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Karol Szymanowski

Composer Karol Szymanowski spent his early years in Ukraine (where many affluent Polish families still owned land at the time). An injury to the leg forced young Karol into a life of relative inactivity, and, from age seven on, attendance at school was replaced by rigorous musical studies (first under his father's tutelage, and then, from 1892 on, at Gustav Neuhaus' music school in Elisavetgrad). Although early training focused on the piano, Neuhaus was quick to observe his young student's potential as a composer. While in Elisavetgrad, Szymanowski was introduced to the German classics as well as to Chopin and Scriabin. After studies with Noskowski in Warsaw from 1903 to 1905, Szymanowski lived for a time in Berlin, helping to found that city's "Young Poland in Music" Society. During the Warsaw and Berlin years Szymanowski began absorbing the musical language of the later German masters (Richard Strauss in particular), under whose strong influence Szymanowski produced his first two symphonies (1907 and 1909, respectively).

The pre-World War I years found Szymanowski traveling extensively throughout Europe, spreading his name as a composer (among those who signed on to champion his music were fellow Poles Arthur Rubinstein and violinist Paul Kochansky) and absorbing the newest trends in European art. A brief 1914 stay in Paris helped to cement a growing admiration for Debussy and the French Impressionist school. The War years themselves were spent at the family estate in Tymoszowka, where Szymanowski composed prolifically (the Third Symphony, First Violin Concerto, First String Quartet, as well as a number of smaller works, all date from this period). Tymoszowka suffered heavily during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the Szymanowski family was forced to relocate to nearby Elisavetgrad. Elisavetgrad, however, was soon subject to Austrian occupation, and, in late 1919, after selling all the family land (at a heavy loss), Szymanowski made a new home in Warsaw. Achieving some popular success in the new Polish capital, Szymanowski eventually became director of the Warsaw Conservatory (1926). However, tuberculosis forced him to resign this position in 1930, and the next several years were spent abroad (largely in Switzerland). Continuing health troubles forced him to enter a sanatorium, and he died in Lugano in 1937.

Szymanowski's unique brand of expressive, lyric modernism has found many admirers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Though his earliest music is perhaps too closely allied to that of his childhood idol Chopin to fully stand on its own, his later work synthesizes the stylistic characteristics of a wide range of composers (Scriabin, Strauss, Reger, Debussy, Ravel) into a highly individual new language, which seems likely to bear the test of time better than many such experiments in eclecticism.