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Karol Szymanowski

Szymanowski – a subtle intellectual

In the pantheon of Polish composers, he is usually placed immediately after Chopin. His life was extraordinary and symbolic in many ways, a condensed reflection of both an important part of the Polish history of the first half of the 20th century and the fate of people who carried the burden of living in this part of Europe. It falls within a period of turmoil, but also of optimism and glory, coinciding with Poland’s successful efforts to regain independence and two decades of re-established statehood. It belongs to the times of upheaval and torment that swept over Europe – the Great War, the revolution, the war between the Whites and the Reds in Ukraine, and the Polish-Bolshevik War. An heir to Polish gentry culture and the ethos of borderland intelligentsia, the composer was fortunate not to live through the trauma of September 1939. Although the storms of history did not spare his family house, the Tymoszówka estate in Ukraine, he luckily emerged unscathed from the confrontation with the bloodiest of political changes that affected this part of Europe. Nevertheless, his life was
marked with the anguish of exile, loss, abandonment, even orphanhood, and desires and longings which probably remained unfulfilled – those most intimate ones, for many years treated as an embarrassing taboo. The loss of Tymoszówka and later, a year before his death, of Villa Atma in Zakopane – a rented place but the only one where, according to poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, “he felt truly at home and was an excellent, warm host, polite and hospitable” – put his mature years in a telling frame. Painful as these experiences were, without them, his works would have been much different.

1899-1913 The substratum

Karol Maciej Szymanowski was born on 3 October (21 September, Old Style) 1882 in Tymoszówka, a rather big village in the Czyhyryn County, in the former Kiev Governorate. He was born in a gentry-class family with roots in Mazovia, whose members settled in Ukraine in the 18th century. He was the third child of Stanisław Bonawentura Marian Szymanowski and Dominika Teodora Anna, née Taube. Her family came from Courland and lived in Ukraine for a shorter period of time than the Szymanowski family, since the 19th century. Perhaps it is in this union of different traditions and cultures that one should look for the sources of the composer’s later openness to the world and to cultural diversity, his curiosity for the exotic and the original, and his desire to test and taste new experiences. This is what shaped his personality, happily devoid of any parochialism or small town complexes, unprejudiced towards the rest of the world. In the most comprehensive monograph to date, Teresa Chylińska documents his connections and kinships in detail and observes: “we will not be able to trace the composer’s genealogy back to 32 ancestors, but what we managed to learn about the Szymanowski and Taube families already demonstrates the richness and complexity of his ethnogenetic formation, which, apart from Polish, comprised drops of German, Russian, Lithuanian, Armenian, and perhaps even Hungarian blood.”

The family house in Tymoszówka – at the time of Szymanowski’s birth, his grandfather Feliks’s property (his father owned an estate Orłowa Bałka in Cherson Governorate) – is a symbol of the Polish borderland culture, of which few material traces have survived until today. The impressive manor house was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. It was an affluent estate, rich in its past and its potential, but (perhaps not uncharacteristically) in Szymanowski’s lifetime, rather carelessly managed. An anecdote has it that it was playfully referred to as “a scholarly estate,” where “the average landowner was too afraid to . . . pay a visit, discouraged by too high an intellectual level of its inhabitants.” Władysław Burkath, a neighbour from Ositniaczka, recalled that “conversations about wheat, beetroot, or maize would stop about halfway to Szymanowski’s estate.” In Karol’s family home, the focus was on other values, such as intellectual culture, the love for arts, and the interest in new trends in science. Of course, patriotism and the memory of the past were practiced; the family archives contained a large number of memorabilia, including original documents signed by the royal offices of the Old Polish Republic. The father of the future composer played the piano and the cello, and it was him that about 1889 guided the early musical education of his son. It is worth noting that young Karol was not the only child that showed artistic inclinations: his sister Anna (called Nula) painted, his brother Feliks, older by three years, proved to be a talented pianist, his sister Stanisława, younger by two years, was destined to become a great singer, and Zofia (called Zioka), the youngest, wrote poetry and translated. In her memoirs entitled Opowieść o naszym domu [The story of our home], she gave a fairy-tale, almost imaginary description of Tymoszówka:

“it was huge and rather dim. A vast corridor ran like a spine through its entire length. . . . It was a one-storey house, with a light-coloured roof, surrounded on one side by limes and on the other by limes and two old walnuts, each year covered with fruit. On the western side, a white veranda extended for almost the entire length of the house, densely overgrown with wild vines. The windows were big and full of light, especially when the leaves fell, because in summer they were amply shaded by walnuts and limes.”

