Exploring the music of Karol Szymanowski, the greatest Polish composer since Chopin

Conductor Valery Gergiev will lead four performances in Edinburgh
Conductor Valery Gergiev will lead four performances in Edinburgh
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Poland’s most revered composer since Chopin is little known outside his home country; the Edinburgh International Festival bids to change that with a bravura performance of Karol Szymanowski’s music

It’s a changeable summer’s day in Zakopane, a bustling town in the foothills of the Tatra mountains known as the winter capital of Poland. We’re experiencing classic mountain weather, the kind that makes you take your jacket off and put it on again every five minutes. Clouds the colour of lead skate overhead, prised apart now and then by a persistent fat sun. Rain falls lightly, and often. Patches of snow gleam on the higher slopes of peaks that stretch south into Slovakia, a country so close you can wander over the border without realising it.

The most iconic of these is Mount Giewont, whose gouged ridges are often likened to the silhouette of a sleeping knight. On a clear day you can see a cross on its summit that was erected by Tatra highlanders a hundred years ago in a very different time. A time before the Second World War, when this glamorous winter capital was part of the Austrian empire and known as the Polish Athens. A time when musicians, artists, writers and intellectuals flocked from the three parts of partitioned Poland to talk, live and work in the nourishing and comparatively free climate of this old mountain town.

One of these people was Karol Szymanowski, the greatest composer to come out of Poland since Frederic Chopin. By 1930 he was living in Zakopane full time, immersing himself in the traditional Goral folk culture, playing bridge in cafes, riding home in horse-drawn carriages, and composing a series of great works in his house on the outskirts of the town. Living in Zakopane transformed both the man and the music.

“He started to visit this place as a child with his parents,” explains Aleksander Laskowski from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which promotes Polish culture around the world. “But it’s not only that Zakopane changed Szymanowski. It’s that Poland changed. When the country was back on the map in 1918 [the year of independence], we needed reaffirmation of our identity. Zakopane provided that with its separate language, food, culture, clothes, way of living, folk traditions, music and architecture. This influenced Szymanowski directly. He would go to weddings and local gatherings and people recall that he never danced. He would just sit in a corner and take down melodies.”

Szymanowski has always been revered in his home country though he was actually born in Ukraine and didn’t settle in Poland permanently until he was 38. Elsewhere, however, it’s a different story. Seventy-five years after his death, Szymanowski is still emerging from the shadows.

He was born in Ukraine in 1882 into a noble Polish family of landed gentry. It was an idyllic, bucolic, and culturally rich childhood spent on the large family estate in the village of Tymoszowka. The Szymanowkis were an extraordinarily artistic family. The composer’s three sisters went on to become a painter, poet, and singer respectively. His brother was a gifted pianist. Szymanowski studied music first with his father and then at the Warsaw Conservatory, where much later he became director for a few unhappy years before he moved to Zakopane.

After his studies in Warsaw, Szymanowski left Poland. He travelled in Europe extensively, also visiting North Africa, the Middle East and the United States and meeting many artists and composers as he went. All of this left a profound mark on the man and the music. Szymanowski was gay and his travels liberated him and led to an aesthetic celebration of his sexuality. He wrote a homoerotic novel called Efebos, which was never published, and dedicated poetry to Boris Kochno, a 15-year-old Russian poet and dancer with whom he became infatuated. Kochno would go on to become the secretary, librettist and lover of Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of Ballets Russes. His homosexuality, however, remains rarely discussed in Poland, where the overwhelming majority of the population is Catholic. Mind you, even the BBC Radio 3 Composer of the Week on Szymanowski failed to mention it.

“Szymanowski was true to himself and his aesthetic values,” Laskowski says carefully when I ask whether he is viewed as a gay composer in Poland. “His sexuality was not a problem to him. He didn’t need his music to negotiate anything between himself and the world.”

Does he think it’s relevant to understanding his 
music? “You’re asking me for a book, not an answer,” he laughs. “Saying it is completely irrelevant wouldn’t be fair. Then again what does it mean to be a 
gay composer?”

During the First World War Szymanowski was exempt from conscription because he had a bad knee from childhood (which is why he never skied in the Tatras and, perhaps, why he didn’t dance at weddings). Instead he returned to the Ukrainian family estate, which was later destroyed during the Bolshevik revolution. Ironically, in the midst of war and away from Poland, this is where Szymanowski really discovered himself as a composer. He combined all he had experienced, from homoerotic Greek myth to Oriental antiquities, the music of Wagner, Strauss and modern French composers including Debussy and Ravel. The result was, among other pieces, the magnificently voluptuous Third Symphony, his most famous work.

