The Soul of Poland in Modern Times: The Music of Karol Szymanowski

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Karol Szymanowski’s life and work are bound up with the question of Polish independence and identity, and with the creation of an authentic cultural voice for modern Poland. Unlike some other concerts that are organized around historical and biographical themes, this concert possesses particular significance in terms of contemporary politics and culture. One might have thought that nineteenth-century styles of nationalism had become things of the past, but the events that have transpired since 1989, particularly in eastern Europe, have been startling in their demonstration of the extent to which an old-fashioned sort of national fervor persists and flourishes.

Nationalism is especially alive today in those countries which found themselves after the beginning of the nineteenth century squeezed between two opposing political and cultural giants, Russia and Germany. The corridor of eastern Europe, ranging from Ukraine (Szymanowski’s birthplace) in the east to Serbia and Bosnia in the south and Latvia and Estonia in the north, is composed of national groups whose sense of their distinct identities have been forged in a struggle against external political and economic domination. It is only in the twentieth century that many of these entities have experienced political independence for the first time. Principles of self-determination and the specific details of the Versailles Treaty after World War I created an independent Poland (with very different borders than the one we know today), a Lithuania (much smaller and with a different capital), a Hungary (reduced in size), a Czechoslovakia (now divided into two states), and a Yugoslavia (which has disintegrated). One of the knottier problems in this region is the difficulty in defining the borders that separate these groups, a situation which has created a number of minorities in an environment where, precisely because of the precariousness of political independence, inclusion in a majority is crucial to the safety and survival of individuals.

The post-World War II era of Communism as a supranationalist ideology ultimately did little to deflect or suppress the intense debate within these national groupings about what constituted the essence of their distinct characters. From 1848 on, in the spheres of literature, art, and music, this issue was also informed by an awareness of an international world of arts and letters. The idea of cosmopolitan and transnational standards ironically raised a circumscribing specter, for anything that was not connected in some way to the cultural lives of London, Paris, Berlin, or Vienna was immediately deemed provincial. Even the turn-of-the century intellectual and artistic community of St. Petersburg and Moscow quarreled over whether to prize native and presumably authentic sources for art or to defer to German and French models of compositional technique, style, and form.

If painters, poets and composers residing in the capital of the empire of Czarist Russia could turn to Berlin, Paris, and Vienna as models, it should come as no surprise that the leading literary, artistic and musical talents in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia would do the same. For these smaller nations, the search for an authentic and autonomous cultural tradition befitting political independence and connected to one s own language while still internationally viable was, to put it simply, daunting. For the Czechs and the Poles, however, the matter was further complicated by the fact that, apart from the allure of French and German traditions, there was the overwhelming presence of a dominant Slavic culture as well: Russia. Leos Janacek, for example, was fascinated by the idea of Panslavism, and the Polish poet Julian Tuwim (represented on tonight’s program) deeply admired Pushkin and translated Pasternak into Polish. Ciurlonis, the greatest Lithuanian musical and painterly talent at the turn of the century, was trained both in Poland and Russia. The spiritual capital of Lithuania before 1914 was Vilnius, which also happened to be the home of Poland’s greatest poet, Adam Mickiewicz. To further complicate matters, Vilnius was a legendary center of Jewish learning, a fact that just hints at the crucial presence of Jews throughout the nations of eastern Europe. One of the most tragic ironies in modern European history is the extent to which the distinct culture and religion of the Jews were vilified during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a means of galvanizing exclusive national identities.

The case of Poland is perhaps the most familiar to Americans, in part because of the massive Polish immigration at the turn of the century. America and France both have special connections to Polish history. Kosciuszko and Pulaski both fought in the American Revolution. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau drafted a constitution for Poland. Dombrowski formed a Polish legion which fought in Napoleon’s Italian campaign; in fact, the marching song of those Polish troops later provided Poland with its national anthem. Unlike the English, the Poles revered Napoleon because of his brief creation of an independent albeit fragmentary Poland. Poland also differed from Hungary and Czechoslovakia in its distinct advantage of having a single unified and powerful religion, Catholicism (if one excludes the large Jewish population in Poland before 1939).

