SZYMANOWSKI: Stabat Mater / Veni Creator / Litania (Naxos: 8.553687)
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Karol Szymanowski (1882 - 1937)
Stabat mater, Op. 53
Veni Creator, Op. 57
Litany to the Virgin Mary, Op. 59
Demeter, Op. 37b
Penthesilea, Op. 18
Karol Szymanowski was born at Tymoszowka in the Kiev District of the Ukrainein 1882, the son of a Polish land-owner and of a mother of Swedish extraction,born Baroness Anna Taube. The family and their immediate circle had a deepinterest in the arts, a fact reflected in the subsequent careers of the fivechildren of the marriage as musicians, poets or painters. His sister Stanislawalater became a singer and his brother Feliks a pianist. Szymanowski's earlyeducation was at home, since a leg injury at the age of four prevented him fromattending school in the neighbouring town of Elisavetgrad (the modern Kirowograd),where, nevertheless, he had music lessons from a relative, Gustav Neuhaus, whohad a school there. In 1901 he went to Warsaw to continue his musical studies,taking lessons from the composer Zygmunt Noskowski in counterpoint andcomposition and from M. Zawirski in harmony.
The feelings of Polish nationalism that had inspired Chopin and hiscontemporaries continued through the nineteenth century, exacerbated by therepressive measures taken by Russia, in particular, in the face of open revolt.
Warsaw in 1901, however, remained as provincial as it had been in the time ofChopin, who had sought his musical fortune abroad in Paris in 1830. The centuryhad seen Polish performers of the greatest distinction, particularly theviolinists Lipinski and Wienawski. The opera composer Stanislaw Moniuszko,however, a rival to Chopin in his own country, enjoyed only a local reputation,while his successors, in Szymanowski's esteem, occupied a still lower place.
Polish music was to a great extent isolated and provincial, a reflection of thesociety in which it existed. The new century, however, brought together a groupof young musicians of much wider outlook, a circle that included the pianistArtur Rubinstein, the violinist Pawel Kochariski and the conductor GrzegorzFitelberg. The last named, the composer Ludomir Rozycki and the pianist andcomposer Apolinary Szeluto, together with Szymanowski, established under thepatronage of Prince Wladyslaw Lubomirski the Young Poland in Music group, forthe publication and promotion of new Polish music. Fitelberg, by training aviolinist and composer, made his later career as a conductor, and directed thefirst concert of the group in Warsaw in 1906, when Szymanowski's ConcertOverture was performed. He won later distinction as conductor at the ViennaStaatsoper and in work for the Russian impresario Dyagilev, before returning todirect the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and, from 1947, the Polish RadioSymphony Orchestra in Katowice. Kochariski's support was to prove invaluable,particularly in the composition of the first of Szymanowski's two violinconcertos and in a number of works written for violin and piano. Rubinstein,who, like Kochariski, made his later career in the United States of America,proved an additional champion of Szymanowski, while Paderewski, a musician ofmore conservative tendency, assisted in the wider dissemination of Szymanowski'spiano music, favouring especially the famous B flat minor Study, a workthat owes much of its popularity to his advocacy.
The first Young Poland concert in Warsaw had included performances ofSzymanowski's Variations on a Polish Folk Theme and his Study in Bflat minor, played by the pianist Harry Neuhaus, and had been well enoughreceived. Berlin, however, proved much less interested, when Fitelberg conductedthe Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in a similar programme in the same year.
Szymanowski spent the following two years principally in Berlin and Leipzig,absorbing still further the influence of Wagner, of Reger and of RichardStrauss, composers of whom he later took a cooler view. This period saw thecomposition of his Symphony No.1 in F minor, completed in 1907 and givenits first performance in Warsaw two years later. The composer subsequentlywithdrew the symphony and went so far as to destroy the 1907 piano trio, sensingwhat seemed to him the excessive influence of the post-Wagnerian, a reflectionof a predominant aspect of music of the time in Germany. The following yearsbrought periods at home in the Ukraine and abroad. He wrote his Penthesilea,Opus 18, an orchestral work with soprano solo derived from the Achilleis ofthe contemporary Polish painter and dramatist Stanislaw Wyspianski, in Italy in1908, and in 1910 completed a very different Symphony No.2 in B flat, Opus19, a work in which the influence of Skryabin is noticeable, as it is in thepiano music of this period. The new symphony, played under Fitelberg in Warsawin 1911, proved unacceptable to both audience and critics, but won acclaim inBerlin, Leipzig and Vienna, establishing the international importance of thecomposer. Szymanowski determined, after this experience, to live, at least for atime, in Vienna, where Fitelberg was now employed at the staatsoper, and wherehe reached an agreement with Universal to publish his work.
Vienna proved less stimulating than Szymanowski had hoped, but the periodchanged to some extent his musical outlook, particularly through his experienceof the music of Debussy and, still more, of Ravel, and of the Dyagilev companyin Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrushka. In March 1914 he leftVienna and travelled south to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, returning throughRome, Paris and London, where he met Sstravinsky. The war years he spent inmusical isolation at home at Tymoszowka, turning his attention to a study ofGreek civilisation and literature, to the early history of Christianity and tothe culture of Islam, the last an extension of an interest aroused bytranslations of the poems of Hafiz by Hans Bethge, poet of Mahler's Das Liedvon der Erde, some of which he had set to music in 1911, and exemplified inthe remarkable Symphony No.3, completed in 1916, using poems by the 13thcentury Persian mystic and poet Mevlana, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi.
The Russian revolution put an end to Szymanowski's period of war-timeseclusion. The family was compelled to move, for reasons of safety, toElisavetgrad, and the property at Tymoszowka was destroyed by therevolutionaries. In 1919 they moved to Poland, after the proclamation of the newrepublic. Kochanski and Rubinstein prudently chose to settle in the UnitedStates, but Szymanowski determined to stay in his own country and to seek therea further source of inspiration, particularly in the more primitive aspects ofindigenous music. His reputation grew at home and abroad, and in 1927 herejected the offer of a position as director of the conservatory in Cairo infavour of the financially less rewarding position of director of the WarsawConservatory, which in 1930 became the Warsaw Academy of Music, an institutionof which he remained rector until his resignation in 1932.
The five years that Szymanowski spent at the Conservatory and the Academybrought many frustrations, particularly in dealing with musicians of aconservative turn of mind, and these difficulties finally led to hisresignation. The remaining years of his life were not easy, without any regularsource of income, and he therefore made more public appearances as a performer,writing the piano part of his Symphony No.4 in 1932 to suit his ownrelatively modest piano technique, no longer adequate for the more taxingcompositions of his earlier career. In the same year he was greatly encouragedby the performance in Prague of his opera King Roger, a work that dealsimagina