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Karol Szymanowski

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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

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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

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Karol Szymanowski


Karol Szymanowski


Karol Szymanowski


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