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.