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8.570721 - SZYMANOWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 (Wit)
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Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, Op.19 • Symphony No. 3 ‘Pieśń o nocy’ (Song of the Night), Op. 27


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. His sister Stanislawa 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 (later known as 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 Marek 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 Paweł Kochański and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Rózycki 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 Wyspiánski, 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. After this experience Szymanowski determined 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. He spent the war years 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.

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 Poznań in 1938, a year after the composer’s death.

Szymanowski summarised succinctly enough the plan of his Symphony No. 2 in B flat major, writing of “the first movement in a grand manner, the second movement - a theme and nine variations, the adagio and finale with a fugue”. He expressed satisfaction with his achievement, feeling that he had overcome the inconsistencies of his earlier work, opening new doors, at least in his own style of composition. At the same time he suggested an element of what he described as “Zopfmusik”, presumably a reference to the traditional forms of which he makes use. In 1934, with the help of Fitelberg, he revised the orchestration, in an attempt to clarify the structure.

The new symphony was given its first performance in Warsaw on 7th April 1911 under Fitelberg but was coolly received, even by those who had been enthusiastic about the Concert Overture five years earlier. Abroad it fared very much better, arousing interest in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna, where its originality was appreciated by critics. The opening movement, grandiose enough in general conception, makes sensuous and passionate contrasts in its use of solo instruments in a varied orchestral texture that may remind us of Mahler. The second movement, where a solo violin again makes an emotionally effective appearance, embraces a wide variety of styles and techniques in its continuous variations, all subsumed into the composer’s own comprehensive idiom. The symphony ends with a fugue, its chromatic subject dramatically introduced and developed with continuing contrasts of orchestral texture. The contrapuntal character of the movement and its forward impetus are interrupted by a gently lyrical section, leading to the massive conclusion of the work.

Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, completed in 1916 after two years’ work, was first performed in London in 1921. The work, in which orchestra and singers are subtly blended in a continuous web of sound, shows something of the influence of Debussy, but above all the composer’s reinterpretation of the thought and words of the great medieval Persian mystic known as Mevlânâ, our Master, Jalāl ad-Dīn, founder of the order of so-called whirling dervishes, his words translated by Tadeusz Miciński. Hafiz, a poet of the fourteenth century, had exercised a considerable fascination over European writers from Goethe onwards. Szymanowski first read Hafiz in translations by Hans Bethge, and in some respects one may see Szymanowski’s interest as a continuation of this aspect of European thought rather than as a personal eccentricity. The symphony, rhapsodic, mystical and ecstatic, captures in a foreign idiom much of its source, enabling Kaikhosru Sorabji, a perceptive critic, to describe him as no mere European in fancy dress. Nevertheless it is always possible in listening to the symphony to detect affinities with other European composers of the period and to understand the reaction of Warsaw audiences, for whom Szymanowski now appeared, in his own words, as a stranger, inapprehensible and probably even useless in the general structure of Polish music.

Keith Anderson


The sung texts and translations can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570721.htm

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