Celebrating Szymanowski


Karol Szymanowski was born into a wealthy family in Tymoszówka, Ukraine, in 1882, and received his first musical tuition from his father (who played piano and cello).  He entered the Elizavetgrad School of Music at the age of 7, where he studied under Gustav Neuhaus before going on to study harmony, counterpoint and composition at the Warsaw Conservatory between 1901 and 1904.  During his time in Warsaw he came into contact with prominent musicians such as Artur Rubinstein and Pawel Kochański as well as the writer, photographer, painter and playwright Ignacy Witkiewicz (affectionately known as Witkacy).  It was with Witkacy that Szymanowski first travelled to Italy in 1905, the first of many international trips which would heavily influence his works.  1905 was a significant year for him, as it was also in this year that he established the modernist movement group that became known as ‘Young Poland’, a group which thrived in the years leading up to the First World War.

The onset of the War did not hamper Szymanowski and he travelled extensively – to Italy, Sicily, South Africa, Paris and London in 1914, and in 1915-16 he visited Kiev, Moscow and St Petersburg.  It was the Bolshevik’s October Revolution in 1917 which caused major disruption to Szymanowski as he was forced leave Tymoszówka after the family lost their estates; he never returned, instead settling in Warsaw in 1919.

When the independent state of Poland was created in 1918, Szymanowski became increasingly interested in and influenced by Polish culture and folk tradition. In the early 1920s he successfully performed his works throughout the world, including in the United States and Paris.  He continued to travel and perform into the 1930s, even after accepting the position of Director of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927.  He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1928, a disease which affected his work and life in the ensuing years.

Widely considered one of the foremost Polish composers of the 20th century, during his lifetime Szymanowski received many national honours, including the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.  He died in 1937, at a sanitorium in Lausanne.


There are generally considered three key periods in Szymanowski’s career:

The first covers the period 1899-1913 and is marked by his general maturation.  At this stage he was heavily influenced by the late Romantic period, closely following the model of Chopin.  Coupled with this, however, was a nod towards modernity with elements of Scriabin present.

In the second stage of his career (1914-1919) he demonstrated great originality, possibly aided by his extensive studies of Islamic culture and Greek drama and philosophy.

The final stage (1920-1937) sees a re-evaluation of earlier ideas coupled with the influences of his newly acquired nationalism and interest in Polish folklore.

Selected Chronology 

Preludes for piano, Op. 1 (1899-1900)

The Swan, Op. 7 (1904)

Hagith, Op. 25 (1912-1913)

King Roger, Op. 46 (1918-1924)

Twenty Mazurkas, Op. 50 (1924-1925)

Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie Concertante), Op. 60 (1932)

PS Worth listening to: http://eleanorcorr.com/szymanowski-mythes-i-la-fountaine-darethuse/

MaryAnn Davison