• When did Szymanowski die?

As I write, Wikipedia and several other English-language websites give Karol Szymanowski’s date of death as 28 March 1937 – 75 years ago today.  Yet hard-copy publications, including the 2001 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, generally state that it was 29 March 1937 – 75 years ago tomorrow.  So which date is correct?

Szymanowski was in the terminal stages of tuberculosis of the throat and lungs when he was admitted to the ‘Signal’ clinic in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Thursday 25 March 1937.  By Easter Sunday, 28 March, he was failing fast and was dead within hours.  Christopher Palmer, in his BBC Music Guide Szymanowski (1983), reports that the composer ‘died just before midnight on 29 March 1937’, in other words, late on the following day.  Teresa Chylińska, the foremost authority on Szymanowski’s life and work, and the author/editor of multiple Polish-language volumes on his life and of his correspondence and writings, corroborated this in her English-language biography Szymanowski (1993): ‘On Easter Sunday he became worse. He died on March 29, 1937, fifteen minutes before midnight’.  I must admit to my own failing here: I took Chylińska’s apparent equation of Easter Sunday 1937 with 29 March as gospel and dated Szymanowski’s death accordingly at the start of my own Polish Music since Szymanowski (2005).  I should have checked more carefully, because Easter Sunday was on 28 March in 1937.

Fast forward to Chylińska’s most recent account of Szymanowski’s life, the three-volume Karol Szymanowski i jego epoka (Karol Szymanowski and His Epoch, 2008), and her dating becomes even more erratic.  In close succession, at the end of volume 2, Easter Sunday is on 29 March (p.756), then 28 March (p.758).  The time of his death has changed, however, from 23.45:

Szymanowski died at 23.05.  In Poland (according to the Warsaw meridian) it was Easter Sunday 28 March, while in Switzerland (in keeping with its geographical longitude, in other words its time zone) it was 00.05 on Easter Monday, and this date – 29 March 1937 – is written on the death certificate.  The composer was 55 years old.  [In fact, he was 54 (he was born on 3 October 1882).]

Chylińska is here repeating the hypothesis which she advanced in an earlier volume of his correspondence (2002).

I do not know how zones and clocks were set internationally in 1937, but they were certainly different from today, when Poland and Switzerland are in the same time zone.  Switzerland is a good distance west of Poland, so why was its time zone ahead of Poland’s?  But the Warsaw dimension is irrelevant anyway, as the salient details of the discrepancy between times and dates of Szymanowski’s death are contained solely in the surviving documentation from the ‘Signal’ clinic in Lausanne.

Even so, this evidence still lacks conclusiveness.  At least we now have a credible account from Jerzy Stankiewicz in his Polish-language article ‘Smierć Karola Szymanowskiego’ (The Death of Karol Szymanowski) in the multi-authored volume Karol Szymanowski w perspektywie kultury muzycznej przeszłości i terazniejszości (Karol Szymanowski from the perspectives of musical culture past and present), edited by Zbigniew Skowron (2007), pp. 369-76.

Stankiewicz reproduces Szymanowski’s patient card, with entries on his condition, temperature, pulse and medication for the four days that he was in the clinic.  The entry on his condition on 28 March reads: ‘décédé à 23h. 45’ (died at 23.45).  That seems to confirm the time of day reported by Palmer (1983) and Chylińska (1993), but on 28 March rather than on 29 March.

Yet by Stankiewicz’s account, the death certificate lodged with the authorities in Lausanne on 30 March, reads: ‘Died 29 March 1937 at 00.05 in Lausanne’.  The timing and dating on the death certificate, rather than the entry on Szymanowski’s patient card, is the basis for Chylińska’s 2008 hypothesis.

My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that the 20-minute discrepancy, which happened to cross over the hour of midnight and therefore straddled two different days in the Swiss time zone, is simply explained.  It’s the period between the moment of Szymanowski’s death (23.45 on Easter Sunday, 28 March) – when staff were carrying out the immediate tasks of cleaning, dressing and preparing his body – and the completion of the paperwork five minutes into Easter Monday, 29 March.  Perhaps the doctor didn’t think it was that important that the two documents didn’t tally.

To this day, 29 March 1937 is the official, generally recognised date of Szymanowski’s death, even if there is compelling evidence that it actually happened on the previous day, 28 March.  It’s really not a matter of great importance, except when anniversaries such as this come by, but it is a pity that the confusion persists.

Any thoughts, corrections or alternative hypotheses warmly welcomed!

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