1882 - 1889 Family and early years

Born on 3 October 1882, Karol Szymanowski was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and his position in Polish music can only be compared to that of Chopin. He came from a noble Polish family which had lived in Ukraine since the 18th century. Stanisław Szymanowski, the composer’s father, owned a landed estate called Orłowa Bałka in the former province of Kherson, and later he inherited (as one of four joint owners) the village of Tymoszówka (Timoshovka). On the side of the composer’s mother, Anna Szymanowska née Taube, the family originated from the region of Courland (now in Latvia), but they had lived in Ukraine since some time in the 19th century. Karol Szymanowski was baptised at the Roman Catholic church in Śmiła on 2 November 1882 (or 21 October according to the Julian calendar then in use in the Russian Empire). He spent his childhood in a highly intellectual and artistic environment. The family cultivated Polish patriotic traditions and were open-minded about new scientific developments. Szymanowski’s father played the piano and the cello, and his interests ranged from mathematics and astronomy to literature. The composer’s siblings were also artistically endowed: Anna, known in the family as “Nula”, would grow up to be a talented painter; his brother Feliks Szymanowski was a gifted pianist, his sister Stanisława Szymanowska went on to become a famous singer, and Zofia, the youngest, wrote poetry and translated Szymanowski’s songs into French. Szymanowski started his piano lessons early (ca. 1889) under the tuition of his father. Another impulse that spurred his humanist interests and triggered his development as a composer came from the close contacts with the related families Blumenfeld and the Neuhaus (like his siblings, Szymanowski attended the music school run by Gustaw Neuhaus). In Zofia Szymanowska’s memoir we get a glimpse of the manor house in Tymoszówka, a safe heaven of domestic bliss on the eastern outskirts of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: “Our house in Tymoszówka was large and rather shadowy. There was a wide corridor running like a spine from one end of the house to the other. To the left, there was Nula’s bedroom, and next to it a dining hall filled with memorabilia and family portraits. Behind the dining hall, there was a circular library and a large, five-windowed drawing room with its old stone inlaid fireplace, where birch logs crackled merrily in the autumn. To the right of the front door, there was Feliks’s study, Auntie Myńcia’s room, the buttery and the china pantry, and three bedrooms – mine, Mother’s and Karol’s. At the far end there was Feliks’s balconied bedroom. It was a one-storey house with a light-coloured roof, enclosed on the one side by lime trees, and on the other by more lime trees and two walnut trees annually covered with fruit. A white veranda thickly overgrown with vine branches ran along the west side of the house. The windows were large. They were bright when the trees were bare but in the summer the walnuts and the lime trees would cast thick shadows … The family mementos were kept in an ancient cupboard, intricately carved in the Danzig style and locked with a ten-inch key, and in an equally old carved chest … The dining room was furnished with an oak table and carved chairs with straight slanting legs and patterned upholstery of fine coloured leather. There were portraits in the hall, which terrified me as a child. I hated to be there alone in the evening – there was a bishop and a prelate, young beauties with milk-white cleavages exposed by ample décolletage, and our oldest known ancestor, Maciej Korwin-Szymanowski, castellan of Rawa Mazowiecka and a royal envoy to Rome in the reign of King Ladislas IV (1632-1648).” (Zofia Szymanowska, Opowieść o naszym domu [The story of our home], Lviv 1935)