The Wagnerian-Straussian idiom was employed in Symphony No. 1 op. 15 (only two parts of this work have survived), described by the composer as a “contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster”, and Penthesilea op. 18. These works demonstrate the composer’s early attempts to restructure the tonal principles, and his wrestling with the sound material. He probably judged the results to be unsatisfactory, since he withdrew Symphony No. 1 from the list of his compositions; his Trio op. 16, which does not survive even in drafts, met a similar fate. However, while assimilating the technical devices of the new German music, Szymanowski modernised his compositional tools, and established an attitude of openness to new artistic ideas.
From experiment, the composer moved on to synthesis, realised in Symphony No. 2 op. 19 and the Piano Sonata No. 2 op. 21. The two works share a similar architectonic idea, which consists in including a four-movement cycle within the framework of two parts (sonata allegro and theme with variations). In the second part of Sonata No. 2, after the presentation of the theme and the first three variations, there appear successive variations whose link to the theme becomes loose – Allegretto scherzando e capriccioso, Sarabanda, Minuet and Largo espressivo (the slow movement) and the final fugue with its theme derived from the fourth variation. In the coda, the first theme of the first movement of the Sonata, which closes the cycle, appears twice. In Symphony No. 2 the theme of the second movement and the first variations replace the slow movement, the fourth variation (in the first version of the work) is a Scherzo (with a recollection of the theme of the first movement), while in the dance parts – Gavotte and Minuet – there is the entry of new themes, as is the case in Largo maestoso (which appears only in the first version). In the final five-theme fugue, the theme is derived from the theme of the first movement and the theme of the variation. The first theme of the first movement returns in the closure, in a manner similar to the Second Sonata. In a manner similar to Sonata No. 2, in the ending there is a return of the first theme of the first part according to Arthur Rubinstein, the hidden programme in the episode of the second movement was a fragment of the narrative from the novel Popioły [The Ashes] by Stefan Żeromski; Rubinstein thought the fragment in question was the chapter Noc i poranek [Night and Morning], which contains a description of the ball episode, an encounter with the Duchess, and escape over the Vistula).
The first signs of change in Szymanowski’ s artistic consciousness can be discerned even during the years preceding the outbreak of the First World War. In 1913 he encountered stage performances and short scores of Stravinsky’s ballets (referring to Stravinsky as a “genius”, Szymanowski added: “I am beginning to hate the Germans”, in a letter dated 14 October 1913). The trips to Italy, taken almost annually (1905, 1908, 1910, 1911, 1914), turned his attention toward antique culture. He adopted German translations of the poetry of Hafiz, a thirteenth-century Persian lyrical poet, as the basis of his song cycle op. 24; however, in spite of these new artistic stimuli, he was at the same time composing Hagith, an opera in the Straussian style which was clearly becoming burdensome. The archaised orientalism and erotic plot were supposed to make the work popular, but it had too much in common with Salome; moreover, the “Straussian affectation”, which the composer complained about, concerned not only the subject matter, but also the harmonic style and choice of instrumentation.