Karol Szymanowski

Karol Szymanowski, villa "Atma" in Zakopane, 1935, Antoni Wieczorek/from the collection of the National Museum in Kraków
Karol Szymanowski, villa 'Atma' in Zakopane, 1935, Antoni Wieczorek/from the collection of the National Museum in Kraków

Major composer, born  3/10/1882 in Tymoszówka, died 29/03/1937 in Lausanne.

Table of contents:| Interactive Timeline | Childhood and EducationWorld War I, Zakopane... | AwardsEuropean RevivalSzymanowski for the 21st Century | Major compositions

Click here to watch the interactive timeline in a full screen mode 

Childhood and Education

Karol Szymanowski spent his childhood in Tymoszówka, Ukraine. With his father as his teacher, he started to learn the piano in 1889. He studied under Gustaw Neuhaus in the Elizawetgrad School of Music, and later became a student of Marek Zawirski (harmony) and Zygmunt Noskowski (counterpoint and composition) in Warsaw from 1901-05. During that time, Szymanowski met Pawel Kochański, Artur Rubinstein, Grzegorz Fitelberg, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz "Witkacy" and Stefan Żeromski. In 1905, accompanied by Witkacy, he travelled to Italy for the first time. In the same year he set up the Company of Young Polish Composers together with Grzegorz Fitelberg, Ludomir Różycki and Apolinary Szeluto. Operating under the patronage of Władysław Lubomirski, the Company promoted works by contemporary Polish composers. Soon it became known as "Young Poland" and its members arranged concerts in Warsaw and Berlin in 1906. In 1906-07, Szymanowski made several trips to Berlin and Leipzig, and in 1908 he again travelled to Italy. Having settled in Vienna in 1912, he established contact with the music publishers, Universal Edition, and signed a ten-year contract. In 1914, Szymanowski made another trip to Italy and Sicily, and also ventured to South Africa, Paris and London. In 1915-16, he travelled to Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg.

World War I, Zakopane, Tuberculosis 

The October Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 forced Szymanowski to leave Tymoszówka. He was never to return there. The composer moved to Elizawetgrad and, in 1919, he settled in Warsaw. In 1921, he travelled to the United States with Paweł Kochański and Artur Rubinstein. He gave a tremendously successful concert of his work in Paris in May, 1922. In August of the same year, he travelled to Zakopane for the first time since the end of World War I, and thereafter made the mountain town his regular destination. Szymanowski's artistic interests began to focus more and more on Polish folk music, especially that of the Podhale and Kurpie regions. Declining the position of Director of the Cairo Conservatory in 1926, Szymanowski was appointed Master of the Warsaw Conservatory, a post he held from February 22, 1927 to August 31, 1929. In 1929, he went for treatment to a sanatorium in Edlach, Austria, and then to Davos, Switzerland. He was the Master of the Higher School of Music in Warsaw (now the Fryderyk Chopin Academy of Music) from September 1, 1930 to April 30, 1932. From 1930, he lodged in Zakopane, in the Villa Atma. Concerts of his own work took him regularly to France from 1933-36. The only meeting between Szymanowski and Witold Lutosławski, Poland's other great twentieth-century composer, took place in 1935. In November that year, Szymanowski left the "Atma" for ever. Throughout 1937 he stayed a few times at a sanatorium in Grasse, France. In March 1937, he arrived at a sanatorium in Lausanne, where he died.


Karol Szymanowski was awarded the following distinctions: The Officer Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order; The Officer Order of the Italian Crown; The Commander Order of the Italian Crown; The Honourary Plaque of Reggia Accademia di Santa Cecilia; The Commander Cross of the Polonia Restituta Order; The Academic Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. He was also a Doctor Honoris Causa of the Jagiellonian University, Kraków and an honorary member of the Ceske Akademie Ved a Umeni, the Latvian Conservatory of Music in Riga, the St Cecilia Royal Academy in Rome, the Royal Academy of Music in Belgrade, and the International Contemporary Music Society. In 1935, he was awarded the National Prize for Music.

