In the autumn of 1927 Michał Kondracki was climbing to Szymanowski’s flat in Nowy Świat on the sixth floor. “On the stairs I heard thoroughly familiar sounds. It was Szymanowski at his old, trusty piano, working on the second Quartet… the work was not flowing. He would repeat one musical phrase a number of times, looking, perhaps, for the appropriate shape or harmonic background for it. It was a reminiscence of some Highland melody… Then silence, as Szymanowski made notes.”
The composer’s return to the quartet genre after ten years was brought about by an invitation received from the Musical Fund Society in Philadelphia, encouraging Szymanowski to take part in a competition for a chamber composition. The aim of the competition was worthy: “to add valuable works to the repertoire of chamber music”, as Szymanowski reported in a letter to Zofia and Paweł Kochański. Additional motivation was provided by the high value of the prizes: “Zofia…, what a delight it would be to get even that last one of 2000$”, he said in that letter, enclosed with the finished score.
Szymanowski at that time was short of time, busy with work at the conservatory. He thus viewed his new composition with a degree of reserve: “I have no idea if it’s worth anything! (But I do think it will sound very well).” Unfortunately, the quartet was not worthy of a prize in the opinion of the jury (the prize went to Bartók and Casella), but it would be difficult to disagree with the remark in brackets: out of an ensemble of four related instruments Szymanowski really did extract an enormous richness of timbral effects.
Like the earlier quartet, this one is also constructed in three movements. The form of the first movement is sonata-allegro, the second combines rondo with variations. In the third movement, Szymanowski put into practice an idea he had many years earlier, crowning the quartet with a fugue, and a double one at that. The main theme of the first movement (Moderato) is intoned by the violin and the cello in a high register characteristic of Szymanowski, against the background of rustling tremolo. As the theme undergoes transformation, the music becomes not only more expressive, but more colourful. It owes this last characteristic to the great diversity of articulation, such as sul tasto (with the bow close to the fingerboard), sul ponticello (near the bridge), a punta d’arco (at the point of the bow) as well as numerous tremolos, trills and use of harmonics. After a rhapsodic Moderato the resolute rhythmic patterns of the scherzo introduce a more lively tempo. The chords sound rough, even dissonant. The quartet is one of the most “modern” of Szymanowski’s compositions, perhaps inspired by the modernist music which he had the opportunity to hear, if only by participating a year earlier in the festival organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music in Zurich. Today, however, its most striking aspects are the motifs clearly associated with the highland folklore of Podhale, more precisely the brigands’ melody “Pocciez chłopcy”.
Echoes of the highland Sabała note, similar to Harnasie, can also be heard in the finale (Lento – Andante – Moderato, tranquillo), while the quartet closes with chords which stylise the play of Zakopane folk bands, to which Szymanowski had for years been listening with great enthusiasm. This must have given additional pleasure to the persons to whom the Quartet is dedicated, doctor Olgierd Sokołowski and his wife Julia, the composer’s friends from Zakopane.
String Quartet No. 2 op.56 was first performed by the Warsaw String Quartet on 14 May 1929. However, a performance of it a few months later and far from Warsaw created a much greater stir. In the autumn of that year Quatuor Kréttly presented the new work at a concert of the Association of Young Polish Musicians in Paris. After that performance, Szymanowski received many letters of the highest praise from members of the young generation of composers, such as Szymon Laks, Zygmunt Mycielski and Tadeusz Szeligowski.