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Szymanowski - Violin Works

The evolution of Szymanowski´s violin style can easily be traced from the following works featured on this recording:

Sonata in D minor Op. 9 - written in 1904, published in 1911, premiered - 1909 in Warsaw (Paweł Kochański, Artur Rubinstein). ["I will probably send the Violin Sonata to a competition (somewhere in London): 1000 marks for the first prize, though naturally it will go to some idiot - not me." (from a letter dated 1909) "So it would be far better to publicise the violin sonata in print, a piece popular in every respect." (from a letter dated 1910)]

Lullaby (La berceuse d´Aitacho Enia) Op. 52 - composed July 1925 in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and published in 1925.

Nocturne and Tarantella Op. 28. Nocturne was written in the spring and Tarantella in the summer of 1915 in Zarudz and Ryzawce. ["Tarantella was composed consequent to a spell of high spirits brought on by a bottle of excellent cognac, extracted unceremoniously by Szymanowski and Kochański somewhere from the back of their absent host´s cupboard." (from the memoirs of August Iwański)] Published in 1921. Arranged for symphony orchestra in 1937 by Fitelberg.

Roxana´s Song - transcribed from the opera King Roger (1924); arranged by Paweł Kochański in 1926. Published in 1926.

Dance of the Harnasie - an arrangement by Paweł Kochański from music to the ballet Harnasie (1931) based on theme No. 9 (Hala) and No. 8 (Entrance of the Harnasie). Written in the summer of 1931 in Zuoz (Switzerland). ["Paweł and I have completed two lovely little numbers for violin (one in Kurpiowski style and one from Harnasie)." "Paweł and I even managed to get some work done and we have produced two "excellent arrangements." - Taken from letters written by Szymanowski.]

Myths. Three symphonic poems for violin and piano Op. 30. Written in the spring, from March to June of 1915 in Zarudz (original title No.1: La source enchantée). ["...in Myths and Concerto Pawełek and I have created a new style, a new form of expression in violin playing, something of epoch-making significance in every respect. All works by other composers closely related to this style - no matter how brilliant they may be - have been created later, i.e. either directly influenced by Myths and Concerto or through the direct participation of Pawełek." (from a letter to Z. Kochańska, 1930)] First edition 1921. Premiered - 1916 in Human (during a charity concert with the participation of Paweł Kochański and the composer).

(The above listing as per: Kornel Michałowski´s Karol Szymanowski - Themed Catalogue of Works and Bibliography. PWM, Kraków 1967).

For Szymanowski, the most important solo instrument was the violin apart from the piano, which like for the majority of composers of the day, served as a basic instrument of their compositional craft. In shaping the element of harmony in his music in terms of consonance, new tonalities, polyphony, counterpoint and the harmonic series, Szymanowski exploited the medium of piano acoustics. However, it was the violin medium that he used in his experimentation with the subtlest nuances of melody and timbre. The violin constitutes the first and foremost sound matter of Szymanowski´s music, the "intense phrasing" of the solo, chamber and orchestral violin being the principal characteristic of his individual style. Hence Szymanowski´s innovative approach to the violin can easily be compared - as accurately observed by musicologist Stanisław Leszczyński - to Debussy´s achievements in the sphere of piano music.


In his violin works we are struck by the remarkable sumptuousness of Szymanowski´s music; a trait moreover characteristic of his entire output where music born of rich and fertile inventiveness is shaped in a manner that is imaginative, asymmetrical, broadly developed, impulsive in narrative and variable in motion, tempo and rhythm. Its melodic lines and sound structures are `sensationally´ pliant, winding, trailing, `plant-like´ - in the manner of stalks, branches, blossoms, leaves, flowers... This music seduces us with its sensuous splendour of tonal beauty in a permanent state of bloom - - reminiscent of late spring, early summer... Its beauty becomes almost visual, allowing each musical composition to be perceived as a painting in a sea of lambent nuances of colour and chiaroscuro... The evolution of Szymanowski´s violin idiom, from the late-Romantic rhapsodic lyricism of Sonata, to the passionate impressionism of Myths, is simply fascinating...