Poland faced a number of problems in its search for a national character. Inter-war Poland (the state created after 1918) contained significant German-and Russian-speaking minorities. The city in which Tuwim was born–Lodz–was during his childhood nearly one third German-speaking. Another third primarily spoke Yiddish. Therefore only one third of Poland’s second-largest city could consider itself entirely Polish. At the time of Szymanowski’s birth, the Polish aristocracy of Szlachta, was composed primarily of landowners in a largely rural nation. They constituted a significant percentage of the population. Since the time of Chopin, they maintained a decidedly francophilic intellectual perspective. The Polish language, although Slavic, uses Latin characters and has a subtle and elegant palette of sound that make it of all the Slavic languages the most like French. A further ironic dimension in the struggle for independence and a secure national identity in the history of modern Poland, particularly after the failed rebellion of 1863, was the memory of Poland’s distant past. Many Americans may not realize that centuries ago, Poland, under the leadership of national heroes like Jan Sobiewski, was a great and powerful empire with a sphere of influence that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. That past greatness–it’s heroism and chivalry–was glorified throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Polish literature. The great national poem of Poland, Mickiewicz, Pan Tadeusz, bears eloquent testimony to this fact.

Karol Szymanowski remains after Chopin Poland’s greatest composer. He was born into the privileged, landowning class of the Polish aristocracy. His mother, to whom he was extremely close, was highly sophisticated and encouraged her artistic children. One sister was a professional singer, the other a writer and a poet, and Karol’s brother Felix was a pianist and composer. Like many other intellectuals and artists who lived under the shadows of Germany and Russia, Szymanowski sensed that knowing only his native language was not enough. He became fluent in Russian, German and French. He also spoke Italian, and shared with many of his German counterparts a special romance with Italy. Szymanowski was a great patriot, despite the fact that the conservative Polish public never appreciated his music. He spent many troubled years at the Warsaw conservatory, which he had helped to revive after World War I. His sense of his own compatriots’ lack of appreciation was somewhat mollified, however, by an honorary degree from the University of Cracow.

In his personal life, Szymanowski was frequently depressed and lonely; he suffered from tuberculosis and other chronic illnesses. Money was a continual source of anxiety for him, and he tragically became one of the many in the long list of composers whose financial strains were in part responsible for an untimely death. Szymanowski was also truly cosmopolitan, living for a time in both Vienna and Paris. His relation to French music may be compared to that of the Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinu. Szymanowski, however, was profoundly impressed by Mahler, and avoided the intense germanophobia of some of his Polish contemporaries. His first symphony (performed in our subscription series three seasons ago) clearly reveals the influence of the music of Richard Strauss. But Szymanowski’s closest friends were Polish-most of them from the very prominent and significant Polish Jewish middle-class community. They included composer and conductor Gregor Fitelberg, pianist Artur Rubinstein, and violinists Roman Totenberg and Pawel Kochauski.

Musically, the three composers most readily comparable to Szymanowski are Bartók, Stravinsky, and Janacek. Bartók, especially, admired Szymanowski and was particularly influenced by his innovative use of the violin. Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater (performed in our subscription series two seasons ago) speaks to the close connection between Stravinsky and Szymanowski. Like Janacek, Szymanowski was deeply fascinated by the specific character of his native language. Szymanowski shared with all three composers an exploration of folkloric traditions as an expression of an autonomous cultural past, to be used as a source for creating music which could compete with the “universal’ standards set by German and French music while also asserting a distinctive and discrete national voice. The key in this approach was to compose music that expressed a national character without leaving the overtly local or specific untransformed. These composers sought to use the national as a fresh aesthetic foundation, not as a superficial illustrative symbol. To Szymanowski, Bartók seemed the most successful at this effort. Rather like the young Stravinsky, Szymanowski in his early years chose to turn eastwards, away from occidental Europe, for a different perspective. Many ofSzymanowski’s generation flirted with the idea that the real distinction between eastern and western Europe lay in eastern Europe’s closer cultural proximity to the Orient.

