Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 15 (1907)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Unjust Obscurity? performed on Feb 26, 1993 at Carnegie Hall. 

Before the mid-twentieth century-the era of Penderecki and Lutoslawski-the two greatest figures in the history of music in Poland were Frederic Chopin and Karol Szymanowski. Like Chopin, Szymanowski was an ardent Polish patriot. But unlike Chopin, Szymanowski lived mostly in Poland (with periods of extended stay in Vienna and Paris) and devoted much of his career, both in the early stages and at the end of his life, to furthering the cause of music in Poland. Like his more famous but comparable contemporaries, the Czech Leos Janacek and the Hungarian Bela Bartók, Szymanowski struggled to confront the powerful influences of the German and French musical traditions and, at the same time, craft a distinct style derived in part from the inspiration offered by his homeland and its linguistic and cultural traditions. However, Szymanowski (particularly after 1918) sought to develop a universal and spiritual but distinctly lyrical modernist musical language of expression. This ambition led him therefore to non-Western and oriental sources for ideas and literary texts. Szymanowski is best remembered for two stunning violin concertos, a magnificent Stabat Mater, the opera King Roger and a host of songs and chamber music.

Szymanowski wrote four works which were to be catalogued as symphonies. No. 4 was a Concertante for piano and orchestra. No. 3 was a work for chorus, soloists and orchestra. Only two works in the purely instrumental format survive. The better known of the early symphonies, No. 2 from 1909-1910 was later edited and revised with the help of the distinguished Warsaw composer/conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, Szymanowski’s friend. The work on this concert, the First Symphony in F minor, Op. 15, although performed in 1909 in Warsaw, was never published, revived or revised. It is therefore obscure in two senses. First, like the rest of the composer’s music, it is too seldomly performed outside of Poland. Second, within Szymanowski’s oeuvre, this work has been given short shrift as a bit “crude”, and not representative of the gifts and achievements characteristic of the mature Szymanowski.

This performance can therefore test the conventional view of this composer’s early work. Only two movements exist. Taken together, they make a powerful musical essay. True, the influence of Richard Strauss and the traditions of Liszt and Wagner are clearly evident. But, as in the case of early Brahms (where the influence of Schumann can be detected easily), there is a compelling immediacy of invention and a wholly original instinct for drama and orchestration less prevalent in Szymanowski’s later works. In this work for example, Szymanowski innovates in the formal structure–in the way the seams within the movements are sewn together by harmonic change and orchestration. He chooses — courageously — to end the work by avoiding the cadential cliches of his time, leaving the listener with a startling mix of finality and ambiguity. Although the composer referred to his first symphony in later years as a “monstrum contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral,” the brash youthful energy that comes through is convincing. Perhaps the work has suffered because of the title. If it were regarded less as a symphonic fragment, and more as a two-part symphonic tone poem, the work might have taken its rightful place alongside the great Strauss tone poems from the same period. This work can be compared to Bartók’s Kossuth from 1903, a fine youthful symphonic essay by another great twentieth century composer written under the spell of Strauss’ example.