In the summer of 1917 Szymanowski decided to write a string quartet. Paweł Kochański heard that news with pleasure, reminding his friend: “do you remember, how you did not like quartets, you used to say it does not give you satisfaction, not enough timbre?” In the meantime, however, Szymanowski created his own style of violin music (it should be noted, with significant help from Kochański) and decided to face the challenge of composing for chamber strings. He worked on the new composition mainly in the autumn, at Tymoszówka and in Elisavetgrad. He planned a classical four-movement quartet, crowned with a fugue. However, the work took a somewhat different shape from that originally intended. The composer enclosed it in three movements, two lyrical ones and a mobile last part. The scherzo, which was to appear in the second place of the cycle, finally became its closing part.
“The spirit of Palestrina’s diatonics rules in the introduction…”, Zdzisław Jachimecki wrote enthusiastically about the Lento assai episode which opens String Quartet No. 1 in C major op. 37. It precedes a sonata-allegro (Allegro moderato), built along classical lines but with an impressionistic sound, belonging to the world of Myths and Violin Concerto No.1. The peaceful, expressive cantilena sounds mainly in high register, against the background of rustling accompaniment.
The beginning of the middle movement, Andantino semplice (In modo d’una canzone), draws away from this poetic atmosphere. We hear a relatively simple melody which apparently came to Szymanowski during a walk in the famous park of Zofijówka near Humań. This theme is transformed in the variations, which, however, quickly restore the climate familiar from Szymanowski’s other compositions of that time. In the Lento assai episode the melody, usually entrusted to the first violin, is developed against an extremely colourful background created by use of tremolos, figurations in small rhythmic values, glissandi, harmonics , articulation sul tasto (over the fingerboard) and con sordino (with the mute). “In no previous work of his could one feel such hot breath of the south,” wrote Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz in “Wiadomości Literackie” after the first performance of the composition, “not the heat of the Sicilian afternoon, nor the mournful glow of Greece, when the Pan’s flute drives hearts to death, but a heat that is succulent, ripe, and fragrant with the grain of the Ukraine … the wailing, that mixes on a hot afternoon … with the high hum of the cicadas.”
The last part begins with an attacca (Scherzando alla burlesca. Vivace ma non troppo), which radically changes the music’s character. The first theme of the finale is a persiflage of the fugato in the scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and begins as an imitation, as if trying to emphasise this kinship. Above all, however, each voice plays, and is notated, in a different tonality: A major, F sharp major, E flat major and C major. “It is a unique composition in contemporary music”, wrote Zdzisław Jachimecki in 1927, highly impressed by this “harmonic experiment.” However, one should point out that the basis of this polytonality is the four-note chord built from minor thirds (C, E flat, F sharp and A), which means that it sounds gentle, almost consonant. The whole ends in the simplest manner possible: in C major.
In January 1923 Szymanowski received for his quartet the main prize in a competition organised by the Ministry of Religious Faiths and Public Enlightenment (the jury did not award any other prizes). This distinction brought him not only satisfaction, but also an injection of cash, an important aspect of the award in view of his financial situation at that time. However, by the time the first performance was finally organised for 7 March 1924 in Warsaw (the primarius of the ensemble, made up of musicians from the Warsaw Philharmonic, was Józef Ozimiński), Szymanowski’s comments about the quartet were somewhat restrained. “I do not count it among my favourite compositions, but it does represent something of value”, he wrote to Helena Kahn-Caselli from Zakopane, where he travelled after having heard enough of the work during rehearsals (by the day of the concert he was already in the Tatras). He dedicated his String Quartet No. 1 to Henry Pruniéres, the editor of the Paris monthly “La Revue Musicale”.