Until 1920, the main sources for reconstructing Szymanowski’s artistic world view are his literary works, letters and, above all, his music. The composer did not become involved in musical journalism until the last period of his creative career; thus, the views expressed in his articles do not reflect the whole development of his aesthetic thought. In them, Szymanowski talks mainly about the nationalistic style in music and the Chopin tradition, contemporary trends in music, the Romantic tradition and the role of music in society.
Szymanowski linked the future of Polish music with the nationalistic current which, however, in his opinion, had to be based on the greatest achievements of European music. Even in his first article, Uwagi w sprawie współczesnej opinii muzycznej w Polsce [Remarks on the Current Musical Opinion in Poland] he made a case against the provincialism and imitatory character of native music, which often hid academicism and emptiness under the labels of nationalist art and service to the community. He emphasised the necessity of creative freedom for the artist taking on new tasks in an independent country. He understood nationalistic music as a style which would express the “soul of the nation”, but would function within the general European culture and bring new values to it. Folk music was to be assigned a significant role in creating that national distinctiveness. However, he did not have in mind the exoticism of folklore; in his view, folklore revealed “the deepest primeval features of a given race in its relation to the sphere of aesthetic impressions.” The expressions “racial distinctiveness” or “racial attributes”, which Szymanowski employed in his articles, were probably taken from The Philosophy of Art by Hyppolite Taine, although the author does not quote that name. According to the French philosopher, “race” refers to permanent spiritual features, a set of predispositions and primeval attributes, reaching to a layer deeper than national attributes. It is thus no accident that Szymanowski sought the “purity of racial expression”, i.e., the most primeval attributes, in the music of the Tatra highlanders (the issue of “folklore” in relation to contemporary music). Evoking the Podhale folklore in his own music was thus to bring out the most primeval “racial attributes.”
According to Szymanowski, the art of the great masters is rooted in that very “creative dependence of the individual on the attributes of his race, of the immutable foundation”. For him, Chopin’s music provided the best example of such dependence. In his essays about Chopin, Szymanowski wanted to throw a new light on his great predecessor; his point of departure was that the Romantic musicography produced only mannered legends, which did not lead to a better understanding of Chopin’s art. His music was seen above all in terms of its subjective expressiveness, pathos and lyricism which, although providing evidence of his spiritual bond with the Romantic era, are not the features which make his art great. Szymanowski thus emphasised those features which link Chopin’s music to that of the twentieth century and which are “beyond time”, i.e., the structural and formal qualities, the exquisite craftsmanship. It is this timeless quality of Chopin’s works which allows one to see in them a living force which can influence the development of music.
Szymanowski was always very receptive to the various phenomena of world music – past and present; he was a lover and a connoisseur of art, and felt himself to be heir to the great European tradition, being of the opinion that “the history of humanity is really the history of its art” (Wychowawcza rola kultury muzycznej w społeczeństwie [The Educational Role of Musical Culture in Society]). He appreciated the groundbreaking nature of the musical developments in the 1920s and 1930s, and followed the various movements. However, he did reject the extremes – the avant-garde ideas of Schönberg (in an untitled essay on contemporary music) and the oversimplification of style in the works of the representatives of Les Six in France (Z życia muzycznego w Paryżu [On Musical Life in Paris]). He attached the greatest importance to Stravinsky describing his works as the “magic formula which suddenly and with utmost certainty points to further evolutionary paths (Igor Stravinsky). He was referring to the Russian period of Stravinsky’s creative development; he did not comment on Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism, referring only to the “turning” in that composer’s music in the 1920s. Apart from Stravinsky, he felt close to other composers who represented national schools: Bartók and de Falla. His attention was also drawn toward French music. He valued the innovative features of the music of Debussy and Ravel, the perfection of their compositional métier and the nobility of their emotions. On numerous occasions he expressed his admiration for French culture.
Distancing himself from the German tradition, the composer, reflecting on the subject of Romanticism in music in an essay provoked by a survey conducted by the monthly journal “Muzyka” in 1928, to an extent took stock of his own past. In it, while expressing his “deepest admiration for the genius of Richard Wagner“, he blames the latter for “all his bad musical habits” on that very genius (Romantyzm w dobie współczesnej [Romanticism in the Present Day]). With all due respect for the composers of the nineteenth century, he accuses them of “emotional garrulousness, pathetic sentimentalism [...] dilettante neglect of the form in favour of the “idea”, forgetting the self-sufficiency of music, histrionic gestures”. His opinions, at times somewhat extreme, were a camouflaged attack on the romantic epigonism, still present in Polish music of the 1920s. He claimed that, under the “banner” of Romanticism, “everything that is weak, half-baked, immature and irresponsible as opposed to the organic, truly creative tasks of our free life today, is smuggled into Polish art” (ibid.). Emphasising the “anti-Romantic” nature of contemporary music, he drew attention to the primary significance of structural-formal aspects. He did, however, note the unity of form and content in music, and emotional qualities were for him an inherent component of any truly great art.
Szymanowski published his essay The Educational Role of Musical Culture in Society while holding the post of Rector of Warsaw Conservatory. In his view, music had enormous power, which could influence the spiritual life of a nation, because of its ability to affect the sphere of “human feeling”. For Szymanowski, the point of reference is always music of the highest calibre. He was also decisive in his condemnation of banal entertainment music, seeing in it a real destructive influence on the aesthetic sensitivity of the listener. When writing about the “democratic” character of art, he was far from recommending “social philanthropy”, i.e., attempts to adapt art to the level of an uneducated listener. According to Szymanowski, the contemporary democratic character of art is expressed through three of its features: “general accessibility”, “unifying force” (shared listening experience) and the “organising force” (performance ensembles). Music is an art form where the factor of disinteredness, consisting in moving away from direct usefulness, manifests itself most strongly. Thus, the social role of music does not consist in imposing a particular image of the world through its content, but in liberating the creative instincts, and revealing a world of “an idea which is beyond the personal, and is irrevocably linked to all manifestations of beauty”, thus directing thoughts to higher matters. In this way, moving on from the thought of the ambivalence of art in relation to the morality of the previous period, the composer comes to justify its ethical function.
Szymanowski’s views have much in common with the artistic programmes of the 1920s, particularly with the ideas of the Formists. What links him with that group is primarily the new attitude toward folk art as a model for the shaping of form in new ways, and as a source of inspiration for regenerating the language of art. The new political situation of independent Poland also influenced strongly the thinking about art and about the creation of new aesthetics. Art was to provide the answer to the new reality, and to express the spiritual needs of contemporary man.
Conservatoire – Kisielewski
Conservatoire – Sikorski
Conservatoire – Taube
Conservatoire – Wilkomirski
Conservatoire – Perkowski