Metaphysical Shivers: A Portrait of Stanisław Skrowaczewski
Frederick Harris, author of the biographical book The Musical Life of Stanisław Skrowaczewski, remembers the late composer and conductor, who passed away on 21st February 2017.
To me, art is a dialogue with the unknown. This dialogue encompasses all fundamental human concerns – such as the meaning of life and death, love and cruelty, sacrifice and redemption – in the constant hope of knowing that which cannot be known.
A singular conductor-composer
Unexpected junctures and numinous events occurred throughout the life of Skrowaczewski, who at age seven heard the Adagio movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony and was completely transfixed. 'It was the same shock that someone who believes would have from seeing God,' he said. In that same year, 1930, the young boy composed his first orchestral work, an overture for a Mozartian orchestra. By now he habitually studied the scores of master composers, and the violin was added to his piano studies, which began at age five. This prodigious childhood activity foreshadowed what became the incredible musical life of Stanisław Skrowaczewski, born 3rd October 1923 in Lwów, Poland (now L’viv, Ukraine) to a concert-pianist mother and laryngologist father.
For seventy years he worked unceasingly as conductor-composer. He conquered all professional opportunities in Poland in his twenties before becoming the first musician from behind the Iron Curtain to lead a major American orchestra by his mid-thirties. Although his life centred on re-creation (conducting), his soul was that of a creator (composer). This duality, which upholds a tradition inherited from Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Mahler, is practised today at the highest levels by only a select few. At the time of his last conducting engagement in October of 2016, Skrowaczewski stood alone as the oldest living musician who consistently led the world’s foremost orchestras while maintaining a dual career as a composer, achieving extraordinary success in both art forms.
Metaphysical shivers and tragic reverberations
Surrounded by Lwów’s gothic architecture, baroque churches, lush parks, opera house, and historic walled city, young Skrowaczewski developed a rich interior life and artistic sensibility. As he said:
All of these images, though realistic, created a surreal vision of the world. The atmosphere of Lwów, supported by the fables I knew, created a special openness in me. They produced my sensitivity to art.
This receptivity, of course, extended to music.
The reason why music moves me is that through it, I commune with the metaphysics of the world, with the universe.
He considers music a kind of religion that carries him into 'some otherworldly regions, which are invariably sad and tragic.'
Indeed it is the tragic strains found in the music of the master composers that most affected Skrowaczewski in his youth. His own compositions are often contemplative and sorrowful. These qualities undoubtedly stem in part from a personal history replete with loss and the suffering caused by war and political oppression.
Skrowaczewski was a teenager when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. During the next six years, Lwów was occupied three times (twice by Soviet Russia, once by Nazi Germany). During the first occupation his father’s medical skills, valuable to the Soviets, protected the family. Under the Nazi occupation, the nineteen-year-old Skrowaczewski secured a job as a human lice feeder at the Weigl Institute of Typhus Research, a position that saved his life. (Rudolf Stefan Weigl developed the first successful typhus vaccine during the early 1920s; by declaring human feeders 'vital to the war effort' he saved numerous lives). In 1944, when the Soviets battled the Nazis to regain Lwów, Skrowaczewski hid in his parents’ apartment, in a nearby church, and at a family friend’s home on the outskirts of the city. He somehow survived the bombing of his beloved, beleaguered Lwów, but the possibility of a career as a pianist did not. Debris from a bomb explosion permanently damaged his hands in 1941.
Throughout these life-altering years, music was a constant. Skrowaczewski composed, played piano (despite his injured hands), observed orchestras and conductors, and played violin with an underground string quartet. He also attended underground university-level classes taught by the eminent Polish philosopher and aesthetician Roman Ingarden, who profoundly influenced him. Skrowaczewski explained:
The intellectual atmosphere in his house contrasted with the fear that everyday existed the possibility of being killed on the street. This contrast really formed my feeling for what to compose and how and what to conduct. The meaning of music went well beyond the notes.
In 1934 his older sister and only sibling, Krystyna, died at age fifteen of scarlet fever. Some friends and members of his extended family died or disappeared during World War II. After the war, Skrowaczewski and his parents left Lwów rather than live under Soviet control. He moved to overcrowded Kraków, and his parents continued on to the south-west of Poland and never returned to their native city. Skrowaczewski visited Lwów in 1959, not long before his exodus from Poland to become music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now Minnesota Orchestra). He did not return to Poland for twenty-one years.
