Biographical note

Calendar of Szymanowski's life, works, and related events

 

October 3, 1882

Born on a country estate of Tymoszówka in Ukraine, at the time when the Polish state, partitioned among Russia, Prussia, and Austria at the end of the 18th century, did not exist.

Though situated far away from the centers of intellectual and artistic life, the manor of the Szymanowskis, a reasonably well-off family of landed gentry, was well attuned to the latest developments in Polish and foreign literature, poetry, and music, of which Stanisław Korwin-Szymanowski, the composer’s father, was an aficionado. Of his five children, three would choose the path of music: Karol (the composer), Feliks (pianist and composer), and Stanisława (singer). Of the other two children, Zofia would become an accomplished poet and Nula would grow up to be a talented painter. Initially, Karol studied music with his father, and later at the Gustav Neuhaus Elisavetgrad School of Music. Coming into contact with the music of Wagner in Vienna at age of 13 inspired Szymanowski's first attempts at compositions and influenced the development of his artistic personality.

1901-1904

Left for Warsaw to follow a more disciplined and regular course of study. Took private lessons in harmony from Marek Zawirski; studied counterpoint and composition with Zygmunt Noskowski. The stagnant musical scene in Warsaw and the isolation from the important intellectual and artistic developments in European art of the day compelled Szymanowski and his ambitious friends to turn to major European centers in search of conditions that allowed them to freely engage in their endeavors as composers.

1905

Together with composer and conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, composers Ludomir Rozycki, Apolinary Szeluto, and under the auspices of Wladyslaw Lubomirski, Szymanowski established the Publishing Company of Young Polish Composers with headquarters in Berlin. Their goal was to promote new Polish music through organizing concerts and publishing their own works, and thus to forge their own artistic future through self-help and co-operation while freeing themselves from often burdensome dependence on publishers and managers alike. The group, known as Young Poland in Music, which was in fact quite diverse in their artistic and aesthetic views, was active for almost six years from the time of their first concert in Warsaw on February 6, 1906. With the support of artists such as pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Heinrich Neuhaus, and violinist Pawel Kochanski, they were active in Warsaw, Lwów (Lemberg), Kraków, Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna, and Dresden.

Szymanowski composed at that time some of his first piano pieces (Preludes op. 1, Etudes op. 4), which show stylistic affinity with the music of Chopin, Schumann, and Scriabin; his vocal works are essentially late-Romantic in character.

1909-1911

Composed large, mature works : Concert Overture op. 12 for orchestra, Second Symphony op. 19, Second Piano sonata op. 21; his works performed in major German cities and in London.

Traveled to Italy and Sicilly, with extended stays in Vienna; wrote Songs op. 20 to the text of Miciński, op. 22 - set to the texts of German poets, Hafiz' Love Songs op. 24. 

1912

His Symphony no. 2 op. 19 and Piano Sonata no. 2 op. 21 performed in Vienna to enthusiastic acclaim;

Accepted a ten-year contract offer from Universal Edition.

1913

Composed Hagith, opera with libretto by Felix Dormann. Deeply impressed by Ballets Russess performances of Stravinsky’s Firebird and Petrushka.

1914

Embarked on a long journey to Southern Italy, Sicily, and Northern Africa (Algiers, Constantine, Biskra, Tunisia). Direct contact with treasures of antiquity and the Arabic and the early Christian cultures, leading to a radical transformation in Szymanowski’s aesthetics and his development of new poetics and new musical language; wrote Love Songs of Hafiz, op. 26 for voice and orchestra.

Met Stravinsky in London, on his way back from Italy.

1915-1916

Moved back to family home at Tymoszówka (with winter stays in Kiev, and short visits to Saint Petersburg and Moscow); intensive studies of the history and culture of antiquity, Islam, ancient Rome, and early Christianity; read Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Hippolyte Taine’s Philosophie de l’art, and Pavel Muratov’s Images of Italy; two years of the most intense intellectual and creative activity in time brought stylistically most homogenous works: Symphony no. 3„Song of the Night”, op. 27 (to Persian text dating from the 12th century), Nocturne and Tarantella op. 28, Myths op. 30 for violin and piano, Violin Concerto no. 1, and piano cycles: Metopes, op. 29, Twelve Studies op. 33, Masques, op. 34

1917-1919

The manor at Tymoszówka having been destroyed in the Russion Revolution, the family relocated to Elizavetgrad. Szymanowski wrote Piano Sonata no. 3 op. 36, String Quartet op.37, Songs of the Infatuated Muezzin, op. 42; two-year-long work on Ephebos, a novel on the subject of the mystery of love and eroticism, in the composer's view, the quintessential question of life. The manuscript of the novel was destroyed in the fires of Warsaw in 1939, with only fragments surviving.

