An evident individualist, then, but one with a strong sense of broader values and endeavour, Szymanowski belonged to that long line of musical artists, spanning more than a generation, who were working towards a type of cultural renewal that could embrace the collective together with the individual. In doing so, these musicians hoped to usher in a new stage—indeed, a new era—of cultural development. If some of the more radical innovations of Dvorák and especially Liszt, in their later years, may be seen as early evidence of this tendency, during the later nineteenth century it was perhaps most marked and widespread in Russia. Expressed in all these cases, albeit in different ways, was the opposition of a national ethos to the received and (as it seemed) overbearing ethos of the dominant Austro-German tradition. Such a project of cultural renewal meant, in part, to restore a sense of authenticity to art music through a process of transformative contact with folk traditions, not so as to produce ‘decorative’ folkloric or exotic results, but so as to radicalize the musical substance itself, including its style and its rhetoric of gesture. This was the direction taken by composers such as Bartók and Janácek, though in all such cases (and this is true of Szymanowski too) they reached the point of engagement with folk idioms, and the new kind of modernism it made possible for them, only after having explored the ‘moderns’ of the German tradition—Strauss, Reger et al—to which Szymanowski added his lifelong passion for Scriabin and for the French manner of Debussy and Ravel.
from notes by Philip Weller © 2009