Notes for Paper read at Glasgow University Conference on Poland in the early 20th century


K.S. : “One should not seek cosmopolitanism, or even worse internationalism, in my music.  It is only possible to find ‘Europeanism’ in it, and this is not a negation of its Polish qualities.”

Just as the shadow of Sibelius hung over all future Finnish composers, so success in Polish musical composition in 1918 could only last as long as Chopin’s example was copied.  Karol Szymanowski’s most approachable compositions had been written before 1918; in fact,  the first three years of the war had produced a proliferation of highly important music, most of which followed standard European forms.

General introduction – Form for Szymanowski = German + wartime compositions,

This was followed by the incorporation of contrived scales as predeterminaters of pitch (for both melody and rhythm), while attempting to follow Stravinsky’s latest ‘tribal culture’ work.  The turn to catastrophe started when folk-influence had been permitted; by the time Harnasie was written, Szymanowski had some problems with Polish critics and the Polish state – the individuality and greatness of his creativity were not to return.

From 1914 to 1917, one of the chief compositional procedures used by Szymanowski was pedal points, like Max Reger, he employed them to bind together what was to happen within small sections.  These pedals were seldom (if ever) directly derived from the bagpipe or folk-cello drones, being part of Szymanowski’s earlier personal style.  By 1918 they were totally incorporated into his musical thought and held no folk-relationships; it was only later, when being deliberately ‘folksy’ (as in works of the mid-1920s such as Harnasie and in some of the Op.50 Mazurkas) that pedal-points symbolizing folk-drones were employed.

It has sometimes been claimed that Szymanowski composed his non-keyboard works at the piano – a rumour started by some of his friends. [In the same way that friends falsely rumoured that Rossini composed neatly into full-score while lying in bed.]

While it is a reasonable speculation that Szymanowski thought of individual harmonies and their particular voicings primarily from a pianist’s hand-position, the normal procedure of working demonstrated in his composition-scores totally rejects this at-the-instrument claim – he wrote linearly.   What was idiosyncratic, however, was his method of embarking upon a new page of manuscript paper with a new orchestration, without dove-tailing phrases or instrumental parts.  But during the working on a page, great care was exercised with all methods of interlocking material [e.g. Symphony III Op.27 (1914-1916)]..

Szymanowski, in Highways and Byeways of Contemporary Music p.19. wrote that

“It must be stressed that tonality, atonality or even polytonality cannot in substance serve as the starting-point for a critical evaluation of a musical work, the inner logic and formal elements of which will automatically become independent of all pre- conceived, imposed disciplines if they are to come to their fullest expression.”

However, he had already explored ‘even polytonality’ especially evident throughout the initial movement of the First String Quartet Op.37 (early 1917), simultaneously notated with four different key signatures.  But we must remember that composers have often written untrue words about their own composing.  [e.g. Sibelius & his extra symphony.]


Turning away from the composition of formally-conceived musical works, Szymanowski started to write a novel.  Originally this was intended as a means of passing the time,  providing him with “a sort of artistic surrogate, antidote or illusion of life”. [Letter to Spiess and August Iwañski, dated 17 January 1919.] The work that resulted occupied the composer throughout the whole of 1918 and the early part of 1919; the novel, Efébos, was about the beautiful homosexual Prince Ali Lowicki and about beautiful Rome. [Unknown to Szymanowski, André Gide and Marcel Proust were writing similarly in France].   Withdrawal from composition was to recur, briefly 1920-1 (when he again turned to literary writing – The Adventures of Tomek – an unfinished novel, now lost, about a young Polish boy who settles in America), and then more drastically from 1927 to 1929 while engrossed in the administration of musical education.

Meanwhile, in June 1918, the libretto for King Roger (later to be Op.46) was begun with Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz.  Then Iwaskiewicz left for Warsaw, sent a sketch of the  libretto, joined Skamander and forgot about King Roger.  By August, Szymanowski had penned  Four Rabindranath Tagore Songs Op.41 in Odessa and later the Songs of the Mad Muezzin Op.42.

