The war years, spent in Ukraine (Tymoszówka, Kiev, Elisavetgrad) were for Szymanowski a period of exceptionally intense creativity. Deepened intellectual reflection was accompanied by widening compositional experience and a thorough rethinking of the principles of musical construction. During those years his works were most strongly inspired by experiences outside music, evoked by reminiscences of journeys to Sicily and to Arab countries. External impulses provided the impetus for musical ideas which were subjected to technical procedures, and thus the whole symbolism contained in the compositions, and at times the “iconicity” of the sound, do not contradict the cohesion or the structural independence of the works.
Apart from compositions with lyrics, purely instrumental works have programmatic subtexts: for example, in Masques op. 34 the titles of particular parts recall characters from works of literature: the heroine of the tales of 1001 nights, Scheherazade, Tristan dressed as a clown (according to an episode from a drama by E. Hardt Tantris der Narr), Don Juan. The title of the cycle suggests that the composer was inspired by the “insincerity” of the situation of the characters, who conceal behind masks their true intentions and feelings. In the First Violin Concerto op. 35 the hidden programme is provided by the poem Noc majowa [A night in May] by T. Miciński. Szymanowski’s works are mainly dominated by two thematic threads: the exotic Orient and the Dionysian myth. They come together in King Roger.
In works from the middle period, the major-minor tonal system, with its functional dependencies between chords, its opposition of consonance and dissonance, and the tertiary structure of chords, loses its influence. It is the twelve-note scale which provides the basis of melody, harmony and figuration. Although in many fragments of these works it is possible to distinguish selected sound material in the shape of changing arrangements of scales (e.g., pentatonics, whole-note scale), or the overlapping of scales (e.g. the beginning of Nausicaa op. 29 No. 3, the polytonal third movement of String Quartet No. 1 op. 37), they do not regulate the works as a whole. The initial melodic material, most frequently limited to a segment of twelve-note scale, is gradually widened (.) Similarly, there are no uniform principles of chord building; euphonic minor and major triads are used along other tertian chords, such as seventh and ninth chords, as well as major-minor third chords and chords built on the same interval (in fourths, fifths, seconds).Most often, however, chords are made up of various intervals, often strongly dissonating (tritones and minor seconds), and they are no more linked by the traditional harmony principles. The chord no longer fulfils the function of the regulator of vertical and horizontal layers, because of the new kind of texture. In the intricate, often multilayered sound complexes the melodic interval structure has more significance than vertical harmonic arrangements. However, the tonal centre is still effective as a kind of gravitational point, mainly in creating the bass base (single notes, chords, ostinato figures).
Attention is drawn particularly to tritone axes, which create reference systems for note courses (single, e.g. C-F sharp, or double, e.g. C-F sharp-A-E flat). Tritone consonances often appear with their resolution (on the “outside”, e.g. C-F sharp and B natural-G and to the “inside”, e.g. C-G flat and D flat-F).
The harmonic-tonal structure is not by itself the deciding factor in Szymanowski’s change of style. The significant factors are the new treatment of texture, colourful instrumentation and a new, sensualistic aesthetic of sound. In this way the composer came closer to the impressionistic style of Debussy and Ravel. At that time, he also had a lot in common with the style of Igor Stravinsky (The Nightingale), and the late style of Alexander Scriabin. To describe the works of the middle period as “impressionist” would thus narrow the essence of the changes, which undoubtedly were associated with the style of the period, but in effect created an individual compositional idiom.
The piano texture in Szymanowski’s work becomes extremely varied owing to the richness of the sound arabesques, scattered along an extensive scale of registers. The great mobility of the sound planes, achieved through the use of tremolos, trills, figurations in small rhythmic values or arpeggiated chords, serves to achieve a sound which shimmers with rich colours and is full of subtle dynamic nuances. At the same time, Szymanowski does not give up on the main role of the melody, which remains the main means of expression. In the multilayered, quasi-orchestral texture one can distinguish melodic motifs (single or led on two planes), mobile sound figures of varied density which weave their way from the lowest to the highest register, chords , bass base, at times also rhythmic motifs. The earliest texture of this kind appears in Metopes op. 29. In Myths the colour becomes more intense not only through the virtuoso collaboration of the two instruments, but also because of the sophisticated violin articulation (single and double trills, chord glissandi with tremolo, harmonics, quarter-tones). The music here represents the sound phenomena suggested by the titles: the delicate murmuring of water in Źródło Aretuzy [The Fountain of Arethusa], or the harmonics in the solo violin on a arpeggiated triad in The Dryads, imitating the sound of Pan’s pipes.
Szymanowski’s orchestral style also undergoes a change. When writing a score, he no longer “instrumentalises” a piano draft, as in the previous period. Compositional drafts (e.g. Agawe) indicate that all the themes, figurations, ornamentation, rhythmic motifs, were from the start intended for particular instruments and adapted to their possibilities and timbral character. Szymanowski differentiates the functions of the ensemble, contrasting the melodic planes, which move uccessively between different groups of instruments, with the colourful, wavy timbral background, achieved by making use of the tremolo of multiply divided strings or glissandi of the harps (Symphony No. 3). An important part is played by the modification of the sound of the instruments through the means of articulation: muffling, playing sul tasto and sul ponticello, harmonics in the strings, frullato of the brass instruments. The variety of sound is intensified by the changing sets of instruments, and dialogue of groups of instruments, where the smaller ensembles are opposed to massive tutti in the climaxes.