Szymanowski the man remains elusive, the product of a time of great change. The figure gets lost in the swirl of history. And although he wrote a tantalisingly oblique introduction to his memoirs, the rest never followed. But outside Poland, we are beginning to hear his music more. In the Eighties, Sir Simon Rattle championed Szymanowski, calling him “one of the greatest composers of this century” and producing a series of important recordings with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. In 1999 the first comprehensive selection of his writings was published in English. In 2004 Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti introduced his music to a whole new audience when she won the BBC Young Musician of the Year at the age of 16 with a performance of Szymanowski’s shimmering First 
Violin Concerto.

And so it goes on. In 2008 his rarely staged opera King Roger, considered his masterpiece, was performed at Edinburgh International Festival under the baton of Valery Gergiev and his exuberant Mariinsky opera company. Now the love affair between Russia’s great conductor and Poland’s great composer continues. This month Gergiev will lead the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of all four of the composer’s symphonies at the Edinburgh International Festival on consecutive nights, including both violin concertos played by Benedetti and Leonidas Kavakos.

“He invented a musical language,” explains Laskowski as we ascend high above Zakopane in a cable car that was built in 1937, the year of Szymanowski’s death from tuberculosis in a Swiss sanitorium. He 
left Zakopane two years earlier, exhausted and increasingly unwell.

Laskowski, an earnest and bespectacled classical music buff, is full of anecdotes about the composer. He proudly tells me he owns every single book ever written about Szymanowski and has the stories to prove it. “He loved fragrances and always smelt wonderful,” he sighs at one point, as though he had the privilege of sniffing the man himself. “Aesthetics were very important to him. He dressed beautifully and changed suits twice a day. He had to have flowers all over the place. And he always wore Yardley’s Old English Lavender Water. His niece, who wrote a lovely little book about him, said the scent of lavender was what she remembered most about him after he died.”

His music had an equally rigorous and romantic aesthetic. It is renowned for its giddying, sumptuous orchestration and full-blooded Orientalism, influenced by Szymanowski’s travels in the Mediterranean and Middle East. A fellow Polish composer apparently once claimed that he “felt quite dizzy for a number of weeks” after hearing the Third Symphony. “He created a national music after Chopin that was using a folk idiom, but not in a simplistic way,” Laskowski goes on. “His works were true and ingenious creations. And his oeuvre shows an incredible development from the Straussian and Wagnerian, through an interesting and very romantic Oriental period, and finishing with a national period influenced by his time in the Tatras.”

Our search for traces of the composer’s life, or rather the end of his life, appropriately begins at his Zakopane home, “a small, humble mountaineer’s cottage” as he described it in a letter to his mother. Built around 1890, this is where Szymanowski composed some of his greatest music; his Fourth Symphony and his only ballet, Harnasie, based on a Tatras Robin Hood-style legend. It’s where the perennial outsider embraced the Polish nationalism he had resisted in earlier years. If Szymanowki’s middle period exoticised Orientalism, his late national period exoticised the folk music of his own country.

“Goral music is inexorably, albeit slowly, withering and dying,” Szymanowski wrote around 1924. “The categoric imperative to preserve that historical musical tradition on cylinders, and the dance steps on film, becomes increasingly important day by day.”

We arrive by horse-drawn carriage, just as Szymanowski would have done 80 odd years ago. Zakopane may be much bigger now, with 27,700 inhabitants and a staggering 3.5 million visitors a year, yet in a way nothing much has changed. Houses are still built in the traditional Zakopane style, with their steeply pitched roofs and stacked spruce exteriors. The same fiddle music accompanies the old songs in the traditional restaurants, where people eat the same hearty fare of roast lamb, smoked cheese and dumplings. Our driver, who insists on taking us to see his house in the mountains (and his brother’s restaurant opposite) even tells us that his daughters are dancing in an upcoming local production of Harnasie. It remains the most famous piece of music Zakopane has ever produced. “When Szymanowski died, everyone walked here from the village to pay their respects,” the driver recalls. “He was one of us.”

Villa Atma (it means “soul” in Sanskrit) was designed by Stanislaw Witkiewitz, a famous art critic, painter and writer who invented the Zakopane style by combining Goral and modernist principles to express a new kind of Polishness, just as Szymanowski went on to do with his music. And Poland, a country at the heart of Europe with permanently shifting borders, badly needed it. During the Second World War, when it was under German occupation, Zakopane served as an underground staging point between Poland and Hungary. Out of a population of 18,000, around 3,700 were executed, most of them Jews. Then came the communist years. It’s no wonder that Goral culture has been so carefully guarded and preserved.