European Revival

In 1994, EMI launched a recording of three compositions by Szymanowski: Litania do Marii Panny / Litany to Virgin MaryStabat Mater and III Symfonii / Symphony no. 3 with Elżbieta Szmytka, Florence Quivar, John Connell, Jon Garrison and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The conductor was Simon Rattle, whose brilliant worldwide career was just beginning. Asked about Szymanowski's music, Rattle said:

I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reason from someone in love. And reason is out of place where his music is concerned, anyway. My first meeting with Szymanowski took place some fifteen years ago. I was having lunch with my friend Paul Crossley, the English pianist. Paul was a man whose advice I acted on unscrupulously. We would often meet, and he would put a score in front of me and say, 'You should have a look'. But that night he said, 'I've got something special for you', then he sat at the piano and played an excerpt of a piece. I had no idea what it was, but it got me very excited after just a few strokes and I knew it was love at first sight. It was the last part of the 'Stabat Mater' that Paul had played.

The 'Stabat Mater' was in the repertoire for one of my first concerts with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I must admit with shame that the choir sang in Latin. We knew, though, that a Polish language version would need to be prepared. And we struggled with that difficult language. Only Finnish and Hungarian are said to be more difficult, and there is not too much similarity between the Birmingham dialect and the Polish language. Only ten letters are pronounced the same in English and in Polish. So it was a character building experience for us on all counts. It took a year to work with the choir, but apparently sopranos can now be understood. I suppose that if Poles tried to sing in Welsh, they would understand our problems. We reached a point where language started to impact the sound of music, its rhythm. For instance, the holding out of the vowels and the proper start of the consonants has lent this music a specific pulse. The choir was no longer a group of English singers feeling aloof about a strange, obscure composition. They began to penetrate the music. It was an extraordinary trip. Szymanowski's music brought the ensemble, the choir and the orchestra together. We played the 'Stabat Mater' many times, then moved on to 'Symphony No. 3'...

I think we got our timing right with this music. The world was not ready to take it until now. Szymanowski's religious works, such as the 'Stabat Mater' or the 'Litany to the Virgin Mary', respond to the ever more pronounced need for spirituality. Moreover, this music is so splendidly colourful and extremely emotional. The English were at first unable to accept its highly intense and direct emotionality, they had to grow up to it. Now we are ready for it. It has always amazed me why the violinists of the world do not play at least one of Szymanowski's concertos and why the pianists do not play his 'Symphony concertante'. These compositions could have enriched the global repertoire a long time ago. Nowadays it is very important not to limit yourself to twenty or thirty compositions recorded by Toscanini. The public is open to new repertoire. Witness the success of Górecki. Górecki has been successful not only with the traditional philharmonic audience. He has a new audience in England, one that did not listen to serious music before. I believe it could be the same with Szymanowski.

I owe the discovery of Szymanowski's 'Symphony No. 3' to Witold Lutosławski. He said that he had lived in something like a trance for several weeks after he had heard it. It was this music which prompted Lutosławski to decide he wanted to be a composer. 'Symphony No. 3' is a wonderful, mystical work revealing a fascination with the Orient. Its climate meets the needs of contemporary listeners. Yet I believe that it is Szymanowski's later works, when he addresses the Polish heritage, reaches down to the Slavonic roots, makes a sort of reference to Mussorgsky, which are even more valuable for our culture at present. At the end of the twentieth century the rest of the world should discover what you have always known: that Szymanowski is one of the greatest composers of this century. ("Studio" 1994 No. 10)

Another world-famous director, Charles Dutoit, recorded both of Szymanowski's violin concertos with his Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and with Chantal Juillet, the Canadian violinist, as the soloist. The recording was launched by Decca in 1994. This is what Dutoit says about Szymanowski's music:

