Karol Szymanowski

by Neil Galanter



Karol Szymanowski was one Poland’s most important composers after Chopin and post Second World War composers such as Lutoslawski, Penderecki, Panufnik and Gorecki. Szymanowski was a truly individula composer and a cosmopolitan man who had strong artistic aspirations in connection with his native Poland.

He was born in Tymoszowka in the Ukraine, part of the former kingdom of Poland. His parents were nationalistic Poles who encouraged their five children to pursue artistic endeavors. Three of them ended up becoming musicians. Szymanowski’ got his first lessons in music from his father and also from his aunt. He later studied with another relative: Gustav Neuhaus, whose son Heinrich was a very famous Russian piano pedagogue and the teacher of Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter.

In Berlin in 1905, Szymanowski and a few colleagues founded the ‘Young Composers’ Publishing Co., which promoted concerts and the publication of new Polish music. Many other famous Polish musicians such as pianist Artur Rubinstein, Harry Neuhaus supported this endeavor. Then Szymanowski began traveling and the years 1909 to 1914 took him to such places as: London, Italy, ‘Vienna, Algiers, Constantine, Biskra and Tunis. In the summer of 1914 he returned to Tymoszowka and stayted there throughout the war. He largely wrote music and studied during this period and some musicologists say this was his period of greatest creativity. “Metopes” and “Masques” were written during this time. Two major piano works which are considered two of his greatest works and certainly two of his greatest contributions to the piano literature.

At the end of the First World War and after Poland became an independent nation again, the Szymanowski family moved to Warsaw. At this point Szymanowski became interested and devoted to creating music with Polish ideals and capturing the essence of Polish music. In 1930, he became the head of The Warsaw Academy and he had achieved relative prosperity and considerable success as a composer. He had written a lot of music for the violin, a popular ballet called Harnasie, two operas and other assorted vocal works including Stabat Mater and Veni Creator. In 1932 he started to become more ill with tuberculosis and as a result became too weak to continue his work. He went to the Lausanne Sanatorium in Switzerland and eventually died there in 1937.

Even though many Polish musicians have championed Szymanowski’s works, his music still has not made it in the mainstream repertoire to a large extent outside of Poland or outside of Polish musicians’ repertoire. However there seems to be a resurgence of interest recently in his music and perhaps it is slowly moving into more musicians’ repertoire.

Should the listener or investigator be curious to find out more about Szymanowski, there is an excellent text/biography written about him called simply: Szymanowski by Teresa Chylinska published by the Polish Music History Series; @1993, Friends of Polish Music, Polish Music History Series, University of Southern California, School of Music, Los Angeles, CA 90089. The Polish Music History Series (PMHS) was launched in 1982 by Wanda Wilk for the Friends of Polish Music at the University of Southern California, School of Music in Los Angeles.

The Four Etudes, opus 4, are earlier works, somewhat reminiscent of Chopin and came from the period 1900-1912 when his piano music responded not only to Chopin, but to German romanticism as in the first study, with its Brahmsian parallel sixths or in the Wagnerian progression of the fourth study. In the early piano music, sometimes one can even hear hints of Scriabin.

  • The Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, opus 10 was adapted from Kleczynski’s collection of folk music from the Tatra mountains in Poland; this collection was to become a major source of inspiration for the composer. The Tatra mountains were an inspiration for many Polish composers in their writing, especially Szymanowski.
  • The three poems called ‘Metopes’ were composed in 1915 and in this work the composer adopts a highly personal impressionist sense of writing. Szymanowski’s Metopes are intended to outline stages in history, in this case based on Homer’s Odyssey. ‘Isle of the Sirens’ takes much of its musical detail from mythological sources. There are many strange pianistic configurations which reflect the double flute and lyre of Homer’s time, an insistent lullaby, and bird-calls remind the listener of the sirens.
  • Other important piano works are the Masques and the sets of Mazurkas which run the gambit from being inspired directly from the Chopin Mazurkas to a truly original Szymanowski Mazurka, with the full flavor of 20th century Poland, often again remisniscent of the Tatra mountains.


