"Symphony No. 2" is considered the greatest orchestral work of Karol Szymanowski's early period (1899-1913) and one of the most important Polish symphonic compositions.
Symphony No. 2 Op. 19 is considered the greatest orchestral work of Karol Szymanowski's early period (1899-1913) and one of the most important Polish symphonic compositions. Together with Piano Sonata No. 2 it concludes the first phase of the development of Szymanowski's composing technique and anticipates his mature, individually styled works.
The intention to write Symphony No. 2 appeared right after Szymanowski had completed his first symphony, feeling dissatisfied. The first sketches were made in April 1909 and an overview of the whole was ready by September. Work on the orchestration continued until the end of 1910. Symphony No. 2 was first performed at Grzegorz Fitelberg's benefit concert at the Warsaw Philharmonic on 7th April 1911. Szymanowski would, however, revisit the Symphony in the years to come, making changes in the first movement from 1927 onwards (chiefly in 1930-32) and having his friend Fitelberg, the established conductor and composer to whom he had dedicated the Symphony, alter the instrumentation of the second movement in 1934-36.
The work has two movements incorporating the four traditional symphony building blocks. The first movement is a sonata allegro with an introduction, and the second movement includes the theme with variations containing the slow passage (the theme and the first two variations), scherzo (scherzo-like third variation and the subsequent two a la gavotte and minuet) and finale (the last variation with a fugue). The Symphony is consolidated by common motifs and emotions. While the style is still akin to the late Romantic,
you can clearly hear Szymanowski - in the specific 'wandering' of the line of strings in the high register, in the ecstatic explosions, in the enormous swaying of emotions, in the rapid moves from lyricism to rapture, from drama to a sudden becalming.1
Szymanowski himself thought very highly of his second Symphony. This is what he wrote in his August 1911 letter to Zdzisław Jachimecki:
How happy I am that this Symphony impressed you as I had wanted. I will frankly admit that I feel somewhat proud about its value. In some miraculous way I have managed during my work on it to resist all those garish phantoms which seduce 'young and inexperienced' artists and to produce pure and uncompromising beauty in the way I personally understand it. And so when it was being played in Warsaw I was delighted to notice that some more sensitive people had difficulty breathing in this pure and cold atmosphere in which everything takes place, like mountain air.2
Universal Edition planned to publish Symphony No. 2 Op. 19 in Szymanowski's lifetime, but never did because of the composer's intention to alter instrumentation of the score. As it happened, it was not until 1954 that Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne did the publishing. This delay did not, however, detract from the work's popularity. A few months after the premiere Grzegorz Fitelberg conducted the Symphony first in Berlin and then in Vienna, Leipzig, Munich and Cracow, everywhere to favourable or even enthusiastic reviews. That success was followed by numerous recordings of the Symphony, starting from the first one at the Polish Music Festival in 1951, with the Great Symphony Orchestra of the Polish Radio under Fitelberg.
Tadeusz A. Zieliński, Szymanowski. Liryka i ekstaza, PWM, Kraków 1997, p. 65.
Karol Szymanowski. Korespondencja, Tom I: lata 1903-1919, s. 288-289, list z 8 VIII 1911 do Zdzisława Jachimeckiego, ed. Teresa Chylińska, PWM, Kraków 1982.
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, September 2007.