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Szymanowski, Karol (1882-1937)

Karol Szymanowski

born: 3 October 1882
died: 29 March 1937
country: Poland

Karol Szymanowski’s life and career may be seen, from our vantage point, as a twofold quest in which the personal and the national ran in parallel, or, perhaps, were intertwined. On the one hand, he was engaged in a typically post-Romantic search for self-realization as an artist, working towards a full development of his individual musical aims and sensibilities; while on the other, he came more and more to seek an authentic compositional voice that could be heard (one way or another) as distinctively Polish, and also as distinctively modern. Yet his intensity and subjectivism went hand in hand with a strong desire for a certain kind of resolved clarity in the finished musical form—classical finish achieved by another route, perhaps, as an expression of modernity. His aesthetic stance, or let us say more soberly his musical practice as a composer, was eclectic in a stylistic and technical sense. But the subtle power of his invention and his personal mode of utterance were resilient and original enough to absorb and individualize (rather than merely appropriate) such a range of influences, and so turn them to his own advantage.

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

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