In the memoirs of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Karol’s cousin, Tymoszówka emanated an aura of “unconstrained good humour” and creative games, such as play performances or group singing. Activities of the younger generation, marked by specific “artistic-bohemian inclinations,” contrasted sharply with the puritan-Catholic conservatism of the family’s senior member, grandmother Taube (“granny Misiunia”). The inhabitants of the manor house were well-familiar with the literary premieres of the times; books by Wyspiański, Stanisław and Dagny Przybyszewski, and Kasprowicz “lay scattered over all the tables in all rooms” and, as Iwaszkiewicz recalled, “stimulated imagination and . . . evoked curiosity.”

Young Karol’s first attempts at composition can be traced to about 1896. It is a pity they have not survived until today. We could have learnt a lot from these early songs or operas Golden Peak (Złocisty szczyt) and Roland. Indeed, the choice of genres reveals the future author of the greatest Polish opera and one of the most original collections of lyrical songs. Szymanowski’s most significant composing achievements in the years 1899–1900 include miniatures for piano, some of which were published together with Preludes, Op.1 in 1905. Their mood is melancholic, gloomy and sombre, marked by youthful decadent exaltations. A similar note can be traced in Études, Op. 4, Songs to poems by Kazimierz Tetmajer, Op. 2, and, of course, the arch-decadent 3 Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz (1903), doubtlessly, one of the most important pieces of this early composition period. But the Preludes, Op. 1, reveal strong influences by Fryderyk Chopin, and partly also by Alexander Scriabin and Johannes Brahms. The composer’s fascination with Chopin should not come as a surprise or disappointment. Rather, it is a sign of his perfect artistic intuition and his readiness to draw from the trove of the most valuable musical accomplishments of the western world. In Szymanowski’s case, the early stage of learning the arcana of composing was particularly rich in intuition and self-teaching.

After passing his school-leaving exam in 1901 in Yelisavetgrad, the talented 19-year-old man arrived in Warsaw to take private lessons in harmony with Marek Zawirski and in composition with Zygmunt Noskowski. According to Prof. Zofia Helman, an expert on the life and work of Szymanowski, they provided him with “a sound technical basis, but there was no close spiritual bond between the disciple and the master, or shared artistic goals,” and as a result, he decided not to pursue instrumentation with Noskowski. In his memoirs, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz described young Szymanowski as follows: “he emphasised his appearance in a way which, in later years, would become quite unusual for him – he was a young master from Ukraine rather than a Conservatory student; a ladykiller [?] rather than a writer of lyrical songs, which were dedicated to ladies, anyway.” In the family circle, however, his growing achievements were not treated seriously but indulgently tolerated. He was regarded as a “composer-dilettante”; indeed, the youth – “exuberant with joy and good humour” ¬– was also referred to as “debauched.” One might wonder whether in some respects Szymanowski did not feel flattered by this reputation.

The first two decades were very productive. Apart from the piano pieces mentioned above, there were classical forms (perhaps partly treated as indispensable experimental practice, but this is not to say that they lacked maturity), such as cycles of variations for piano (Op. 3 and 10); two substantial and formally interesting sonatas for piano (Op. 8 and 21); Sonata in D minor for violin and piano, Op. 9; cycles of songs, where the choice of texts demonstrated Szymanowski’s interest in German-language poets (Richard Dehmel, Otto Julius Bierbaum, and Friedrich von Bodenstedt); and, finally, two elaborate symphonies (of the first, unfinished, “counterpoint-orchestral-harmonic monstrosity”, Op. 15, two movements have been preserved) and Concert Overture, Op. 12 (1904–5, today known in its improved version, completed 10 years after the original composition). Formal experiments reveal the composer’s careful consideration of the technique of variation as well as of counterpoint and the fugue (fugues crown the two sonatas for piano and Symphony No 2). Most importantly, however, they point to his fascination with the German Romanticism of Wagner and with the modernism of Richard Strauss. To criticise this fascination would again be a misconception. This aesthetic choice also proves beyond doubt that young Szymanowski knew and felt what western music at that time had most valuable to offer. Even if some critics frown at the close affinities between the absolutely “spectacular” Overture, Op. 12, and Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems, where else – asks Marcin Gmys – could one find a similar formal clarity and almost iconic reception of his style? Incidentally, the whole circle of artists under the banner of Young Poland (writers, in particular) almost uncritically adored the world of German art.

