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ClassicsOnline Home » SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 2
Karol Szymanowski (1882 -1937)
Piano Music Vol. 2
Born of aristrocratic, cultured Polish parents, wealthy landowners in the Ukraine (Tymoszówka), Szymanowski learnt piano from the age of ten with Gustav Neuhaus (a relative by marriage, and the father of Heinrich Neuhaus, teacher of Gilels and Richter), finishing his studies in Warsaw (1901-04) under Zygmunt Noskowski (counterpoint and composition) and Marek Zawirski (harmony). The decade before the killing fields of the Great War silenced for ever the old imperial dynasties of his childhood was for him a time of enterprise, discovery and enlightenment. In Busoni's and Strauss's Berlin he co-founded the Young Polish Composers' Publishing Company (Moda Poiska, "Young Poland in Music"), with the purpose of introducing modern Polish music to new audiences. He was oppressed by the anti-Semitic fin-de-siècle Viennese milieu of Mahler and Schoenberg, Klimt and Freud, Hitler and Trotsky. But was lastingly affected by the exotic Islamic cultures and ornament of North Africa, and the Christendom of Italy and Sicily. He experienced Debussy' s Pelléas et Mélisande. He saw Nijinsky, Karsavina and the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, met Stravinsky ("a genius"), and with Artur Rubinstein played Petrushka on the piano. The War confined him to Russia - delving yet deeper into philosophy, the orient, Islam, the Greeks, the Romans, early Christianity. In the Boishevik autumn of 1917 the family manor at Tymosz6wka ("un palais enchante," his cousin, the poet Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, remembered), including its art treasures - many inherited from a great uncle who'd been one of Napoleon's generals - was plundered and burnt to the ground. "Wantonly thrown into the lake", both Szymanowski's grand pianos perished as well. For two years the trauma turned him away from music - a suddenly frozen art, petrified in a time before. Together with Iwaskiewicz in Elisavetgrad (surrounded by "things that would have made me at least faint [previously] - such as corpses, the wounded, some frightful bandit gangs") he worked instead on a novel, Efebos (lost in the Warsaw conflagrations of 1939) - "about a beautiful Prince, beautiful Rome, beautiful [homosexual] love": "a solace and sweet remembrance of things past ...an assertion of the Omnipotent Beauty of life even in the midst of suffering". By the end of 1919, Communist Russia behind him, Prohibition America to come, he was back in Poland, declining an invitation from Cairo to become Director of the Warsaw Conservatoire in 1927 and Rector of the Music Academy three years later - from which latter post, however, burdened by administration and obstructed by warring factions and right-wing opposition to his radical reforms, he was pressured to resign in 1932. In contrast to his privileged, pampered youth, his last years were tragic. He composed scarcely at all. Scraping a means to provide for his family (including an aged, arthritic mother), he ventured to appear as an "ill paid" pianist in his own music - but without much success: just thirty concerts and "at homes" for the period 1933- 37. Hounded by creditors, unable to afford proper medical treatment (maybe because he continued to insist on retaining a housekeeper, valet and secretary - reminders of a "Grand" life-style long since past: "I must confess to not being the most modest of men"), he died in Lausanne on Easter Sunday 1937 - like his eider brother, Felix, from tuberculosis. He was fifty-four.
