Composer and conductor, born on 11 December 1876 in Wiszniewo, died 8 February 1909
Mieczysław Karłowicz spent his childhood on his family estate in Wiszniewo, Lithuania. In 1882, when he was six, the property was sold and the family moved first to Heidelberg, then, in 1885, to Prague, and a year later to Dresden, to finally settle down in Warsaw in 1887. When in Heidelberg and Dresden, Karłowicz went to schools providing general education. In Warsaw he attended Wojciech Górski's Real School.
Brought up in a music-loving environment from early childhood, Karłowicz was introduced to the operatic and symphonic works by Bizet, Weber, Brahms, Smetana and others when the family were living abroad. He started taking violin lessons at the age of seven, first in Dresden and Prague, then in Warsaw, where he was taught by Jan Jakowski. In 1889-95 he was a student of Stanisław Barcewicz. At the same time he learned harmony from Zygmunt Noskowski and Piotr Maszyński, and later took up counterpoint and musical forms with Gustaw Roguski. It was at that time that he started to compose. His first surviving work, a piano composition Chant de mai, dates from 1893-4. In 1893-4 Karłowicz also attended lectures at the Department of Nature, Warsaw University. In 1895 he left for Berlin with the intention of studying violin with Jozsef Joachim. Failing to get to Joachim's class at the Hochschule fur Musik, he took private lessons from Florian Zajic. It was then that he decided to become a composer and enrolled as a student with Heinrich Urban, simultaneously attending lectures in the history of music, history of philosophy, psychology and physics at the University of Berlin. Indeed, most of Karłowicz's twenty-two solo songs were composed between the end of 1895 and the end of 1896. When in Berlin, he was a musical correspondent for EMTA. The years spent studying with Henryk Urban produced a number of smaller pieces as well as music to The White Dove, a drama by Jozefat Nowiński. In the late 1890s Karłowicz got involved in the Revival Symphony project, which he completed on his own after he had graduated and returned to Warsaw in 1901. In 1903 he sat on the Board of the Warsaw Music Society, where he organised and ran a symphony orchestra.
At that time Karłowicz devoted himself exclusively to one musical form, that of the symphonic poem. From 1904 to 1909 he composed six symphonic poems Opus 9-14. In 1906 he settled down in Zakopane, the resort in the Tatra Mountains with which he had felt a special affinity for years. He joined the Tatra Society, published accounts of hiking trips, and became a passionate mountaineer, skier and photographer. Indeed, he was one of the pioneers of climbing in the Tatra Mountains.
Although Karłowicz composed only one symphony, and did so in his school days, his six symphonic poems secured him the position of Poland's greatest symphonic composer. Other than that, his compositions are few and include the graceful Serenade op. 2 for a string orchestra; the wonderful, virtuoso Violin concerto op. 8 in A Major; and charming youthful songs. What would Karłowicz's output have looked like had he not been killed by an avalanche at the age of thirty three? It would obviously have been richer, although his symphonic achievement remains unsurpassed, anyway. While the compositions by Poland's earlier composers, including Jakub Gołąbek, Antoni Milwid and Wojciech Dankowski in the eighteenth century, Józef Elsner and Karol Kurpiński in the first half of the nineteenth century, and finally Władysław Żeleński and Zygmunt Noskowski in the second half of the nineteenth century were but minor contributions to the history of European music, Karłowicz's symphonic works elevated him to a top position in the neo-Romantic movement of the early twentieth century.
At the time, however, Karłowicz's neo-Romanticism was met with vehement opposition. According to one of the leading historians of music of that time, Aleksander Poliński, young composers who, to use Karłowicz's words, wanted to "wash themselves clean of the memory of Noskowski", "have now been affected by some evil spirit that depraves their work, strives to strip it of individual and national originality and turn into parrots lamely imitating the voices of Wagner and Strauss". Karłowicz's compositions were perceived as "modernistic chaos", and their avant-garde character was considered the cause of its meagre popularity with the Polish public.
Karłowicz was looking for a new artistic direction and he regarded Richard Strauss as the avant-garde prophet. It was in Strauss's work that he saw "the prophetic glimpse into the future". From today's perspective, the future belonged to Debussy, Schönberg and Strawiński, the three composers to appear on the main stage of music when Karłowicz was marvelling at Wagner and Strauss. Abroad, Karłowicz was criticized for eclecticism. The reviewer of the 1904 concert in Vienna, where BIanka from Molena, Violin concerto and Revival Symphony were performed, wrote: "It was a waste of time travelling from Warsaw to Vienna just to show that one has learned from Wagner and Czajkowski".
Karlowicz was reproached for the influences of Czajkowski, Wagner and Strauss also after the next concert in Vienna four years later, including Karłowicz's mature compositions: Returning Waves, Eternal Songs, Stanisław and Anna Oświęcimowie and The Sorrowful Tale. A "good orchestral technique" was, however, praised. It was shown appreciation in Poland, too. Critics and the public had got used to the new style. The concert at the Warsaw Philharmonic on 27th April 1908, featuring the premiere of the Stanisław and Anna Oświęcimowie poem, was commented on in the following way: "This poem is modern owing to the wealth of instrumentation ideas as well as to fresh and original harmony which, not inferior to that of Strauss's, is nonetheless free from slavish aping". And more: "Karłowicz develops Richard Strauss's principles of orchestral colouring and achieves impressive results".
The next concert at the Warsaw Philharmonic was a full success. The performance of the Eternal Songs was conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg, an enthusiastic promotor of new Polish music. Aleksander Poliński, the vehement opponent of everything new, always at odds with Karłowicz's music, called the Eternal Songs no less than a "precious musical gem shining like a rainbow".
Nowadays we no longer get upset with the "modernistic chaos" or chide Karłowicz for "electicism". His symphony music remains a truly "precious musical gem shining like a rainbow" and gives a great deal of aesthetic pleasure.
Source: Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, March 2002.