A magician with grey-green eyes

Composer Karol Szymanowski in portrait

Karol Szymanowski
(Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

The life that Karol Szymanowski led was like a work of fiction, brilliant success routinely giving way to bitter defeat, wealth to periods of impoverishment, excess to a whole series of illnesses. The Berliner Philharmoniker performed his rapt and hymn-like First Violin Concerto – a piece that later became a classic of the early modern period – as early as 1926. It is returning to one of our programmes under the direction of Kirill Petrenko with our-artist-in-residence, Lisa Batiashvili, as the soloist.

The anecdotes about him are legion – and all of them are true. Karol Szymanowski could have sprung from the pages of a novel, although not even close friends such as Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Ignacy Witkiewicz, who were two of Poland’s greatest writers, succeeded in creating a comparable character despite numerous attempts to do so. No, this man is conceivable only as the product of those strange and fantastical circumstances that existed in the years around 1900 among those members of the landed gentry who lived in the remotest corners of the Ukraine, far from the bastions of European culture, and who found themselves caught up in the Polish diaspora.

Szymanowski’s family owned a profitable estate at Tymoszówka as well as properties in Elisavetgrad (modern Kropywnyzkyi), where they spent each summer and winter. Karol Szymanowski and his four siblings led charmed lives as hedonistic layabouts, reading, performing music, playing tennis and cricket, eating and, by preference, drinking to their hearts’ content. Karol, or Katot as he was affectionately known, retained his aristocratic air until his death, despite the fact that his family had fled to Warsaw before the October Revolution of 1919 and been reduced overnight to penury. From then on, he lived the life of a lord, supported by state pensions and private patrons. Whenever he was threatened by bankruptcy, he would extort money from his friends, foremost among whom was one of the greatest exponents of his music, Artur Rubinstein.

He wrote his music only in the mornings. The instrumention of longer pieces bored him.

In the course of a life dominated by alcohol and nicotine, Szymanowski learned to speak six foreign languages fluently. He loved travel, and his peregrinations took him from Russia in the East to America in the West. He also visited the Maghreb and every European centre of music. Such a lifestyle cost him both time and money, as did his endless parties and his series of much younger lovers. He wrote his music only in the mornings. The instrumention of longer pieces bored him. And he hated practising the piano. It took him ten years to write his ballet-pantomime Harnasie. He made better progress whenever he had help, and this help was constantly needed. He left it to his Second Symphony’s dedicatee, the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, to rework the piece, but then lost interest in it.

The first version was performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker under Fitelberg in 1911. Six years earlier he had joined forces with Paweł Kochański, Ludomir Różycki and Fitelberg to found a group, Young Poland in Music, whose members hoped to establish themselves in the West, since they found Warsaw too provincial and too conservative for their tastes. Their model was Richard Strauss. Otherwise, Szymanowski’s only idols were Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Chopin. In a remarkable rhetorical volte-face, he declared that he had “never felt any aberrant homosexual leanings” that might have led him “in the direction of the music of people like Puccini, Massenet and Mascagni”.

In the case of the impressionistic First Violin Concerto, Szymanowski received help from the violinist Paweł Kochański, which allowed him to complete the piece in only twelve days in 1916. His difficulties began only with its first performance, which was due to take place in Petrograd. Szymanowski was too ill to travel there, with the result that the concert was postponed until the following season. But the following season belonged to the Bolsheviks; it was not until 1922 that Józef Ozimiński was able to premiere the piece in Warsaw. Its dedicatee, Paweł Kochański, had to wait until 1924 to perform it in Philadelphia and New York under Leopold Stokowski.

Nathan Milstein had played it a year earlier in Moscow in an arrangement for violin and piano; the pianist was Vladimir Horowitz, no less. One of the First Violin Concerto’s greatest champions was the legendary Bronisław Huberman, who performed it in Vienna in November 1926 and a month later in Berlin. The Berliner Philharmoniker was conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg, whose ecstatic interpretation was captured on record, albeit not until 1948, when the Philharmonia Orchestra recorded the piece in London with Eugenia Umińska as the soloist. This was also the first gramophone recording of one of Szymanowski’s orchestral works. Umińska went into hiding during the National Socialists’ occupation of Poland and could only perform in secret. Despite this, she was arrested; she managed to avoid being taken to a forced labour camp by escaping during the transit. She performed the work again in Berlin in 1949, again under Fitelberg.

Eugenia Umińska and Karol Szymanowski were in close contact, often appearing together and performing works for violin and piano. One such performance was given under the aegis of Berlin Radio in December 1934. Only a few days earlier the Berliner Philharmoniker had been due to give a concert that would have featured Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony for piano and orchestra, a work that was also being performed in other major centres of music at this time. But the Hindemith Affair – Furtwängler’s row with Hitler, which led him to resign all of his official posts – meant that the concert was cancelled. And in a particularly dramatic development, Szymanowski was denied the fee that he urgently needed. Umińska later described a scene entirely typical of Szymanowski’s hypochondria. When she called on him at his hotel on the Kurfürstendamm, he was looking at his reflection in a mirror in a state of deep depression and refused to leave the room. “My whole face is crooked, it’s terrible; I look like a caricature. I can’t go out and meet people looking like this.” In fact he looked no different, but Umińska’s objection was of no interest to him whatsoever.

“le malade imaginaire”

Szymanowski was used to dressing elegantly, pampering himself with skin creams and perfumes, and behaving like a grand seigneur. Men and women found him irresistible, with his charming smile, the dark murmur of his voice, and the mysterious light in his greyish-green eyes. The combination proved powerfully hypnotic. But his winning ways were in stark contrast to his snobbishness, his egocentricity, and his self-pity. His friends called him “le malade imaginaire”, a hypochondriac whose behaviour not even a famous psychiatrist who treated him over many years was able to change. From his earliest childhood he became accustomed to his mother and siblings relieving him of every possible burden in his life, allowing Katot to concentrate exclusively on his music and on his expensive passions.

It is not known if he was able to tie his own shoelaces, but he certainly knew how to take care of his beard. Indeed, he was fond of performing his morning toilet in public, and particularly liked receiving his visitors in Warsaw’s most expensive hotel, the Bristol, in order to show off his British shaving equipment. And then there were his friends. Over time they assumed the duties of family members, taking care of every possible aspect of his life, including even the most impossible ones. In almost every case, Szymanowski succeeded in turning them into devoted admirers. Photographers, painters and writers alike proved incapable of capturing his magical aura. His music alone perpetuates that aura.

As a promising young musician, Szymanowski fortunately did not heed the advice of Emil Młynarski, who suggested that he should abandon music and run his father’s farm instead. It was an insult for which Szymanowski never forgave the eminent conductor, who was often compared to Arthur Nikisch, even if the founder of the Warsaw Philharmonic and opera-house manager programmed his music on many subsequent occasions.

His health undermined by his lifestyle. Szymanowski spent much of the final years of his life in expensive sanatoriums paid for by the Polish state. He suffered from laryngeal tuberculosis. He is said not to have lost an ounce of his magical aura when he died in Lausanne on 29 March 1937. In Berlin, where his international career had begun, he caused one last sensation a week later, when his coffin was displayed in an open carriage at the Anhalt Station so that music lovers and representatives of the German government could pay their final respects. Two years later, the National Socialists banned his music. Like the hearts of Chopin and Władysław Reymont, Szymanowski’s had been removed from his body and buried in a separate urn. It was burnt during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Volker Tarnow

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