Several years after Skrowaczewski and his wife (also named Krystyna) began their new life in Minnesota, the couple’s first child, a daughter named Anna, was born with a rare and severe genetic disease requiring lifelong institutional care. The Skrowaczewskis had two more children, Paul and Nicholas, who were born healthy and today lead productive, fulfilling lives.
With characteristic self-discipline, Skrowaczewski adhered to a strict regime of daily exercise and a healthy diet throughout his adult life. Despite having multiple serious health issues, he maintained the physically and mentally demanding career of an international conductor for seventy consecutive years—matching Stokowski’s record in conducting public performances.
Skrowaczewski’s most overwhelming personal loss occurred in 2011 with the death of his wife, who suffered from Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). Krystyna provided the deepest love and support for her husband and his career throughout their fifty-five-year marriage. 'To me, she represents the highest quality of kindness that we should all aspire to,' Skrowaczewski said at the time of Krystyna’s memorial service.
Composer: the quest for beauty and emotional depth
Skrowaczewski had said:
I want to be moved by my own music—at least in certain places in my compositions—as much as Mozart, Bruckner, or Beethoven move me. I must get those shivers that eventually lead to tears.
This formidable criterion, together with a severely self-critical nature and a conducting career that absorbs ten months of his schedule annually, forced composing to take a secondary role in his artistic life. Nevertheless, with the exception of a fourteen-year lapse from the mid-1950s to the late ’60s, Skrowaczewski consistently composed up until months before his death, receiving performances of his music from his teenage years to the present.
From 1929 to 1946 he produced thirty-two juvenilia and withdrawn works, ranging from piano sonatas to symphonies to music for voice and choir. During the 1950s he was an active composer of film music and pieces for theatre, including ballets. More than a dozen such works exist, and several Polish films featuring his scores are presently available on DVD. He dismissed all of this music as 'not serious,' but its influence upon his formal compositions cannot be ignored: theatrical elements are present in all of his music. During this decade he also produced a symphony (his fourth), two other orchestral works, and an opera, all of which he later rejected. This compositional activity coincided with his simultaneous responsibilities as music director for two Polish orchestras and guest-conducting engagements throughout the Soviet bloc.
Skrowaczewski’s published oeuvre from 1947 to 2010 comprises orchestral works, concerti, chamber music, transcriptions, and arrangements. Although only thirty in number, these compositions have received international recognition from critics, musicians, and audiences, and they garnered many awards, including two Pulitzer Prize nominations.
The traits of a Skrowaczewski composition include spiritual depth, clarity of form and content, sophisticated orchestration, wit, terrifying gestures, and a sense of mourning. But how might these descriptions be qualified? What does his music 'sound' like?
Listening to his compositions one hears a variety of musical frameworks and influences: series of pitches heard harmonically and melodically—the essence of the Skrowaczewski sound—inspired by Szymanowski and Messiaen; an organic unfolding of material often associated with Bartók; a connection to the classicism of 18th- and 19th-century German-Austrian master composers, particularly Wagner and Bruckner; an intellectual beauty of structure in the spirit of Berg; and a 19th-century depth of expression within a contemporary language, akin to Shostakovich.
Written at the tender age of twenty-six, Music at Night (1949) demonstrates Skrowaczewski’s talent for creating music of great drama and power. His sophisticated ear for orchestration and its economic use (influenced by Nadia Boulanger) already is evident, as is his penchant for fugues, a hallmark of his music. A later composition, Fantasie per Flauto ed Orchestra, Il Piffero della Notte (2007) highlights the maestro’s fecund imagination and astute knowledge of the virtuosic capabilities of all the orchestra’s instruments. The flute and alto flute share the limelight in this concerto masterpiece.
If there is one work that sums up Skrowaczewski the composer, it is Symphony . The death of his longtime friend and staunchest advocate, Kenneth Dayton, was the impetus of the work. Its darkest music, however, also is the composer’s way of decrying the cultural 'impoverishment of mankind' that has concerned him for decades. The final movement of Symphony  is deeply profound, introspective, and personal. The closing section builds to a searing post-Mahlerian climax before moving toward an infinite abyss. It is Skrowaczewski’s greatest compositional achievement.
