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ClassicsOnline Home » SZYMANOWSKI, K.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 / Concert Overture / Study in B-Flat Minor (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)
Although Szymanowski later dubbed his First Symphony a “contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral
monster” and disavowed the influence of Wagner, Reger and Richard Strauss (also evident in the
opulent Concert Overture), it is an astonishingly powerful work by a composer only in his mid-20s
and still enthralls a century after its première. He described his Fourth Symphony as “nearly a
concerto” owing to the piano’s prominent rôle, its highly-charged Neo-baroque character inviting
comparison with Stravinsky. Szymanowski’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 gained Gramophone
Editor’s Choice and 5 STARS for these “deliriously sensual scores” from ClassicFM ( href="/catalogue/product.aspx?pid=8.570721" target="_blank">8.570721).
By David Denton
Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937):
Concert Overture, Op. 12 • Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 15 • Symphony No. 4
‘Symphonie Concertante’, Op. 60 •
Study in B flat minor, Op. 4, No. 3 (orch. Grzegorz Fitelberg)
Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszówka in the
Kiev District of the Ukraine in 1882, the son of a Polish
land-owner and of a mother of Swedish extraction, born
Baroness Anna Taube. The family and their immediate
circle had a deep interest in the arts, a fact reflected in the
subsequent careers of the five children of the marriage as
musicians, poets or painters. Karol’s sister Stanisława
later became a singer and his brother Feliks a pianist.
Szymanowski’s early education was at home, since a leg
injury at the age of four prevented him from attending
school in the neighbouring town of Elisavetgrad (the
modern Kirowograd), where, nevertheless, he had music
lessons from a relative, Gustav Neuhaus, who had a
school there. In 1901 he went to Warsaw to continue his
musical studies, taking lessons from the composer
Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpoint and composition
and from M. Zawirski in harmony.
The feelings of Polish nationalism that had inspired Chopin and his contemporaries continued through the nineteenth century, exacerbated by the repressive measures taken by Russia, in particular, in the face of open revolt. Warsaw in 1901, however, remained as provincial as it had been in the time of Chopin, who had sought his musical fortune abroad in Paris in 1830. The century had seen Polish performers of the greatest distinction, particularly the violinists Lipiński and Wieniawski. The opera composer Stanisław Moniuszko, however, a rival to Chopin in his own country, enjoyed only a local reputation, while his successors, in Szymanowski’s esteem, occupied a still lower place. Polish music was to a great extent isolated and provincial, a reflection of the society in which it existed. The new century, however, brought together a group of young musicians of much wider outlook, a circle that included the pianist Artur Rubinstein, the violinist Pawel Kochański and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Różycki and the pianist and composer Apolinary Szeluto, together with Szymanowski, established under the patronage of Prince Władysław Lubomirski the Young Poland in Music group, for the publication and promotion of new Polish music. Fitelberg, by training a violinist and composer, made his later career as a conductor, and directed the first concert of the group in Warsaw in 1906, when Szymanowski’s Concert Overture was performed. He won later distinction as a conductor at the Vienna Staatsoper and in work for the Russian impresario Dyagilev, before returning to direct the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and, from 1947, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice. Kochański’s support was to prove invaluable, particularly in the composition of the first of Szymanowski’s two violin concertos and in a number of works written for violin and piano. Rubinstein, who, like Kochański, made his later career in the United States of America, proved an additional champion of Szymanowski, while Paderewski, a musician of more conservative tendency, assisted in the wider dissemination of Szymanowski’s piano music, favouring especially the famous B flat minor Study, a work that owes much of its popularity to his advocacy.
The first Young Poland concert in Warsaw had included performances of Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and his Study in B flat minor, played by the pianist Harry Neuhaus, and had been well enough received. Berlin, however, proved much less interested, when Fitelberg conducted the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a similar programme in the same year. Szymanowski spent the following two years principally in Berlin and Leipzig, absorbing still further the influence of Wagner, of Reger and of Richard Strauss, composers of whom he later took a cooler view. This period saw the composition of his Symphony No. 1 in F minor, completed in 1907 and given its first performance in Warsaw two years later. The composer subsequently withdrew the symphony and went so far as
to destroy the 1907 piano trio, sensing what seemed to
him the excessive influence of the post-Wagnerian, a
reflection of a predominant aspect of music of the time
in Germany. The following years brought periods at
home in the Ukraine and abroad. He wrote his
Penthesilea, Opus 18, an orchestral work with soprano
solo derived from the Achilleis of the contemporary
Polish painter and dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański, in
Italy in 1908, and in 1910 completed a very different
Symphony No. 2 in B flat, Opus 19, a work in which the
influence of Skryabin is noticeable, as it is in the piano
music of this period. The new symphony, played under
Fitelberg in Warsaw in 1911, proved unacceptable to
both audience and critics, but won acclaim in Berlin,
Leipzig and Vienna, establishing the international
importance of the composer. Szymanowski determined,
after this experience, to live, at least for a time, in
Vienna, where Fitelberg was now employed at the
Staatsoper, and where he reached an agreement with
Universal to publish his work.
