• An Enigmatic Figure (2015)

Karol Szymanowski
An Enigmatic Figure

This biographical article was written for the programme book for the
Royal Opera House’s first production of
Szymanowski’s Król Roger (London, 1-19 May 2015), pp.19-22

Almost eighty years after his death, the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) remains curiously enigmatic, in terms of both his life and his music.  Yet had his career been compared with those of his immediate contemporaries before the start of World War I in 1914, he would have seemed better positioned than all but Igor Stravinsky, who was also born in 1882.  As a measure of esteem and potential, Szymanowski was given a contract by Universal Edition in 1912, long before the Viennese publishing house took on Béla Bartók (1881-1945), Anton Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935).  None of these three really made their mark until the 1920s, at the time that Szymanowski was composing Król Roger.  Yet the trajectories of all five composers in the 1920s and beyond (in Stravinsky’s case through to 1971) left Szymanowski languishing on the sidelines.  Why should this be?  Was it circumstance, character, degrees of radicality or influence?

The third of five children, Szymanowski was brought up on the family estate at Tymoszówka (now Tymoshivka in Ukraine).  The Szymanowski family was part of the Polish nobility, highly cultured and artistically gifted.  Although the family was proud of its ancestry (Poland was still under occupation by Russia, Prussia and Austria), its outlook was international.  Szymanowski’s passion for music and literature was fostered within the home and the extended family. German culture – Nietzsche and Wagner – had a strong impact, and from this Szymanowski became absorbed in the music of Richard Strauss (as his Concert Overture of 1905 shows).  By his early twenties, after studies in Warsaw, Szymanowski had visited Vienna, Bayreuth and other German musical centres.

It would be wrong to conclude that Szymanowski found inspiration solely in Austro-German culture in his early years. He was aware of the Russian composer Skryabin’s particular pursuit of the ecstatic and he held Chopin in high if subdued regard.  His literary interests were also Polish.  The loose group of musicians to which he belonged (including his friend and champion, the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg) was named Młoda Polska w Muzyce (Young Poland in Music) after the Młoda Polska movement of Polish writers.  These writers included Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (Six Songs, 1902), Jan Kasprowicz (Three Fragments, 1902) and Tadeusz Miciński (two sets of songs, 1905 and 1909). The most striking example was set by the writer and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, a fragment of whose play Achilleis inspired Szymanowski to compose the evocative Penthesilea for soprano and orchestra (1908). This little-known work is an operatic scena in all but name and also marks Szymanowski’s shift of attention from Germanic to Mediterranean culture.

Szymanowski visited mainland Italy in 1905, 1908 and 1910, then Sicily in 1911 and 1914.  It was on this last trip that he ventured to Algeria and Tunisia, where he was captivated by Arabic sights and sounds.  Szymanowski never travelled further east across the Mediterranean.  In a very real sense, he did not need to.  Sicily contained more than enough to inspire him during the dark years of World War I.  Here he saw the museum at Palermo (Métopes for piano, 1915), Arethusa’s fountain in Syracuse (the first of the three Myths for violin and piano, 1915), the Cappella Palatina built by King Roger II in Palermo, with its heady mix of Latin, Greek, Byzantine and Arabic features (the setting for Act I of Król Roger, 1918-24) and the amphitheatre at Syracuse (the setting for Act III).  There is no trace in Szymanowski’s music of 1914-18 that Europe was at war or that the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, forcing the family to flee Tymoszówka, never to return.  Szymanowski had retreated into a fantasy world, fed not only by the sounds of North Africa, Greek architecture and mythology and passionate Persian poetry (Love Songs of Hafiz, 1911 and 1914; Third Symphony ‘The Song of the Night’, 1916), but also by contemporary French composers, notably Debussy. Szymanowski’s Austro-German phase was not totally abandoned but was subsumed into his newly alluring soundworld.

From this point onwards, as Europe began to recover (not forgetting that Eastern Europe, Poland included, was in a particularly parlous state, with redrawn borders and the new order looming in Russia), Szymanowski continued regardless along his Mediterranean path with the composition of his operatic masterpiece, Król Roger.  While Bartók, Berg, Stravinsky and Webern may have reached radical turning points, whether they were directed towards expressionism, neoclassicism or twelve-note technique, Szymanowski’s compositional motivation at this time was arguably as much personal as it was musical.  The background to the libretto of Król Roger is key to an understanding of this distinction.

Much remains obscured about Szymanowski private life.  He was homosexual, and in 1918 he began a novel, Efebos, that is often regarded as a narrative and philosophical apologia for his sexuality.  Most of Efebos was later destr oyed, a casualty of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, two years after Szymanowski’s death.  While its literary ancestry stretches back to Plato and Euripides (The Bacchae) via Nietzsche and Pater, more immediate – carnal – impulses include Szymanowski’s infatuation for a teenage Russian, Boris Kochno.  It is thanks to the surviving Russian translation of the section entitled ‘Symposium’ from Efebos, which Szymanowski made for Kochno, that we have a deeper insight into the novel and its relationship with the themes of Król Roger.  (Kochno subsequently became Diaghilev’s ‘companion’ and wrote the libretto for Stravinsky’s opera Mavra, whose premiere was conducted by Fitelberg – such are the intertwinings of this post-war milieu.)  Szymanowski’s four love poems to Kochno, written in French in 1919, are one of the frankest expressions of his emotional life. Like much of what remains of Efebos, they form part of the hinterland to Król Roger:

C’est un jeune Dieu qui dans tes bras
Va se pâmer dans le délire.
Cette volupté tu l’éprouveras –
Elle est bien rare, cela va sans dire.

