Some thoughts about Szymanowski

Compiled from various sources by Falk Schwartz

Szymanowski born 6 October 1882 in Tymoszowska (Ukraine)
for more biographical details see
died 29 March 1937 Lausanne/Switzerland,
aged 54

At the age of 7 he was taught piano by his father, aged 10 he was sent to Gustav Neuhaus‘ Piano School in Elisavetgrad (today: Kirovograd) – his parents were relatives:

Maria Szymanowska was the sister of Karol Szymanowski‘s Grandfather Feliks and she married Michael Blumenfeld. Maria and Michael had five children – one of them Olga (a pianist) – she married Gustav Neuhaus and they had two children: Natalia (*1884) and Heinrich (*1888) – all four children of the Szymanowski‘s visited the piano school of Gustav Neuhaus.

Gustav Neuhaus had a huge influence on Karol S., he was a connaisseur of German literature and philosophy, especially Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The Neuhaus children talked with their father in German, with their mother in Polish and when they were all together they spoke French.

Karol S. and Heinrich (“Harry”) were “cousins”

Heinrich (the family called him Harry) Neuhaus , was a close friend of Karol. They were closely associated, went together to Italy and Harry admired the elder Karol wholeheartedly. In 1903 they succeeded to hear Richard Strauss in Warsaw and were both enormously impressed and enthusiastic.

Their friendship came to an end in the revolution in 1917. In a letter from 1924 Harry wrote to Karol: “I think of you day and night and always with the same feeling of longing and the desire to meet you and with this terrible aching to talk to you at great length. This longing became in the last three-and-half years overpowering and simply frightful” .

Karol dedicated the second piece from Masques Op 34 Tantis, the jester to Heinrich Neuhaus!

Heinrich Neuhaus played the first public performance of Masques Op 34.
extract from (Groves‘s Musical Dictionary – 1980-, Vol 18 p. 503):

“His less common ,abstract‘ works – such as …the Second and Third Piano Sonatas… – show Szymanowski‘s success in building a structural totality, in solving the problems of combining established forms with new modes of thought. In this he sometimes achieved more interesting results than Reger in fugues and variations, or than Skryabin in sonatas. But Szymanowski‘s greatest contribution to the piano literature, the Métopes and Masques, are frankly improvisatory in form. They are based on transformations of small cells, dense and stratified textures descending from late Romanticism, a rich and colourful harmony without tonal function, and a subtle treatment of dynamics, timbre and articulation.”

excerpts from (Klaviermusik A-Z, VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1979 – in German, p. 719 ff)

Szymanowski was strongly influenced by Reger and Skryabin. He was especially attracted by the short forms of Prélude and Etude. He ended this form of assimilation with the 2nd sonata : in the normal major/minor key the musical expression could not be increased any further. In his second phase he was influenced by Debussy, Ravel, Strawinsky. Coloristic abundance and impressionistic imagination (Masques), a very innovative piano writing

SECOND Piano Sonata A-major Op 21 (1911/12)
premiered 7th April 1912 Warsaw by Arthur Rubinstein (did he record it? I think not – but why?)
1st mvmt. (Allegro assai, molto appassionato, 2/2) within the exposition S. reaches a massive culmination (sfff), this excessiveness is symptomatic for the whole work:
there is the danger of overloading. The side thought (Quasi andante) is based on the change of 2/4 and 3/4 time, but this theme also is intensified in the exposition in four octave levels:

Second mvmt: Szymanowski experiments with form, variations cycle with fugue, first theme is soft, No 4 is burlesque but brutal, with a moderato that becomes louder and louder the fugue begins (Allegro moderato, Poco scherzando e capriccioso 4/4), four-voiced structure, Szymanowski uses all refinements of a fugue: stretto, reverse motion, augmentation, octaves in both hands lead to a majestic final intensification

THIRD Sonata Op 36 (1917), dedicated to Alexander Siloti
Szymanowski’s farewell to tonality
it starts with two opposing themes (Presto 2/4), the writing resembles Skryabin, he also writes in the third system. Like Skryabin he uses hugely
opposing instructions: very often pppp, The short Assai vivace. Scherzando uses an anapaestic three-tone-group and that also functions as the corresponding double-motiv for the fugue Allegro moderato. Scherzando e buffo

Masques Op 34 (1915/16)
Scheherazade (Lento assai. Languido 3/4)resembles a still-life in a mixture of artdéco, Tristan, Skryabin, natural sounds and exotic in the meaning of strangeness, kaleidoskopic colourfullness and brilliant phantasy: trills, suggestive tone repeating, oriental coloured motives, rocking, swaying

Masques: Tantris, the jester (Vivace assai, 4/4), after the drama by Ernst Hardt (1908) and the celtic saga where Tristan comes back to the court only to see Isolde again. But Isolde does not believe him and sends him as a sort of test into the kennel of a much feared dog, who tears up every warden. But he doesn‘t touch Tristan. However, after this examination Tristan turns away and leaves Isolde. It s the only piano piece by S. written after a literary pattern. Starts with a shrill intensified dance – then the Harlekin-motive: a jester with fool‘s cap (associating with Mussorgsky‘s “Gnomus”, Ravel‘s “Scarbo”, Rachmaninov‘s “Polichinelle”) and the dramatic development reaches its climax: the loyal dog recognizes Tristan again. The hymnical exorbitant Largo beat is the key to the poem.

Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin to words by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz op. 42 (1918)
Allah, Akbar
O, ukochana ma
Ledwie blask słońca
W południe
O tej godzinie
Odeszłaś w pustynię zachodnią
The last part of the vocal triptych written under the influence of Eastern culture consists of six Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin for voice and piano (1918). In 1934 the composer produced instrumental versions of four songs from this cycle: the first, fourth, fifth and sixth. What they have in common with Songs of the Fairy-tale Princess is the use of coloratura and the similarity of some ornamental phrases. They share with Songs of Hafiz an intensified erotic expression, better conveyed by the French title of the cycle – Le Muézzin passionné. Orientalisation of musical devices is more advanced in Songs of the Muezzin, where the impressions of a journey to North Africa in 1914 are being reflected. “In Tunis we often listened to the song of the muezzins, coming from the minaret at dusk,” reminisced Szymanowski’s companion on that journey, Stefan Spiess. “The holiday of Ramadan, celebrated in Biskra by the Kabyl tribe made a great impression on us. […] We listened then to the songs and dances performed on folk instruments – the terbuka, zorna, flute, zither, and drums” (S. Spiess 1974, p. 62). However, one should not look for concrete modal borrowings from Arabian music in the melodic contours of Songs of the Muezzin. Szymanowski did not conduct any studies into the music of the East, although he left extensive notes on the subject of Arab history and culture. He wrote absolutely original music, limiting himself only to a few simple stylisation devices. What strikes one above all in Songs of the Muezzin is the functional use of coloratura. The melismas of Infatuated Muezzin, especially in the invocations to Allah, undoubtedly relate to the authentic Arabic chants heard in Tunis, and also probably in Algiers, Biskra and Constantinople. But the vocalisations of the Muezzin have at the same time an expressive significance; they reflect the changeability of voice in affect – passion (in the first song), longing (in the second song), despair (in the sixth song). Szymanowski did not use authentic Eastern modal patterns. He employed the succession of minor and augmented second many times within the framework of the freely used twelve-note scale, treating this phrase as an analogy to microintervals in Arabian music. In the orchestral version of Songs of the Muezzin the stylisation is realized by ostinato rhythmic figures in the percussion parts (timpani, tambourine, triangle) which reproduce the sound of oriental instruments

excerpts from “Sviatoslav Richter, Mein Leben, meine Musik” , Düsseldorf 2005

Galina Pisarenko was called by Richter “Galja”
(1971) “To miss out on a concert by Galja is impossible for me and my friends…She loves singing, even more than the works she sings.” (186)

(1974, 22.5.) “Galja is always nice to look at, which is obviously very important. The outer appearance of a singer is crucial, under the condition of course that she sings well. The Japanese honour all these qualities. But there is another one: her marvellous diction.”

(1980, 1.8.) Rehearsals in Moscow
“I worked a lot with Galja on the cycle of Szymanowski, which she sings in Polish (Nina Dorliak sang it in French in her time). A gruelsome complex and also quite independent cycle. Difficult in the intonation and also because of the ornamentation, which calls for a extraordinarly fine colouring. The piano accompaniment is as demanding as the solo works.”

(1983, 11.7-20.7.) Vienna, while listening to recordings made of the Szymanowski recitals in Paris November 1982
“I listen again to “my” Szymanowski. After the many works which I have played by him, it is easy to understand the fascination I still feel. This fascination is genuine!
Slowly but not fast enough the real musical public will understand him and acknowledge his works (but too few of them are musicians).”

excerpts from “Karol Szymanowski-Jan Smeterlin – Correspondence and essays”, London ca 1970
Karol in a letter to Smeterlin 11.5.1926

“Besides – in spite of all this – I am poverty stricken – which is an ill I cannot remedy, and very much limits my projects for the summer. I look upon this with a certain calm and detachment. There are people who are destined to be hard up all their lives. If only this did not limit one‘s activities so much, one would not mind being poor.” (p. 26)

In 1928 Smeterlin played the second and third sonata in Berlin Paris and London

“My splendid isolation” text written by Szymanowski 1922

“There is indeed a ,distance in perspective‘ between my own views on true musical values and those held by our music critics, thus the only solution was for me to become an introvert, enclose myself in a shell and live in a world of splendid isolation”. (p. 92)

“My critics constantly harp on the influence of German music on a certain past period of my creative life … Having mentioned Richard Strauss and Reger, they (=the critics) even go so far as to mention that odious and despicable man Schönberg; they then suggest Ravel, Debussy, Strawinsky. They repeatedly hide my true image beneath a succession of false masks.” (p. 95)