But Szymanowski’s deepest connection to these three composers is their mutual determination to escape becoming marginalized as artists purely because of their exoticized national identity. Polish writers may win Nobel prizes–Sienkiewicz, Reymont, Milosz, and Wislawa Szymborska in 1996, for Example–but the fact remains that, like Hungarian and Czech, Polish is not an international language, and Polish writers for the most part still struggle against obscurity. Music, however, holds the promise of being universal and international. A nationalist composer of the twentieth century could aspire to compete globally on the highest artistic level without abandoning his cultural authenticity or his love for his native soil, history, and language. Bartók and Stravinsky are two of Szymanowski’s contemporaries who succeeded brilliantly. It is time that we allow the same triumph for Szymanowski, whose music will continue to stand the test of time in concert halls far outside of Poland.

The four works on this program provide a short but dense overview of the mature composer’s career. The concert closes with Symphony No. 3, which Szymanowski considered one of his two best pieces. It reflects Szymanowski’s attraction to orientalism, an attraction which diminished after Poland’s independence. Szymanowski then turned like Bartók to forkloric traditions, particularly those from the Tatra region in the Carpathian mountains. Our concert opens with a composition which falls chronologically between the third and fourth symphonies: Slopiewnie, Szymanowski’s setting of a poem of Julian Tuwim, Poland’s greatest inter-war poet. In his magisterial work The History of Polish Literature, Czeslaw Milosz describes it as “a whole poem [which] conveys no meaning other than an aura of some inventive proto-Slavic language.” As Milosz notes, it betrays a “sensual, amorous relationship with word-stems, their prefixes and suffixes.” By setting Poland’s great contemporary poet to music, and by choosing a text which celebrated the distinctive sound of the Polish language, Szymanowski set the stage to declare his own equivalent in the music: a timbral, tonal, and rhythmic sound which could be heard as national without becoming exotic or caricaturizing. Symphony No.4 was written at the end of the composer’s career. It focuses on Szymanowski’s own instrument, the piano, which was of course also the instrument of his great predecessor, Chopin. In this work, perhaps the best-known on the program through its prominent place in Artur Rubinstein’s repertoire, Szymanowski’s idiosyncratic way of integrating the national and the universal–the particular and the general–becomes as invisible as it is transparent. The concert also includes Symphony No.2, which represents Szymanowski’s transition from a complete dependence on the models presented by Mahler and Strauss to the formation of his own distinct musical language. Although less known and critically considered less typical of the mature Szymanowski, it was clearly one of the composer’s favorite works. He returned to it and struggled to improve it in the last years of his life. His affection for it derived not only from the breakthrough it represented in his own mastery of composition, but also because it gave him his first important international success. All of these works represent major achievements in Szymanowski’s career. They are not presented in chronological order, but are arranged to give the listener a sense of the remarkable scope of his composition.

Tonight’s program mirrors the striking variety of experimentation, unerring refinement, and intensity of this great composer s oeuvre. The contemporary listener should perhaps reflect that without the example of Szymanowski, the post-World War II Renaissance of Polish music, most recently exemplified by the popularity of Gorecki, would be difficult to imagine. For those concerned with the future of Europe as well as with music, listening to Szymanowski should engender hope. If Europe is to be unified without relegating eastern European nations once again to their peripheral status as oppressed annexes of dominant superpowers, then the music, art and literature presently being created might do well to emulate Szymanowski’s example, in which both the intimate is expressed and the national embraced in a voice that is distinctively individual, yet compelling to listeners from all parts of the world and from different generations.

Slopiewnie (1928)

By Thos. Callen

Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Now is the time for us to lay our foundations for the future. . . Let our music be national in its Polish characteristics but not falter in striving to attain universality. Let it be national but not provincial.

When Karol Szymanowski wrote these words in 1920 he was not only calling for a new Polish music worthy of a newly independent Poland. He was obliquely voicing a personal need to break out of a creative impasse that was already two years old: Szymanowski had not completed a major work since the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin of 1918. If Poland was in need of musical rebirth, its leading composer needed a new path leading away from the Scriabinesque exoticism that had culminated in the Third Symphony of 1914-16.

