Exploring the fascinating soundworld of Karol Szymanowski

10 January 2024
By Guest Writer
Musicologist Danuta Gwizdalanka takes us on a journey through the Polish composer’s piano works and explains what makes his four cycles so unique

Danuta Gwizdalanka is a Polish musicologist, author of books on music, member of the Polish Composers' Union.


The name of Karol Szymanowski is most often associated with King Roger, frequently regarded in recent years as an almost flagship ‘gay opera’, and also with Mythes – a fixture in the violin repertoire for almost a hundred years. Yet an important place in his oeuvre is also held by music for piano, an instrument he played himself.

Szymanowski apparently wrote the earliest of his published Preludes (Op 1 Nos 7 and 8) at the age of 14. Also for piano are his last works, two Mazurkas composed four decades later. Particularly striking on that long and fascinatingly tortuous creative road are four cycles. They stand out for their varied expression, ranging from ecstasy to lyricism, and also their broad palette of tone colours and – less typically for music of those times – sound effects.

Szymanowski was fortunate in that he could already count at an early stage on two virtuosos to perform his piano music besides himself. The first admirer was his cousin Harry Neuhaus (whose enthusiasm spread later to students of Moscow Conservatory, including Sviatoslav Richter). The composer found another devoted performer and friend in Arthur Rubinstein, when the 18-year-old pianist was seduced by the Preludes. They were perfectly attuned to the ecstatic atmosphere of late romanticism. As in his poems from that time, Szymanowski expressed in them his moods and feelings. When he decided to publish these ‘musical confessions’, he chose nine pieces.

‘Prae-ludus’ means ‘before the game’. In Szymanowski’s case, the term may be treated symbolically, as these works proved to be a ‘prelude’ to his life as a composer. He owed to them his earliest success, in the form of a prize in a competition held in Warsaw in 1903, and when the first book about Szymanowski was published, in 1927, its author, Zdzisław Jachimecki, wrote about the Preludes: "After the first, joyful impression on encountering these works, I was reminded of the cry with which Robert Schumann hailed the appearance of a youthful composition by Chopin". Thus was Szymanowski anointed the ‘first since Chopin’ in Poland, and he has retained that position to this day.

There is also no lack of emotions in the two cycles written a dozen years later, though there they are an addition to the programme. In composing Métopes and Masques, in 1915 and 1916, Szymanowski illustrated or suggested pictures, situations and characters in sound. That stimulated his musical imagination, and at the same time it opened up new horizons for pianism. Constrained by nothing other than his own flights of fancy, he ‘related’ in music episodes familiar from literature. Without breaking with the pianistic tradition, he approached it in a highly original way, treating the piano like an orchestra.


Szymanowski was anointed the ‘first since Chopin’ (pictured above) in Poland, and he has retained that position to this day


Tribute to Homer

He called them ‘Odyssean pieces’, inscribed explanatory passages from The Odyssey in the music, and explained to Jachimecki: ‘One cannot listen to this music or analyse it in isolation from the programmes, but with them – not through them’. What should be related when playing this music is suggested by the titles, and the details are explained by Homer’s epic poem. The programme of ‘L’île des Sirènes’ consists of words from The Odyssey: ‘The Sirens, seeing the ship, intoned this song: “Come closer, Odysseus of Ithaca! / Approach the shore! Listen to our wondrous song!”’.

Homer: Greek poet and author of 'The Odyssey'


So, the piano’s cantabile should imitate the Sirens’ song and then – as the term lontano indicates – show the listener how Odysseus and his companions manage to sail away from the island inhabited by the seductive Sirens.

The piano paints a picture of the Mediterranean Sea, and the waves form naturally beneath the pianist’s fingers. ‘Calypso’, is the tale of Odysseus’ enslavement by a nymph who has fallen in love with him. Intricate harmonies combine with a free rhythm. A lullaby is easily heard in this music, and its presence might be justified by a relevant line from Homer. The same applies to the siciliana rhythm in ‘Nausicaa’.

