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String Quartet No. 2 Op. 56 – Karol Szymanowski

It was for Philadelphia's Musical Fund Society's chamber work competition that Szymanowski wrote his String Quartet No. 2 Op. 56 in the autumn of 1927. The Quartet did not win, the two ex aequo winners being Bela Bartók's Quartet No. 3 and Alfred Casella's Serenade for Five Instruments. This did not upset Szymanowski, though, for he himself was not much convinced about his composition's merits and wrote to Zofia Kochańska:

I have somehow come to dislike this 'Quartet' and am in serious doubt about its value.1

Dedicated to a Zakopane couple the composer had befriended - 'For Dr Olgierd and Julia Sokołowski' - Quartet Op. 56 is considered one of the most difficult and avant-garde of Szymanowski's works both in terms of structure, technique, and expression. The three-movement arrangement follows in general the traditional form. The first movement, resembling a sonata allegro, has two themes, one serene and melodious, the other expressive and abounding in new, complicated chords. The other two building blocks - the vigorous, impetuous scherzo in the middle and the double-themed fugue in the finale, combining the slow part with an expressive culmination - have clearly been inspired by the Podhale folk music. In addition to the lead, 'mountaineer' motif, the second movement brings a quote from the brigands' song Pocciez chłopcy from the second act of Harnasie. The ballet - more specifically, the Sabała tune from the end part of the Taniec zbójnicki / Brigands' Dance - has also inspired the main theme of the finale fugue, its second theme using the Podhale scale.

The Quartet's complicated architecture its matched by equally sophisticated colour effects produced, one on hand, by a number of modern, dissonant and sharp chords and, on the other hand, by rare articulatory combinations (such as flageolets of three instruments) and a changing, lively polyphonic texture.

String Quartet No. 2 Op. 56 was first performed by the Warsaw String Quartet in Warsaw on 14th May 1929. Undeterred by its technical difficulty, many other quartets have incorporated the work in their repertoires, notably the Borodin Quartet (whose early interpretation can be heard on the LPs released by Polskie Nagrania and Muza in 1961 and 1962), the Wilanów Quartet, Varsovia Quartet, Amati Quartet, Camerata, Dafô, Karol Szymanowski Quartet and the Silesian Quartet.

The work was first published by Universal Edition in 1931.


1 "Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja" / Letters, vol. VIII: 1927-1931, part 1, p. 191, letter to Zofia Kochańska of 21st December 1927, ed. Teresa Chylińska, Musica Iagellonica, Kraków 1997.

Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.

Tags: karol szymanowskiString Quartet No. 2 Op. 56

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