An event which proved important for the propagation of the work of Karol Szymanowski and for extending the range of its influence was the founding of the Young Polish Composer’s Publishing Company in 1905. It was established in Berlin by Grzegorz Fitelberg, Ludomir Różycki, and Apolinary Szeluto, with financial matters left to Prince Władysław Lubomirski. Szymanowski was shortly included in this group of talented and ambitious composers. The first concerts organised in Warsaw and Berlin in 1906 and 1907 brought the work of young artists to the attention of opinion-forming commentators. And even though not all reactions were enthusiastic, what counted was the publicity won by the group, which was soon hailed as Young Poland in Music. Not surprisingly, it was the future author of Mythes that was acclaimed as its most talented member. The first stage of his career closed with a composing debut in Vienna (with the first performance of Symphony No 2, Op. 19, and Sonata No 2 for piano, Op. 21, on 18 January 1912) and a very important 10-year publishing contract with Universal Edition, signed on 31 March 1912. He was on the threshold of a new stage in his life – in artistic terms, the most intense and the most interesting one.

1914–19 Antiquity and the Orient – the Dionysia

A moment of isolation is sometimes necessary, a moment of quietude, in which a new stylistic form of art is allowed to take shape. Szymanowski was offered this opportunity, though in circumstances which were far from usual: during the Great War and the revolution. Separated from the rest of Europe – in Tymoszówka, Yelisavetgrad, and Kiev – he had the time to redefine his music, to break with the esthetic and emotional dependence on the Teutonic world of sounds, and to draw conclusions from new experiences. He absorbed them gradually during several trips to Italy (1905–1911), with the final journey in spring 1914 – almost on the eve of the political and existential disaster that was to bury his familiar world – acting as a catalyst for this spiritual change.

The trip started on 26 March in Vienna. Karol and his friend Stefan Spiess, a rich businessman, co-owner of a chemical company and philanthropist who supported musicians, went south; this time, however, their route was not limited to Italy but led through Sicily to the northern coast of Africa. They visited Algiers, Constantine, Biskra, and Tunis; on the way back, they stopped in Taormina in Sicily and Paestum in Calabria, finally to arrive in Rome on 2 May. Not much is known about this African journey. What has survived are a few postcards (“it is so wonderful here,” wrote Karol from Algiers; “absolutely wonderful,” he reported from Biskra; and “fabulously beautiful,” from Tunis) and photographs – so impressive that “they make my heart stop dead in my chest,” he would later say. Juxtaposed with Arabic exoticism, the Mediterranean world, this ancient cradle of European civilisation, tasted different and took on a new dimension. And even if Szymanowski came in contact with the mere surface of Arab culture, even if he absorbed whatever was contrived for tourists of that time, whatever he was, in a sense, persuaded to believe, this encounter brought about a major unexpected breakthrough. Today it does not matter that he listened only to the calls of muezzins or Muslim holiday songs and never carried out thorough investigations into Arab music, as Bartók did. What is important is the influence that Biskra, this exotic oasis placed at the edge of the Sahara, had on Karol, triggering self-acceptance in much the same way as it would several years later in André Gide. Stefan Spiess recalled this oasis of paid love as an oneiric paradise:

“on the quiet, unpaved streets, full of little restaurants and houses with doors wide open, restless streaks of coloured lights coming from inside the buildings and from lanterns above the doors lay across the soft earth beneath the starry sky. In front of each house sat beautiful Ouled Naïl girls (from the Kabyle tribe) dressed in pastel colours – usually white-blue and pink – with trinkets in their hair and ears, and with eyes lined with a blue Kohl pencil, some of them partly veiling their faces with charshafs. And around them, like ghosts, in complete silence, there were figures of men moving in white linen burnouses. The only sound that came from the houses was the gentle tuning of the zithers. Standing at the open doors, one could see beds covered with colourful cushions.”

Apparently, this is where Karol came to accept his homoerotic identity. Taking into account his personality, sensitivity, and psychological and emotional attitude towards the world, as well as the form of his future art, it was a pivotal, fundamental experience. Had it not come about, he would never have written his most important musical works. The combination of antiquity and the Arab world, ancient myths, pagan gods, and Muslim motifs, palpable traces of past civilisations, and the philosophical and spiritual heritage of the Mediterranean world gave shape to a wholly new musical language – original, colourful, fascinating, inimitable, and highly individual. Every piece from this period deserves a separate comment because they are all different in some important respects. One will find here unique compositions, such as the cantatas Demeter and Agave (unfinished); large works for piano, such as Masques and Métopes; cycles of songs based on oriental themes, such as Love Songs of Hafiz, Op. 26 (their version for piano was written somewhat earlier, in 1911, and for orchestra in 1914), Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess, Op. 31, 4 Songs, Op. 41, and Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, Op. 42; as well as absolute masterpieces: Concerto No 1 for violin and orchestra and Mythes, Op. 30, incomparable to anything in the whole music literature. Finally, there are those perhaps most important in terms of form, size, and theme: Symphony No 3 Song of the Night and the opera King Roger.