Vienna proved less stimulating than Szymanowski had hoped, but the period changed to some extent his musical outlook, particularly through his experience of the music of Debussy and, still more, of Ravel, and of the Dyagilev company in Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka. In March 1914 he left Vienna and travelled south to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, returning through Rome, Paris and London, where he met Stravinsky. The war years he spent in musical isolation at home at Tymoszówka, turning his attention to a study of Greek civilisation and literature, to the early history of Christianity and to the culture of Islam, the last an extension of an interest aroused by translations of the poems of Hafiz by Hans Bethge, poet of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, some of which he had set to music in 1911, and exemplified in the remarkable Symphony No. 3, completed in 1916, using poems by the 13th century Persian mystic and poet Mevlânâ Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rûmi.
The Russian revolution put an end to Szymanowski’s period of war–time seclusion. The family was compelled to move, for reasons of safety, to Elisavetgrad, and the property at Tymoszówka was destroyed by the revolutionaries. In 1919 they moved to Poland, after the proclamation of the new republic. Kochański and Rubinstein prudently chose to settle in the United States, but Szymanowski determined to stay in his own country and to seek there a further source of inspiration, particularly in the more primitive aspects of indigenous music. His reputation grew at home and abroad, and in 1927 he rejected the offer of a position as director of the conservatory in Cairo in favour of the financially less rewarding position of director of the Warsaw Conservatory, which in 1930 became the Warsaw Academy of Music, an institution of which he remained rector until his resignation in 1932.
The five years that Szymanowski spent at the Conservatory and the Academy brought many frustrations, particularly in dealing with musicians of a conservative turn of mind, and these difficulties finally led to his resignation. The remaining years of his life were not easy, without any regular source of income, and he therefore made more public appearances as a performer, writing the piano part of his Symphony No. 4 in 1932 to suit his own relatively modest piano technique, no longer adequate for the more taxing compositions of his earlier career. In the same year he was greatly encouraged by the performance in Prague of his opera King Roger, a work that deals imaginatively with a struggle in medieval Sicily between Christianity and an Eastern Dionysian religion, a further example of his absorption of the essence of other cultures than his own, and of his reading of Euripides.
Szymanowski’s final years were clouded by illness and he sought an alleviation of the effects of tuberculosis abroad in Davos, Grasse and Cannes, and finally in Lausanne, where he died on 29th March 1937. His last orchestral work was the Second Violin Concerto, completed in 1933, followed by two Mazurkas for piano, written in the following year. The ballet Harnasie, inspired by the primitive folk-music of the people living in the Tatra mountains, was staged in Prague in 1935 and the following year, with much success, in Paris, with choreography by Serge Lifar. It became a popular part of Polish ballet repertoire after its first performance in Poznan´ in 1938, a year after the composer’s death.
The Concert Overture in E major was written in 1905 and proved in many ways a more satisfactory composition than the later First Symphony. At its first performance in Warsaw in 1906 it was welcomed as the work of a composer of clear genius and originality, although it bears a strong enough superficial resemblance to the idiom of Richard Strauss. It shows an impressive command of orchestration, and a gift for melodic invention and harmonic colouring, and, while dramatic and effective enough in itself, may be seen as an early step towards a musical idiom that was to break away from the world of Wagner and Strauss into something more nearly universal.
Szymanowski described his Symphony No. 1 in F minor of 1907 as “Monstrum kontrapunktycznoharmoniczno–orchestrowe”. A Polish critic later castigated the work as “gigantic but insincere, orchestrally more orgiastic and virtuosic than musical, extremely heavy and thick in texture”. The composer certainly found the symphony unsatisfactory as he turned away from Wagner, whom he came to regard as full of empty rhetoric. In retrospect, however, the two movement symphony may be seen to have a strength and purpose of its own, even if it did not lead Szymanowski further in that musical direction.
The Symphonie Concertante or Fourth Symphony was first performed in Poznań in the autumn of 1932, the year of its completion. According to Szymanowski’s own notes on the work the first movement is in a form similar to sonata form, its general mood serene, almost merry. The second movement offers a broad melody for flute solo and a violin solo with piano accompaniment. There is a great crescendo and the music grows quieter with the re-appearance of the theme from the first movement, leading directly to the last movement, in the rhythm of an oberek, a traditional round-dance, and analogous to the rondo in form, in the character of a very lively sometimes orgiastic dance. The finale also includes a short central episode for the piano, a kind of mazurka. He describes the work as nearly a concerto, except at the beginning of the second movement, where the piano plays an accompanying rôle, with many passages for solo instruments and generally a very Polish character. It might be added that the form used and the nature of the solo part gives the work a neo-Baroque character that suggests comparison with Stravinsky.
The Study in B flat minor, originally for piano, needs no comment. It has always enjoyed wide popularity, its debt to Chopin apparent and its melodic appeal immediate, as Paderewski found. Szymanowski was to regret the popularity of the piece, remarking to Fitelberg, who orchestrated the present version, that it was bad luck for a composer to have written his ninth symphony so early in life.
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SZYMANOWSKI, K.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 / Concert...