Karol Szymanowski  

A Heart in Flames - Karol Szymanowski
Karol Maciej Szymanowski (1882 - 1936) is one of the most important composers in twentieth-century music. He is interesting not only for his music, but also because he was a well-known gay in his times and his artistic development is clearly linked to his orientation.

arol was born on the family estate in Tymoszowka [1] South Ukraine (3 October 1882) into a traditional, Polish noble family. The home of the Szymanowskis was a well-known centre – an oasis - of music culture in that part of the Ukraine. Playing, singing, composing, opera performances, performing works by great musicians,… which created a very musical climate in Tymoszowka. So it was natural that the family, which included several leading musicians, gave him great support in his musical development.  A happy childhood was interrupted by a serious accident. He injured one of his legs which immobilised him for some years, influenced his physical growth, and the development of his personality. Karol, who was adored by his parents, an older brother and three sisters. was however, isolated from friends of his own age. A normal, public education was impossible because of his health. His musical education started at an early  age, at home, where he was taught first by his father, Stanislaw, and later by his cousins, Gustaw Neuhaus and Feliks Blumenfeld. [2]

Karol in 1900, at age 18

After leaving the Elisawetgrad Real Gymnasium having passed his final exams as an external student, he took private lessons in Warsaw from Marek Zwirski (in harmony) and Zygmunt Noskowski (in counterpoint). However, Szymanowski was an autodidact in composition. His first orchestral works were written in secret, because Noskowski was against teaching composition for an orchestra at an early stage in musical education. Karol's early works show an admiration for Chopin and influences from Scriabin’s music. This early period is very lyrical but also marked by sentimental sadness with a tendency to  dramatise.

            In the period 1905-1908 Szymanowski lived mainly in Berlin, Leipzig and Vienna (1908 –1913) where he continued his “self-education” – mainly in German music, which was then dominant in Europe. 1912 saw his music performed with great success in Berlin, Leipzig, and Vienna.  In Vienna his life style can best be described as “royal” - expensive parties, and clothes, being “seen” in society. During this period (1905 – 1913) he began to feel “liberated” in relation to his own erotic feelings and began to express them in his music. Joy appeared in Karol’s music from the end of the Warsaw period, replacing the sadness which had dominated his earlier compositions. The ecstasy would be present, together with the earlier lyricism, during the whole of his creative life.

The neo-romantic period in Karol's creative life, represented by the 2nd Symphony B Flat‑major op. 19 (1910) or the Concert Overture E‑major op. 12 (1905), is perhaps indirectly influenced by the works of Wagner, but the most obvious influence is Richard Strauss and Max Reger.

The extensive development of a sense of harmonic relations initiated at that time in Szymanowski’s music, became much more characteristic of the next period. His search for musical methods of expressing himself would never lead far from earlier, neo-romantic feeling of tonality as it would, for example, in Anton Webern's music.

            In 1911 Karol visited Sicily with its remains of the ancient Greek world together with his friend Stefan Spiess, but in 1914 they made a much more significant journey to North Africa (Algiers, Tunis). This journey changed Karol's life and his music completely. It began his fascination with the culture of the "golden orient" and gave him a strong urge to understand himself and his situation as a gay man. He had also an opportunity to visit Paris and London and to get to know modern French music by such composers as Debussy and Ravel, who influenced his own style of music. Szymanowski's music seems close to the impressionist trend of that time. His narcissistic personality warmed to French culture and his sexual orientation was now more clearly reflected in his music.

He led the way in some musical ideas, for example in his violin works (Myths - three poems for violin and piano op. 30 (1915) [3], Violin Concerto No. 1,op. 35 (1917)), which were written in cooperation with his friend, Pawel Kochanski, one of the greatest violinists of the time.

Karol was 30 years old. His mother and three sisters seemed to be the only important women in his life. When asked about marriage plans he answered that he would probably never marry, because his mother was his first and last love. Love, remained the subject of all his vocal works from that period and his music expressed an erotic sensuality, - without the earlier restrictions of neo-romantic concepts of texture, melody, form, harmony and timbre. The passion in Szymanowski's music although highly ecstatic, never rises to the level of a dramatically impulsive or exalted affection. Nevertheless, his music is unrivalled as a lyric song of a soul in love.

Homosexuality becomes  visible in his works through ancient themes (Myths), and the choice of implicitly homosexual texts (Opera: King Roger op. 46) or texts from the homosexual tradition used in vocal works (3rd Symphony op. 27 (1916) or Love Songs of Hafiz op. 24 (1910) and op. 26 (1914)). His music in this period (and also later)  extends from the lyricism of love to ecstasy - both an evident expression of intensive sexual feelings. The 3rd Symphony "Song of the Night" for tenor solo, choir (or without choir) and orchestra is based on a poem from the XIII-century Persian poet Mewlana Jalal‑ad‑din.[4] The great mystic poetry of Rumi is of characterised by love, where God is almost equivocal with the lover of the poet . In the Islamic mystic tradition, the intensity of the fire of love burning in the soul of a poet, is a measure of his greatness.