Szymanowski found his way by assimilating Stravinsky’s transformational approach to folk music (the effects of Stravinsky’s ostinatos, of his fragmentized, motivic treatment of Slavic folk music were not lost on Szymanowski when Stravinsky played parts of Les Noces for him during their meeting in London in early 1921). The first decisive step in the new style was Slopiewnie, five brief songs composed in the summer of 1921 to poems by Szymanowski’s contemporary Julian Tuwim.

Michal Bristiger has written that Tuwim’s texts “took the shape of a Slavic Arcadia”. They are not in Polish but in a kind of proto-Polish Tuwim devised by combining the word-roots and altering word-endings. Despite this experimentation, the five poems, with the exception of the concluding “Wanda,” are quitetraditional in rhyme scheme, meter, and scansion (“Slowisen,” for example, is in two quatrains of decasyl-labic abab).

All five of the Slopiewnie reflect an ear closely attentive to poetic syntax. Szymanowski often forges a kind of musical rhyme to match the poetical, that is, sets two rhyming lines in Tuwim’s text to an identical or slightly varied musical phrase, or he varies the same musical motif for two rhyming words. As an example of the latter, in the second strophe of “Slowisen,” the last two syllables of nezaspiewy are sung in a melisma around the note F; at the rhyming ciewy in the last line of the strophe, the vocal line is stripped to two bare E’s. Sometimes, an identical rhythm reappears with no more than the general contour of the melody, making the kinship more difficult to detect, as in the last two lines of the second strophe of “Zielone slowa”. At times, a rhyme is not so much forged as forced out of the vowels alone with disregard for the preceding, unrhymed consonants, as in lines 1-2 of “Wanda,” where Szymanowski makes a rhyme of the final vowels in the words wislana and srebliwa.

In 1927, a year before he prepared the orchestral version of Slopiewnie we are hearing this evening, Szymanowski wrote that the work “was indeed a turning-point” initiating his concern with “ancestral Polish character” and “with crystallizing elements of tribal heritage”. But he had also written, almost a decade earlier, while grappling with the crisis of his own creativity, “I cannot afford a complete abnegation, for my inner life is developed too strongly.” His need to preserve that inner life, no matter where his music took him, make Slopiewnie a work far less “tribal” than personal.

Symphony No. 4 (“Symphony Concertante”) (1932)

By Peter J. Rabinowitz, Hamilton College

Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Szymanowski was an ecstatic composer in at least two senses. On the one hand, he wrote trance-like works aiming at rapturous exaltation in the manner of Scriabin. But “ecstasy” also refers, more literally, to stepping outside oneself–and Szymanowski could also step outside himself in a less Dionysian way. Nowhere is this clearer than In his 1952 Symphonie Concertante (Symphony No. 4) for piano and orchestra.

The work was the product of the most wretched circumstances. The composer, his body debilitated by heavy smoking and addiction to alcohol (and possibly cocaine), was already dying from tuberculosis. His spirit was weakened, too, by his frustrating experiences as Director of the State Academy of Music in Warsaw, a post he had to give up under pressure from musical conservatives. The additional strain of living as a homosexual in an unsympathetic world could not have helped. Nor did he have the financial resources for medical care. In fact, he wrote this work with the intention of performing it himself to raise money–even though, he admitted, “playing the piano bores me terribly and exhausts me.” He didn’t have much choice. As he bluntly put it, “the noose is around my neck.”

If Szymanowski had been a self-expressive artist like Mahler (a composer he accused of “inner misunderstanding”), we might have expected a symphony written in such a situation to be scarred with self-pity. In fact, Szymanowski tossed off a delightful, neo-classical work–”clear, transparent, like Mozart” was his own characterization–that transcended the conditions of its conception. To be sure, the style is personal, with clear links to Szymanowski’s earlier works. All three movements, for instance, reveal an intermittent ritualism that recalls the Third Symphony. But the Symphonie Concertante is no mirror of his inner life.

