Poet & writer

a) Karol Szymanowski’s literary legacy
Before the publication of Karol Szymanowski’s Pisma zebrane [Collected Writings] (Karol Szymanowski: Pisma. Tom 2, Pisma literackie. [Writings. Volume 2. Literary Writings.]. Collected and edited by Teresa Chylińska, with Introduction by Jan Błoński. Kraków, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1989), relatively little attention had been devoted to the literary output of Karol Szymanowski, and perhaps not everyone even realised how significant and how deep was that aspect of his work. Szymanowski’s literary legacy includes about a hundred journalistic texts, two novels, several dozen minor literary sketches, and poems.
Until the publication of the above-mentioned source edition, not much had been written about Szymanowski’s literary works; specifially, one needs to mention a few essays by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (Spotkania z Szymanowskim [Encounters with Szymanowski]. Kraków 1947, Efebos; Szymanowski jako pisarz.[The Ephebe; Szymanowski as a Writer]. “Odrodzenie” 1947 No 12; Książka moich wspomnień [The Book of my Reminiscences]. Warszawa 1958 ; Karol Szymanowski a literatura [Karol Szymanowski and Literature] in: Księga Sesji 1964), and even those, concentrating as they do primarily on the literary interests of the composer, seem to attach less importance to his actual literary output. Yet Iwaszkiewicz was the person who could have told us most on that subject, since he undertook to publish that part of the composer’s legacy, with the approval of his sister Zofia (minutes of the General Meeting, the first meeting of the Karol Szymanowski Society on 7 June 1939). However, the project was put off from month to month, until the outbreak of war and the manuscripts, kept in Iwaszkiewicz’s apartment in Warsaw, were destroyed by fire during the Second World War.
The existence of Szymanowski – the novelist was discovered only in 1939, through a radio broadcast prepared by Iwaszkiewicz, which presented fragments of the novel The Ephebos, while the poems were mentioned for the first time by Iwaszkiewicz in an article Karol Szymanowski jako pisarz (“Odrodzenie” 1947 No.12). However, interest in the composer’s literary output kept growing, since – in the words of Teresa Chylińska – “Szymanowski’s literary output is an extremely interesting phenomenon. A thoroughbred musician of exceptional artistic sensitivity and great creative dynamic, Szymanowski was also a man with a particularly rich intellectual life; he was deeply convinced that devoting oneself to the problems of the craft and practice of compositional work caused unacceptable one-sidedness of psychological development and artistic world-view.” (Karol Szymanowski. Z pism. Ed. Teresa Bronowicz-Chylińska. Kraków 1958, p. 9).

It seems that Szymanowski was not against seeing his works published. According to his secretary, Leonia Gradstein, he wanted to put in order the existing literary works with her help, but he had not enough strength and time left (L. Gradstein, J. Waldorff: Gorzka sława [Bitter Fame]. Warszawa 1969 p. 141). Although fate has not been kind to Szymanowski’s literary works, that which have survived, those fragments of thoughts and feelings noted down by the composer while fresh in his mind, in the heat of the moment, often not formed into their final shape, can be fitted together into a mosaic of truly Byzantine opulence. Most of these pieces were written during the years of revolutionary turbulence (1917-1919), when the composer, cut off from the world, was spending what would be his last years at the family home in Tymoszówka. Frustration and depression caused by the destructive power of the Bolshevik Revolution seemed to block those channels through which his musical creativity had flowed until then, and so he decided to express himself in words. In a letter from Elisavetgrad to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz the composer announced: “Just imagine – since I am unable to compose – I also write a little – with no literary pretentions, simply to get some things off my chest – but that is not important” (3 January 1918). And, in letters to friends Stefan Spiess and August Iwański: “I have dropped music for the present – I am simply unable to work under the current conditions [...] For music, one needs to feel at least a basic pleasure and enchantment in life, and in the present hideousness and moral stink which surrounds one here, that is out of the question” (Elisavetgrad January 1919). In that mental state, in desperation, as he calls it elsewhere, unable to compose, he turned to writing. Such moments happened in the years 1917-1919, in 1920, and in later years. Sometimes he would also express himself in poetry. And although he was aware of the weakness of some of his poems, he did attach some value to them. Evidence of this comes from a letter to August Iwański, written from Edlach on 17 December 1928, in which the artist, being ill, asked his friend to take the poems for safekeeping. Szymanowski was a poet. He was a poet primarily in that sense which Iwaszkiewicz describes in The Book of My Reminiscences, a poet who is “that wild one, who in the silence of the night is visited by mysterious and very different Muses [...] Karol Szymanowski’s poems were written in moments of depression, when his music failed him, when during a lonely night he would long for more direct self-expression, when he was aware of his humanity, and at the same time of the aloneness and aloofness from other people, which is the fate of every true artist.” (J. Iwaszkiewicz Książka moich wspomnień). The composer himself recounted the visits of these Muses to the writer in these words: “one evening I came home early, but a little tipsy – (in a sad mood) – could not sleep and in desperation I started to write a poem, I wrote quite a lot, but in the morning (when sober) it turned out to be a load of rubbish” (Warszawa 11 September 1920).