Having visited Algeria back in 1914, exotic allegiances can be found in Muezzin and King Roger (in places) – where Szymanowski generally exploited the melodic interval of the augmented second (virtually never used in a harmonic capacity), bordering this interval  either side by a semitone.   Hence the 4-note non-octotonic G-G#-B-C,  which sometimes expands (by tetrachordal transposition and tonic doubling) into C D-Eb-F#-G G-G#-B-C where G = 5 and C = 1.  [N.B. Szymanowski’s hexatonic scale C D# E G G# B C].

By January 1919 Szymanowski was in Elisavetgrad, now occupied by Austrians.  Efebos was nearly finished and a second volume was planned.  In December, the Szymanowski family finally managed to sell  [?? their wartime home /] Elisavetgrad and via Podhale & Roumania move to Warsaw; so by 192O Szymanowski had returned to his native land.

To make a piece totally non-nationalistic, the obvious approach in the early 1920’s was to use a synthetic approach which would bear no recognisable traits of any particular area, tribe or race.  The synthetic ideas that were immediately possible to Szymanowski were serialism (rejected), distorted forms (in as much as a non ¾ Podhale melody was incorporated into Mazurka Op.__ No.__) and mathematically constructed scales (used).  The choice of such a scale, if only used occasionally, is of little bearing to the work or its style; but when a significant amount of detail at structural positions is produced from its use (and this detail pervades the deeper levels of the work), then the choice of such a synthetic idea will be of more-than-ordinary relevance.

It would be lacking in subtlety to integrate a predetermined formation throughout the whole of a non-serial work.  Szymanowski’s answer was to employ a significant amount of one synthetic idea (at important places towards the opening of a work), allow other ideas to stand around it but not to play one off against the other; then in the middle of the work virtually ignore the manufactured idea, only permitting its return towards the end.  This was a structural use – not just Szymanowski’s habit of recapitulating themes from earlier movements during the coda of the final movement. _ [e.g. keyboard works]

Stravinsky’s composition of Les Noces was in progress when Szymanowski visited him in May 1921 in Paris (following Szymanowski’s return from his first visit to America, of January to April 1921).  The opening pages of Les Noces (with words in OCS) cast the listener into a collective primitive-world, or at least into a collective peasant-world.  This is achieved mainly by vocal acciaturas which leap downwards (usually by the interval of a third) for their “resolution”; other devices used for this ‘effect’ are various pedal points and percussive orchestration.  Quickly-repeated chorus notes at one pitch for all but the beginning or end of a phrase (the main characteristic of the second section of the opening – see following paragraph) lends a tribal, if organised character to the information given to the listener.  The only melodic or rhythmic elements that are remembered are those reminiscent of childhood games or the playground: organisation at a low rather than cultural level.  The whole of this  first section is designed to remove the early 2Oth century listener away from his comfortable, sophisticated position and into a non-quaint extra-ordinary but still collectively viable world of time-less and outside experienced-cultures primitivism.  [Stravinsky’s Les Noces opening    bars of the score.  Les Noces otherwise titled Svadebka.]

By contrast, the second section, poses many initial problems to a listener who has just come to terms with the preceeding section.  The main element that the audience perceives is the quality of the tenor melody: it is, like elements in the earlier section, made up of only a few highly-connected notes; but what is now presented is a highly sophisticated, organised line, both in rhythm and in phrase-structure (which overlaps, and is never predictable).  Similarly, although the ‘melodies’ are as simple as those of the first section, they in no way give any impression of games or naivity: there are no acciaturas in this section.  Indeed, if only the second section were heard, no sense of primitivism would be suggested.  [Les Noces: the second ‘section’]  This non-primitivism should come as an even greater shock to the audience than the cultural shock received in the initial section, especially at the first hearing, presenting a dilemma between ‘which-culture?’ and humour;  Les Noces takes place in time-oriented sections – standing for a common primitive-ness.

