• LSO Szymanowski: Symphony no.1

thumb-phpKarol Szymanowski: Symphony no.1
programme note written for
London, 22 September and 11 October 2012; Paris, 6 and 7 October 2012; Luxembourg, 8 and 9 October 2012



Sometimes a composer’s early compositions do not become a regular part of the canon.  Stravinsky’s Symphony in E flat (1905-7), for example, remains a largely neglected work.  Szymanowski’s case is more complicated.  His first orchestral piece, the Concert Overture (1904-05), written at the end of his studies in Warsaw, has remained one of his most performed, even though it is clearly influenced by the style and swagger of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan. Its confident air and sense of purpose did not, however, carry over into Szymanowski’s first attempt at full symphonic writing.

It is fair to say that Szymanowski’s First Symphony (1906-07) was something of a reverse in his creative fortunes and is best regarded as a flawed if valiant attempt to write on a larger orchestral scale.  The pre-eminent writer on Szymanowski’s life and work, Teresa Chylińska, goes so far as to call it a ‘complicated and insincere composition’.  This may be slightly harsh, but even Szymanowski realised its shortcomings (‘I don’t like it’), and only the two outer movements were completed.  Szymanowski withdrew it after its first performance in 1909.

While he wrestled with it, he predicted that it would be ‘some sort of contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster’.  The main reason for the work’s problems was Szymanowski’s determination to develop his technical expertise, especially in polyphonic orchestral writing.  At this time, he was intrigued by the music of Max Reger, whose dense textures influenced Szymanowski not only in the First Symphony but also the more successful Second Symphony (1909-10).

Despite its shortcomings, which have been exaggerated, the First Symphony provides many insights into Szymanowski’s musical character as well as some of the prevailing trends of the time.  First and foremost, there is an emotional intensity that is not only typical of subsequent Szymanowski scores but links across to, say, Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903).  This is particularly apparent in the interlinking of full orchestral and chamber-like passages and in the quasi-dramatic shifts between sweeping lines and introspection.

The first movement is succinctly structured and, it might be argued, would have worked even better on a larger scale.  In the surviving second movement – intended to be the finale – Szymanowski focuses on high lyricism.  During its composition, he’d described it as ‘very light-hearted’, although little trace of this remains in the finished score, which is marked by its increasingly turbulent orchestration.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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