1929 - 1937 Final years

In the 1920s and the 1930s, Szymanowski’s music enjoyed a great popularity. His works were performed on the world’s stages by leading soloists (Artur Rubinstein, Harry Neuhaus, Robert Casadesus, Zbigniew Drzewiecki, Paweł Kochański, Bronisław Huberman, Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, etc.) and by orchestras led by famous conductors (Grzegorz Fitelberg, Emil Młynarski, Albert Coates, Pierre Monteux, Philippe Gaubert, Leopold Stokowski, Willem Mengelberg). A number of important prizes and state decorations came his way. In 1929, Szymanowski received a prize of the Ministry of Religion and Education for his First Violin Concerto. On 12 December 1930, he received an honorary degree from the ancient Jagiellonian University of Kraków, and in 1933 he became an honorary member of the Regia Accademia di Santa Caecilia in Rome. On 11 November 1934, he was decorated with the Commodore’s Cross of Polonia Restituta. European and American performances of his Stabat Mater were world-scale events, progressing successfully in Naples, Paris, Liege, New York, Chicago and Worcester. A Prague production of King Roger on 21 October 1932 (directed by Josef Munclingr, conductor: Otakar Ostrčil), closely mirroring the composer’s own idea of the piece, was an unqualified triumph, just as was the stage production of Harnasie (Prague, 11 May 1935). A Polish performance of his Symphony No. 4 (“Symphonie Concertante”) late in 1932 was followed by a series of performances abroad, mostly with Szymanowski at the piano and conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. In 1933, the symphony was performed in London (Jan Smeterlin – piano, cond. Nicolai Malko), Bologna, Cleveland (Seweryn Eisenberger – piano), Moscow, Zagreb, Bucharest; in 1934 – in Paris (cond. Pierre Monteux), Sofia, London (Szymanowski – piano, cond. Malcolm Sargent); in 1935 – in Stockholm, Oslo, Bergen, Berlin, Rome (cond. Bernardin Molinari), Liege and Maastricht; in 1937 – in the Hague (Zbigniew Drzewiecki – piano). Under the strain of his concert tours (mostly undertaken to relieve financial stress), Szymanowski’s health deteriorated quickly. The increasingly bitter tone of his letters shows that the composer realized the gravity of his situation:

“In life, one can sometimes get into an impasse with no way out. I’m afraid this might be the case with me … I have to financially support my entire family. My poor old mother … my sisters … they are simply destitute. As for me, my tuberculosis has staged a minor return, which I am deliberately ignoring because I cannot afford a cure. I have to work to stave off utter financial failure, so I play the piano (to prepare for the concerts), I compose, etc. … Polish officials in the government resolutely refuse to recognize me. They only use me when I am needed for propaganda purposes … As a matter of fact, they don’t care two hoots about me here. I could starve to death and nobody would lift a finger. Of course, my eventual funeral will be a different matter altogether. It will be a very grand affair, of this I am certain. They simply love funeral celebrations and great dead figures here. (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Jan Smeterlin in London, Villa Atma in Zakopane, 14 September 1934)

From 25 December 1935, Szymanowski (accompanied by his secretary Leonia Gradstein) took cures in Grasse in southern France, first at the Clinique Hélios, and from 27 February 1936 at the Parc Palace. In March and April 1936 he attended rehearsals of Harnasie at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra.

“At last the night before yesterday he had the dress rehearsal. Of course, we made stops in the flow of the action but we already had in place such things as the sets, the costumes, etc. I am very, very pleased. Truly, Lifar is an extraordinary man. His directing and his mise-en-scene are great – not to mention his dancing. His turns his character of Harnaś into a thing out of this world. The costumes and the sets are very beautiful, and the orchestra is obviously first-rate. … The only question that remains is how the public will react!” (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Anna Szymanowska in Warsaw, [Paris], 25 April 1936)

At the request of Serge Lifar playing Harnaś, Szymanowski changed the ending of the second tableau and added a third (a solo tenor). He also attended the Paris premiere on 27 April 1936 (with choreography by Lifar, sets and costumes by Irena Lorentowicz, conducted by Philippe Gaubert). After brief stays in Poland (July-October) and Paris, on 8 December 1936 Szymanowski again left for Grasse with Leonia Gradstein. After a sudden crisis, on 24 March 1937 he was transported to the Clinique du Signal in Lausanne, where he died on 29 March five minutes past midnight (28 March 1937 at 11:05 pm, Polish time). The funeral celebrations were held between 30 March and 7 April. Via Basel and Warsaw, Szymanowski’s body was moved to the Crypt of Meritorious Citizens in Kraków. The composer was posthumously decorated with the Grand Cross of Polonia Restituta, First Class.

“I feel a great love for all the beauty I have seen in my life, because all beauty is unique and invaluable. I wish you every possible good fortune and plenty of creative joy – the only true joy that there is in this world. Karol Sz.”
(Letter to Serge Lifar, Paris, 20 July 1932)