In the springtime of 1921, then, Szymanowski saw the draft of Les Noces (in piano version) which forces the audience to go back to its tribal roots (the acciaturas being a common event in the religious and secular music of some areas of the world); soon, in the second section, to start rejecting their collective “culture”.

Meanwhile, while Szymanowski was in U.S.A., Julian Tuwim had produced some of the  Słopiewnie verses appearing in Skamander in January 1921.  For the composer, the possibility existed with Słopiewnie either to retrace elements from pseudo-tribal music (even with Russian connections) like Les Noces, or to echo ancient Greek scales/intervals even just by becoming pseudo-medieval (or by incorporating plainsong in a non-triadic sense) to give an ‘early’ sound-picture (as in the opening scene of King Roger).  [King Roger Op.46 bars 1 –     .  The method of scene-setting at the opening of King Roger is probably the most impressive in all opera.  Although a typically ecclesiastical feeling is given to the chorus part, the overall implementation of this impression against the foreground characters stems not only from dramatic clichés but from a compositional technique worked out in the contemporary Słopiewnie Op.46b No.3 (‘St. Francis’); this method was to recur in 1926 (Stabat Mater Op.53).]  Szymanowski started to set four of Tuwim’s Słopiewnie poems from the Jauary 1921 Skamander (later adding an extra poem, as the middle song, using Tuwim’s words from Naród of 1922).  Like Les Noces, the first song concentrates on appogiaturas at the opening of the vocal part!  As usual, Szymanowski was using poetry ‘hot off the press’.  But, unlike Stravinsky, he incorporates the octatonic scale (see below) as a non-nationalistic syntheticism – the primitive element coming solely from the words with their proto-slavonic leaning.  Szymanowski used very simple, triadic harmony, and the effect of softly repeating organum (often contrasted with complex counterpoint seemingly composed in free-rhythm). [See Tuwim songs No.3.]

Until Szymanowski turned to folk-music, he was to use especially constructed scales i.e. scales other than the major and minor of Mozart and Beethoven, and other than the modes of plainchant and folksong. [Essentially, while the major, minor and modal systems order the notes making up the octave in a mathematically haphazard manner, the 12 chromatic pitches of the octave  can be ordered in regular patterns, where the pattern alone determines which notes to omit.  Hence the major-scale intervals of 2,2,1,2,2,2,1 (and the same order starting elsewhere for modes) appear random.  But 12 can be divided by 3 and 4, Szymanowski ‘phased in’ an additional note one higher to each subdivision, producing the hexatonic  (3,1,3,1,3,1) and (more used) octatonic scale of 2,1,2,1,2,1,2,1. ]   In particular, the octatonic scale was used in works around 1918-c1924 but was dropped as a function-giver later in Szymanowski’s career.   It was normally found in the outer of multi-movement works (e.g. song-cycles), where it can claim over 60% of the total number of bars (even 31% in Act I of King Roger); it is especially found at the close of movements. [In these percentages, the following must be bourne in mind: in a tonal work (major or minor),  passages of modulation, while based on major or minor, can easily be neither ‘in’ the major nor ‘in’ the minor (and so ‘major’ or ‘minor’ would not precisely describe 100% of the movement).  Similarly, passages developing earlier octatonic passages, but are not themselves octatonic, are discounted.  An octatonic passage must be more than just ‘based upon’ the octatonic scale.   Although the occasional ‘chromatic’ note can be found in included passages, these additions must not function in any way other than ornamental additions (i.e. in the same manner as chromatic notes in major/minor key music).   Similarly, if the effect of octatonicism is not present (e.g. based on diminished 7th) it is not included in the percentages.  However, to redress the balance, when a solo line is in the ‘permitted’ octatonic count (as above) and very complex backing in the accompaniment is completely subservient to this line, even if the accompaniment includes non-octatonic notes, the passage will be included as octatonic.  Bearing this in mind, anything over 10% is highly significant.] Use in inner movements varies from 0% to c15%.  This scale is essentially non-nationalistic.  Despite its ability to emphasize the Polish Lydian-mode #4; the #4 and b7  should balance out to give a mean tonic; but because of the nature of the pitches’ interrelationships, any of the scale’s notes other than these two could act as temporary tonic.  Although octatonic pitch-relationships were not used in the late works such as Stabat Mater, Kurpie set II, Kurpie set III,  OUP Dances, Op 62 (2 Mazurkas), Kurpie SATB settings, Second String Quartet; octatonic notes were used in:  Harnasie (although it contains far more based on Lydian mode), 6 of the Op.50 Mazurkas, Op.41 Tagore songs (70% of the outer movements), King Roger, Słopiewnie, Op.54 James Joyce Songs (again 70% of the outer movements).  Sometimes, the use of the octatonic scale created very awkward vocal lines, where normally a composer using Szymanowski’s harmonic vocabulary would have created a more generous vocal part.