Suddenly, Szymanowski’s music begins to arrest attention with its exceptional lightness and enchant with unusual colours; it emanates with sophisticated harmony and seduces with almost literal but highly intricate sensuality. There are a multitude of themes, forms, and variations, from tormented protagonists who conceal their real selves and longings (Masques), through stories of Odysseus (Métopes) and symbolic-impressionist references to real places, such as the Fountains of Arethusa in Syracuse, or mythical motifs and figures (Mythes, Op. 30, Demeter, and Agave), to the erotic flavour of songs. And, perhaps most importantly, all these elements conspire to form a unique metaphysics – a search for unity with the undefined Absolute. The myth of Dionysus combines in a number of ways and on many different levels with the image of god who is one. In Symphony No 3, it is presented in the light of oriental Sufism; in King Roger (with libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz), it merges with eastern Byzantine Christian mysticism, as for Szymanowski, the source of the new concept of opera was the “kinship between Christ and Dionysus.” Even if in philosophical terms not every idea is defensible, in the realm of art, governed by its own laws, it becomes not only possible but also legitimate. In this case, it is indeed emotionally justified and serves sublime estheticism.

During the turmoil of World War I and revolution in Ukraine (1917–19), Szymanowski slipped into several months of silence as a composer, broken with his first literary effort. He spent most of the time in Yelisavetgrad (in a city, it was easier to survive robbery and slaughter), where he joint the civic guard (“a lame intellectual with a gun”) – a period marked by an emotional relationship with a young poet, Boris Kochno. The emotional breakthrough triggered in Biskra was now complete. The novel Efebos, dedicated to “the Scorned, the Suffering, the Disinherited, those dying slowly, Proud and Silent, in fetters of Hatred and Derision imposed upon them by the Almighty Hand of the Public Opinion,” was a powerful manifesto of his views on art, aesthetics, and philosophy, and above all – on love. In his ideological message, eroticism combines with sublime beauty, and love is prerequisite to immortality:

“Eros is the link that binds gods and people together. He carries offerings and prayers from people to gods and love and grace from gods to people; he fills with himself the abyss between the earthly and the heavenly world. . . . Eros is when beauty is created (conceived); this applies to both the soul and the body. . . . Love aims not only at Beauty, but also at creation, at conception in beauty. For there is something eternal, something immortal in conception, if this is possible at all among mortals. And the human being should desire immortality – if the object of love is to eternally rule over good; it is then clear that Eros refers also to immortality”

The refined aesthete could not have arrived at different philosophical conclusions. Ironically, this “Flower . . . bred at the Heights of Devilish Pride or Angelic Humility” (this is how the dedication to Efebos ends) suffered a harsh fate. The manuscript, closely guarded by the author, was destroyed by fire in Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s flat in Warsaw in September 1939. Only one fragment has survived until our times, translated into Russian and presented to Boris Kochno. A tangible symbol of a feeling running much deeper than friendship of almost 40-year-old Karol for the young poet.

1920–37 The father of Polish modern music

The possibility to leave Ukraine, torn by the civil war, appeared during the short period of general Denikin’s rule in Kiev (the second half of 1919). Szymanowski came to Warsaw at the very end of the year, on 24 December. This greatest turning point in his life meant a dramatic change in life conditions. Tymoszówka, like the mythical Atlantis, sank in the Bolshevik sea, leaving Karol and his family deprived of home and livelihood. This situation was to remain unchanged for the rest of his life. He never bought a flat in Warsaw. For several years, Villa Atma in Zakopane, a rented place, became a substitute for real home. Paradoxically, the greatest composer of the first half of the 20th century was destined for the life of a homeless refugee in his newly free homeland. A bitter lesson, even from the perspective of almost a century. The composer’s first post-war concert was telling, too. It was organised on 24 January 1920 at the Warsaw Conservatory, where only chamber music could be presented. The crew of performing artists was superb: Paweł Kochański and Karol, Stanisława, and Feliks Szymanowski; the programme comprised a small excerpt of his composition output from the war years. And still, Karol was surprised to discover that the hall was not filled. “So one could not find 600 people in Warsaw who might be interested in what I have been doing for the past five years!” This bitter comment led him to one more sad reflection: “between me and the Polish audience (at least the one in Warsaw), there is no real contact whatsoever; I am a stranger to them, incomprehensible and perhaps even dispensable in the general structure of ‘Polish music.’ . . . The European atmosphere of my art is absolutely indigestible to this local provincialism.”