We are very fond of Szymanowski's music. It is so extraordinarily vivid, full of wonderful colours and, in this sense, seems rather unlike Central European music. I think we play it quite well. We have already performed a number of works by Szymanowski, not only the violin concertos with Madame Juillet. We take this music all over the world, have played it in places like Buenos Aires and Tokyo. We have also played 'Symphony No.3' and ‘No.4', the 'Concert Overture', the 'Stabat Mater'. There are not many orchestra pieces left. This music may not be very popular, but its time is coming. It has fascinated me for a long time. I have performed works by Szymanowski with all the major American orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a violinist, I used to play the 'Fountain of Arethusa' from the 'Myths'. It is a piece every violinist should play. (Studio, 1994 No. 9)

Szymanowski for the 21st Century

Szymanowski's music seems to have found its right time and is being played more often at concert halls and opera houses. The composer's worldwide revival has been driven primarily by Król Roger / King Roger, the work that has become one of the most popular Polish operas of all times. Composed to a libretto by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz in 1918-24, it was written when Szymanowski had already moved beyond his fascination with German neo-Romanticism and was looking for new inspirations. In 1914, Szymanowski travelled to Italy, Sicily and Northern Africa. It was a trip of major importance to his artistic development. Stopping in Paris on the way back, he heard compositions by Debussy and Ravel, and his subsequent work was to be much influenced by impressionism and the exotic and ancient world. He introduced elements of styling, and his sound became impressionistic. He simplified the texture of his compositions and renounced the thick, polyphonic tangle of numerous melodic motifs. However, he did not give up the melody, but set it against a background of consonants of glittering colours. Such consonants are characteristic of impressionism, which, emphasizing the value of the impression of sounds, brings harmony to the fore and plays down the significance of the melody. Szymanowski combines the impact of harmony with melody's active role to give his "impressionism" an individual mark, one that distinguishes him from other European composers adhering to the trend. All these qualities of Szymanowski's musical language manifest themselves most clearly in King Roger and, together with the subject-matter of the libretto, they make this work truly unique. King Roger includes elements both of a musical drama, with its leitmotifs, and of an opera, with the closed scenes withholding the action yet always deeply anchored in it, as well as offering echoes of Greek tragedy with its choirs placed outside the dramatic developments. It is fair to say that Szymanowski created a kind of stage-and-music performance of singular originality among the European compositions of that time.

There are more such original works among Szymanowski's compositions. Indeed, all of his music has a unique charm, one that contemporary music lovers shoulder find very appealing.

Major compositions

Source: www.polmic.pl

Culture.pl's picture
Facebook Twitter Reddit Share
Karol Szymanowski
okładka książki "O polskiej muzyce w Chinach"

On Karol Szymanowski and Polish Music is the first comprehensive publication on contemporary Polish music for the Chinese market.Read more »

Szymanowski composed his Op. 48 in the first months of 1922, dedicating this setting of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz poems to the pianist Helena Kahn-Caselli, the ex-wife of the Italian composer Alfredo Caselli, whom he met during his stay in Paris.Read more »

Szymanowski composed "Children's Rhymes" - twenty children's songs to Kazimiera Iłłakiewiczówna poems - in the latter half of 1922 and early 1923, intending them for his sister Zofia Szymanowska-Grzybowska's youngest daughter, Krysia.Read more »

Szymanowski wrote his six "Songs of a Fairytale Princess" in 1915, setting poems by his sister Zofia and dedicating the work to her. He used these short, aphoristic verses to create miniatures of extraordinary colour and diverse expression.Read more »

Szymanowski composed his "Two Basque Songs" during (or directly after) his stay in Saint Jean-de-Luz in the French Pyrenees in July 1925.Read more »

In 1930 Karol Szymanowski was re-appointed chancellor of the re-opened Warsaw Academy of Music, its activities reformed and its name changed to the Higher School of Music. For this occasion he set Stanisław Wyspiański's hymn "Veni Creator" for soprano, chorus, organ and orchestra.Read more »

Karol Szymanowski
Okładka (nid 6641953)

Violin Concerto No. 1 op. 35 (1916) preformed by Jakub Jakowicz (violin) and Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra under the direction of Jerzy Maksymiuk. Read more »

Okładka (nid 6501298)

The most intriguing section is probably Watch&Listen, which presents a rare video by amateur filmmaker Marian Wimmer, dating back to 1930. It depicts the composer in private, as he holds a kitten, smokes a cigarette, smiles and plays the piano. Read more »

