Universal Edition - Karol Szymanowski – Biography


Karol Szymanowski


European history in the first half of the 20th century exercised a decisive influence on the life and work of Karol Szymanowski. He was born in Poland, a state carved up among several countries, in other words, he hailed from a nation that no longer existed on the map – something which resulted in the fact that he could fall back upon no infrastructure in the Western European sense of the word. For one thing, there were no music publishers worthy of the name. The only firm which specialised in publishing music (Piwarski in Cracow) proved wholly unsuitable for Szymanowski’s purposes: it engaged in no promotional activities and had no contacts on an international scale.

The young composer, then, had no choice but to look for a publisher abroad. Thanks to his patron, Prince Lubomirski, who entertained a network of important contacts in Vienna, a portrait concert was held at the Musikverein on 18 January 1912. His friend Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the Symphony No 2, Op. 19 (1909/1910), and a piano sonata was performed by Artur Rubinstein.

It was not long before Universal Edition approached Szymanowski: Emil Hertzka offered the thirty-year-old composer a ten-year contract. It was signed just over two months after the concert, on 31 March 1912 – amazingly fast, if one considers that Szymanowski was out of his depth in legal matters and wished to consult Prince Lubomirski before making up his mind.

In the ensuing decades, an exemplary relationship between composer and publisher developed, one that would last until Hertzka’s death in 1932. Their lively correspondence is testimony to their mutual esteem which also manifested itself in a no-holds-barred expression of what was on their minds.

Hertzka never hesitated to emphasize the significance he attached to Szymanowski’s music, something which created the feeling so important for any creative person that his work - and his alone - was close to his publisher’s heart.

Hertzka was clearly an empathetic psychologist, a trait which was of primary importance in his profession. However, he was more than that: on receiving a first sign of life from the composer after an absence of contact over several years caused by World War I, he responded with a letter marked by an obviously heartfelt, very personal pleasure and relief which went far beyond professional courteousness and diplomacy.

Here is Szymanowski’s first letter after the war, written in Elisabethgrad, on 8 June 1918:

“It seems really odd to be able to write you after an absence of four years! I hope you are still in Vienna, in the position of Director of U.E., busy as usual and in good health? I would be very happy if you could confirm this personally!”

The letter reached Vienna a week later, thanks to the help of an army officer. Hertzka replied straight away, on 15 June 1918:

“Your letter which I received just now has given me enormous pleasure. I have been worried about you all these years, for news of you which I received from your sister in Switzerland were scanty to say the least: she, too, as she wrote me just a few months ago, had not heard from you in a long time. You cannot imagine how often we have been talking of you during this time.”

A letter written by Szymanowski at a later date enclosed a list of new works composed during the war years, from Opus 26 to Opus 41. They included songs and chamber music (such as Mythes, Op. 30, Masques, Op. 34 and the String Quartet No 1, Op. 37), but also large-scale compositions like the Symphony No 3, Op. 27 for tenor, mixed chorus and orchestra, the Violin Concerto No 1, Op. 35, or Demeter, Op. 37b, a work for alto solo, female chorus and orchestra which is every bit as fascinating as anything Szymanowski wrote, but seems to have been forgotten by concert organisers.

Thus Universal Edition saw itself faced with seventeen new compositions. They represented a wonderful enrichment of the catalogue, but also a challenge to which the publisher, much weakened financially by the war, could not be equal.

Understandably enough, Szymanowski was impatient: his career had got off the ground in a promising fashion, only to disappear for four long years. He was anxious to make his new works known to a wide circle of music lovers, as he wanted to attract international attention to his music. He was frustrated that Universal Edition was obviously struggling to meet its contractual obligations.

As long as Hertzka was alive, he knew how to calm things down, by assuring Szymanowski that UE was committed to helping him with all the means at its disposal. After Hertzka died in 1932 – news that deeply grieved the composer – the quality and quantity of his contacts with the publisher underwent a gradual transformation.

Hertzka was succeeded by Dr Alfred Kalmus. After the stock market crash in 1929, Kalmus found himself in a similar position to that of his predecessor following World War I: the economic situation was catastrophic, and UE could not possibly meet Szymanowski’s demands. Soon enough, the composer’s letters were written by his assistant, and UE was represented by Kalmus’s assistant, Ms Rothe. It came to an éclat: Szymanowski refused to prolong his contract under the same conditions. Having given up all hope to see his new works in print (the ballet Harnasie, op.55, the Symphony No 4, Op. 60 and the Violin Concerto No 2, Op. 61), he placed them with Max Eschig in Paris.

Karol Szymanowski died in Lausanne on 29 March 1937. The last entry in his correspondence with Universal Edition is a telegram addressed to his secretariat, expressing UE’s profound sympathy with the composer’s family and sadness over the loss sustained by the world of music.

One year later, in 1938, Austria lost its independence in the “Anschluss” to the Third Reich. Universal Edition was forced to let many of its employees go. The world of Emil Hertzka had vanished.