2. In his violin works we perceive Szymanowski as a great and perhaps Western music´s last melodist of such measure. His closeness to the melodic aspect of music is palpable in the Romantic freshness of his melodies, their late-Romantic maturity, post-Romantic (Straussian) voluptuousness and Debussy´ian neo-melodic impressionism... The featured violin works give a full spectrum of Szymanowski´s melodic styles:

  • Post-Romantic broad dynamic phrasing and elongated lines of a grandly rhapsodic, narrative, lyrical, dramatic and evocative melodic idiom - as in Sonata (which inspired by Brahms and Franck is a remarkable work in a retro sonata style and arguably the best example of early 20th century Polish sonatas).
  • Melodic idiom taken from more popular song-and-dance sources as in the Hispanic Nocturne (habanera) and the Italianate Tarantella.
  • Melodic idiom of lyrical song - as in Lullaby.
  • Melodic idiom of folk and highland provenance - lyrical and dance-like.

In each of these `borrowed´ idioms Szymanowski is entirely true to himself, a composer in love with the melodic element of music, delighting in instrumental lyricism.

However, he was to create his most original melodic style in Myths, composed around the same time as Symphony III and First Violin Concerto. During the course of ten years, between Sonata and Myths, Szymanowski´s melodically tonal language undergoes a marked evolution. There is a change in the character of his melodic idiom: one could say that his approach to emotional late-Romantic lyricism veers towards evocatively colourful melodic `impressionism´ and that within the alchemy-like magical medium of the violin, melody is transformed into melodic colour.

Prior to Szymanowski, the violin had never been treated in a similar manner; no one had extracted such a wealth of new tone colour and shading from its expressive idiom. And no other composer had as yet managed to attune so sensationally the melodic tone-colour of the violin with the harmonic tone-colour of the piano. Here, these two `bodies of sound´ (with a long tradition of partnership in western music) interact in a fascinatingly novel manner in a new, symbolically impressionist style. However, this style could only be realized - with inspiration drawn from Debussy and Scriabin - in the medium of characteristically loosened harmonics, where functional string tensions are transformed into tone-colour energy. The whole however, fully developed technique of violin playing - into whose mysteries Szymanowski was initiated by his friend and renowned violinist Paweł Kochański - here serves to further a new violin-cum-piano style, involving: playing in different positions, various articulation, contrasted registers, playing with full sound and con sordino, non vibrato sound, flageolets...

3. The fascinating dialectics of Szymanowski´s works involve the interplay of two contrasting states of music in a manner specific only to them, namely:

  • melodically harmonic unconstrained fluidity, buoyancy, undulation, suppleness and chiaroscuro nuance (in other words: an introverted state of aesthetic contemplation).
  • extraverted state of intensified energy and increased rhythmic activity (in this instance Szymanowski together with Stravinsky and Bartók follows a trend of giving music renewed vitality through rhythm, characteristic of the first decades of the 20th).

In his violin works, the contrast and proportions of these two states of music and the manner in which they interact are evocatively revealed through a subtly allusive thrilling rhythm in the melody of Nocturne, a delicate rhythmic pulse in the melodic Lullaby and an episodic intensification of rhythmic energy in Sonata. The Dance of the Harnasie (preceded by the lyrical melody of a song) and Tarantella are dominated by intense rhythm. In the third Myth there is marvellous interplay and contrast between a state of melodic enchantment and that of rhythmic animation...

4. The violin works (the luxuriant inventiveness and wealth of formal structures in Szymanowski´s music leads us to suppose) were generated as a result of cohesion between three different genres of the creative arts: music, poetry and painting. On closer examination of his music the key question is one of inspiration - inner musical and external. What therefore, are its sources? A crucial question, considering Szymanowski´s particular openness to varied sources of inspiration, his sensitivity to stimuli and his spontaneity towards culture and nature (acquired through culture). The composer´s sources of inspiration are embedded in literature - poetry, prose and drama, in works of painting, sculpture and architecture, both urban and rural... Szymanowski´s personality was shaped and developed in the artistically favourable times of symbolism and modernism, of Schopenhauer-inspired pessimism, of over-refined (decadent) pan-aestheticism and early secession; during an era of poetic `heights´, when poetry of various genres and values was in full bloom.

