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Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 - Karol Szymanowski

On this page we present two articles on Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 - by Polish Music Information Center (2004) and by Piotr Deptuch (2002).

Polish Music Information Center:

Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 was written in the autumn of 1916 in Zarudzie, Ukraine, on the estate of the composer's friend - Józef Jaroszyński. It is dedicated to Paweł Kochański, who composed a cadenza for the Concerto, and during work on the piece gave the composer advice on violin technique as well as tone colour and texture. The world premiere of the Concerto took place on 1 November 1922 in Warsaw. The soloist was Józef Ozimiński, concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic at the time. A New York performance two years later featured Paweł Kochański and was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. This great duo played the Concerto several more times in the United States, launching the work's international career.

One of the sources of inspiration for this composition was probably a poem by Tadeusz Miciński called Noc majowa / May Night. As he worked on his composition, Szymanowski shared his feelings with Stefan Spies:

"I have to say I am very content with the whole - again all kinds of new notes - but also a little returning to the old; the whole thing awfully fantastic and unexpected." 1

The work is recognized as the first "modern" violin concerto, in which the composer rejects the 19th-century tradition and the major-minor system, and introduces a new music language full of ecstatic raptures and tension. The lack of a dramatic kind of expression, which is replaced with emotional intensity, means that the piece is closer to the aesthetics of expressionism than to the Romantic convention. The Concerto is a one-movement, internally diverse poem.Tadeusz Zieliński identifies five phases in this work, which differ in mood and motif material:

"The music of the first link can be described in the most general terms as a fairytale fantasy, the music in the second - lyrical and passionate, the third link is a kind of scherzo, the fourth - a gentle, calming nocturne, and the final, fifth link, containing a solo cadenza, brings a synthesis of all the previous phases."x

The concerto was very well received both in Poland and abroad. After a concert at which it was performed by Paweł Kochański, one critic wrote about Concerto No. 1:

"This work, written very freely, offering unusual diversity, filled with unpredictable combinations, rich and lively, interested me greatly. The role the orchestra is given involves painting and describing; the violin's role is lyrical song. The sound waves flood the soloist's subtle melody, the cascades of the harp surround it, the clarinets and oboes quarrel fiercely. One could say the landscape changes from one moment to the next, like a film."3

1 "Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja" / "Correspondence", vol. I 1903-1919, p. 474, letter of 9 September 1916, ed. Teresa Chylinska, PWM, Krakow 1982.
2 Tadeusz Zielinski, "Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza" ["Szymanowski. Lyricism and Ecstasy"], PWM, Krakow 1997 , p. 117.
3 "Karol Szymanowski, Korespondencja" / "Correspondence", vol. II 1920-1926, part 2, p. 317, review from "Action Française" 17 June 1925, ed. Teresa Chylinska, PWM, Krakow 1984.

Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, February 2004.

Piotr Deptuch:

The first fully original 20th-century violin concerto, breaking away from the great Romantic violin tradition. One of the greatest artistic triumphs of Szymanowski's music. The image of an overpowering spring night, as painted by Tadeusz Miciński in his poem Noc majowa / May Night, became the starting point for the creation of music fascinating in its oneiric phantasmagoria and passionate, with sensuality bordering on ecstasy. Contrary to Symphony No. 3, in which the night reveals its mystical aspect, Concerto No. 1 primarily uncovers a fantasy and fairytale element. This strongly emphasized poetics of the night in Szymanowski's piece brings it close to the symbolism of the Scherzo - Schatenhaft from Mahler's Symphony No. 7 and many of Bartok's later compositions. The extraordinary beginning of the piece, similar to the "bird music" from act three of the opera Der Ferne Klang by Schreker (there is no evidence that Szymanowski knew this composition), sounds almost punctualistic and opens up a world of sounds typical for many examples of the music of Lutosławski, to mention the beginning of his Piano Concerto for example. The work is written with great technical mastery. The sound of the violin always "floats" above the multi-colour orchestra, never letting its sound be overwhelmed. It was the score of Concerto No. 1 that Alban Berg studied when he was writing his Concerto to the Memory of an Angel almost 20 years later. The single-movement, very strongly integrated music form that Szymanowski proposes here has practically no equivalent in the history of music. Five contrasting links combine elements of a rhapsodic fantasia with creatively reshaped relics of the traditional symphony form. Delicately highlighted dance motifs (the sound of the tambourine) place this work among the composer's Dionysian pieces. The striking cadenza, wonderfully melded into the poetics of the Concerto, is the work of Paweł Kochański, whose playing yet again provided Szymanowski with extraordinary inspiration.

"[...] Undoubtedly there are plenty of other elements apart from music in Karol Szymanowski's Concerto, primarily a certain literary programme, a little like Miciński's 'Noc swietojanska' [Midsummer Night], and in addition - a pantheistic philosophy. That orphic monody of the violin against the background of the orchestra, whose sometimes uncoordinated sounds are like the voices of nature, like the chaos of nature, the sense of some kind of conversation with the universe and a singing out of the universe, means that this work simply makes us shiver. Of course these are strictly musical elements, but they are elements of life immemorial, expressed with the help of a powerful musical language. [...]"1

1 Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, "Wiadomości Literackie", 18 October 1925.

Author: Piotr Deptuch, 2002.

Tags: Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35karol szymanowski

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