One of the things that allowed Szymanowski to prevail over his hopelessness was his nationalism. Not that there’s anything immediately folkloric in the Symphonie Concertante: there are no quotations of actual folk tunes, and its nationalism has little in common with the exoticism practiced by such composers as Rimsky-Korsakov, much less with the glorification of the people increasingly demanded of his contemporaries in the Soviet Union. Rather, what we find is a distillation of certain popular techniques. There are, for instance, stylized allusions to traditional dances in the finale–Szymanowski mentions that he’s included the “rhythm of an oberek (in general)” and “a kind of mazurka’; the use of heterophony (simultaneous variants of a single theme) recalls the techniques favored by the small string ensembles of the Tatra region; the main theme of the finale incorporates the Lydian inflections (that is, the raised fourth) common in highland folk melodies. At this period in his life, Szymanowski had special admiration for the way Bart6k had integrated nationalistic materials into his music–and in both spirit and gesture, the Symphonie Concertante can be heard as an homage to his Hungarian colleague.

The Symphonie Concertante is in three movements. The first begins with a throbbing bass, over which the piano launches a theme in octaves. Although the modified sonata form that follows seems rich in melodic invention, in fact nearly all its material is derived from that opening statement. The shimmering, richly textured slow movement provides opportunities for lyrical excursions by several solo instruments before it rises to a powerful climax (the work’s only hint of the pain behind the composition). After a poignant return to the main theme of the first movement (introduced by the flute, but quickly taken up by the solo piano), the movement dissolves, over a percussion transition, into the rugged and rhythmically insistent rondo-like finale featuring several episodes of what Szymanowski called “almost orgiastic dance.” With increasing determination, the Symphonie Concertante charges to an relentless, even obsessive, conclusion.

Symphony No. 2 (1910)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The Second Symphony was considered by Szymanowski one of his best works. In the context of this concert, it provides the listener with an impressive point of departure from which to consider the composer’s artistic evolution. It was completed in 1910 and premiered in Warsaw in 1911, while Szymanowski was still in his twenties. It was Szymanowski’s first great success outside of Poland, and was performed to enthusiastic response in Vienna and Berlin. The reaction at the Warsaw premiere was predictably lukewarm. As a result of the Second Symphony’s success in Vienna, however, Szymanowski was given a publishing contract with the prestigious Universal Edition, Europe’s premiere publishing house for new music.

The symphony has been long considered an example of Szymanowski’s mastery of counterpoint. One encounters fugal writing and variation form. The music shows the continuing influence of German contemporaries, particularly Max Reger, but Richard Strauss is still present in the lush sound and large-scale ambition of the work. What is immediately apparent in listening to the work is that Szymanowski had begun to cut his own path, particularly in the use of tonality. The work extends tonal vocabulary through the use of rapid shifts, giving the impression of a highly chromatic and variable tonal logic. Szymanowski’s preoccupation with this symphony is evident in the fact that in the 1930s, he undertook a revision and a reorchestration of it with the help of Gregor Fitelberg. Although Szymanowski died before the revision of the second movement was completed, it is in the revised Fitelberg version that the work is performed. Even in its revised form, one can hear the influence, particularly in terms of orchestration, of Mahler. But if, as the leading commentators on Szymanowski, including Christopher Palmer and Jim Samson, have observed, this symphony clearly shows the distinct musical voice of the composer. In a daring and unusual step, for example, he opens the symphony with one of his most trusted and characteristic instrumental vehicles, the solo violin.

Szymanowski was intent in this work to eschew any programmatic association. It is as if he wanted to distance himself from his earlier association with the “Young Poland” literary movement, exemplified by his friendship with Tadeusz Micinski (1873-1918), the philosopher poet. Micinski was the translator of the poem by the Persian mystic Jallal al-din Rumi that Szymanowski later used in his Symphony No.3. Like Julian Tuwim, Micinski was born in Lodz and traveled extensively. He shared Szymanowski’s fondness for the Tatra mountains, particularly the town of Zakopane, a gathering point for artists.Micinski’s life came to an end during World War I, when he was mistaken for a Russian general and murdered.

