Karol Szymanowski

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Karol Szymanowski

Karol Maciej Szymanowski (Polish pronunciation: [ˌkarɔl ˌmat͡ɕɛj ʂɨmaˈnɔfskʲi]; 6 October 1882 – 29 March 1937) was a Polish composer and pianist, the most celebrated Polish composer of the early 20th century. He is considered a member of the late 19th-/early 20th-century modernist movement Young Poland.

The early works show the influence of the late Romantic German school as well as the early works of Alexander Scriabin, as exemplified by his Étude Op. 4 No. 3 and his first two symphonies. Later, he developed an impressionistic and partially atonal style, represented by such works as the Third Symphony and his Violin Concerto No. 1. His third period was influenced by the folk music of the Polish Górale region, including the ballet Harnasie, the Fourth Symphony, and his sets of Mazurkas for piano.

He was awarded the highest national honors, including the Officer's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland and other distinctions, both Polish and foreign.[1]


Nowy Świat 47 street, Warsaw, where Szymanowski lived and composed in 1924–29

Szymanowski was born into the Korwin-Szymanowscy family, members of the wealthy land-owning Polish gentry class, in the village of Tymoszówka, then in the Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire (now Tymoshivka in Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine). He studied music privately with his father before enrolling at the Gustav Neuhaus Elisavetgrad School of Music in 1892. From 1901 he attended the State Conservatory in Warsaw, of which he was later director from 1926 until retiring in 1930. Since musical opportunities in Russian-occupied Poland were quite limited, he travelled throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. Being lame in one knee made him unsuitable for military service in World War I.

His travels, especially those to the Mediterranean area, provided much inspiration to the composer and esthete. These were voyages of self-discovery. Arthur Rubenstein found Szymanowski different when they met in Paris in 1921: "Karol had changed; I had already begun to be aware of it before the war when a wealthy friend and admirer of his invited him twice to visit Sicily. After his return he raved about Sicily, especially Taormina. 'There,' he said, 'I saw a few young men bathing who could be models for Antinous. I couldn't take my eyes off them.' Now he was a confirmed homosexual. He told me all this with burning eyes."[2]

In 1918, Szymanowski completed the manuscript of a two-volume novel, Efebos, which took Greek love as its subject. To avoid embarrassing his mother, Szymanowski planned to publish the novel only after her death, but she outlived him, dying in 1937. Szymanowski's distant cousin and friend Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz held the manuscript and arranged for a passage to be included in a March 1939 radio broadcast in Poland.[3] The manuscript was lost in a fire in September 1939 during the siege of Warsaw. The only part that survives is the central chapter, "The Symposium", which Szymanowski translated into Russian and gave as a gift to Boris Kochno, who became his love interest when they met in the spring of 1919. That chapter was discovered among Kochno's papers in 1981 and published in a German translation in 1993 along with Szymanowski's preface to the novel and a related passage from Iwaszkiewicz's memoirs. In the preface, he explained that he wanted "to let the shining light of truth penetrate where only dark shadows and the poisonous viper-hissing of hate-sowing derision reigned."[3] He also wrote that his novel depicts "the history of a gradual liberation from various types of traditional, inherited slavery by an increasingly clear mirage of true freedom of the soul".[4][5] Szymanowski also dedicated several love poems he wrote in French about the same time to the 15-year-old Kochno.[6]

Of his works created or first imagined, like King Roger, during the years 1917 to 1921, both musical and literary, one critic has written: "we have a body of work representing a dazzling personal synthesis of cultural references, crossing the boundaries of nation, race and gender to from an affirmative belief in an international society of the future based on the artistic freedom granted by Eros."[4]

Szymanowski settled in Warsaw in 1919 after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1926 he accepted the position of Director of the Warsaw Conservatory though he had little administrative experience. He became seriously ill in 1928 and temporarily lost his post. He was diagnosed with an acute form of tuberculosis, and in 1929 traveled to Davos, Switzerland, for medical treatment. Szymanowski resumed his position at the Conservatory in 1930, but the school was closed two years later by a ministerial decision. He moved to Villa Atma in Zakopane where he composed fervently. In 1936 Szymanowski received more treatment at a sanatorium in Grasse, which was no longer effective. He died at a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 29 March 1937. His body was brought back to Poland by his sister Stanisława and laid to rest at Skałka in Kraków, the "national Panthéon" for the most distinguished Poles.[1]

Szymanowski's long correspondence with the pianist Jan Smeterlin, who was a significant champion of his piano works, was published in 1969.[6][7]


Szymanowski was influenced by the music of Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Alexander Scriabin and the impressionism of Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. He also drew much influence from his countryman Frédéric Chopin and from Polish folk music. Like Chopin he wrote a number of mazurkas for piano. He was specifically influenced by the folk music of the Polish Highlanders (Gorals), which he discovered in Zakopane in the southern Tatra highlands, even writing in an article entitled "About Goral Music" : "My discovery of the essential beauty of Goral (Polish Highlander) music, dance and architecture is a very personal one; much of this beauty I have absorbed into my innermost soul" (p. 97). According to Jim Samson (1977, p. 200), it is "played on two fiddles and a string bass," and, "has uniquely 'exotic' characteristics, highly dissonant and with fascinating heterophonic effects." Carefully digesting all these elements, eventually Szymanowski developed a highly individual rhapsodic style and a harmonic world of his own.