How terminal was his decline he himself identified in a desparate, suicidally suggestive, letter to his friend the pianist Jan Smeterlin in London (14th September 1934): "I am absolutely destitute ...Like a down and out whore I am capable of selling myself for any price ...My whole family relies on me for support ...if I do not work I become painfully short of breath. So I play the [hired] piano (practicing for concerts) and compose, etc ...Polish officialdom (the Government) repeatedly refuses to recognise me ... they care nothing for me here ...I could die without anyone lifting a finger. My funeral will be a different story. I am convinced it will be splendid [he was right]. People here love the funeral processions of great men. I see no reason why I should be silent about the scandalous conditions to which I am subjected. You can tell the world about it. I have tried everything I can ...I have reached a stage where one no longer reasons sanely; decisions are easily made, as above all else one needs rest ...this exhausting fight to exist ... explains my frightful lethargy. One can put up with this sort of thing for a certain time, but not indefinitely. One tires and one loses the urge to live ...an 505 from the very depths of distress" (© translation BM Maciejewski). In his memoirs, Composing Myself (1987), Andrzej Panufnik remembered him around this time, "living in a simple, rather gloomy villa on the edge of Zakopane [in the Tatra mountains] ...sparsely furnished with ...a black, upright piano ...he immediately burst into a tirade about his former colleagues at the Conservatoire: He angrily attacked them one after the other, using words such as 'brote', 'rascal', 'swine', 'pig'; even 'son of a whore' ...It was astonishing to hear such crude words pouring from the lips of Poland's greatest composer ...Obviously he had been badly hurt by his colleagues and wanted me to know w hat he thought of them, perhaps in the hope that I would spread some words in his defence. All the time he was talking, he chain-smoked, carefully placing his cigarettes in a slim holder. His flow of words was interrupted only by his frequent, racking, tubercular cough ...We left the villa together, but soon our ways parted. I turned my head and sadly watched his efforts to make his way to the town. Though not much more than fifty, he appeared at least twenty years older; with his shoulders bent, he limped along slowly with the aid of a walking stick, one leg dragging behind him ..." Contrast this with Muriel Draper's portrait of him twenty years earlier in London, June 1914 - a man feted by society, unbroken, unravaged by bitterness: " Aloof, sensitive, secure, shy, he walked into the room and lifted a beautiful head from retreating hovering shoulders. Features of nobility were brushed with gentle strokes of silvery-gold sadness. Generations of Polish submission looked out from fathomless eyes, and generations of Polish rebellion moulded his forehead. Mobile lips shaped words into subtly chiselled silver images as he spoke. He brought with him the world of ecstatic suspense in which he lives and creates ...[Musicians] made much of him, though he made nothing of himself. He simply was" (Music at Midnight, 1929).
Between Chopin (died 1849) and Lutoshwski (born 1913) there was no musical mind in Poland so refined as Szymanowski's. He was to 20th century Polish music what Bartók was to Hungarian or Janacek to Czech, his art transcending/ denouncing its early Teutonic allegiances - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Mahler - to achieve a broader synthesis sculpted as much out of Chopin and Debussy, theosophical Scriabin and "Russian spring" Stravinsky, as years of philosophical musing, moral questioning, and a very particular identification with the Polish psyche ("not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka...[but] the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night"). "I recognise artistic traditionalism most sincerely as the starting- point," he wrote in February 1927, "yet our aim is not 'yesterday', but 'today' and 'tomorrow'. In other words, creativeness and not confinement to achievements already acquired". The Italian critic Guido Pannain (1932) sensed him to be "a genius of the Arabian Nights order. There is a touch of Cagliostro in this passionate wizard who has the hands of Liszt, the brain of Wagner and the heart of Debussy, a perpetual seeker!" Like his older (similarly "one-off") contemporary Medtner, Szymanowski has had to wait years for recognition: in the progressively exploding firmament of his time the setting star of his late-Romanticism may have been beautiful but it was never the brightest. In 1951 The Record Guide believed that his "complex and highly wrought music full of exquisite effects of colour ...is unlikely ever to be popular; but those with a taste for recondite art will continue to be fascinated by its rarefied and ecstatic beauty". The first English biography of him (Maciejewski's) only appeared in 1967; the first English evaluation of his music (Jim Samson's) not until 1980.