The Second Symphony betrays an almost obsessive ambition to demonstrate the composer’s ability to transform and yet weave seemingly disparate material together. Szymanowski described his work as having “a first movement in a grand manner” followed by “a theme in nine variations, the adagio and finale with a fugue.” References to the primary theme of the first movement are heard in the second. The distinct fugal subjects at the end of the second movement are also audibly related to the work’s beginning. If this structure seems to resemble Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, that is because Szymanowski used it as a model. But unlike other early Szymanowski works based on German models, such as the Concert Overture, Op.12, which was based on Wlast the Hero by Micinski, a poem in the spirit of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and which has been condemned unfairly as being derivative, (despite the fact that it was hailed at its 1906 Warsaw premiere,) this second symphony is clearly the work of a composer that has come into his own. Here Szymanowski uses models only to make a distinctive musical statement within the confines of the central European symphonic tradition. In his letters, Szymanowski himself did not hesitate to make the confident assertion that it would be his second symphony that would be remembered after his death as a masterpiece.

Symphony No. 3 (“Song of the Night”) (1916)

By Adrian Corleonis, Contributor, Fanfare

Written for the concert The Soul of Poland in Modern Times, performed on Jan 24, 1997 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the summer of 1914, Szymanowski returned from an extended visit to Sicily and North Africa, stopping over in Paris, and going to London to stay some weeks with Artur Rubinstein and meet Stravinsky, before leaving on the very day of Archduke Rudolph’s assassination for Tymoszówska, his family’s estate in the Ukraine. As war engulfed Europe, Szymanowski carried into his retreat the latest nuances of cosmopolitan culture, which he was to transmute into his middle period, and most intensely personal, style.

Szymanowski’s aesthetic is Symbolist, an influence imbibed from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, a favorite and closely-read book, which prompted a “Dionysian” style almost wholly preoccupied with the ecstatic apprehension of mythically-blazoned moments as symbols of an ineffable mystery.

Song of the Night places the Symbolist mysterium in the fabulous Persia of the Sufi poet Jallal al-din Rumi. A symphony in name only, this single three-part movement opens with the mystic’s exhortation to watchfulness, for “the great secret is revealed in this night.” Rumi is generally credited as the founder of the Mevlevi order of Dervishes, whose “whirling” occasions the highly stylized dances, now contemplatively attenuated, now vehement, which mimic the passage of the planets and constellations, raptly heralded by the tenor solo of the first part, in a circling whose effect is intoxication and whose center and goal is God.

A Warsaw concert in January 1920, giving his compatriots a first hearing of his Dionysian works, was poorly attended and tepidly received, wringing from Szymanowski the complaint that “there is no real contact between myself and the Polish (or at any rate Warsaw) public, I seem strange, incomprehensible to them.. .The European climate of my art does not suite this local provincialism.” In the upshot, Song of the Night received its premiere in London under Albert Coates on November 26, 1921, and was not heard in Warsaw until April 1924, by which time Szymanowski was quite a different composer.

In writing of Song of the Night it has become almost obligatory to quote from Kaikhosru Sorabji’s glowing effusive encomium in Mi Contra Fa (London: Porcupine Press, 1947), if only because such unequivocal praise from such a critic may hardly be ignored: “Here is no European in Eastern fancy-dress, but one who, by a penetrating clairvoyant insight and sympathy, an astonishing kinship of spirit, succeeds in giving us in musical terms what we instinctively know and recognize as the essence of Persian Art.”

One might more aptly call attention to Szymanowski’s “clairvoyant insight and sympathy” with the latest works of Scriabin, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky, whose innovations and refinements he turned, almost as they were being made, confidently and eloquently to his own use. Thus, Szymanowski in his Dionysian guise offered a newly emancipated Poland, in search of a cultural identity, the not entirely welcome example of a fluently cosmopolitan Europeanism, a highly sophisticated consolidation of what was best and most brilliant in pre-war, post-Romanticism, couched in a legacy of exotically powerful, exquisitely realized, and radiantly intense works.