Selected References

  • Chylinska, Teresa. Szymanowski. Cracow: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzycne, 1981. (Call No. at Emory: ML410.S99, C563 1981.)
  • Chylinska, Teresa. “Szymanowski, Karol.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 18. Ed. Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.
  • Downes, Stephen C. Szymanowski as Post-Wagnerian: The Love Songs of Hafiz, op. 24. New York: Garland Publishers, 1994. ML410.S99 D7 1994.
  • Jacobson, Bernard. A Polish Renaissance. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996 (14). Maciejewski, B.M. Karol Szymanowski: His Life and Music. London: Poets & Painters’ Press, 1967.
  • Palmer, Christopher. Szymanowski. London: BBC, 1983. ML 410. S99 P3 1983.



Szymanowski’s Compositions

Stage Works

  • 1908-9 The Lottery for Men (operetta)
  • 1913 Hagith (opera)
  • 1920 Mandragora (pantomime after MoliËre’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme)
  • 1918-24 King Roger (opera)
  • 1925 Prince Potemkin (incidental music for play by Micinski)
  • 1923-31 Harnasie (ballet-pantomime)
  • 1904-5 Concert Overture in E
  • 1906-07 Symphony no. 1 in f
  • 1907 Salome (soprano, orch)
  • 1908 Penthesilea (S, orch)
  • 1909-10 Symphony no. 2 in Bb
  • 1914 Love-songs of Hafiz (orch)
  • 1914-16 Symphony no. 3 ‘The Song of the Night’ (Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, words) (T/S, chorus, orch)
  • 1933 Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess (1 voice, orch)
  • 1916 Violin Concerto no. 1
  • 1917 Demeter (after Euripides) (alto, female chorus, orch)
  • 1917 Agave (A, female chorus, orch)
  • 1934 Songs of the infatuated muezzin (1 voice, orch)
  • 1928 Slopiewnie (1 voice, orch)
  • 1925-26 Stabat mater (medieval sequence trans. to Polish, Latin) (solo vv., chorus, orch)
  • 1930 Veni Creator (Wyspianski) (S, chorus, orch, org)
  • 1930-33 Litany to the Virgin Mary (poetry by J. Liebert) (S, female chorus, orch)
  • 1932 Symphony no. 4 (Symphonie concertante) (pf, orch)
  • 1933 Violin Concerto no. 2, 1933

Chamber Music

  • 1904 Sonata in d (vn, pf)
  • 1907 Piano Trio (destroyed)
  • 1910 Romance in D (vn, pf)
  • 1915 Nocturn and Tarantella (vn, pf)
  • 1915 Mity [Myths] (vn, pf)
  • 1917 String Quartet no. 1 in C
  • 1918 Three Paganini Caprices (vn, pf)
  • 1925 Kolysanka [Lullaby] (La berceuse d’Aitacho Enia) (ven, pf)
  • 1927 String Quartet no. 2

Songs and Choral Works

(1 voice, pf; unless indicated)

  • Piesni polskie [soldiers’ songs)
  • 1900-02 Six Songs (K. Tetmajer)
  • 1902 Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz
  • 1904 Labedz [The Swan]
  • 1904-05 Four Songs (Micinski)
  • 1905-07 Five Songs (Dehmel, F. Bodenstedt, O. J. Bierbaum)
  • 1907 Twelve Songs (Dehmel, Mombert, G. Falke, M. Greif)
  • 1909 Six Songs (Micinski)
  • 1910 Buntelieder (K. Bulcke, A. Paquet, E. Faktor, A. Ritter, Huch)
  • 1911 Love-Songs of Hafiz
  • 1915 Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess
  • 1915 Three Songs (Davidov)
  • 1918 Four Songs (Tagore)
  • 1918 Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin
  • 1920 Two Basque Songs
  • 1921 Slopiewnie (J. Tuwim)
  • 1922 Three Lullabies (Iwaszkiewicz)
  • 1922-23 Children’s rhymes
  • 1926 Four Songs (Joyce)
  • 1928 Vocalise-Ètude
  • 1928-29 Kurpie Songs (chorus)
  • 1930-33 Kurpie Songs

Piano Music

  • 1900 Nine Preludes
  • 1903 Variations in bb
  • 1902 Four Studies
  • 1904 Sonata no. 1
  • 1904 Variations on a polish folk theme
  • 1905 Fantasy
  • 1905-06 Prelude and Fugue in c#
  • 1911 Sonata no. 2 in A
  • 1915 Metopy [Metopes]
  • 1916 Twelve Studies
  • 1916 Maski [Masques]
  • 1917 Sonata no. 3
  • 1924-25 Twenty Mazurkas
  • 1926 Four Polish dances
  • 1933-34 Two Mazurkas