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Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie Concertante) Op. 60 – Karol Szymanowski

On this page we present two articles on Karol Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie concertante) Op. 60 - by Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska (2007) and by Piotr Deptuch (2002).

Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska:

It took Szymanowski a mere four months in 1932 - from the draft in March and April to the completion of the score on 9th June - to write his Symphony No. 4 - Symphonie concertante Op. 60. Although he dedicated it to his friend and great pianist, Artur Rubinstein, in fact he wrote it with himself as the performer of the piano part in mind - even though he was not a professional pianist. This must have influenced the level of technical difficulty of the work, its solo part, while extremely impressive, lacking a sophisticated and complicated virtuosity. Instead, Szymanowski developed the orchestration, making it sound vivid and brilliant. This shift of emphasis from the soloist to the orchestra must have been the reason why the composition was termed a "symphony concertante" rather than a "piano concerto". Szymanowski explained in a letter to Zofia Kochańska:

It is with the greatest ease and willingness that I have been working on this 'Concerto' (again, please make it an absolute secret that it is a concerto - you may say it is the 'Fourth Symphony') and anyway I feel it is going to be a first-class thing.1

Nevertheless Symphonie concertante shares a number of characteristics of both a concerto and a symphony. What supports its classification as a traditional 'concerto' is the three-movement structure, with a two-themed sonata allegro as the first movement, a slow middle movement, and a rondo in the finale. So does the concert technique, involving mostly dialogue and complementation of the solo part with vivid figures of the instruments of the ensemble. Its symphonic nature is in turn revealed by the unusually extended orchestral part that brings a wealth of sound and expression ideas. The dominant mood is cheerful and merry as well as lyrical (2nd theme) in the first movement, sentimental and nocturnal in the second one, and lively and vivacious in the third one. Additionally, the middle movement delights one with its beautiful, subtle, impressionistic colours. In contrast, the finale was inspired by folk music, and is a styled oberka with an emphasis on the rhythm, motorics, energy and momentum.

Symphony No. 4 was first performed by Szymanowski as the soloist and the Poznań City Orchestra under Grzegorz Fitelberg in Poznań on 9th October 1932. It was a huge success, as reported by Szymanowski in a letter to Kochańska:

…my piano 'debut' with 'Concerto' in Poznań, 9 Oct. You can imagine what an é v é n e m e n t it was for me! Everything went superbly, so much so that I   h a d   t o   e n c o r e   t h e   e n t i r e   F i n a l e! Do not laugh at me - I myself mock my 'pianism', but take my word for it: people where raking their brans how come I played like that.2

In the following months Szymanowski would play the Symphony a number of times, both in Poland and abroad: in Copenhagen, Bologne, Moscow, Bucharest, Paris, Amsterdam, the Hague, Sofia, London, Lyon, Stockholm, Oslo, Bergen, Berlin, Rome, Liège, Maastricht, and other towns. The Copenhagen concert of 19th January 1933, played by Szymanowski and the Danish Radio Orchestra under Fitelberg, was recorded; the recording was released by Polskie Nagrania (Muza) in 1980. Artur Rubinstein, to whom the work had been dedicated, contributed to its post-World War II promotion by, among other projects, recording it with the Los Angeles Philharmonia Orchestra under Alfred Wallenstein in 1952. This recording had several LP releases (by Victor, His Master's Voice and other labels).

Symphony No. 4 has been greatly popular with contemporary pianists, too, and have featured in the repertoires of such renowned musicians as Jan Ekier, Piotr Paleczny, Karol Radziwonowicz, Tadeusz Żmudziński, Marek Drewnowski, Barbara Hesse-Bukowska and Ewa Kupiec.


1 Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja / Letters, vol. IV: 1932-1937, part 1, p. 146, letter to Zofia Kochańska of 3rd April 1932, ed. Teresa Chylińska, Musica Iagellonica, Kraków 2002.
2 Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja / Letters, Vol. IV: 1932-1937, part 1, p. 326-327, letter to Zofia Kochańska of 27th Oct. 1932, ed. Teresa Chylińska, Musica Iagellonica, Kraków 2002.

Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.

Piotr Deptuch:

In 1924 Szymanowski started work on composing his Piano Concerto. He had sketched just 311 bars of the planned piece when the project collapsed. The composer devoted his time to writing Stabat Mater, and later, having begun his teaching and administrative work, he significantly minimized his creative activity. Ultimately, in 1929, when he was very ill, he abandoned it almost completely.

The idea of a work for piano and orchestra did return, however, in the early 1930's. By then, Szymanowski was living in Zakopane and, after resigning from the post of rector of the Higher School of Music, faced a very unstable financial situation. The gap in his budget could be filled by appearances at public concerts, so the composer began writing a piece with himself in mind as the performer of the solo part. However, he did not feel a sufficiently professional pianist to create a truly virtuosic concerto for himself, hence the resultant compromise. The solo instrument, despite its concerto-like domination, often blends into the sound of the expansively treated orchestra, becoming one of the elements of a symphonic structure. In this, the work continues the tradition of the symphonie concertante, popular in the 18th century and resurrected during the Romantic period by Berlioz, for example, in his programme symphony Harold in Italy featuring a solo viola obligato.

The economic incentive was so strong that work on the composition progressed at an incredibly fast pace by Szymanowski's standards - after three months of composing, the score was finished in June 1932.

Symphony No. 4 is Szymanowski's attempt to open up to the neoclassical aesthetics that started becoming one of the dominating trends in music in the 1930's. The characteristic qualities of this work include: the relatively short length of the movements, a classically clear though not at all orthodox form (the first sonata-like movement practically without transformation!), and an obvious tendency to simplify the character of the musical expression. Symphony No. 4 reveals the special 'melodic disposition' of Szymanowski's late pieces. The main theme of the first movement is among the composer's most visual melodies, combining the features of typically Slavic romanticism with the nostalgic atmosphere of a café tango. Its distinctive leading theme, which Christopher Palmer associated with yodelling (what a broad spectrum of associations!), even fulfilled the role of a bugle call, resounding from the town hall tower in Słupsk. If one is to believe Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the opening phrase of the Symphony had already appeared in Szymanowski's imagination in 1923, and then waited all that time before it fully developed. The middle movement emanates a melodious, nocturne-like beauty. Its poetic atmosphere is broken by the middle fragment - a distant reminiscence of a ritual procession - as it heads towards the culmination. The finale is another reminder of the national roots of "late" Szymanowski music. It is a stylised oberek whose quick, circling rhythm becomes the source of a powerful, almost orgiastic rhythmic culmination near the end. Dionysus - a frequent guest in Szymanowski's music - triumphs yet again.

Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.

Tags: Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie Concertante) Op. 60karol szymanowski

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