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.