Karol Szymanowski

Picture of Karol Szymanowski

The Mazurka is a Polish country dance originating in folk song. The music consists of two parts of eight bars, each part repeated and there is a strong accent on the second or third beat of the bar.

Chopin took over the national material as a basis for his piano Mazurkas, extended their original forms, using popular turns of phrase and creating around them original compositions of his own. He has a middle part in a slower or faster tempo than the main subject; listen to one of the most popular of these - Op. 68 No. 2 in A minor. The basic rhythm of both parts is and it is in square 4 bar phrases throughout.

The Mazurka is capable of covering many varied moods and shades of feeling, as anyone turning the pages of Chopin’s 51 examples can see for himself.

Other Polish composers followed Chopin’s example - Moniuszko (composer of "Halka" a national Polish opera] and Wieniaswki.

Karol Szymanowski, probably the most distinguished Polish composer since Chopin, uses actual folk-tunes in his Mazurka: but they are so disguised with the accompanying part written in his own harmonic idiom, that one would think the whole piece a unity in one creative conception. He may subdivide the square l6-bar sentence into irregular periods say 5 : 4 : 5: 2 : they are A.B.A. ternary movements, and middle sections, as in Chopin, are in contrasted tempo.

Szymanowski wrote 20 Mazurkas for piano and here now is Rubenstein playing the first 2 Mazurkas from his Op. 50 and dedicated to Rubenstein by the composer.

Szymanowski’s early works were written under the influence of Chopin and Scriabin: then later his admiration for heavy romantic composers like Wagner and Strauss turned him in another direction. Later came Impressionism and Stravinsky; but his last piano works, Op.36, 50 and 62 are Polish dances, and his big ballet-pantomime "Harnasie" is highly sophisticated and polished Polish national music. As indulging in reminiscences is one of the main features of the present course, I might mention that I started on a reduction of the huge score of the "Harnasie" ballet for a proposed production by the Anglo-Polish Ballet, at the instigation of two famous Polish dancers, Halma and Kornarski. Unfortunately, it proved to be too ambitious for the limited resources of our company, and the project was abandoned.

Szymanowski finally concluded that his musical destiny lay in combining individual invention and folk art: in his own words: "The law has worked itself out in me according to which every man must go back to the earth from which he derives. Today, I have developed into a national composer, not only subconsciously, but with a thorough conviction using the melodic treasures of Polish art."

Listen now to a portion of his violin concerto, composed a decade earlier than the "Mazurka". This concerto is a one movement rhapsody: it opens with bustling, busy, exotic sounds like those of a tropical forest in the heat of a midday sun. It is an exciting background of physical/animal/insect sounds to the human soul element which the solo violin supplies when it enters with its oriental colouring: the process is repeated, with more elaborations and decorations on the solo violin.

This is very beautiful music; opulent and ornate: the soloist does not stand out in relief against the massed orchestral tones, as is conventional basis to the classical concerto form: rather it is an exceptionally beautiful flower in a garden full of beautiful flowers. Unfortunately, too, although the general sound effects are luxurious there are no notable themes which one can identify and remember. In writing this concerto, the composer had the invaluable help of the noted Polish violinist Paul Kochanski, who, indeed, wrote the cadenza; and Szymanoswki’s most popular violin works, the three Myths, were also written for Kochanski. A particular favourite Szymanowski piece is the first of the three Myths, "The Fountain of Arethusa" which I'm sure has been heard in Cape Town. Along with "Narcisse" (the second of these three Myths.) Kochanski’s arrangement of The Chanson Polonaise and the Berceuse, Op. 50, it made an effective close to Miss Bessie Spence's second group of violin solos at our Szymanowski concert on 31st October, 1931. This all Szymanowski programme began with his early violin sonata in D minor (1904) and ended with the composer himself playing the Mazurka you have just heard.

Some of Szymanoswki's most appealing and characteristic music is in his songs, his setting of Persian poetry of Hafiz, in particular, and one of our best Scottish singers, Dorothy Pugh, sang the Hafiz song-cycle beautifully. I was responsible for performing the major work on the programme, the second piano sonata, Op.21.

A few days prior to our concert I had heard Szymanowski on the radio, playing with the B.B.C. Orchestra ,the solo part of his own "Symphonie Concertante", Op. 60 - one of his greatest works. So on his arrival in Glasgow I said something like this to him:-

"Excuse me, Mr. Szymanowski, but after hearing your brilliant performance in that wonderful concerto of yours last night, I feel it is a bit of a cheek for me to be playing your big piano sonata, when I am sure you can do it so much better yourself". "On the contrary" he replied, "I couldn’t play at all. I never was very talented as a pianist, and it is only since I gave up the Directorship of the Warsaw State Conservatoire and started to earn my living by giving concerts, that I took up piano playing seriously. I’ll let you into a secret: I now write piano music for myself to play: music which is fairly easy but sounds difficult: my Symphonie Concertante you heard last night is in that class".

One of the things I treasure most is a letter Szymanowski sent to me after the concert, complimenting me on my interpretation of his second piano sonata.

I am afraid I don’t now remember much about Szymanoswki's visit: he had a sinister little cough which occasionally went into spasms, and we know that little more than two years later, he went into a sanatorium at Lausanne where Tuberculosis utterly destroyed his lungs. Paderewski was the first to lay a wreath on his grave. The other day I came across a copy of the speech I made at the commencement of his Glasgow concert, but on second thoughts I’ll spare you this, and instead play you Szymanowski’s "Fountain of Arethusa" played by David Oistrakh. Incidentally, I got this record when last I was in Prague, and it is not obtainable in the West, so cherish the sound.

At the beginning the piano represents the physical play of the fountain-the violin its soul — you will notice that it opens exactly like the violin concerto: later on the violin also has water music. This is impressionistic music of a high order - it is mood painting: although it is - or was - very popular with violinists, like the violin concerto it fails in not having a theme one can remember - all atmosphere, sweet sounding subtle harmony, but no distinctive tune. Anyway judge this, the "Fountain of Arethusa" for yourself.

Karl Szymanowski, about 1930
Karl Szymanowski, about 1930. He looks the aristocrat that he was: that is, he was born on a country estate and his mother was a Baroness. If I may for the 100th time interrupt this narrative with a personal note: a cousin of mine Morag McLeod, married a Count Wolevsky - second in succession to the Polish throne and lived in a similar [possibly larger] estate to the Szymanowski one. She told me that until the German and then Russian invasions 25 years or so ago - they lived pure Feudal System: the peasants literally lived on the crumbs which fell from the tables of the rich worked on the big estates depending on the bountiful charity of the aristocrats
This music is a page from one of Szymanowski's best works
This music is a page from one of Szymanowski's best works - the song cycle - "Songs of the Love-sick Muezzin" Op. 42. I’ve chosen it because it is an outstanding example of the influence of Oriental music on his work: the voice part might well be the song of a Mohammedan priest from the tower, calling the faithful to prayer
An original bit of polytonal writing: the first violin part has the key signature of A major - 3 sharps: the second violin 6 sharps-key of F sharp major. The viola 3 flats, E flat major and the cello is in C major: this is the last movement, Scherzando alla Burlescas of Szymanowski’s String Quartet, Op. 37: in C major. Of course the ear can`t move in 4 keys simultaneously and keep track of them: you note that the bottom voice of the structure (cello part) is in C major - so that this allows the basic key of the Quartet C major to easily dominate the structure: in fact the whole movement sounds - as it is intended to sound - like an enhanced or ornamented key of C major