b) Poetry
That writing poetry meant a lot to Szymanowski, and that he attached a lot of importance not only to its content but also to its form, can be discerned from the numerous versions, changes and variants of individual poems, written either on loose sheets or in his notebooks. Iwaszkiewicz had this to say about the artistic aspect of these poems: “The weakness of these poems lies, to a degree, in revolving within a banal and conventional vocabulary – but they are interesting as a kind of ideological expression; moreover, they have that poetic tone, which so puzzles Bremond and which, in truth, is what makes them true poetry” (J. Iwaszkiewicz Książka moich wspomnień). Iwaszkiewicz also draws attention to the fact that, although in music Szymanowski passed through all the eras which we have neglected, in his poems he was fully rooted in his contemporary period. For us, they are of interest above all from the biographical point of view, since they contain such utterances by the artist as would be sought in vain in his correspondence or his journalism – they illuminate the path along which he travelled as a composer. Additional illumination is provided in particular by the programmatic verses, in which the composer’s grappling with his opponents in art take on a particular expressiveness and depth. Some of them, like Poemat dydaktyczny [The Didactic Poem], are dedicated to “Brothers in art”, others are directed at the enemies. All of them together speak of the dramatic fate of a man who has grown far above the average.

Snują się słowa gorzkie i smutne
Gdy myślą Was oplotę
Serce co kocha jest okrutne
Zakute w pancerz złoty …

Serce niezłomne, wstępuje na szańce
Gdzie jeno orle skrzydła łopocą
Żałosne tchórzów gasi kagańce
I dumne umiera nocą…

Words sad and bitter waft in and out
When my thoughts twine around you
A heart that loves can be cruel
Enchained in golden armor.

A heart unshaken, climbs the ramparts
Where only eagle wings unfurl
It puts out the sorry cowards’ torch
And, proud, dies in the night…

c) Prose
According to Iwaszkiewicz, Szymanowski’s prose was undoubtedly much more interesting and better than his poetry. Apart from the novels which have already been referred to, an introduction to the Pamiętnik [A Memoir] and Opowieść o włóczędze kuglarzu [The Story of the Wandering Juggler and the Seven Stars], one should also mention the two librettos – for King Roger and Harnasie, of which he was a co-author. Moroever, there is Diarusz amerykański [The American Diary], and more minor pieces, such as Biografia Romana Zawady [The Biography of Roman Zawada], Felieton muzyczny [Essay on Music], Sen o Duksztach [A Dream of Dukszty], Pisanie książek [On Book-Writing], Kain [Cain], or Ostatnie pożegnanie [The Last Farewell] (written after the death of his father in 1905). Teresa Chylińska, in her edition of Szymanowski’s Pisma [Writings], makes some interesting comments on these pieces. In a penetrating study about the poetic character of the composer’s imagination, the author “excuses” Szymanowski’s literary forays, “Objectivising an experience liberates one from living through that experience which, given a form, in a sense separates itself from the experiencing subject, and becomes objective” (Karol Szymanowski Pisma). Moreover, quoting the words of the composer himself, she talks about the “superfluity of feeling” being the ground from which his poems grew. What Szymanowski himself has to say about that feeling is beautiful and convincing: “the only ground on which true art can grow, and that also means any musical work as well, is the deepest, and the most mysterious panicky human feeling concerning the fact of existence [...]“. One of the most important of Szymanowski’s literary works is undoubtedly his novel The Ephebos, in which the composer presented his philosophical and ethical creed, expressing faith in the liberating power of art. The novel, which contains interesting autobiographical threads, survives only in fragments. Alongside it, Szymanowski left another, barely started, grotesque-fantasy novel Tomek – czyli przygody młodego Polaka na lądach i morzach [Tommy - or the Adventures of a Young Pole on Land and Sea], which contains the composer’s reminiscences of his travels in America. A work which has survived in full is the very beautiful and deeply symbolic Opowieść o włóczędze kuglarzu i o siedmiu gwiazdach [The Story of the Wandering Juggler and the Seven Stars]. What follows is a small sample of Szymanowski’s prose from that novel (written during the composer’s second journey across America):

Part I. A picture of the Juggler.
The Juggler had no name, since he had no home. He was a Nobody – a wispy Shadow, a smiling phantom of the southern roads, guest of the sun and lover of the night, eternal wanderer of errant paths, a happy harum-scarum, vagabond and jester. He had no name, like a man who has no face, like a madman who hides it jealously under a paper mask, screwing up his red-painted mug in a joyous smile, towards the sun. Without a home or a name, for people he had no existence at all. – For them, the only thing that existed was what he did in his life. And he did not do much, since he was a joyful lazy-bones, a do-nothing addict, perhaps altogether an impostor and a swindler. And so he wandered along winding roads, like the wind in the wilderness of the seas; his wide wings brushing against people’s houses and dwellings, against unfamiliar faces of people encountered on the road, like the wind against the rocks on the shore, which stand guard, fast against the wantonness of the fickle waters… (Karol Szymanowski Pisma).

Szymanowski expresses his attitude to his own literary output in a letter to August Iwański from Edlach, dated 17 December 1928: “And another thing. On my bedtime table (among the books) I forgot a large dark-yellow envelope with my ‘poetic works’.” Although I don’t attach any artistic value to to them, they have great personal importance, so would you be so kind as to find them there and keep for the time being either yourself, or in my library” The fact that the artist, being treated in a sanatorium, asked a friend for this particular service, tells us volumes…