Maria Szymanowska

b. 1789, Warsaw – d. 1831, St. Petersburg


Maria Szymanowska, born Marianna Agata Wołowska (on 14 December 1789, in Warsaw) was a Polish virtuosa pianist and composer of piano pieces, vocal and chamber music. Little is known about her formal training in composition. Belza (1956/1987) claims that she studied with Franciszek Lessel (1780-1838), Iwanejko (1959) mentions also Jozef Elsner (1769-1854) and Karol Kurpinski (1785-1857) as Szymanowska’s possible tutors. She studied the piano with Antoni Lisowski and Tomasz Gremm (till 1804) and gave first public concerts in Warsaw and Paris in 1810.

During her marriage to Jozef Szymanowski, which lasted from 1810 to 1820 (after the separation, three children stayed with the mother), Maria performed mainly for friends and visitors, and focused on composition. From this period come her best piano works (Vingt Exercices et Preludes ) and the majority of her songs. In the years 1823-1827, Szymanowska toured Europe (Germany, England, France, Switzerland, Italy and Russia); she may have been the first virtuosa pianist playing from memory. In Berlin and London, she performed for the royal courts, in Weimar– for Goethe. She settled in Petersburg in 1828, working as the court pianist of the tsarina and giving music lessons; her musical salon was frequented by Polish and Russian artists and aristocracy (M. Glinka, S. Pushkin, A. Mickiewicz). She died of cholera in Petersburg, on 25 July 1831.

Szymanowska left a mark on the cultural life of several countries, but was widely acclaimed for her performing capabilities, not for her music. Called “exceptional among women” (by F. Malewski, cf. Belza 1987: 15), “the charming Allmighty of Sound” (by J.W. Goethe who wrote for her Aussohnung, cf. Syga and Szenic 1960, Swartz 1984) and “the Queen of tones” (by A. Mickiewicz, cf. Iwanejko 1959: 60), Szymanowska was praised for the brillance and expressive quality of her tone: she made the piano speak and sing (Mochnacki 1827/1955).

Among circa 100 compositions penned by Szymanowska, the most numerous and interesting are piano miniatures (etudes, preludes, dances, fantasias, mazurkas, etc.). She wrote over 20 songs with piano accompaniment and 3 chamber pieces; she left no orchestral music. Her compositions may be described as “pre-romantic” (Poniatowska 1993) and are characterized by brilliant virtuosity (piano works), pensive expressiveness (romances), simplicity of form and texture (i.e. the absence of polyphony and motivic development). Polish and Russian scholars consider her an important forerunner of Chopin, especially in the use of stile brillant, Polish dances, forms of concert etude, mazurka, and nocturne.

List of Works

Not available

Manuscripts at USC




Belza, Igor. 1956/1987. Maria Szymanowska. Transl. from Russian into Polish by Jadwiga Ilnicka, Krakow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne. Orig. published in 1956, Moskva: Issdatelstvo Akademii Nauk of Soviet Union. With a new preface by the author.

________. 1955. Romansy russkich i polskich kompozitorov na slova Adama Mickiewicza,[Romances by Russian and Polish composers to the texts of Adam Mickievicz]. Moskva: 1955.

________. 1963. Z dziejow polsko-rosyjskich kontaktow muzycznych [From the history of Polish-Russian musical contacts], Krakow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.

Cybulska, Janina. 1960. “Romans wokalny w Polsce w latach 1800-1830” [Vocal romance in Poland in the years 1800-1830], in Z dziejow polskiej piesni solowej. Warszawa: Towarzystwo im. Fryderyka Chopina and Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 253-383.

Gabrys , Jerzy. 1960. “Poczatki polskiej piesni solowej w latach 1800-1830” [The origins of Polish solo song in the years 1800-1830], in Z dziejow polskiej piesni solowej. Warszawa: Towarzystwo im. Fryderyka Chopina and Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1-252.

Golos, George. 1960. “Some Slavic predecessors of Chopin,” The Musical Quarterly 46 (October): 437-447.

Iwanejko, Maria (Szeligiewicz-Iwanejko). 1951. Maria Szymanowska (1790-1831) pierwsza polska pianistka-wirtuozka i kompozytorka [M.Sz. the first polish virtuoso pianist and composer], M.A. thesis in philosophy, Jagiellonian University, Archives of the Faculty of Philosophy.

Iwanejko, Maria. 1959. Maria Szymanowska. Krakow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.

Lissa, Zofia and Olga Lada, eds. 1955. Mickiewicz w piesni polskiej i obcej. Krakow: PWM Edition.

Mirski, Jozef. 1931. “Zapomniana artystka polska,” Muzyka no. 11-12.

Mirski, Jozef and Maria Mirska. 1953. Maria Szymanowska, 1789-1831. Album: Materialy biograficzne, sztambuchy, wybor kompozycji. Krakow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne.

Mochnacki, Maurycy. 1827/1955. “Jeszcze kilka slow o koncercie Szymanowskiej z powodu jej recenzentow” [Some more words about Szymanowska’s concert, because of her reviewers] reprinted in S. Jarocinski, ed. Antologia polskiej krytyki muzycznej XIXi XX wieku [Anthology of Polish music criticism in the19th and 20th c.] (do roku 1939)” Krakow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 43-48.

Nowak-Romanowicz, Alina. 1980. “Maria Szymanowska.” Entry in The New Grove of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie, vol. 18. London: Macmillan.

Poniatowska, Irena. 1993. “Styl brillant i idee preromantyczne w tworczosci Marii Szymanowskiej,” [Stile brillant and pre-romantic ideas in the music of Maria Szymanowska], in Historia i interpretacja muzyki. Z badan nad muzyka od XVII do XIX wieku [History and interpretation of music: Research into music from the 17th to 19th century]. Krakow: Musica Iagellonica, 94-116.

________. 1991, “Muzyka salonowa–miedzy sublimacja a trywializacja,” [Salon music– between sublimity and triviality], in Muzyka fortepianowa i pianistyka w wieku XIX [Piano music and piano performance in the 19th century] Krakow: Musica Iagellonica, 278-288.

Swartz, Anne. 1984. “Goethe and Szymanowska: The years 1823-1824 in Marienbad and Weimar” Germano-Slavica 4 no. 6 (fall 1984): 321-330.

________. 1985. “Maria Szymanowska and the salon music of the early nineteenth century.The Polish Review 30 no. 1: 43-58. New York: Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America.

Syga, Teofil and Stanislaw Szenic. 1960. Maria Szymanowska i jej czasy [Maria Szymanowska and her times]. Warszawa: Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy (PIW).



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Page updated on 28 June 2001.