The composer, thoroughly original and forever seeking his own paths, was never completely understood in Poland. He had as many apologists as virulent critics. Still, the sincerity and truthfulness emanating from his works earned him followers among the young generation of Polish composers. Even though the stance of splendid isolation appeared attractive, Szymanowski devoted his time and energy to public matters of the Second Polish Republic. He practiced journalism; in 1927, he was appointed Director of the Warsaw Conservatory and was working on a reform of the study programme. However, his ambitious aim to bring the school to the European level did not meet with approval of the music establishment. Excusing himself with poor health, he resigned from this position in 1929. After the school was transformed and granted academic status, Szymanowski became its first rector (1930/31). This again proved to be a short-time arrangement: in March 1932, when the ambitious reforms were abandoned, he handed in his resignation, as did other professors.

Nevertheless, for his music, this period of time was fortunate. On the one hand, he was making up for lost composition time (he was working on King Roger until 1924) and attended belated premieres – his opera Hagith, directed by Emil Młynarski, was first presented in Warsaw almost ten years after its completion. Embedded in the Straussian sound world, morally iconoclastic (according to Teresa Chylińska, centred around “perverse senile sexuality”), and composed in a very different time, it was evidence of what Szymanowski had long abandoned. Now he was guided by new ideas, represented by the crystal transparency and purity of Słopiewnie to words by Julian Tuwim. This third period of his composing life is often identified with an attempt to lay foundations for modern national music, and allegedly, folklore was an important element in this process. This, however, must be taken with some reservations, since in his last interview on the occasion of the ballet Harnasie, he explained: “folklore is merely a fertilising agent for me. My aim has been to create a Polish style since Słopiewnie, where there is not one jot of folklore, just like in the case of the Second Concerto, the Second String Quartet, or the Fourth Symphony. There are occasional ties to the Tatra folklore in the Mazurkas, but also loose, because there is no triple time in the Podhale region.” These are significant words, as they demonstrate a thorough awareness of creative inspiration and of the value of stylisation. Simple, banal borrowings are simply fatal for true art. The most important composition achievements of the last two decades of Szymanowski’s life include Stabat Mater, Op. 53, emanating extraordinary beauty, other works based on religious themes (Veni Creator, Op. 57, and Litany to the Virgin Mary, Op. 59), Symphony No 4 Concertante, Op. 60, which he wrote to support himself and which was probably the first example of neoclassicism in Polish music, and the ballet Harnasie, which proved to be his last, late success in Paris. It is on the occasion of this premiere that a French critic wrote insightfully:

“Like Chopin – and independently of him – Szymanowski has discovered the secret of Polish music and turned it into his own. The same oppositions – heroism and melancholic weariness, impulsiveness and relaxation, sumptuous stylishness and intimate ease, masculine impetuousness and feminine softness, lavish extravagance in the melodics and lightness – as well as sublime harmonics are characteristic of both artists; still, it is absolutely evident that Szymanowski borrows nothing from his famous predecessor.”

How do we perceive Karol Szymanowski’s music today, 80 years after his death? Fortunately, it can be heard in concert halls around the world. Incidentally, introducing it to international audiences has taken some time and effort, and much still waits to be done. We should actively promote his works and request that they be performed. That they have the power to fascinate was made spectacularly evident in 2011 by the aged Pierre Boulez, who proposed a visionary interpretation of Symphony No 3 Song of the Night (released with Concerto No 1 for violin and orchestra by Deutsche Grammophon). The great French composer and conductor did not grow to appreciate the taste of Szymanowski’s music until his late years, but then he spoke of it with great enthusiasm. Because works by Szymanowski, “this gentle intellectual of impressive erudition and amazingly subtle musicality,” are true masterpieces.


Marcin Majchrowski

Article was published in “Ruch Muzyczny” (09/2017). The author is a journalist in Polish Radio.

All photos come from the Polish Composers’ Archive of the University Library in Warsaw.