Okładka (nid 4228020)

Inaugural festivities for the Polish EU Presidency are topped by the premiere of Karol Szymanowski’s magnum opus King Roger at the Grand Theatre - National Opera House on the evening of July 1. Staged by the British opera director David Pountney, the production breathes new life into the early 20th century score Read more »

Karol Szymanowski
Scene from the opera King Roger directed by Kasper Holten, 2015,  photo: Bill Cooper / The Royal Opera House

The performance of one of Karol Szymanowski’s two operas, Krol Róger, which took place in Covent Garden in London, immediately conquered viewers' hearts. This was an especially historic triumph since this masterpiece had previously been neglected by European scenes. Read more »

Kasper Holten, photo: Matrixmedia / Forum

Have we forgotten Apollo? Kasper Holten asks in the wake of the premiere of King Roger at the Royal Opera House in London. Read more »

Mariusz Kwiecień, photo: promotional materials

We cannot constantly be watching the same thing, Mariusz Kwiecień says in the wake of the premiere of King Roger at the Royal Opera House in London Read more »

King Roger's  staging in Santa Fe, USA, photo: Ken Howard / The Santa Fe Opera

King Roger has recently returned to the biggest theatres across the globe. Throughout May 2015, King Roger will rule the stage of London’s Royal Opera House, hence the need for a manual that will guide you through the intricate relationships between protagonists, the surprisingly minimalist libretto and the clash between two mythic orders and three civilisations. Read more »

A scene from David Pountney's production of opera King Roger, photo: Krzysztof Bieliński

King Roger Op. 46 is Szymanowski's second opera. One of the composer's greatest and most widely discussed works, it is perhaps his opus magnum. Read more »

Ensemble Śląsk - dance zbójecki, photo: Jan Morek / Forum

In the untamed Tatra Mountains, a fresh-faced maiden falls in love with an outlaw, who then proceeds to kidnap her during her wedding, eloping for them to live happily ever after in the wilderness: a typical folk story from the Polish highlands which also inspired one of the most characteristic and lively pieces of early 20th-century contemporary classical music. Read more »

Karol Szymanowski
Szymanowski Quartet, photo: Marco Borggreve

The first International Music Festival of Santiago de Chile (FIMSA) will pay tribute to Mozart this year in a series of concerts with several international guests, among them the Szymanowski Quartet. Read more »

King Roger, image by AKA © ROH, 2014

For the first time King Roger by Karol Szymanowski will be showcased on the stage of The Royal Opera House in May 2015. The show is directed by the Director of Opera Kasper Holten, while the title role will be performed by Mariusz Kwiecień. Read more »


The project Karol Szymanowski ad Orientem is a compelling result of the collaboration between the Turkish instrumental ensemble and the Polish string quartet. Scheduled for 16 April 2014 as part of the Ankara International Music Festival, the project reflects the Polish master composer Karol Szymanowski’s fascination with the "Orient." Read more »

Jose Luis Sola ( Shepherd) and Mariusz Kwiecień (Król Roger / King Roger), photo: E. Moreno Esquibel / ABAO-OLBE

The ABAO-OLBE company in Bilbao premieres director Michał Znaniecki's production of the opera King Roger on the 24th of November. The new Spanish production of composer Karol Szymanowski's masterwork features Mariusz Kwiecień, the renowned Polish baritone, in the title role Read more »

Mariusz Kwiecień and Erin Morley in King Roger at the Santa Fe Opera, photo: Ken Howard

While some blame falls on the director for failing to bring out all of the assets of Szymanowski's oeuvre, the reviews of principal soloist Mariusz are glowing. The beautiful, richly-toned voice of the Polish-born baritone gives the score an unmistakably stirring quality. Read more »


World-class baritone Mariusz Kwiecień discovered the allure of King Roger several years ago when he was cast in Warlikowski's staging of the opera for performances in Paris and Madrid. He has since become its most enthusiastic proponents, urging programme directors across the world to include the work in their repertoire. Read more »