Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski biography

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.

Works by Karol Szymanowski in the UE

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About the music

In 1994 EMI launched a recording of three compositions by Szymanowski: Litania do Marii Panny / Litany to Virgin Mary, Stabat Mater and III Symfonii / Symphony No. 3 with Elzbieta Szmytka, Florence Quivar, John Connell, Jon Garrison and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Simon Rattle, whose brilliant world-wide career was just starting, was the conductor. Asked about Szymanowski's music, Simon Rattle said:

"I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reasonability from someone in love. And reasonability is out of place when this music is concerned, anyway.

My first meeting with Szymanowski took place some fifteen years ago. I was having lunch with my friend Paul Crossley, the English pianist. Paul was a man whose advice I used unscrupulously. We would often meet, and he would put a score in front of me and say, 'You should have a look'. But that night he said, 'I've got something special for you', then sat at the piano and played a bit of some piece. I had no idea what it was, but it got me very excited after just a few strokes and I knew it was love from first sight. It was the last part of the Stabat Mater that Paul had played.

The Stabat Mater was in the programme of one of my first concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I must admit with shame that the choir sang in Latin. We knew, though, that a Polish language version would need to be prepared. And we struggled with that difficult language. Only Finnish and Hungarian are said to be more difficult, and there is not too much similarity between the Birmingham dialect and the Polish language. Only ten letters are pronounced the same in English and in Polish. So it was a character building experience for us on all counts. It took a year to work with the choir, but apparently sopranos can now be understood. I suppose that if Poles tried to sing in Welsh, they would understand our problems. We reached a point where language started to impact the sound of music, its rhythm. For instance, the holding out of the vowels and the proper start of the consonants has lent this music a specific puls. The choir was no longer a group of English singers feeling aloof about a strange, obscure composition. They began to penetrate the music. It was an extraordinary trip. Szymanowski's music bought the ensemble, the choir and the orchestra.

We played the Stabat Mater many times, then moved on to Symphony No. 3. I think we got our timing right with this music. The world was not ready to take it until now. Szymanowski's religious works, such as the Stabat Mater or the Litany to Virgin Mary, respond to the ever more pronounced need for spirituality. Moreover, this music is so splendidly colourful and extremely emotional. The English were at first unable to accept its highly intense and direct emotionality, they had to grow up to it. Now we are ready for it. It has always amazed me why the violinists of the world do not play at least one of Szymanowski's concertos and why the pianists do not play his Symphony concertante. These compositions could have enriched the global repertoire a long time ago. Nowadays it is very important not to limit yourself to twenty or thirty compositions recorded by Toscanini. The public is open to new repertoire. Witness the success of Gorecki. Gorecki has been successful not only with the traditional philharmonic audience. He has a new audience in England, one that did not listen to serious music before. I believe it could be the same with Szymanowski.

I owe the discovery of Szymanowski's Symphony No. 3 to Witold Lutoslawski. He said that he had lived in something like a trance for several weeks after he had heard it. It was this music which prompted Lutoslawski to decide he wanted to be a composer. Symphony No. 3 is a wonderful, mystical work revealing fascination with the Orient. Its climate meets the needs of contemporary listeners. Yet I believe that it is Szymanowski's later works, when he addresses the Polish heritage, reaches down to the Slavonic roots, makes a sort of reference to Musorgski, is even more valuable for our culture at present. At the end of the twentieth century the rest of the world should discover what you have always known: that Szymanowski is one of the greatest composers of this century." ("Studio" 1994 No. 10)

Another world-famous director, Charles Dutoit, recorded both of Szymanowski's violin concertos with his Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and with Chantal Juillet, the Canadian violinist, as the soloist. The recording was launched by Decca in 1994. This is what Dutoit says about Szymanowski's music:

"We are very fond of Szymanowski's music. It is so extraordinarily vivid, full of wonderful colours and, in this sense, seems rather unlike Central European music. I think we play it quite well. We have already performed a number of works by Szymanowski, not only the violin concertos with Madame Juillet. We take this music all over the world, have played it in places like Buenos Aires and Tokyo. We have also played Symphony No. 3 and 4, the Concert Overture, the Stabat Mater. There are not many orchestra pieces left. This music may not be very popular, but its time is coming. It has fascinated me for long. I have performed works by Szymanowski with all major American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra. As a violinist I used to play the Fountain of Arethusa from the Myths. It is a piece every violinist should play. The Violin sonata is magnificent. I also like the two quartets. I am also familiar with some of Szymanowski's piano music." ("Studio" 1994 No. 9)

Szymanowski's music seems to have found its right time and is nowadays played ever more often at concert halls and opera houses. The composer's world-wide revival has been driven primarily by Krol Roger/ King Roger, the work that has become one of the most popular Polish operas of all times. Composed to a libretto by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz in 1918-24, it was written when Szymanowski had already gone through his fascination with German neo-Romanticism and was looking for new inspirations. In 1914 Szymanowski travelled to Italy, Sicily and Northern Africa. It was a trip of major importance to his artistic development. Stopping in Paris on the way back, he heard compositions by Debussy and Ravel, and his subsequent work was to be much influenced by impressionism and things exotic and ancient. Exotic and ancient become the topics Szymanowski chooses. He introduces elements of styling and his sound becomes impressionistic. He simplifies the texture of his compositions and renounces the thick, polyphonic tangle of numerous melodic motifs. He does not, however, give up the melody, but leads it against a background of consonants of glittering colours. Such consonants are characteristic of the impressionism, which, emphasizing the value of the impression of sounds, brings harmony to the fore and plays down the significance of the melody. Szymanowski combines the impact of harmony with an active role of the melody to give his 'impressionism' an individual mark, one that distinguishes him from other European composers adhering to the trend. All these qualities of Szymanowski's musical language manifest themselves clearly in King Roger and it is them which, together with the subject-matter of the libretto, make this work truly unique. King Roger includes elements of both a music drama with its leitmotifs and of an opera with the closed scenes withholding the action, yet always deeply anchored in it, as well as some echoes of a Greek tragedy with its choirs placed outside the dramatic developments. It is fair to say that Szymanowski created a kind of a stage-and-music performance of singular originality among the European compositions of that time.

There are more such original works among Szymanowski's compositions. Indeed, all of his music has a unique charm, one that contemporary music lovers may find very attractive.

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