It is a young god who in your arms
Will swoon into delirium.
This delight is for you to sample –
A rare treat, that goes without saying.

Or, moi qui ne suis pas fier,
Je ne crains point la déception.
Le lendemain – un sourire amer –
C’est tout. O amour, triste vagabond.

But I, who am not proud,
I fear not that disappointment.
The morning after – a bitter smile –
That’s all. O love, sad vagabond.

The writing of Efebos ran in parallel with the gestation of the opera.  The libretto had a more prolonged evolution, although its essential action was established as early as autumn 1918 in his Sketch of a Sicilian Drama.  To flesh out his concept, Szymanowski turned to his younger cousin, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, whose poetry he was concurrently setting in Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin (1918) and who was to become a towering figure in Polish letters.  After a hiatus caused by the confusion in Europe (Iwaszkiewicz reached Warsaw in October 1918, a full year before Szymanowski could leave Ukraine), work was completed in 1920.  During a trip to New York in 1921–22, Szymanowski rewrote the libretto for Act III, much to the poet’s indignation.  He replaced Roger’s total abandonment to the lure of the Shepherd in Iwaszkiewicz’s version with something that was psychologically more complex and elusive.

Act III is significant for another reason.  By the time that Szymanowski came to compose it, he had shifted direction stylistically.  In 1921, in an intuitive response to Poland’s new-found sense of nationhood, he wrote the first work in the third phase of his compositional career.  This was the song cycle Słopiewnie (Wordsongs), which acknowledged the influence of Stravinsky and the importance of Poland’s folk heritage.  He would go on to create other ‘Polish’ works, such as his set of 20 piano mazurkas (1925), the Stabat Mater (1926) and the ballet Harnasie (Mountain Robbers, 1931).  These were permeated, just as were the works of the war years, with a sense of the exotic, now substituting Poland for the Mediterranean.  So subtle is his handling of the start of Act III of the opera, whose melodic thread has distinctive Polish traits, that some of its twists and turns might be taken for authentic arabesques.  Yet this musical hybridity is in keeping with the transition to a new, other world that Act III represents.

Pervading the entire opera, and indeed many of his compositions, is Szymanowski’s pursuit of ‘the other’, a projection of both the exotic and his sense of separation from society on a personal and professional level.  This latter problem haunted him through the 1920s and 30s, when he often gave vent to anger and bitterness at the lack of appreciation and at the army of critics arrayed against him, as he saw it.  As part of his attempt to position himself in an independent, post-war Poland, he wrote many articles, denouncing the Austro-German musical hegemony that he had embraced 20 years earlier and elevating Chopin’s music and aesthetic as a model for the future direction of Polish music.

Two of his polemical articles from the early 1920s have titles that encapsulate his perceived maltreatment: ‘My Splendid Isolation’ and ‘From my Rocky Entrenchment’.  He was undoubtedly fighting against a conservative musical environment in Warsaw, still so enamoured of late 19th-century high Romanticism that Szymanowski’s espousal of early Stravinsky and indigenous folk traditions seemed a step too far.  And yet Szymanowski’s adoption of Polish folk idioms, however acid and rough-hewn they might be, seemed old-fashioned in the major musical centres in western Europe that were being assaulted by the latest outrages from Bartók or Webern.

His isolation from such developments was exacerbated by his reluctant agreement to take on administrative duties at the Conservatory in Warsaw in the late 1920s and early 30s, in an attempt to wrest the direction of Polish musical education from his critics.  By all accounts, however, he was often an absentee Director, preferring to compose in his mountain retreat, his rented villa ‘Atma’ in Zakopane.  Ill-health and lack of finance became increasing problems.  From his early adult years he had led a fairly dissolute (and generous) life when he could, with little concern for the future. He drank and smoked heavily, and he pursued a sequence of young men.

In 1929, he was diagnosed with what he called ‘traditional Polish’ tuberculosis, and his last years alternated between treatment in sanatoria (much of it paid for by the Polish government and wealthy supporters, one of whom was the American Dorothy Jordan Robinson, the dedicatee of Król Roger) and trying to earn money for himself and his dependents by giving concert performances for which he did not really have the heart nor the energy.  He died during the night of 28-29 March 1937 in a sanatorium in Lausanne.  As he cuttingly predicted in 1934, despite his view that Polish authorities had subjected him to scandalous neglect, the final farewell was splendid.  In fact, he had two funeral ceremonies, the first in Warsaw on 6 April, the second the next day in Kraków, where he was buried in the Krypta Zasłużonych (Crypt of the Meritorious) in the Pauline Church at Skałka.  As William Hughes has demonstrated in his recently translated collection, Karol Szymanowski. Posthumous Tributes (1937–38), there was no shortage of musical luminaries in Poland, young and old, who did appreciate Szymanowski for the major figure that he was.

For all the difficulties that Szymanowski faced, be they self-inflicted or caused by circumstances, he was totally dedicated to his art.  The fact that his music changed styles is neither here nor there (think of Stravinsky), because it has a deep and distinctive current.  He was not concerned that he was largely impervious to the more radical trends of his time – indeed, he railed against Schoenberg – yet he promoted the idea that younger Polish composers should be universal, not parochial, in their outlook.  After decades when he was largely forgotten outside Poland, despite occasional performances of Król Roger and other works, the recording industry came to his rescue, increased live performances followed and his music reached an international audience at last.  The anachronisms of the 1920s and 30s have little relevance in the 2010s and we can appreciate Szymanowski – the man and the music – for his character, sureness of purpose and rich imagination.

© 2015 Adrian Thomas

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