Szymanowski was himself endowed with a considerable literary talent, writing verses, novellas and a novel Efebos (of which only fragments survive). Apart from music, the written word was closest to his heart. He was a connoisseur of literature, well read also in German, Russian, French and English... One can therefore assume that his music´s fascinating complexity and saturation with beauty was is some measure influenced by these literary works, including those on philosophy (Nietzsche, Schestow). What then could have inspired his violin works?

Sonata (evidently) - a youthful fascination for the formal and expressive luxuriance of the late-Romantic style.

Lullaby - perhaps the specific quality of the genre itself (?), drawn from bygone vocal folklore uniquely developed for piano by Chopin.

Nocturne and Tarantella - echoes of some Hispanic and Italianate influence, travel reminiscences?

Roxana´s Song, Dance of the Harnasie - were taken by the composer from his stage works, inspired by the melodic quality of opera and the magic of Highland music...

In Myths however - where Szymanowski´s tonal language reaches an apogee of novel values - the title itself gives an indication of his sources of inspiration. From a wealth of Greek mythology Szymanowski drew on three fables about the nymph Arethusa, Narcissus and Echo and the capers of Pan and the nymphs (dryads). And from these yarns he spun - by transposing their aura and action into music - wonderfully expressive, multi-coloured and lambent tonal pictures of irresistible charm! Their intense, luxurient and passionate beauty are testimony to Szymanowski´s enormous sensitivity to the wealth of fabulousness found in Greek myths, the suggestiveness of their word-painting and the expansiveness of their settings - namely the Greco-Sicilian South well known by the composer from his early travels. According to Tadeusz Zieliński in his monograph on Szymanowski (PWM 1997): " these sojourns (in Italy) the composer would later recall as some of the happiest moments of his life. (...) Of particular importance to him - and his deepening interest in antiquity - was his stay in Sicily in 1911. In Palermo it was the ancient Greek metopes from the 4-6 century BC which left a lasting impression; in Syracuse it was the fountain of Arethusa adjacent to his hotel and the legend connected with it that stirred his imagination: in Segesta he was entranced by the Greek temple from 5th century BC; in Taormina - by the Greco-Roman Theatre."

Which literary writings on mythology could he have drawn on? Probably German publications that were widely available at the time. Perhaps also Ovid´s Metamorphoses, which after all embraces the core of Greek mythology...

What remains is to remind ourselves of the three mythical strands that form the canvass of his poetical and wonderfully scenic music.

Arethusa´s fountain

- "Syracuse is a small town (...) once it was very large. (...) All that remains of its antiquity are a few ruins and two fables. (...)

From two underground grottoes spring two clear blue streams. They are Alpheius and Arethusa. (...) Alpheius was a god of the very river, which flows through the plains of Olympus, and Arethusa a nymph and companion to Artemis. Alpheius loved Arethusa who would come to bathe in his waters. During the height of summer, when even mountain springs lay dormant he would sail to meet her on a cool and billowing stream. He would slip away from under the snouts of thirsty animals, extract from the gravel the smallest traces of moisture drop by drop, to save enough water for his nymph when she came to bathe. Arethusa knew nothing of this. In the virginal company of Artemis thoughts of love were forbidden. Then one day - oh! Concealing her eyes with her hand, covering her naked body with her long hair - she was confronted by the river god Alpheius with his long damp beard and bull horns on his forehead. Before he could take a step, she sprung to her feet and fled. She fled across the whole length of the Elysian Fields, through brambles, along stone-covered roads and furrowed fields. Alpheius gave chase. She could hear the murmur of water behind her. The sky became overcast as the heavens resounded with distant thunder and trees buckled under the force of the wind. Her legs gave way as she felt the touch of the rushing water. The swollen arms of the frantic god began to encircle her. His long, dextrous and flowing fingers had already moved around her hips. As suddenly as lightening she burst into prayer. Born of despair in the heat of the moment, it was such a coherent and powerful incantation to the heavens that it shook Mount Olympus awakening Zeus, who looked down upon that tiny mound of earth from whence the nymph´s gentle soul had called to him with such mighty force. Under the pressure of the deity´s omnipotent gaze Arethusa´s body disintegrated and turned into a rivulet and flowed downhill. Turning in a flash the small trickle of water bypassed Alpheius´s sprawling waves, hid under the earth, ran across the sea and once free sprung up on the isle of Syracuse. But Alpheius had taken the same route and there caught up with his beloved, from where there was no escape." (Jan Parandowski Two Springs).