Conductor: the fusion of fidelity and spontaneity
Conducting is an enigma. It is the job of helping the musicians imagine the sound before they begin to play. The essence is perfect knowledge of the score, both spiritually and technically, and a very strong interpretation of the moment, with an exceptionally robust conviction, so there is no doubt about how it is done.
For Skrowaczewski, the heart of conducting was always interpretation. In preparing for every work he conducted—whether for the first time or the hundredth—he completely excised past interpretations from his mind and started afresh. He relied on his own imaginative powers and artistic philosophies in his quest to fully realise the composer’s intentions.
Other renowned maestros shared this approach to conducting, but Skrowaczewski brought other qualities to his art that elevated him to another level. Pianist Krystian Zimmerman explained:
Stan’s personality is audible in all his performances but it doesn’t print over the composer. This is fantastic.
Another pianist, Garrick Ohlsson, praised Skrowaczewski’s spontaneity in performance:
I treasure his willingness to be improvisatory, to listen, and to know in the moment what is needed.
Ohlsson believes that it was Skrowaczewski’s composer mind that was the key to his uniqueness as a conductor:
It incorporates the literal truth of the score but also then goes deeper than that, into what generates the symbols that become the reality of the music.
Recording artist: a distinguished legacy
Over a span of fifty-five years—from 1961 to 2016—Skrowaczewski made over two hundred distinguished recordings. Nearly all of them remain in print, consistently receiving international praise and recognition. The breadth of the repertoire is remarkable. His principal recordings include: complete Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Schumann symphony cycles; two other Brahms symphony cycles with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony and Hallé Orchestras; complete Beethoven overtures and incidental music; complete Chopin works for piano and orchestra; and complete Ravel works for orchestra. Other composers represented in the Skrowaczewski discography include Bartók, Berlioz, Mozart, Prokofiev, Schubert, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Wagner, Weber, and Skrowaczewski himself.
Other notable 20th-century composers whose music he has recorded include Britten, Henze, Lutosławski, Messiaen, Ohana, and Penderecki.
Although Skrowaczewski recorded more compositions with the Minnesota Orchestra than any other ensemble, the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern (formerly Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra) was his main recording partner from 1991 to 2013. In 1991 they began their recording of the complete Bruckner symphony cycle, which took the international music world by storm, receiving wide acclaim and earning the 2002 Cannes Classical Award for Best Recording of 18th/19th Century Orchestral Work.
Skrowaczewski: pure artistry
Over the course of 36 years, Skrowaczewski was music director for five major orchestras in four countries in addition to being a globetrotting guest conductor throughout his career. He also served for several years as music advisor for two American orchestras. In each of these leadership positions, the maestro held fast to his values:
Any important cultural organisation must have a clear-sighted artistic vision as the number-one priority. No amount of business plans or financial strategies can succeed in the long term unless they are underpinned by an artistic policy that aspires to the very highest level.
It is one thing for a leader to express such principles, but it is another matter entirely to act on them. And Skrowaczewski did, whenever he believed that the priorities of his orchestras went astray. Such integrity does not win popularity contests in the rough-and-tumble business of classical music. At times, Skrowaczewski’s idealism impeded his career. His tenacious adherence to principle—along with an aversion to self-promotion and self-aggrandizement—meant that his name was not on the list of so-called star conductors of the twentieth century. No matter. In an age when popularity and commercialism increasingly dominate our lives, Skrowaczewski selflessly devoted his life to the arts of conducting and composing, and to the highest levels of orchestral performance.
For seven decades Stanisław Skrowaczewski conducted and composed on his own terms. Through his concerts, compositions, and recordings, he created a priceless artistic legacy. In today’s technology-driven world, this maestro invited us to pause, reflect, and contemplate the deeper mysteries that surround us—in effect, to join him in seeking the infinite. And for that gift, we are all eternally grateful.
Written by Frederick Harris; this essay was revised from its previous publication in the CD booklet for Stanisław Skrowaczewski: The Complete Oehmsclassics Recordings, 90th Birthday Collection Box Set (2013).