In choosing to employ such synthetic scales, Szymanowski was free to act as a composer not tied to the restricting burden of a particular area’s folkmusic, even that of Poland.   His compositions before 1922 normally followed the standard Germanic forms, but in the early twenties Szymanowski started to move away from German music, which, he wrote, had

“become the obligatory ‘pan-European’ music for the cultured world.  That great century and a half (from Bach to Wagner), by virtue of its… irreplaceable value, did not fail to be, in the noblest sense of the word, a ‘nationalistic’ expression of the Germanic spirit.  At the same time however, it was thrust upon us as an obligatory aesthetic canon and a universal ideal of such great weight that it crushed the individual upsurges of creativiy attempting to evolve in their own way and became in fact the international musical ideal….  But I am not just an exponent of the hated ‘musical futurism’.  I am also a Polish artist.  From the moment that I was able to be objective about German music, from the moment I found my hands were happily freed of its influence (even though it is true that it always inspired in me a deep, albeit cold admiration), a much purer stream of Polishness ran through my music.”

Szymanowski had started to immerse himself in the life and customs of the Tatra.  From 1922 he began to spend ever more time in Zakopane, and eventually made his home there.  Almost inevitably, he succombed to nationalistic traits which had generally been denied use in his pre-Tatra music.  With this move from the heights of formalism and then pan-tribal composition to the specifically idiomatic pastiche of one tribe’s folk-elements, Szymanowski almost inevitably sought artistic catastrophe.

To make a composition national a composer would either incorporate local rhythms or shape, especially associated with a small region; or he would apply local modes/scales which were particularly associated with a small region: only as a final method would he include tunes (pseudo or real) from that area (e.g. in  Harnasie).  Whereas Chopin had used the Lydian mode (if very infrequently – e.g. in Mazurka, Szymanowski’s Mazurkas concentrate far more on the dance’s rhythmic aspect, and seldom considers modal pitch-relationships, etc..   Although Szymanowski had occasionally used the  Lydian mode in his pre-1918 compositions (Violin Concerto I (?), from which came its later use in Violin Concerto II) favouring 5 #4 2 1 cadence; he gradually moved away from using Lydian and other Polish modes in his post-1922 pieces unless either writing for ready cash (OUP Dances for piano) or being more Pan-slavic, when, as he said, his works

“may be good or bad music, but there can be no doubt that they were written by a Pole.  It is precisely this characteristic that French critics have strongly emphasised.  Some French critics have gone further still: it is they who, with uncanny perspicacity, sense that in each of my new clearly defined pieces, I pay hommage, humbly yet feverishly, to Frédéric Chopin, whose work, with the dawning of each new day, I venerate more highly and with an ever deepening understanding, attempting, as far as I can, to relate my work to what is for me the only Polish musical tradition.”

