About this Recording
GP685 - SZYMANOWSKA, M.: Dances for Solo Piano (Complete) (Kostritsa)
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Maria Szymanowska (1789–1831)
Complete Dances for Solo Piano

 

Passion brings pain!—Who will soothe you,
troubled heart that has lost so, lost completely?
Where are the hours that all too swiftly flew?
In vain were you granted a sight of Beauty!
The spirit is clouded, purposes confused:
how the world’s splendour fades from our view!
Reconciliation (stanza 1),
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

In the summer of 1823 the elderly Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was taking the cure in the Bohemian spa town of Marienbad (Mariánské Lázňe) when he came under the spell of a beautiful pianist called Maria Szymanowska. After hearing her play, he was inspired to write a three-verse poem, Reconciliation, which he dedicated to her. Its final line—‘The double joy of love, and music’s singing’—implies that Goethe was moved as much by Szymanowska’s physical charms as by her extraordinarily affecting keyboard technique.

Maria Szymanowska, whom Goethe elsewhere described as the ‘ravishing Almighty of the sound world’, was born Marianna Agata Wołowska in Warsaw in 1789. Her inheritance was Jewish, but her family had converted to Catholicism. Maria’s father, who owned a successful brewery, was cultivated in his tastes and kept an open house where patriotic Polish intellectuals were always welcome alongside artistic figures from other parts of Europe. Among the many musicians to frequent the Wołowski home were the violinists Karol Lipiński and Pierre Rode as well as Chopin’s future teacher Józef Elsner.

At this time Warsaw was declining in importance, and by 1795, after the Third Partition of Poland, all the country’s former territory had been absorbed by Russia, Prussia and Austria. As a consequence many displaced poets, politicians, writers, artists and musicians settled in foreign lands, especially France. In the early nineteenth century these individuals would play a major part in establishing the notion of Polish Romanticism, in which Chopin rose as the supreme musical giant.

The young Maria Wołowska displayed extraordinary musical precocity and she quickly became a sensation in the Warsaw salons. To broaden her musical horizons, it was decided to send her to Paris, where her fame spread. There she impressed such luminaries as the composers Gioachino Rossini and Luigi Cherubini (who dedicated a piano fantasia to her).

After her return to Poland in 1810 she married Józef Szymanowski, a wealthy landowner, and before long there were three children (one of whom, Celina, later married Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet). The Szymanowskis’ marriage was not successful and it ended in divorce in 1820. Maria (who retained her married name for professional purposes) resumed her international career in 1815 and undertook some very long tours that included both private and public performances. It was during an arduous three-year tour of western Europe between 1823 and 1826 that she first met Goethe. She also had an audience with the British royal family, and in 1828 travelled to Russia, where she was employed by the imperial court as First Pianist to the empress. During the summer of 1831 Maria Szymanowska succumbed to a cholera epidemic that swept St Petersburg, and she died on 25 July, aged 41.

Through her own compositions, which appealed to professionals and amateurs alike, Szymanowska played an important part in the early development of that quintessentially Romantic musical phenomenon: the pianist-composer. She was greatly admired by her contemporaries, and her recitals routinely included works by living composers such as Hummel and Beethoven (whose Bagatelle in B flat, WoO 60, is dedicated to her). The influential Czech composer and teacher Václav Tomášek, who counted Beethoven and Goethe among his acquaintances, praised the clarity and attack of Szymanowska’s keyboard technique, and he also wrote enthusiastically of her inspirational performance style. Surviving documentation suggests that her professional relationship with other pianist-composers was a strong one based on mutual trust and respect. John Field, for example, wrote to the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf and Härtel warmly recommending that they add Szymanowska’s name to their roster of celebrated composers. The dedication of her Caprice sur la romance de Joconde pour le Pianoforte (1819) to ‘Monsieur John Field’, supports the assertion that Szymanowska considered him a close friend.

But not everyone appreciated her. There was the occasional lone voice of opposition. The most important of these was surely the youthfully opinionated Felix Mendelssohn, who cockily advised Szymanowska’s admirers to ‘think more of her pretty face than of her not too pretty playing’. Although Mendelssohn’s own sister Fanny was a highly accomplished composer in her own right, it remains possible that the emergence of other talented female pianist-composers from the salons made Felix uncomfortable, especially when they found conspicuous success with the general public. Mendelssohn’s disregard for Szymanowska might well have stemmed from a dislike of her particular artistic circle. He had, after all, earlier described Szymanowska’s mentor, Luigi Cherubini, as ‘an extinct volcano, still throwing out occasional sparks and flashes, but quite covered in ashes and stones’. The immense quantity of Mendelssohn’s own Songs Without Words provides ample evidence that he recognised the public’s insatiable appetite for domestic piano music, yet the sheer breadth and scope of his creative genius means he can never be categorised solely as a salon composer. On the other hand Szymanowska unashamedly produced almost all her music for the salon.

By the end of the nineteenth century salon music had become strongly associated with dilettantism and mass consumerism, but in earlier decades its defining characteristics were elegance and refinement. These qualities are admirably displayed in Szymanowska’s attractive collections of dances, which include polonaises, waltzes, mazurkas, quadrilles and contredanses (in addition to more unusual types such as cotillions and anglaises). Taken collectively, these dances are, for the most part, pleasing and light, with precisely the degree of imaginative artistic inventiveness needed to appeal to the aristocratic salons of the day. Just occasionally, as in the Polonaise No. 4 in F minor (an exercise in thirds and sixths), the technical demands are rather more demanding, while in the Mazurka No. 17 in C Szymanowska hints at darker moments that are fleetingly redolent of the proto- Romantic Sturm und Drang music from the late 1760s—the period of Goethe’s youth.

Anthony Short


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