"The chronological facts of which one's life is composed," Szymanowski maintained, are "devoid of any real interest, and it is only when the inner tensions, thoughts and whole concept of life and art are revealed, that a man and his whole existence begin to fascinate" (Warsaw Literary Review, 1938). He also believed that should he ever write his memoirs (a "difficult and wearisome chore"), it would begin "as from the moment of my return to a free, independent Poland, late in the year 1919... a new period in my creative life". Contemporary with the "patriotic" peasant ballet-pantomime Harnasie, the Twenty Mazurkas Op. 50 (Zakopane, 1924-26 possibly later, published in three volumes: Nos. 1-8 , 9-12 , 13-20 ), mirror this "new period". In their intensity and harmonic bite, their exotic chromaticism and grittily combined upper voices, their persistent bagpipe fifths and sabala decoration around one note, they stand distinct from the earlier stylisations of Scharwenka or Paderewski, inhabiting a world closer to "the aristocratic aloofness of a Chopin" (Arthur Hedley). But whereas Chopin largely investigated the dance of the lowlands, Szymanowski aspired to the improvised, vibrant, irregularly phrased góral folk-art of the high Tatra, "full of [apparent] savagery and discords. Szymanowski enjoyed most of all to be left alone in an inconspicuous comer of [a simple highlander's] log cottage, and to listen to the music, cries and noises, watching the happy dancers full of vigour, passions and sweat. Even the wooden floor and the wooden cottage danced with the górals " (Maciejewski). Smeterlin, to whom Nos. 9-12 were dedicated -"the ones you liked so much in Paris" -recollected (in his unfinished study on Chopin, 1966/67) how in his youth he had had "the enormous advantage of seeing the mazur danced, not only elegantly in ballrooms, but also far more excitingly in the nearby mountain villages by mountain peasants (górals) to their own accompaniment, rhythmically electrifying but incredibly off-key in sound (so wonderfully recreated by Szymanowski' s strange, subtle harmonisations)". In an essay, " About Góral Music" (August 1924), Szymanowski admired the góral as "the artist par excellence among Polish peasants", lamenting how 19th century transcriptions of góral dances "lacked [the] savage native" innovation of the originals, romantically "sentimentalising" their archaic modality "in minor keys". He relished the two fiddle (gensliki)/3-string bass (maryna) combination of the self-taught Obrochta trio, his local troupe from Zakopane. And he confessed how the "impregnable and primeval granite" of the Tatra mountains were for him always "a great drawing power ...My discovery of the essential beauty of góral music, dance and architecture is a very personal one, [and] much of [it] I have absorbed into my innermost soul". In his mazurkas he crystallised and gave poetic rein to the rhythmic energy, the reflection, the ornament, the jarring/open drones, the interweaving, angular violin heterophony, the wide-spacing parallelisms and odd-length phrases of all that he heard, saw and felt. Smeterlin and Rubinstein (the dedicatee of Nos. 1-4) played them often.
A youthful, more conventionalised, strain of Tatra nationalism characterises the B minor Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, Op. 10 (1904). Anticipating the years of "Young Poland in Music", these were premiered by Heinrich Neuhaus in Warsaw on 6th February 1906 (together with the B flat minor Study from Op. 4, and a draft version of the orchestral Concert Overture, Op. 12, conducted by Fitelberg). The music critic of the Kurier Warszawski, Aleksander Polinski, described their young composer as "extraordinary ... maybe even a genius ...a most original idiom and beautiful melodies. The harmonies are unusual, but arrestingly delightful ...[a] rich polyphony ...purposefully used ...imbued with poetry and enlivened with youthful fantasy, yet ...coherent". For his theme Szymanowski took a highland tune found in Jan Kleczyllski's 1888 collection of melodies from the Zakopane and Podhale area - harmonised in a way he later, with informed knowledge, was to come to reject (its Aeolian/Dorian modal crossover is all but expunged). The layout of the whole is cogent, the theme, Andantino Semplice, prefaced by a brief introduction, Andante doloroso rubato, followed by ten variations, the last in the form of a broadly structured "finale", Allegro vivo, Trionfando. I-IX vary the tempo, character and pianistic figuration, VI-IX additionally changing either mode or tonic -VI, VII and IX are in B major; VIII, a marcia funebre, is in G minor. If much of the music can be traced stylistically to Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Franck and early Scriabin (the pianism is as exhilerating in its bravura as it is expressive in its intimacy), the "finale" suggests a Germanic debt to late Beethoven (ethereal trills, high registers) and youthful sonata/ concerto Brahms, with a sideways glance at linear Reger (the unexpected four-part fugato episode, beginning in C minor "mit Humor", on a subject augmented out of the first six notes of the theme). The closing two pages are an exultant B major peroration, cliched maybe, even inflated in their pianistic demand, yet already individually distinctive. Dedicated to Szymanowski's teacher, Noskowski, here, argued Sorabji (Mi contra fa, 1947), was music that showed "complete mastery over the mechanique of composition; there is ...plainly manifested a power of organisation, architectonic control and mastery of that essential interior cohesiveness that is the sign-manual of the great master".
