Symphony no. 4 Op. 60 ” Symphony Concertante” (1932)
An almost exact contemporary of Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) occupies a similar place to them on the cusp of modern music and is Poland’s second greatest composer after Chopin. The heady opulence of some of his biggest works has led him to be viewed as a late Romantic or even ‘the last Romantic’, but his eventual engagement with folk music and other national elements led to an exuberant, personal style that marks him as a questing figure very much of his time.
Born in 1882 on the family estate at Tymoszówska in what is now Ukraine, Szymanowski went to Warsaw as a student but, finding the musical atmosphere there in the early 1900s provincial, gravitated towards the major European musical centres. It was in Berlin in 1905 that he joined other like-minded Poles including Ludomir Różycki and Grzegorz Fitelberg in founding the group that became known as ‘Young Poland in Music’– a loose collective that was to reinvigorate Polish musical life. Unsurprisingly, his early works show the influence of Strauss and Wager and have been compared to those of Reger; but an individual voice comes through in the best of them, such as the Concert Overture.
Travels to Sicily and North Africa in the years before World War I inspired his interest in ancient and eastern cultures and sparked his development of a new musical idiom characterized by ecstatic sonorities and exotically decadent subject matter. Retreating to Tymoszówska at the outbreak of war, and remaining there until the Bolsheviks destroyed the estate in 1917, he worked feverishly on a succession of lush masterpieces. The major works of this phase are the Violin Concerto No. 1, the Rumi-inspired Symphony No. 3 (‘Song of the Night’), the Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess, the Four Songs (to texts by Tagore) and the Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin. Though not premiered until 1926, the climax of this phase is his operatic masterpiece, King Roger, which originated in his much earlier Sicilian experiences and is one of several of his works that are homoerotic in gesture.
A third and final style was already signalled in 1921 with the song cycle Słopiewnie, an attempt to summon up the primitivism of traditional Polish music. Spending time the following year in Zakopane, he fell increasingly under the spell of music of the Tatra mountain people, and the results can be heard in such works as the ballet Harnasie, the Fourth Symphony (a Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra) and Second Violin Concerto. The Polish spirit also comes through in the 20 Mazurkas for piano, a conscious nod towards Chopin’s creation of a national style, and in the Stabat Mater, one of his most distinctive works for its stylized blend of folk and traditional church music. Declining the directorship of the Cairo conservatory in favour of a similar post in Warsaw, Szymanowski spent the last decade of his life resisting conservative factions, trying to make a living from performance of his own works, and battling ill health. He died of tuberculosis at a Lausanne clinic in 1937.
credit : John Allison (Polska Music)