String Quartet No. 1 in C major Op. 37 – Karol Szymanowski
Szymanowski wrote his String Quartet No. 1 in the autumn of 1917, during one of the most difficult periods of his life, when the revolutionaries and the Soviet communist party escalated their activities against landowners, forcing him and his family to leave their Tymoszówka estate. Composed in Elisavetgrad and regarded as one of Szymanowski's most inspired works, it had clearly been influenced by those dramatic events. This is how Tadeusz A. Zieliński, author of Szymanowski's biography, described the work:
Like the contemporaneous 'Piano Sonata No. 3', it attempts to reconcile diverse stylistics, but does it with a greater finesse and artistic refinement. [...] It offers music which is rather restrained in tone, its impact achieved by inward, intimate poetry rather than outward gestures, and which is subtle and private not only in terms of the technique but in spirit as well. The harmonic language tends to be gentle - save for the finale - and the first movement is now and then marked by a sophisticated simplicity which gives a foretaste of his style in the coming period.1
The form of the String Quartet follows the traditional sonata cycle, with Allegro as the first movement, a slow second movement and Scherzando alla burlesca as the finale. There is no final fugue, though; Szymanowski had intended to write it, but never did. The music which fills this structure is at times extremely bold and new both in sound and harmony. The first movement introduces an interesting colour effect, produced by a melody played with the use of flageolet tones accompanied by tremolos, double trills or playing near the bridge (sul ponticello). The third movement uses a polytonal technique (each of the instrument parts having another key signature), nota bene serving to achieve a humorous, or even a grotesque, effect.
In 1922 String Quartet No. 1 won the first prize (of 500 thousand marks!) in chamber music contest of the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment. Just before the work's publication in 1925 Szymanowski dedicated it to the French musicologist and editor of the journal "La Revue Musicale", Henry Prunières.
String Quartet No. 1 was first played in Warsaw by the Warsaw Philharmonic Quartet on 7th March 1924, and performances in Vienna, Venice, Lvov and other towns followed the year later. In recent years it was played and recorded by quartets of highest renown, such as the Wilanowski, Varsovia, Camerata and Silesian Quartet.
1 Tadeusz A. Zieliński, Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza, PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 148.
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.