Research Library of the Polish Composers' Union

Logo of the Research Library of the Polish Composers' Union
Powiększ czczionkę
Resetuj czczionkę
Zwiększ kontrast
Resetuj kontrast

From Polish music history... Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski - portrait

Portrait of Karol Szymanowski – T. Zarębski, 1936; source:

Born on 3rd October 1882 in Tymoszówka (now Ukraine), died on 29th March 1937 in Lausanne. He spent his childhood in his family’s country estate. In 1889 he started learning the piano with his father, and later in a music school in Elisavetgrad with Gustav Neuhaus. In 1901-05 he studied with Marek Zawirski (harmony) and Zygmunt Noskowski (counterpoint and composition) in Warsaw.

In the same period, he made the acquaintance of Paweł Kochański, Artur Rubinstein, the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, the playwright and painter Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz “Witkacy”, and the novelist Stefan Żeromski. In 1905 he travelled with Witkacy (his first trip to Italy). In the same year, together with Grzegorz Fitelberg, Ludomir Różycki and Apolinary Szeluto, he founded the Young Polish Composers’ Publishing House, operating under the patronage of Władysław Lubomirski, whose aim was the promotion of Polish contemporary composers. This group of composers was soon referred to as the “Young Poland”. In 1906, members of the group gave composer concerts in Warsaw and Berlin. In 1906-07, Karol Szymanowski frequently visited Berlin and Leipzig, and in 1908 – made another journey to Italy. In 1912 he settled in Vienna. In that period, he signed a ten-year contract with the Universal-Edition publishing house. In 1914, he travelled again to Italy and Sicily, North Africa, Paris and London, and in 1915-16 – to Kiev, Moscow and Petersburg.

In 1917 the Bolshevik October Revolution forced the composer to leave his native Tymoszówka forever. He moved to Elisavetgrad, and in 1919 he settled in Warsaw. In 1921, together with Paweł Kochański and Artur Rubinstein, he travelled to the United States; in May 1922, his composer concert in Paris received an enthusiastic response. In August 1922, he visited Zakopane for the first time after World War I, and from that moment on he was a regular guest there. His artistic interests increasingly focused on Polish folk music, particularly that of the Podhale region at the foot of the Tatra and Kurpie north of Warsaw.

In 1926, he turned down the post of director in Cairo Conservatory, and instead, from 22nd February 1927 till 31st August 1929, he was the rector of the Conservatory in Warsaw. In 1929, he received treatment in the Edlach Sanatorium in Austria, later – in Davos in Switzerland. From 1st September 1930 till 30th April1932, he was the vice-chancellor of the Higher School of Music in Warsaw.

In 1930 he took permanent residence in Zakopane, in “Villa Atma” . In 1933-36, he performed his own works in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the Soviet Union. The two greatest Polish 20th-century composers, Karol Szymanowski and Witold Lutosławski, met only once in their lifetime – in 1935. In November that year, Szymanowski left “Atma”, never to return. He stayed several times in the French sanatorium in Grasse, and in March 1937 he died in a sanatorium in Lausanne.

In 1994, EMI recorded three of Karol Szymanowski’s works: Litany to the Virgin Mary, Stabat Mater and Symphony No.3, with the singers Elżbieta Szmytka, Florence Quivar, John Connell and Jon Garrison, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Simon Rattle, who was just then embarking on a great and brilliant world career. Inquired about Szymanowski’s music, Rattle admitted that he could not approach his music in a distanced and objective manner, as you cannot expect objectivism and sensibility from someone in love. Sensibility is, he claims, out of place anyway when dealing with this music. His first encounter with Szymanowski he owes to his friend, the English pianist Paul Crossley, who once played him a fragment of some composition. He had no idea what it could be, but after the first few bars he was extremely excited and knew it was going to be love at first sight. What Paul Crossley played was – the last part of the Stabat Mater. This composition was later included in the programme of one of Simon Rattle’s first concerts with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It was an extraordinary musical journey. Szymanowski’s music “carried away” the ensemble, both choir and orchestra. Having performed Stabat Mater a number of times, Simon Rattle took up Symphony No. 3. He believes he had unearthed the music at exactly the right moment, when the world was finally prepared to accept it. Szymanowski’s religious works - Stabat Mater, Litany to Virgin Mary – respond to people’s growing need for spirituality. The music is wonderfully multi-coloured and immensely emotional. English audiences could not previously take in such intense and direct emotionality – they had to grow up to appreciate it, but now they are ready to absorb it.

In Simon Rattle’s opinion, such works by Szymanowski as his violin concertos or Sinfonia concertante should have become a staple of the violin and piano repertoires worldwide already a long time ago. The two or three dozen pieces once recorded by Toscanini are simply not enough. The public is open to a new repertoire, as borne out by the phenomenal success of Górecki, enthusiastically greeted not only by the traditional philharmonic audiences. Górecki now has his fans in Britain among people who have never listened to classical music before; Szymanowski could make a comparable impact.

Simon Rattle discovered Symphony No. 3 owing to Witold Lutosławski, whom this very composition had once inspired to become a composer. Rattle sees the Symphony No. 3 as a wondrous mystical piece expressing a fascination with the East, a composition whose atmosphere answers the needs of a contemporary audience. Nonetheless, he believes that Szymanowski’s later works, which mark his return to Polish tradition, even to Slavic roots, with something like a reference to Mussorgsky, are even more important for present-day culture. Towards the end of the 20th century, the rest of the world must finally discover what Poles have known since the beginning: Szymanowski was one of the century’s greatest composers (“Studio” 1994 No. 10).

Another world-famous conductor, Charles Dutoit, recorded both of Karol Szymanowski’s violin concertos with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the Canadian violinist Chantal Juillet. The record was released in 1994 by Decca. Dutoit found Szymanowski’s music very much to his taste, because it is extremely colourful, full of wonderful colours – and in this sense it does not really sound like most Central European music. He believes his orchestra plays it quite well. They have already performed many of Szymanowski’s works. Apart from the violin concertos with Madame Juillet, with which they have toured all over the world, including even Buenos Aires and Tokyo, they have also played the Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4, Concert Overture, Stabat Mater, in fact – the vast majority of his orchestral works. This music is not very popular yet, but its time is coming. Dutoit himself has long been fascinated with it. He conducted Szymanowski with all the major American orchestras, including New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra. Still as a violinist, he performed The Fountain of Arethusa from Myths; it is one of those works which every violinist ought to play. Also wonderful is the Violin Sonata, and he is fond of both of his quartets. He is also familiar with some of Szymanowski’s piano music (“Studio” music magazine, 1994 No. 9).

Dr Mieczysław Kominek

Read more: Polish contemporary music

The previous article: Mieczysław Karłowicz