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.