Karol Szymanowski was born in Tymoszwóka, Poland (now part of Ukraine), on October 6, 1882, and died in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 29, 1937. He wrote the Violin Concerto No. 2 in 1933 for violinist Paul Kochanski, to whom the score was dedicated; Kochanski gave the premiere October 6, 1933, with the Warsaw Philharmonic led by Georg Fitelberg.
In addition to the solo violin, the concerto is scored for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle, cymbals, small snare drum, bass drum), piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The concerto is about 22 minutes long.
Though highly regarded in his own country as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski has never developed the kind of general profile in the United States that would put him into the happy category of “brand-name” composers, despite enthusiastic support by numerous performers over the years, starting with his close friends Arthur Rubinstein, who premiered many of his piano works, and Paul Kochanski, who inspired the two violin concertos that figure among his most important compositions. Sometimes compared to his Hungarian contemporary Béla Bartók as a nationalist who created a musical language out of the melos of his people, Szymanowski shares with him a development from a late Romantic style to a highly individual idiom that relinquished traditional tonality for polar centers with a melodic style employing abstracted elements of his native folk song.
Szymanowski was scion of a Polish landowning family whose estate at Tymoszówka had ended up in Russia at the time of the partition of 1793, yet he always felt himself to be purely Polish. Karol and his four siblings were all artistic, and two of them became professional musicians. His elder brother Feliks was a pianist and composer of light music, his sister Stanislawa a successful soprano who frequently performed his works. When Karol was 19, his father sent him to Warsaw for a more professional education than could be obtained in the country, through Warsaw was at the time itself quite provincial in the musical world.
From an early date he was composing sophisticated piano works and soon turned to the larger scope of the orchestra. Many of these early pieces, up to his Second Symphony, show the influence of Reger and Strauss. But while working on his first opera, Hagith, for which he steeped himself in the culture and music of the Arab lands and the mythology of the classical world, he also took over many textural and harmonic ideas from Debussy, Ravel, and Scriabin, absorbing their influence into a new synthesis of his own, a language of sensuous and flexible chromaticism. During this period his major works included the Third Symphony and the First Violin Concerto, as well as the opera King Roger, which occupied him from 1918 to 1924. By the time he completed King Roger, his enthusiasm for Poland’s newly won independence played some role in his adopting a musical idiom that owed a great deal to the folk music of the Tatra highlands in southern Poland, where he had begun to live for several months of the year.
In what should have been the prime of his creative career, Szymanowski came almost to a full stop in composition after accepting the directorship of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927. It proved to be an unhappy experience, though he threw himself into his responsibilities with all seriousness and wrote a number of articles about music (rather than writing more music) during that period. In 1929 he resigned from the Conservatory, both for reasons of ill health and disagreement with many of the older faculty and staff over the sweeping changes he had made in pursuance of his views on the proper nature of a musical education. By this time his health was seriously failing. He suffered from tuberculosis and possibly also cancer of the lungs and throat (he smoked as many as sixty cigarettes a day) and began to drink heavily in response to bouts of depression. He may also have become addicted to morphine or cocaine to reduce the pain.
In 1930 he moved into a cottage in Zakopane, a health resort in his beloved Tatra mountains. Arthur Rubinstein, in his memoirs, described the place as “enchanting, with the river Dunajec roaring down from the heights, its pure and transparent water jumping over rocks and stones.” Here he attempted to regain his health and worked steadily to complete several major unfinished pieces, including a ballet-pantomime called Harnasie and his Symphony No. 4 (Symphonie Concertante) for piano and orchestra. At a concert and dinner celebrating his fiftieth birthday in 1932, he was invited to give a speech, but had to decline, owing to the fact that he could barely whisper. During the following year, in Zakopane, he composed the Violin Concerto No. 2; though he lived nearly four years longer, it was his last work.
Knowing that the end was near, and hoping to provide some support for his family, he undertook concert tours abroad, a punishing regimen for a man in his condition. He tried selling some of his manuscripts in order to raise money to go to a sanatorium for his recurrent tuberculosis. One important concert that might have made a difference to his career fell through owing to the darkening political situation: when he arrived in Berlin in December 1934 for a series of concerts to be conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, he found that the Nazi authorities had ordered the conductor to remove from his program a work by the “decadent” Paul Hindemith. Rather than give in to them, Furtwängler resigned his conductorship. Under the circumstances, Szymanowski declined to play under a replacement conductor.
He spent his last months in Switzerland in rapidly declining health and died there, nearly penniless. When Rubinstein heard of his friend’s death, he raised the money for a funeral and then found—to his anger—that the Polish government, which had paid little enough attention to Szymanowski in his lifetime, was willing to give him a spectacular funeral. As the pianist wrote in his memoir, My Many Years: “What a bitter irony! For years they had made my poor Karol suffer through their meanness and now they were willing to spend a fortune on this big show. And what really infuriated me was the fact that they asked Hitler’s government to make the train with Karol’s body stop in Berlin long enough to receive military honors.”
In all of Szymanowski’s concertos (the two for violin and the Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra), the solo instrument is not projected as a creature set apart, but rather enclosed within the body of the orchestra as a special sonority of leading importance, a discussion leader, perhaps, but not a dictator. Both violin concertos are cast in a continuous movement that is subdivided into smaller, varied sections. In the case of the Second Concerto, the subdivisions are defined sharply enough to become four separate sections played without pause and linked at the midpoint by a huge cadenza.
The work opens with a nearly endless lyrical theme that grows in intensity, and virtually without break, to the climax. The melody, of a strong folk character, can be set forth against several harmonic backgrounds in different modes—E minor, A minor with a flattened seventh, or C major with a raised fourth—all of which Szymanowski employs, using extended pedal points to reinforce the tonal centers. The opening ternary structure is so dominated by this first theme as to sound monothematic.
The second section, marchlike in character, alternating 2/4 and 6/8 time between the various sections of the orchestra, is built on material related to the opening theme. It ends with a timpani roll and the beginning of the difficult cadenza (built almost entirely on multiple stops—that is, of playing two or more notes simultaneously on the violin), which continues the 6/8 march pattern. The orchestra returns on the last beat of the cadenza with an energetic 2/4 rhythm, and the violin introduces a new theme, evidently derived from the folk music of the Tatra mountains. Its triplet figure eventually leads to a brilliant skirling in the woodwinds. A slower middle section features expressive duets between the violin solo and the woodwinds over a static harmony and evocative trills in the strings. The closing section of the concerto restates the material of the opening two sections in reverse order, so as to build to a climactic moment in which the opening theme returns triumphantly.
Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave the American premiere performances of the Violin Concerto No. 2 in December 1934 under Serge Koussevitzky’s direction; Albert Spalding was soloist. The same personnel gave the first New York and Brooklyn performances the following month.