"The nymph Leiriope had with Cephisus a son of great beauty seemingly created to inspire love, whom she named Narcissus. She once approached the old seer Teiresias to consult him about the youth´s future and ask him whether he would have a long life.

- provided that he never knows himself - the seer replied.(...)

Narcissus had turned seventeen. Though still a child, he was already a young man. Both youths and maidens were drawn to him, yet he remained aloof and chaste, for he had a stubborn pride in his own beauty.

One day when he went out to net some timorous stags, a nymph - the one incapable of being silent or the first to speak - the resonant Echo suddenly spotted him.

Echo was not only voice, Echo was flesh and blood. Though not particularly talkative - she could only use her voice in foolish repetition of another´s last utterances. (...)

There was a limpid stream of silvery lustre, untouched by shepherds, mountain goats or any other flocks. (...)

Here, tired out from hunting and the heat, the youth lay down on the grass. What a beautiful spot, what clear waters!

When he stooped over the spring to quench his thirst he was suddenly overcome by another desire. As he drank he saw the reflection of his own beauty and fell in love with something incorporeal, or rather decided that the illusion was real.

Astounded by his own image he gazes motionless like a marble statue. In the spring he sees two stars - his eyes, tresses worthy of Bacchus, worthy of Apollo, smooth cheeks, a neck like ivory, lips graced with a smile and blushes tinged with snow.

He admires everything that is worthy of admiration in himself, he loves and is attracted to himself just as others are. He moves closer, so does the other in the water, he smiles and is answered with a smile, he blushes - and elicits a blush.

He does not know what it is he sees, yet is enthralled by the features he beholds and through visual deception deceives his own heart.

- Silly fool, why do you endeavour to embrace a transient reflection? What you see is nothing; turn around and what you love will disappear. What you see is a mirror image of your own reflection, in itself a nonentity, it appears and endures in your presence and would disappear with you if you could manage to walk away.-

But neither hunger, nor a desire for sleep can tear Narcissus away. Kneeling on the ground he gazes longingly at the illusive features."

(Ovid Metamorphoses)

Pan and the Dryads

"Pan was an Arcadian shepherd who like all shepherds led a nomadic life, spending the summer in the mountains and returning to Ethiopia for the winter. He would rise at daybreak to go hunting and return at noon. After partaking of food he had to hand, he would lie down in the shade of the trees by a murmuring stream and all the forests and fields, all the hills and dales knew that this was `the hour of Pan´, when silence was not to be broken by playing, singing or any form of noise. The shepherds feared Pan. He sows unforeseen panic among the flocks and like a demon of the South drops oppressive nightmares on the sleeping, rendering their limbs powerless. Towards evening Pan plays surrounded by Nymphs who dance on the forest glade. From a distance their light robes and lily-white bodies look like white mists rising from among dark tree trunks. Pan plays on the syrinx. It is his favourite instrument: several reeds of irregular length, arranged in a row and held together with wax. His shepherd´s pipe is simple but he would never exchange it for Apollo´s golden-string lyre. For Pan´s syrinx has that which Apollo´s lyre does not - a heart.

How could it be otherwise, since the said syrinx was once a sweet-voiced maiden? Yes. She was called Syrinx. She tended goats, played with the Nymphs and sang as beautifully as she does today. Pan saw her and fell in love with her. He did not know what to do or say in order that his love be reciprocated. (...)

Pan was unlucky in love. Women he loved would flee from his embrace. Consequently he would chase the nimble Nymphs along forest glades, and occasionally inflict harm on the goats much to the shepherds´ disgust. Legend has it that only the moon goddess Selene found him attractive and there still exists a grotto where the romantic mistress of the ever-sleeping Endymion nestled her pale face in the hairy chest of Penelope´s son."

(Jan Parandowski Eros on Olympus)

Bohdan Pociej

Translated by Anna Kaspszyk