The tenor solo in the Third Symphony sings:

Oh, do not sleep my friend, through this night [...]

Such quiet, others sleep,

I and God, alone together in this night!

What a roar! Joy arises,

truth with gleaming wing is shining in this night.

If I slumbered until sunrise,

I should never, never see this night again!. […]

            From 1914 to 1917 Karol lived mostly in Tymoszowka, isolated from Western Europe, but he undertook  many journeys related to his life in music visiting Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Odessa. Until 1917 the life of the Szymanowski family was “as usual” - summers in Tymoszowka, winters in Kiev. The war had little influence on their life, but they could not journey abroad.. After 1917 the Szymanowskis estate in Tymoszowka was laid waste [5] - which made the family poor. The composer moved to the capital of the newly independent Poland, Warsaw, and stayed there  from the end of 1919 to early 1920 along with members of his family. First he looked after his mother and sisters but he then started to travel widely in Europe, also visiting America twice.

In the nineteen-twenties the influence of Polish folk music, especially the music of the Podhale region (in the Carpathian mountains) became very important to Szymanowski. This new direction seems to be related to the  new of freedom of Poland, since the national idea in music was no longer “suppressed” after 123 years. The folk rhythms and tonal modes become evident in Karol's music, but he seldom quotes folk melodies. His music is rather an impression, proof of a very personal perception of the folk music or sound vision inspired by it. His music uses also “sound pictures”, hence the mountain wind can be heard in the  Symphony‑Concertante No. 4 op. 60 (1932) [6] one of his most impressive works. Due to his health problems Szymanowski spent much time in the Podhale in the late period of his life. It was also a fashion in artistic circles to stay at Zakopane – in the Podhale region, then one of Poland’s artistic centres. The culture of this region dominated his music to such a degree that his excellent mazurkas have a Masurian rhythm, but not a Masurian, Podhale tonal colour as in the most famous mazurka op. 50 nb. 1 [7]

            Religious feelings were always important in the life of Szymanowski. The dilemma, related to the pathos and religious elements in his vocal compositions and to the Catholic attitude to homosexuality during his youth, were later mitigated by the Dionysian [8] perception of Christianity, which enjoyed some popularity in Europe. Finally he found some interesting, personal and helpful  perception of folk religious-sentiment. These changes in his thinking and feelings were reflected in Szymanowski's music in the succeeding periods of his creativity. Stabat Mater for solos, choir and orchestra op. 53 (1926) is his greatest religious work. Listening to this music we feel ourselves, not in an official church ceremony, but as if participating in a deeply religious folk ritual in a highland village chapel and we unite with the Holy Mary Virgin in her pain related to the suffering of her son on the cross . The premiere of Stabat Mater in Warsaw (1928) was his first great triumph in Warsaw.

Karol was very ambitious, with a strong need of fame, but despite this, his approach to his own career, was neither especially active nor systematic. Very intelligent and with great personal charm, he gathered around himself a large community of friends, musicians, artists who shared his ideas, admired his talent and were devoted to him.

The public activity of the composer is well-documented due to intense, dramatic debates and intrigues; on the place of modern music in culture and social life which was being conducted in the press. Szymanowski involved himself in an attempt to reform higher musical education. But in 1932 he resigned from the position of the Rector of the State Academy of Music in Warsaw after the dismissal of four professors who were friends and adherents of Szymanowski. [9] Szymanowski defended the independence of artistic expression as being almost equivalent to the personal freedom of the artist. This struggle seems to reflect his situation as a homosexual fighting for his own individuality against the oppressive social environment, - feelings which are clearly indicated in his writings. The need for independence, for building and protecting his own identity and the need for contact with accepting people with open hearts and minds, are clear in the life decisions and public activity of Karol: the decision to be a composer and the decision to use modernity to express his feelings in his works.

When in the 1980s the communist regime in Poland allowed the composer Roman Palester to visit the country, he testified clearly (in a broadcast on Polish Radio) to the importance of Szymanowski's personal significance to the identity of Polish contemporary music in general. According to Palester, Szymanowski was not only a teacher of his generation of composers, he was also a great master for them. His home was open for his friends and they could come there at any time. They could do anything they wished there, one exception: they couldn't use the cologne water of the “master”.

Karol Szymanowski is relatively unknown in the world, despite being one of the most important composers of the first half of the XX-century. His diaries prove that he was open both for promoting his own career and for helping the careers of his friends. He also had quite good connections in the European contemporary music community.

Boris Kochno

The performance of music  composed for the Ballets Russ was an important factor in the career of many modern composers at the beginning of the XX-century. The commission of music by Serge Diagilev, the chief of the Ballets Russ, of a ballet by Szymanowski was expected in the music community. But unfortunately Boris Kochno was the personal secretary and close friend of Serge Diagilev. [10] Earlier, during a stay in Elisawetgrad (1919) Szymanowski had been deeply in love with Kochno. Artur Rubinstein, a great pianist, and  friend of Karol describes in his memoirs the last meeting of Szymanowski and Kochno - in Paris - when Kochno was already a friend of Diagilev. The difficult situation led to a marked cooling in Diagilev's relation with Szymanowski.

