9 Preludes op. 1 (1899-1900)

Szymanowski’s adolescent years, spent at the family home in Tymoszówka, produced numerous attempts at composition. During that period he composed many preludes, etudes and other piano miniature forms, as well as variations and sonatas, including one for violin and piano. Virtually all of this work has been destroyed; the only remaining items are the nine preludes written during the years 1899-1900 and published as opus 1 in 1906 by “The Publishing Company of Young Polish Composers. It is the earliest of Szymanowski’s compositions known to us today.
The Preludes show a strong influence of the Chopin tradition, nursed at the Szymanowski manor house with particular piety, as well as clear traces of familiarity with the early works of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who shared with Szymanowski the exceptional, especially for those days, fascination with Chopin’s music. In form and texture these works seem to refer directly to the model created by Chopin; they are charactacterised by such features as form-shaping by initial motif transformations, polyrhythm combining “duple” and “triple” patterns; a polyphonic texture and rich ornamentation. On the other hand, Scriabin’s influence can be perceived in the avantgarde harmonic language of the preludes, rich in dissonant consonances, as well as a particular type of expressiveness – very powerful, penetrating, with a clearly indicated climax (musicological literature sometimes compares Szymanowski and Scriabin as the two representatives of the so-called Slavonic expressionism – with good reason).
What makes the cycle uniform is its lyrical character, but also the slow or moderate tempo and minor tonality of the majority of the works. One of the preludes which stands out is the Prelude in D minor No. 5 (Allegro molto, impetuoso), full of virtuoso brilliance and highly dramatic expressiveness. In the next, sixth, Prelude in A minor, one can discern the influence of Wagner’s Tristan, both in its harmonic aspect and in the shaping of the form on the basis of continuous progression. However, it is the last prelude, Prelude in B minor, which is regarded as the most original one. In its style, more distant from the models of Chopin and Scriabin, we find a forerunner of the much later piano preludes of Claude Debussy.
Preludes op. 1 represent a creative transformation of the Chopinesque model of this genre in piano music on the one hand, and, on the other, an original assimilation of elements of the musical language of Wagner and Scriabin. They should be regarded as a very successful, one might say: triumphant, debut as a composer. The scale of Szymanowski’s talent was recognised in these works by such musicians as Arthur Rubinstein, a prominent Polish pianist and a great friend of the composer. Reminiscing in his memoirs about the moment when, in 1904, he looked through the manuscripts of these works, he wrote: “It is impossible to describe our amazement after playing the first few bars of the Prelude. This music was composed by a master! Feverishly we read through all the manuscripts, and our enthusiasm and excitement rose as we realised that we were discovering a great Polish composer!”