A reading of The Odyssey will help the performer understand how Szymanowski relates in music how the daughter of the Phaeacian king saved Odysseus, brought him to her father’s court and, of course, also became smitten by him. In vain – like Calypso before her.

Szymanowski gave his ‘Odyssean pieces’ the title Poèmes antiques. After a while, however, he altered it, clearly not wishing to arouse associations with Debussy or Ravel. Heeding the advice of his friend Stefan Spiess, with whom he had visited Sicily a few years earlier, he called them Métopes (and that title still leads commentators astray today, just as the ill winds blew Odysseus’ ship off its course back to Ithaca).

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In Masques, too, the titles suggest whom the music is ‘telling’ us about. Hence, when playing the opening piece, it is good to remember that it is relating successive tales told by Sheherazade. Knowing that the Tantris of Ernst Hardt’s play limps, we understand the intention behind the peculiar rhythm. Familiarity with Tristan’s fortunes also allows us to suitably render the passage where a barking dog recognises its erstwhile owner.

Szymanowski apparently wrote the earliest of his published Preludes (Op 1 Nos 7 and 8) at the age of 14


Pianists ought to be warned that Masques, in particular, represents a veritable challenge: while it does possess seductive power, it is not easy to perform. Szymanowski was a well-built man with large hands. His fondness of orchestral music – colourful, dense and complex – meant that he readily created similar constructs for the piano. He superimposed figurations – trills, tremolandos, even glissandos – onto one another, and also employed expansive, dense chords, the notation of which required three systems.

However, forbidding this might look on the page, the pianist may well imagine the pleasure the composer gained from bringing it to life with his own hands – virtually unconstrained, in the quiet of his compositional study, at his own pace, no doubt savouring every chord, every harmony. Szymanowski’s compositional imagination clearly outstripped his pianistic abilities, but when Universal Edition published Masques, in 1919, it soon found performers tempted both by the qualities of the music and by the challenge that it posed. Masques became one of the Szymanowski works most frequently performed, and subsequently also recorded – in recent years by Piotr Anderszewski and Krystian Zimerman, among others. You can listen to the latter's interpretation below.




Polish dances both elegant and lyrical

The last chapter in Szymanowski’s output for piano consists of the Mazurkas. In some respects, they represent a contradiction of his earlier works. Unlike the ecstatic and melancholy Preludes, they are restrained, although not devoid of differentiated expression. While Masques and Métopes constitute a challenge for the virtuoso, the Mazurkas can be played by pianists of more modest ability. That is because Szymanowski wrote them for himself, at a time when, having lost the income from the family estate in Ukraine, he was forced to work with his own hands – literally speaking, performing as a pianist.

So, in 1924, with his limited technical abilities in mind, he wrote for himself ‘easy and functional’ miniatures ‘to add variety to the programmes of my “recitals”’, as he confessed in letters to his friends.

After the First World War, when the map of Central Europe altered, the situation favoured ‘national art’ that combined the European tradition with local, folk traditions. From 1923, Szymanowski often stayed in Zakopane, at the foot of the picturesque Tatras. The music of that region differed distinctly from the songs and dances of lowland regions of Poland.

So, one would like to say that Szymanowski thus encountered homespun exoticism. At the same time, however, albeit probably unaware of the fact, he came across repertoire related to that which he had listened to as a child on the other side of the Carpathian Mountains, be it only from his Ukrainian wet nurse and those around her on the family’s Tymoszówka estate. As a result, intrigued by highland music, he combined it with the tradition of mazurkas from central Poland, widely associated with Chopin, and in 1924 and 1925 he wrote 20 Podhale mazurkas. These miniatures are lyrical, lively dance pieces, at times almost coarse, and at the same time distinctly ‘ethnic’.

In 1933 and 1934 he wrote two more mazurkas. With this quasi- Chopinian accent, he brought his output for piano to a close.

Discover more from Karol Szymanowski here.