At the end of 1919, the family relocated to Poland, where after a short stay in Bydgoszcz, they permanently settled down in Warsaw.

1920-1921

Wrote ballet -pantomime Mandragora; worked on three-act opera King Roger (begun in 1918), its origin in reminiscences of Sicily (wrote the libretto in collaboration with Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz); with Arthur Rubinstein and Pavel Kochanski, travelled twice to the USA via London. Their concerts met with critical acclaim.

Poland’s newly regained independence galvanized the composer to get involved in efforts that speak of his deeply felt sense of responsibility for the course of the Polish music, affirming the ideals of artistic freedom and tolerance, of perfecting of compositional techniques, and of cultivating the best national traditions. From 1920, in countless articles, statements, and polemics, he tirelessly campaigned to achieve these goals.

Wrote Słopiewnie, songs for voice and piano to words of Julian Tuwim, whose new sonorities attest to the composer's deep involvement in the project of shaping national style.

1922-1926

From 1922 on, spent a considerable amount of time in Zakopane, remaining under the spell of folk music of the Tatra Highlanders. An idea for ballet Harnasie (1923-1931) beginning to take shape; wrote Mazurkas for piano, and String quartet no. 2. While Kurpie Songs op. 58 are elaborations of folk music of the Kurpie people, in oratorio Stabat Mater, hereturns to the idiom explored in Słopiewnie.

Enjoyed increasingly higher status in Poland, recognition and prestige in Poland and abroad; spent a lot of time in Paris. His works performed by prominent musicians (A. Rubinstein, J. Smeterlin, M. Horszowski, J. Heifetz, Y. Menuhin, P. Kochanski) and conductors (S. Koussevitzky, A. Rodziński, L. Stokowski, G. Fitelberg, among others) in concert halls of Paris, London, Vienna, Triest, Salzburg, Moskow, Berlin, Venice, Brussels, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Opera Hagith premiered in Darmstadt in 1923. King Roger presented in Duisburg (1926) two years after the Polish premiere.

Received numerous high distinctions and awards, and became a member of prestigious international societies.

1927-1930

Offered positions of the Director of Music Conservatories both in Cairo and in Warsaw; chose Warsaw. Campaigned for a new model of the institution, for modern methods of professional training and music education. Consumed by his work for the Conservatory, he was left with no time for composing and wrote only String Quartet no. 2, op. 56; gravely ill.

1930

Leave of absence from the Conservatory. During a year long stay in a Swiss sanatorium at Davos wrote a most interesting essay titled The educational role of musical culture in society.

1930-1931

Honorary doctorate from Jagellonian University in Kraków; honorary membership in the International Contemporary Music Society (the members included Richard Strauss, Manuel De Fallia, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, among others). Period of intense creative activity, with two works for orchestra, chorus, and soloists: Veni Crator, and Litany to the Virgin Mary.

Rented chalet Atma in Zakopane.

1932

Resigned from the Academy; completed Harnasie, a ballet based on the music of the Tatra Highlanders. Without a steady income, made a decision to concertize as a pianist performing his own works. Composed Symphony no.4, Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra op. 60, followed by his last large work, Violin Concerto op. 61, and also 12 Kurpie Songs for voice and piano.

Harnasie performed in Prague.

1933-1934

Faced with increasing financial problems, gave concerts in all the major musical centers of Europe which left him with no time or energy for composing. Composed his last pieces, two Mazurkas op. 62.

1935

Harnasie performed in Prague Opera to great acclaim.

1936

Great public and critical success of Harnasie in Paris;

Rapid progress of the disease, requiring extensive sanatorium treatment in the South of Europe; limited financial resources allowed only for a hotel stay without continuous medical attention. When help arrived, it was too late.

1937

Died in Lausanne on March 29, 1937.