The three mythological tone-pictures comprising Masques, Op. 34 (published Vienna 1919), were first played by Sascha Dubiansky in St Petersburg on 12th October 1916. Like the earlier Metopes, this is a cycle rich in super-charged nerve-end exposure and narrative improvisation, the individuals and choirs, the stars and satellites, of its remote sound galaxy wonderfully reflecting a prism of melody and cadenza, the voluptuous and the delirious, gilded mirrors and glassy splinters. Its intensive cell growth and transformation, its finely detailed, stratified textures (spread across three staves), its infinite attention to subtleties of dynamic and register, voicing and spacing, articulation and expressive nuance, and its visionary, sensuously perfumed harmonic world, place it well outside the late Romantic German domain, somewhere between the Preludes/Miroirs/Gaspard impressionism of Debussy and Ravel (both of whom Szymanowski had met at Rubinstein's Paris apartment during May-July 1914), and the spiralling mystic ecstacy of late Scriabin. "Sheherazade" , dedicated to Dubiansky, evokes the languid orientalism, songs and imagery of A Thousand and One Nights, fresh in Szymanowski's mind from his travels in North Africa (March 1914). "Tantris the Clown" (dedicated to Neuhaus) is based on a poem by the German Ernst Hardt. "Tristan, under this false name [an anagram] tries to steal into Isolde's apartment one night but is readily recognised by the dogs and arouses the suspicions of the household" (Rubinstein), "Don Juan's Serenade" (dedicated to Rubinstein) was originally intended to have been the first piece of the collection (letter from the composer to his friend Henryk Spiess, 24th October 1915). "It is difficult to find in contemporary piano music," considered Pannain, "anything more ardent than this Masque, music more closely packed and agile in its humanity. It begins with much spirit and bravado, with flourishing [fantastico] arpeggios 'on guitar' .Then, from the secret corners of the heart comes a bitter echo of melancholy. Laughter and tears melt before our eyes into sorrow and buffoonery" (1920). Szymanowski played these tales all his life. He even thought of orchestrating them (March 1934). Heneverdid.
Inscribed to Neuhaus, the Fantasia Op, 14 (1905) was first heard in Warsaw on 9th February 1906, three days after the Op. 10 Variations. By comparison, it's a bolder, more tonally stretching statement. The score may well say "C major", but that key is not really asserted with any conviction until close to the end: the middle movement is in A flat (major/ minor), the first opens an extreme polarity away in F sharp major. Chromatic and whole-tone writing, Wagnerian denied resolutions, even a quasi tone-row in the final, further incline to cancel out suggestions of diatonic stability. Jim Samson has proposed that the music's inspiration was Liszt. Certainly its three-movements-in-one structure, its blend of muscular virtuoso pianism and swirling passion, its tendency to substitute rhetoric for substance, and its cyclic recollection and transformation of themes (most audibly in the relationship of the outer sections) point to Lisztian externals. Yet the spectre of Chopin, and the shadow of his Op. 49 Fantasy in particular, is pervasive. Simply consider the funereal march-step, descending dotted rhythms and upward-accellerating agitato sequences of the first page.
© 1996 Ates Orga
Martin Roscoe is one of the busiest and most versatile pianists in Britain, where he has appeared with major orchestras and has a particularly close association with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He is a frequent broadcaster, with some two hundred broadcasts as recitalist, chamber musician and concert soloist and has made regular appearances at the London Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Martin Roscoe has performed in the Bath, Cheltenham, Ryedale, Harrogate, Cambridge, Three Choirs and Edinburgh Festivals. Tours abroad have taken him to South America, Cuba, Australia and Hong Kong, in addition to concert appearances throughout Europe.
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SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works, Vol. 2