1920 - 1932 Independent Poland

In Warsaw, Szymanowski’s situation changed fundamentally. The loss of Tymoszówka undercut the family’s regular income, and the composer had to rely on odd jobs to make a living. In addition to his concerts and his composing schedule, Szymanowski took an active part in promoting culture in independent Poland. From 1920, he published polemical articles in the press (My splendid isolation and Opuszczę skalny mój szaniec[Leaving my stone entrenchment]), taking issue with Piotr Rytel and Stanisław Niewiadomski, his ideological opponents. In May 1920, the Teatr Polski in Warsaw commissioned from Szymanowski Mandragora, a ballet piece performed on 15 June 1920 as the concluding number in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. In October 1920 Szymanowski went to Vienna, Paris and London as a delegate of the Bureau for Foreign Propaganda but he gave up the mission and in mid-January 1921 he went with Artur Rubinstein and Paweł Kochański to the United States and Cuba. In May 1921, on his way back he met Stravinsky and Diaghilev in Paris, and 28 May he attended a performance of The Rite of Spring. Back in Poland, the composer briefly rented a flat in the provincial town of Bydgoszcz, where his sister Stanisława lived with her husband Stefan Bartoszewicz, her daughter Alina and her mother. In September 1921, Szymanowski made his second trip to New York, where the American premiere of Mandragora and the world premiere of Słopiewnie took place on 20 January 1922. In March and April, on the return leg of the journey he stopped briefly in Paris. Although his travels in Europe and the United States did much to popularize his music on world stages, Szymanowski decided against emigration, and he would stick to this decision again when Joseph Marx offered to put him in charge of the Cairo Conservatory for Music late in 1926:

“… I am scribbling these few words in a terrible haste to reply about the most important thing, i.e. Cairo. I have considered the matter carefully and I conclude that it would be too much of a risk to accept such a responsible position. My knowledge of eastern music is nil (even if I’ve had muezzins sing some truly strange things). I doubt it very much if the boring old Riemann could be of any help here. Secondly, my French is perfectly serviceable for conversational purposes where nice ladies are involved but I have never taught in French, and have no command of the professional terminology. Thirdly (what’s worse) I have never actually taught anyone, and lastly (which is the worst) I don’t even believe in teaching music. My dearest friend, I believe that both you (for all your professorships, official titles and general magnificence) and myself, just like anyone who matters in music, are in fact autodidacts, and we do our best to forget all those things that we were taught in the conservatory! I might be wrong, but I doubt it; at least this is my idealistic point of view. (Meaning that I do not consider myself competent enough to be a good conservatory director, and besides – what good would it be even if several Copts did end up writing academic fugues on oriental themes, if they happened to have no talent for the job?) (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Joseph Marx in Vienna, Warsaw, 18 December 1926)

The period of 1922-1926 brought more concerts and performances of Szymanowski’s works in Poland and abroad. On 13 May 1922, the opera Hagith premiered at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw, and was performed again on 12 April 1923 at the Hessisches Landestheater in Darmstadt. In 1924, Szymanowski became the chairman of the new Polish section of the International Modern Music Society, and early in 1926 he sat on the jury of the Society’s 4th Festival in Winterthur.

From September1924, Szymanowski lived at 47 Nowy Świat in Warsaw (link do Traveller: Warsaw, Nowy Świat), where he was neighbours with August Iwański. He also spent a lot of time in the mountain village of Zakopane, where he was in touch with Juliusz Zborowski (curator of the Tatra Museum), Adolf Chybiński, Stanisław Mierczyński, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, August Zamoyski, Zofia and Karol Stryjeński, as well as a number of local Highlanders, and he studied the Highlander folklore, which would leave a strong imprint on his new works. At that time his family suffered a cruel blow when the composer’s niece, Alina Bartoszewiczówna, died on 23 January 1925. The personal tragedy triggered a change of Szymanowski’s artistic plans. Instead of a Requiem, commissioned in 1924 by Bronisław Krystall in memory of his wife, the composer started working on a Stabat Mater. On 2 March 1926, he sent the completed score to Krystall.
A few months later, the world premiere of King Roger at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw (19 June 1926, conductor: Emil Młynarski) proved a great success for the composer, even if the reviewers adopted a superficial interpretation of the work. Given the widespread critical misinterpretation of his opera, Szymanowski actually planned to write an article called “A Defence of the Ideology of King Roger but he abandoned the project after writing a few sentences and concluded that the enthusiastic popular verdict was more important than critical carping. In his letter to Jan Smeterlin, he wrote:

“I was very pleased with King Roger, and so was the public. With isolated exceptions, the critics were less so. They were trying to persuade the public that it understands nothing of the work. Still, the public did manage to come away with an understanding of their own – perhaps because they do not read the critics. (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Jan Smeterlin in London, Paris, 17 July 1926)

The opera was criticised for an absence of a “dramatic nerve,” its obscure symbolism and for suffering from being too removed from Polish realities (Kaden-Bandrowski, Rytel, Niewiadomski). The German premiere of King Roger, taking place on 28 October 1928 in Duisburg, was successful in terms of performance and production, but it was protested against by the Stahlhelm, a German nationalist organization.
In Poland in the 1920s, Szymanowski’s music still appeared to be excessively modern, tainted by “dissonance” and “futurism” and even “too lofty.” Ironically, this meant that Szymanowski’s Polish national style was misunderstood and rejected by a group of critics belonging to the Christian Association of National Unity. The composer was better understood and supported by the critics associated with the monthly “Muzyka” and other periodicals such as “Wiadomości Literackie” or “Muzyka Polska” (including Adolf Chybiński, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Mateusz Gliński, Zbigniew Drzewiecki and others). In 1927, the first monograph on Szymanowski came out, written by Zdzisław Jachimecki. In the 1930s, a number of musicological articles appeared on Szymanowski’s works and style by Seweryn Barbag, Stefania Łobaczewska and Józef Chomiński.

“My dear Zdzisław … I am so glad to hear that you are planning to write a study of my music, and I will try to get that issue of Przegląd for you as soon as possible (provided it can be found in Warsaw at all). Judging from your letter, Section 5 will be devoted exclusively to the most recent phase in my music, where I embrace Polishness and arrive at a final shape of my style. I would appreciate that very much.” (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Zdzisław Jachimecki in Kraków, [Warsaw], 26 April 1927)

In 1927, Szymanowski accepted the position of director at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music. The offer materialized because the previous director Henryk Melcer and the members of the Teaching Council had resigned in protest when the Conservatory was denied the status of an institution of higher learning, and became classified instead in the lower category of artistic and vocational schools. Szymanowski’s nomination was connected with a programme of reforms aimed at modernizing the syllabus and bringing the teaching in line with European standards. Szymanowski ran the composition class but his pupils were few (Ilza Sternicka-Niekraszowa, Kazimierz Jurdziński, Bolesław Szabelski). The composer’s character was poorly suited both for his teaching duties and for his managing responsibilities, and his intentions were misunderstood in the music circles. This is evident from the press polemics in 1928-1931, and from the composer’s correspondence. He wrote to Zdzisław Jachimecki:

“My dear Zdzisław … Exams in my school start this Monday. I expect this to become one of the hardest experiences in my life. I find the present situation far from encouraging. To be honest, at times I feel so helpless and discouraged by the idiocy of it all … – you wouldn’t understand how I feel about my present work, how awfully useless it seems, a waste of time I could use to do some useful things while my creative potential remains relatively intact. At times it feels so completely absurd to drag my mind around all those the cobwebbed conservative corners. (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Zdzisław Jachimecki in Kraków, [Warsaw], 13 May 1927)

In 1929, Szymanowski was forced by illness to resign, and he went two times to Edlach for a cure. On 26 August 1929 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and went to a sanatorium in Davos, his cure paid for by the Ministry of Religion and Public Education. In 1930 for the health reasons Szymanowski settled down in Zakopane and spent five years living in villa “Atma”, a typical highlander house which is nowadays a museum devoted to him. When the Conservatory was upgraded to the coveted college status, Szymanowski received a professorship, and in the academic year 1930/1931 he was the school’s first Rector. In 1931/32, he only retained the position of Deputy Rector, and when the old structure of the Conservatory was restored in March 1932, he resigned together with the other professors. Although it ended in failure, Szymanowski’s brief stint behind the helm of the Conservatory left a lasting imprint on the history of the institution. Young composers accepted him as their spiritual leader, supporting his reforming efforts and embracing his aesthetic ideas.

Memories – Tansman

Memories – Słonimski