But folk music only occurs in those compositions which many non-Poles consider his lesser works, such as Harnasie.   It is unfortunate that some of the weakest structures occur here, with little other than a folk-catalogue to recommend to an audience.  Inevitably, in Poland these pieces are hailed, although the Kurpie songs, Four Polish Dances and Two Mazurkas Op.62 present little of value, the latter six pieces being essentially written for ready money.

The consequence of Szymanowski’s new beliefs in folk art led to a protracted battle with Polish music-critics (1922  onwards), which did much to damage his creativity: most of his music after 1925 merely reworked old ideas.  Critics then argued that Szymanowski had lost contact with the Polish public on account of the ever-increasing complexity of his work: “Together with the increasing level of dissonance (compare the 3rd Sonata with the 2nd), there is a more overbearing quality, and this is the aspect we criticise…”    They also opposed Szymanowski’s view that to go the way of German music was ruinous for Polish composers.  Szymanowski merely replied that,

“When I state that our critics overlook the musical ‘distance’ that of necessity separates them and myself, I mean that they base their judgement of my work on totally inappropriate premises  – They simply do not understand it.”

At last, during a broadcast, Szymanowski hinted at a return to earlier aesthetics when he said,

“The literal quotations of folklore are an isolated case in Harnasie, and anyway are conditioned by the action.  I doubt whether I shall do this again, as I am opposed to the confining of oneself to folklore…  Folklore only has significance for me as a fertilising agent.   My aim is the creation of a Polish style, apparent from Słopiewnie onwards, in which there is not one jot of folklore… Since my return to Poland in 1919, I have grown accustomed to the fact that the reviewers of many of the Warsaw  papers, regardless of their political persuasions (with a few exceptions), have attacked my activities as a composer with remarkable unanimity.”

Finally, even more difinitely retracing his pre-Tatra aesthetics, he wrote,

“one should not seek cosmopolitanism, or even worse, internationalism, in my music.  It is only possible to find “Europeanism” in it, and this is not a negation of its Polish qualities; we have a right to be European.  Today’s Polishness is truly different from that of yesterday: it is free.  The consciousness of that freedom penetrates to the depth of my being: it is the basis of my work, in effect my inner reality, and no traditionalism, born in captivity, can deprive me of it.”

The result of Szymanowski’s becoming head of Warsaw’s higher music-teaching establishments was that 1927-9 proved to be another barren period, during which his health deteriorated; thereafter, very little composition followed that did not merely pastiche what had already been worked over in his earlier pieces.  After 1929, his compositions took on a ‘hack-writing’ quality, while at last his earlier works were beginning to be better appreciated.

Having used an essentially Germanic form, albeit with added polytonality, in his First String Quartet Op.37 of 1917, ten years later he was to write only a chaotic sequence of tonal events in his Second String Quartet Op.56.  While before 1922 he had used the Octatonic principle in an attempt to be firstly ‘human’ and latterly ‘European’, in his post-1922 compositions the Lydian mode was incorporated in an attempt to include essentially Polish elements.  European critics had praised Szymanowski’s Franco-German traits but later in his career Polish critics complained about Szymanowski’s non-German traits.  Even the 1925/26 Stabat Mater Op.53 reworked ideas from Słopiewnie (1921) and folk music: similarly the Second Violin Concerto Op.61 (1933) and the Fourth Symphony Op.60 (1932) reveal little not already integrated into the composer’s style by the 1st Violin Concerto Op.35 (1916) except perhaps for a plea for popularity.

First performances were to be given, but abroard – even the great Harnasie, hailed for its high degree of Polonica, appeared first in Prague, then in Paris: as a composer, Szymanowski was still more of a European than a Pole – this is what he wished for.

Remembering the many battles which he had undergone with conservative Polish music critics, is it any wonder that he sought to educate the Poles while considering his music European, even if with Polish connections – but connections not roots.  To stress his  quintessentially Polish (homosexual) qualities (especially in his early, inspired works) is the real catastrophe: there are, after all, few ‘continental composers’.