“You cannot imagine a single important Polish artist who was not connected with Zakopane before the First World War,” explains my guide and local mountaineer, Maciej Krupa. “It was a very exciting, fertile period known as Young Poland and this is where it all started. Zakopane was in the Austrian empire and the regime here was not as severe as the other parts of partitioned Poland. Artists had much more freedom. Then there was the reputation of the place. The Tatras is the most beautiful range in Poland. And the Goral people were seen as representing the real and pure Polish spirit. They were always free ... there were no serfs here.”

Villa Atma has been a museum since the Seventies, when Serge Lifar, one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the last century, came to Zakopane for the opening. He choreographed and danced in Harnasie and stayed at Villa Atma in the Thirties (as did the great pianist and another friend, Artur Rubenstein, who did much to champion Szymanowski’s music while he was alive). Szymanowski wanted Lifar to see the 
Goral dancers, singers, and musicians for himself. At the moment, however, Villa Atma is a building site. “They are completely restoring it,” Laskowski explains, as we stick our heads through windows without panes of glass and step over fragrant stacks of wood. “This place has been kept alive ever since Szymanowski was here. It was a very creative period for him, though he had little money. He had to rent the house and all he had here was a small upright piano and a few pieces of 1920s furniture. He would often go on long tours around Europe, playing piano concerts to support himself. His health deteriorated quite quickly.”

Our journey ends at a private house called Dom Pod Jedlami (House Under the Firs), one of the finest examples of Stanislaw Witkiewitz’s Zakopane-style houses and a regular meeting place for Szymanowski. He often visited here, as did most of the intelligentsia of Zakopane. It’s a stunning piece of architecture, the complete creation of Witkiewitz, and extraordinary in its levels 
of preservation.

Witkiewitz designed everything in sight: the well at the bottom of the garden, the chairs, banisters, dressers, even the curtains, which were sewn by his wife and still hang in the sitting room. Everything looks exactly as it would have done when Szymanowski was here. On one wall is a landscape Witkiewitz painted for this particular spot, so the light from the enormous windows would hit it at a precise angle. Even the tablecloth is more than a century old. And in one corner of the sitting room is a black upright piano that was regularly played by Szymanowski.

My guide, Krupa, tells me that in all his years of walking past the house and gazing at it from the gate, he has never before been permitted to go inside. “During Szymanowski’s time it was one of the places to be in Zakopane,” he says. “It’s unbelievable that it has remained in the hands of the family. During the Second World War the Nazis didn’t take it over. Nor did the Communists. That’s why it’s so well preserved. It’s like a time capsule, a moment frozen in history.”

Today, the family who have owned Dom Pod Jedlami for six generations and counting are at home. And so we get to wander around this extraordinary living museum, while children play in the garden and clatter up and down the stairs. At the door, we meet the current matriarch and grandmother of the house, Agnieszka Wyrzykowska, a small, glamorous woman with a mischievous smile. “We played a trick on the Germans in this house,” she says. “They wanted to confiscate it and so my family put my great-grandma in bed and told the Nazis she had tuberculosis. It scared them off. And my great-grandmother ended up living until she was 101 years old.”

During the war, the family was involved in the resistance and hid guns in the house. “We were supposed to carry them over the mountains,” Wyrzykowska recalls. “But when the Germans came here we were so scared we threw all the guns down the well. They are still there.” She nods towards the rolling expanse of garden leading down to Witkiewitz’s well, which looks more like a small shrine.

“Sadly, none of my family have particular stories of Szymanowski’s visits to the house. There were simply too many people here. All they know is that he came often, and played the piano.” There is something else too. “He was one of the first people to write in our family guest book,” Wyrzykowska says. She opens the book, which is falling apart at the spine, and there, a few pages in, is Szymanowski’s extravagant signature, a few notes of music, and a date: January 18, 1924. Though the composer wouldn’t move to Villa Atma for another few years, Zakopane was already beginning to feel like home.

We wander back outside. The rain has started up and everyone stops to put on jackets and take off sunglasses. Tomorrow we leave for Krakow, a city just two hours away where Szymanowki is buried in the crypt of a famous church. “By the time he came to Zakopane he was already considered the greatest national composer after Chopin,” Laskowski explains. “He was a genius. Now in Poland there is no greater compliment than to be named the greatest Polish composer after Szymanowski. We are really starting to see a significant improvement in his reputation outside Poland. I think Szymanowski’s time is finally coming.”

• Valery Gergiev leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a four-concert residency at the Edinburgh International Festival beginning August 16, Usher Hall, 8pm, tickets from £12-£42, www.eif.co.uk