While in London, the dramatic events of the summer of 1914 began to unfold when the tense international situation deteriorated after Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. The composer gave up a trip to Switzerland scheduled to meet Ignacy Jan Paderewski, and via Berlin, Warsaw and Kiev he returned to his native Tymoszówka. Once there, he described in a letter to Spiess his early experience of the Great War:
“The war has not left much of a mark on our family – except that we are terribly worried about Stanisława, her husband and her daughter. Unfortunately, they had left before Lviv was taken and we do not know where they are … This constant sense of the danger they are in is very dispiriting to us all. We are all well, and things haven’t really taken a bad turn in material terms. Personally, I consider myself to be completely bankrupt and have no idea how things will turn out. Zioka [Zofia], and possibly also Nula [Anna] are leaving shortly for Kiev to take a six-week Red Cross course in nursing. The number of casualties is high, and the shortage of nursing staff is very acute. In Kamionka there are plenty of seriously wounded soldiers, and Nula and Zioka spend practically all their time there. Here at Tymoszówka we also have some servicemen who are ill or lightly wounded, so the ladies have plenty of work on their hands. Occasionally, I get regrets that I could not enlist because of my disabled leg. Have you noticed that at times like these the spirit of a swashbuckling adventurer stirs even in a quiet individual like me? My stay in London, though it is so recent and there are so many interesting things to relate, seems in every respect to have become enveloped by a cloud of fog. However, in many ways, including artistic ones, the whole trip has had a very strong and decisive effect on me. (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Stefan Spiess, Tymoszówka, 7 September 1914 [NS: 20 September]).
During the Great War Szymanowski was cut off from Europe. He spent the summer months on his family estate, and in late autumn or winter travelled to Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he met great musicians including Sergey Prokofiev and Alexander Siloti, who planned to perform his Symphony No. 3 (“Song of the Night”). At Tymoszówka, he devoted much time to philosophical and literary studies, reading works by Plato, Nietzsche, Bergson, Hippolyte Taine, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Tadeusz Zieliński, Jacob Burckhardt and others. That period of heightened intellectual stimulation culminated in an outburst of artistic creativity. Szymanowski wrote many new pieces of music, and for the first time he tried his hand at writing, which took the shape of the novel Efebos and some poems. Although the composer treated his literary attempts as purely private, they nonetheless helped him to resolve certain moral issues, and to verbalize in an artistic form his attitude to life, art and love.
“Now that I cannot compose, I write a little – can you imagine? Obviously, I do that without any literary pretensions, simply to get certain things out of the system.” (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, [Elizvetgrad], 3 January 1918 [NS: 16 January])
At that time, Szymanowski’s homosexuality was consolidated by his acquaintance with Boris Kochno, a young poet and a future collaborator of Sergey Diaghilev. The longest existing passage of Szymanowski’s lost novel Efebos survives in the composer’s Russian translation given to Kochno as a present in Paris. Written in 1917-1919, Efebos helped the composer to create for himself an “illusion of life” during the most turbulent phase of revolutionary turmoil in Ukraine. Following the February Revolution of 1917, power in Ukraine was seized by the Tsentralna Rada, which sought to create an autonomous Ukrainian state. In mid-October 1917, the political situation was uncertain and marauding raids from Bolshevik troops were growing increasingly frequent, so the Szymanowskis moved to the relative safety of Elizavetgrad. However, as a result a Bolshevik offensive in January 1918, Soviet troops soon took Kiev and Elizavetgrad. The composer’s family manor house in Tymoszówka was looted and destroyed. Szymanowski, acutely depressed but still actively composing, wrote to a friend:
“The situation here is appalling … The confusion is so awful that there is no knowing what’s going to happen to us. I am cursing our foolish naivety in the summer, when we still hoped for things to get back to their usual course … I also curse my ill luck for ideological reasons, namely that in times of such extraordinary interest (that despite their atrociousness) I am living in this small town and not in Warsaw! I am disgusted by the boundless irony of my current parochialism. At a time like this, to have chosen the town of Elizavetgrad over any other city in the world – this is simply unthinkable … We have absolutely no idea what is going on in your parts, in our country. An enviable position indeed! One would perish of melancholy but for the persistence with which I am writing Efebos. It is nearly done, all that remains is some general editing work. I am quite proud of my Symposion, which has turned out to be quite good. To console myself, I have made plans for a second novel, a sequel to Efebos which would nevertheless be a diametrically opposed book treating of completely different issues. For the time being, the whole thing is too complicated to get into. As for now, I have given up on composing – it is simply not possible to work in such conditions. I have only written a piece called “The Six Songs of a Muezzin,” which I am very pleased with. To write music, one needs to feel at least a certain pleasure of life, and this is wholly out of the question given the current abomination and the moral stench that is so ubiquitous here. (Karol Szymanowski, letter to Stefan Spiess and August Iwański, [Elizavetgrad], 4 January 1919 [NS: 17 January])
With Austro-Hungarian and German forces in the country in the wake of the Treaty of Bresk-Litovsk (3 March 1918), the Ukrainian General Pavlo Skoropadski took power and became appointed as Hetman of Ukrainian State. It was in the relatively quiet period which followed that Szymanowski first came up with an idea for his future opera King Roger. That was in the summer of 1918, and already on 27 October he sent a sketchy rough draft of the libretto to Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, then living in Warsaw. At the same point, Stefan Spiess and August Iwański, Szymanowski’s friends, left Ukraine for Warsaw. Szymanowski decided to bide his time, but in November 1918 the war ended, the Germans pulled out of Ukraine, and Semen Petlura, a Ukrainian Nationalist leader, took control of the government. In February and March 1919, the Red Army took Kiev, and on 10 March the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. Szymanowski had to take up work at the People’s Commissariat of Education, where he and Harry Neuhaus were in charge of organizing concerts for the Culture Promotion Department. In August-September 1919, the White Russian forces of General Denikin briefly gained control, and Szymanowski and his family could move to Poland. Feliks Szymanowski left on 15 October, and Karol (who travelled with Artur Taube and Taube’s mother and sister) did not leave until December. The party reached Warsaw at Christmas Eve. The composer’s mother and two of his sisters, Nula [Anna] and Zofia, joined them several months later.