The Second World War, followed by communism with the anti-cultural effects of socialist realism was destructive of the fame and reputation of composers in Central Europe. The state of war [11] in Poland was another unfortunate event for Karol's music. The year 1982 had been declared the International Year of Karol Szymanowski by UNESCO. But international promotion of his music was dependent on Poland’s activity and that collapsed.

Szymanowski’s music was also not easy to approach for listeners at the beginning of the XXth century, because its modernity was conceived as dissonant. Now, after decades of changes in the world’s music culture, listeners are more open to strongly sensual  harmony. People have less trouble in understanding the beauty of this music which belongs to the classics of the European music tradition.

Karol Szymanowski

The gay literary writings of Szymanowski were created for himself and for his friends because he wanted to express his tormented dilemmas and thoughts,  and to share some his personally experienced solutions with his friends. Most of these writings which were stored in the Warsaw house of Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, were burned in 1939. Only fragments of Szymanowski’s most important literary work, the large, legendary novel Efebos, survived, including one crucial chapter entitled Symposion, translated into Russian in 1919 by Karol for Boris Kochno. It survived thanks to Kochno along with four equally explicit gay poems which were published thanks to the efforts of the reliable investigator of the Karol’s creativity Madame Teresa Chylinska. The novel was written mostly between 1917 and 1919, and so absorbed his creativity that it caused a two years gap in composition. According to Iwaszkiewicz, who knew the whole novel, the main conflict is between sublimated and openly hedonistic attitudes to life - probably representing the dilemma of the composer – who is “split” into two persons. At the end there was a reconciliation of the two heroes (and the attitudes represented by them) which could be assumed to be a “not quite platonic” solution. The gay writings of Szymanowski are the most important source of knowledge about the private opinions and feelings of their author.

            From 1932 onward his illness caused ever more problems despite the support of his friends. In 1934 he stated there was one thing in his life he didn't regret - he had loved many (...). Szymanowski died in 29 March 1936 in Switzerland (near Lausanne) as a result of cancer of the larynx caused probably by heavy smoking. He was buried (except for his heart) in Krakow in the crypt of a monastery - where meritorious Poles from the field of culture are laid to rest - after fitting funeral ceremonies which expressed the great respect of the music community and Polish Nation. It had been planned to intern his heart in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw near the heart of Chopin but the war prevented this and the heart was burnt during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

He is admired in Poland as a composer of genius, the first master and Father of Polish contemporary music and a great personality of gay culture.


                                               L. K.i and Colin de la Motte‑Sherman



[1] pronounced  Tymoshuvka

[2] The Blumenfelds originated from Bavaria. The Neuhauses came from the Rhineland. Both are famous musical families. Feliks Blumenfeld had a leading position in Russian music (pianist, composer, conductor of the Imperial Opera in St.‑Petersburg, 1897-1912, then professor in Moscow Conservatory). Zygmunt, brother of Felix was a singer and composer. The Neuhauses were excellent pianists. The Taubes. - the family of Karol’s mother Anna – was also musically talented. The four musical families the Szymanowskis, the Blumenfelds, the Neuhauses and the Taubes had close relations.

[4] Rumi: Jalal ad‑Din Mohammad, called Mewlana (what means “our master”) - the greatest mystic poet of Persia and perhaps  of the World, who influenced widely all the Muslim culture. After his death his disciples organised the Sufi Maulvi Order called in the West “the Whirling Dervishes”.

[5] “During the Bolshevik revolution the manor houses of Tymoszowka, was razed to the ground. The Szymanowskis were in Kiev at that time but they never regained the social position of the ‘Tymoszowka days’.(…)” after B. M. Maciejewski “Karol Szymanowski; His Life and Music”, Poets’ and Painters’ Press, London 1967.

[8] The concept of a secret connection between Christ and Dionysos; idea of a Russian poet Wiaczeslaw Iwanow next creatively compiled by Karol with ideas of Tadeusz Micinski, Walter Pater, Nietzsche, Zielinski, Plato,….

[9] Karol was in the mountain at the time got to know about it from press. Then he resigned as rector. The Academy of Music was dissolved and then re-established. The intrigue against Rector Szymanowski was conducted in the press and at a high government level. The dissolution of the Academy was the major disgrace in Polish music between the two World Wars. His resignation as rector was however good for Karol’s health and creativity

[10] Kochno was also later also a director of the ballet of Monte Carlo, and editor of a documents related to the artistic activity of Diagilev,…

[11] December 1981- July1983, but in many aspects continued up to 1989. The “State of War” led to the collapse of public life in Poland.  The International Festival of the Contemporary Music (every year in Warsaw) was suspended.

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