin and piano (1904) and the Concert Overture for Orchestra (1904-5, rev. 1912). He also composed many songs using texts from the Young Poland poets, who believed, ‘Art has no aim, it is aim in itself…Art stands above life, penetrates the essence of the universe...[It] becomes the highest religion, and the artist becomes its priest’. The group was also lightly influenced by French and Russian symbolism.

The belief that art itself was the aim really attracted Szymanowski, who created works described as a ‘hedonistic withdrawal from the world’. He explored the fantastic worlds of the Greek and Arab mythology in his music at this time.

Szymanowski’s first taste of success came in 1906 with the Warsaw Philharmonic’s performance of the works of the Young Poland composers in a concert supported by the prince. Another concert was given in Berlin, which included his newly composed Concert Overture, Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and Etude Op. 4 No. 3 (1900-02). The young composer received much Polish praise from this performance, something that would not occur frequently throughout his career. The notable music critic from Warsaw, Aleksander Poliński, wrote of Szmanowski, ‘I did not doubt for a moment that I was faced with an extraordinary composer, perhaps a genius’.

After his time with Young Poland, Szymanowski broadened his horizons with a thorough study of the New German School of composition, as evidenced by the rest of his pre-war works. Szymanowski also travelled frequently, often together with Stefan Speiss. His most notable journeys were to Italy, Sicily and Vienna between 1911 and 1912.

Works from this period include the very German sounding Piano Sonata No. 2 (1910-11), Symphony No. 2 (109-10) and the one-act operaHagith (1912-3). Though he was successful in his use of the Strauss-like style, Szymanowski had not yet discovered his own voice. It was during the war, for which he was exempt from conscription, that Szymanowski found his true stylistic calling, in isolation in Tymoszówka.

During a series of travels to Paris, Sicily and North Africa in 1914, Szymanowski became fascinated with the cultures of the Mediterranean and Arabic countries. This was combined with his interest in modern French and Russian Music. He found that these new stylistic ideals did not mix well with his Germanic style, and ventured further and further away from the late-Romantic influences. Pieces to come of this period were many, including the two piano cyclesMetopy (‘Metopes’, 1915) and Maski (‘Masques’, 1916), Mity (‘Myths’. 1915) for violin and piano, his Violin Concerto No. 1 (1916) and Symphony No. 3 ‘Song of the Night’ (1914-16). In addition, Szymanowski wrote a number of song-cycles,Pieśni księżniczki z baśni (‘Songs of a Fairy Princess’, 1915), Pieśni muezina szalonego (‘Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin’, 1918, rev. 1934) and Four Tagore Songs (1918).

While many of these works are influenced by mythology and exotic scenery, the orchestral works are much more Impressionistic. With his violin concerto and symphony, Szymanowski was able to combine many of his styles, creating passionate masterpieces with Impressionistic harmonies. Essentially a combination of the New German School’s late-Romanticism and the harmonies of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin.

Unfortunately, good things don’t last forever and Szymanowski’s peaceful existence in Tymoszówka was interrupted by the October Revolution, forcing the family to move to Elisavetgrad in fear of the coming uprising. The family’s home in Tymoszówka was destroyed during the violence, leaving Szymanowski devastated and depleted as a composer. He wrote of the ‘scoffing, cynical force of brutal facts’ of the war, writing further, ‘I cannot compose now…I am writing a bit—of course without any literary aspirations—simply to get things off my chest’. His writing turned into the novel,The Ephebe, which he completed in 1919. It was during this time that Szymanowski was also contemplating his operaKing Roger (1918-24), which he completed many years later with much difficulty as he had evolved stylistically over the course of the years.

The independence of Poland in 1918 eventually led Szymanowski to develop a nationalistic approach to music. He began using folk songs, especially from Zakopane, something he had long opposed. In the 1920s, Szymanowski spent half of his time in Warsaw and the other half in Zakopane, where he received much of his inspiration. The 20 Mazurkas Op. 50 (1924-5) and the balletHarnasie (1923-31) come from this period.

In addition to his time in Warsaw and Zakopane, Szymanowski also spent much time in Paris, where he associated with the Kochańskis andRubinstein.

By the mid-1920s, Szymanowski began to receive praise and recognition on an international level and became the director of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927. However, his progressive views were not appreciated by the older professors, and he received much resistance. Depression plagued the composer, who was also known to drink and smoke excessively. In 1929, Szymanowski resigned from the conservatory to receive treatment in Switzerland for tuberculosis. During this time, he did not compose at all, instead focussing on reading and writing the article, ‘The Educational Role of Music in the Social Order’. The next year he was appointed rector of the Music Institute in Warsaw, where he received many hounours and awards for his work. Though, in 1932, after a period of turmoil at the school, Szymanowski and several other teachers were fired.

Szymanowski’s final period was not fruitful. He composed the Symphonie Concertante (1932) for piano and orchestra, which is sometimes referred to as the Symphony No. 4, and the Second Violin Concerto (1932-33). His final composition was the Two Mazurkas Op. 62 (1933-4). Szymanowski’s poor financial situation led him to embark on long concert tours, which were far too intense for his age and health. His touring ended in 1935 and he eventually moved to Grasse, where he lived at a boarding house. It was there that he attempted to compose again, a ballet, which he did not finish. In 1937, Szymanowski’s secretary came to Grasse to find ‘the composer in a helpless state’. He was sent to a sanatorium in Cannes and then Lausanne and died the same month.