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Revival! The forgotten works of Karol Szymanowski

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

Every week, CBC Radio 2’s In Concert digs up an unjustly forgotten composer from the sands of time and devotes the final segment of the show to that composer’s music. This week, it’s the would-be musical heir to Frédéric Chopin: the Polish master Karol Szymanowski.

Who was Karol Szymanowski?

In a way, holding Szymanowski up as Chopin’s successor isn’t fair. After all, Szymanowski spent the bulk of his career trying to steer Polish music away from the folk-inspired, nationalistic flavour of Chopin’s famous piano music. For that matter, he wasn’t even born in Poland — nor did he spend a whole lot of his life there. All the same, Szymanowski was probably the main guiding light for Polish music between the fallow period that followed Chopin’s death, and Szymanowski’s own death in 1937.

Szymanowski started life as a privileged child of the landed gentry in Ukraine, and finished it as a penniless tuberculotic in a Swiss sanitorium. Between those points, he lived the life of a restless artiste: travelling all over Europe, dressing in the dandiest fashions, openly gay as of 1919, constantly reinventing his musical approach.

Not even the October Revolution could extinguish Szymanowski’s vision. When Bolshevik troops turned up at his Ukrainian estate and threw his piano in the lake, he just wrote a novel.

Szymanowski’s personal life was littered with spells of illness and self-doubt that prevented him from composing for lengthy periods. But, he still managed to compose an impressive catalogue of wildly varied music that paved the way for later Polish composers like Witold Lutosławski and Henryk Górecki.

Why have I never heard of him?

Szymanowski's music never quite caught on during his lifetime, outside of his native Poland — a strange thing, given how much of his time he spent elsewhere. Even in Warsaw, his modern-leaning tendencies were often met with indifference or hostility from critics. 

To boot, Szymanowski was almost completely unsupported by the Polish government. After the lavish state funeral that was held in Szymanowski's honour, the pianist Artur Rubinstein commented bitterly that "for years they had made my poor Karol suffer through their meanness and now they were willing to spend a fortune on this big show."

It seems that the classical world may be gradually coming around to Szymanowski, though. Recent years have seen recordings of his works by big-ticket conductors like Pierre BoulezSimon Rattle and Valery Gergiev. But, his works are yet to find their way into the concert repertory.

Why should I check him out?

There's so much variety in Szymanowski's complete works that there's got to be something there for everybody. Grandiose, literary orchestral music in the vein of Mahler and Strauss? Check. Chopin-esque piano music? Lots of that. Impressionism? Sure. Quasi-tonal early Schoenberg sorts of things? Oh, yes.

Whatever you're in the mood for, there's probably a period of Szymanowski that'll satisfy.

1. Piano Sonata No. 1

As a young man in Warsaw, Szymanowski became the key musical figure in an artistic movement called "Young Poland." The painters, writers and philosophers that made up this movement agitated for the idea of "art for art's sake," and basically rejected nationalism in art.

But that didn't stop Szymanowski from studying the heck out of Poland's great national icon, Frédéric Chopin. Szymanowski's first piano sonata finds him blending Chopin's influence with Alexander Scriabin's — but never at the expense of his personal voice.

2. Romance in D

Between the years of 1907 and 1914, Szymanowski became obsessed with the music that was coming out of Vienna, specifically that of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. His works from this period come the closest that Szymanowski ever would to slavish imitation. His opera Hagith, for instance, was transparently modelled on Strauss's Salome.

But these years weren't without their bright points. This Romance for violin and piano has Strauss's influence all over it, but that doesn't keep it from being lovely.

3. Symphony No. 3

The years immediately following 1914 marked the point where Szymanowski really hit his stride. The influence from Strauss and Mahler is still pronounced in this music, but Szymanowski had also been obsessing over the music of the French impressionists — especially Claude Debussy. 

In his third symphony, Szymanowski pours Debussy's shimmering harmonies into a Mahlerian symphony, complete with soloists, chorus and the same subtitle as Mahler's seventh symphony, The Song of the Night.

4. King Roger

Szymanowski's one full-length opera straddles his two most productive periods: his mid-career dalliance with impressionism, and his later interest in nationalistic themes. 

But King Roger doesn't deal with Polish nationalism, as you might expect. Instead, it's a love letter to the culture and society of the Mediterranean. Here's the opening of the opera, in a televised production.

5. Two mazurkas

A funny thing happened in Szymanowski's career in the 1920s: the sense of Polish nationalism that he'd been working so hard to keep out of his music finally managed to seep in. The time he spent in Zakopane, a small town at the foot of Poland's Tatra Mountains had a profound effect on Szymanowski.

He was totally taken in by both the region's folk music and culture. And so, he devoted a substantial chunk of his compositional career to that most Polish of piano genres: the mazurka. These two mazurkas are the last works that Szymanowski completed in his life, and they find him once again drawing on the legacy of Chopin.