Villa Atma, Szymanowski's house in Zakopane, now the Karol Szymanowski Museum

Among Szymanowski's better known orchestral works are four symphonies (including No. 3, Song of the Night with choir and vocal soloists, and No. 4, Symphonie Concertante, with piano concertante) and two violin concertos. His stage works include the ballets Harnasie and Mandragora and the operas Hagith and Król Roger ('King Roger'). He wrote much piano music, including the four Études, Op. 4 (of which No. 3 was once his single most popular piece), many mazurkas and Métopes. Other works include the Three Myths for violin and piano, Nocturne and Tarantella, two string quartets, a sonata for violin and piano, a number of orchestral songs (some to texts by Hafiz and James Joyce) and his Stabat Mater.

According to Samson (p. 131), "Szymanowski adopted no thorough-going alternatives to tonal organization [...] the harmonic tensions and relaxations and the melodic phraseology have clear origins in tonal procedure, but [...] an underpinning tonal framework has been almost or completely dissolved away."

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Piotr Deptuch (2007). "Karol Szymanowski". Music. Resource Library. Adam Mickiewicz Institute Culture.pl. Retrieved 10 February 2013. See also, expanded biography of Szymanowski in Polish by Piotr Deptuch at "Karol Szymanowski – Życie i Twórczosc" 2002 (in) Rok Karola Szymanowskiego by AMI. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Arthur Rubenstein, My Many Years (London, 1980), 103
  3. 3.0 3.1 Hubert Kennedy, "Karol Szymanowski, his Boy-love Novel, and the Boy he Loved", Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia, vol. 3 no. 3 (issue 11) (Amsterdam, 1994), 26-33; available online, accessed March 12, 2015. Kennedy includes a summary of "The Symposium".
  4. 4.0 4.1 Stephen Downes, "Eros and Paneuropeanism", in Harry White and Michael Murphy, eds., Musical Constructions of Nationalism: Essays on the History and Ideology of European Musical Cultute, 1800-1945 (Cork University Press, 2001), 51-71, esp. 52, 66-7
  5. The surviving chapter of Efebos appears in a German translation as Das Gastmahl. Ein Kapitel aus dem verlorenen Roman Ephebos.Szymanowski, Karol; Jöhling, Wolfgang (1993), Das Gastmahl: Ein Kapitel aus dem verlorenen Roman Ephebos, Berlin: Rosa Winkel, ISBN 3-86149-009-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Stephen Downes, Szymanowski. Eroticism and the voices of Mythology (Royal Music Association, 2003), "Royal musical association monographs" vol. 11, 38-40
  7. Boguslaw Maciejewski and Felix Aprahamian, eds., Karol Szymanowski and Jan Smeterlin: Correspondence and Essays. Allegro Press, 1969

Additional sources

In English
  • Jim Samson, Music in Transition: A Study of Tonal Expansion and Atonality, 1900–1920, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977, ISBN 0-393-02193-9
  • Alistair Wightman, Karol Szymanowski. His Life and Work, Alderhost, Ashgate Publishing Company, 1999
  • Christopher Palmer, Szymanowski. BBC Music Guides, 1983 (An introduction to Szymanowski's music in English)
In French
  • Patrick Szersnovicz, Olivier Bellamy, Piotr Anderszewski, "Karol Szymanowski: le génie méconnu" (Karol Szymanowski: unknown genius) in Le Monde de la musique, no 299, juin 2005, p. 46-59
  • Didier Van Moere, Karol Szymanowski, Fayard, Paris 2008.
In German
  • Roger Scruton and Petra Weber-Borckholdt, eds., Szymanowski in seiner Zeit (Szymanowski in his time), Munich, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1984
In Italian
  • Alessandro Martinisi, Il sogno sognato di Karol Szymanowski. Re Ruggero tra luce ed ombra., Quintessenza Editrice, Gallarate 2009, ISBN 978-88-901794-2-6
  • Aldo Dotto, Le Maschere di Karol Szymanowski, (prefazione di Joanna Domanska) Edizioni ETS, 2014, ISBN 9788846740861
In Polish
  • Stefania Łobaczewska, Karol Szymanowski. Zycie i twórczość (Karol Szymanowski. Life and work) Cracow, PWM, 1950
  • Zygmunt Sierpiński, O Karolu Szymanowskim (About Karol Szymanowski), Warsaw, Interpress, 1983
  • Tadeusz Zieliński, Szymanowski : Liryka i ekstaza (Szymanowski: Lyric and ecstasy), Cracow, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1997
  • Teresa Chylińska, Karol Szymanowski i jego epoka (Karol Szymanowski and his time), Cracow, Musica Iagellonica, 2006, 3 volumes
  • Mortkowicz-Olczakowa, Hanna (1961). Bunt wspomnień. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy
  • Jerzy Maria Smoter (collective) Karol Szymanowski we wspomnieniach (Karol Szymanowski in our memory), Cracow, PWM, 1974, 394 p.
  • Łozińska Hempel, Maria (1986). Z łańcucha wspomnień. Wydawnictwo Literackie.

External links