Piano Sonata in C minor op. 8 (1903-1904)

Szymanowski’s Sonata in C minor, today regarded as his most mature composition from the period of his studies with Zygmunt Noskowski, was finished in December 1904. At the time the composer was staying for the first time in Zakopane, where he met his future close friends, Arthur Rubinstein and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. It is to the latter, to Witkacy, that the composer dedicated what is perhaps his last “school” composition, in rememberance of the friendship which started then, and which resulted in a shared journey to Italy in the spring of 1905.
Examined in the light of the varied influences to which Szymanowski’s creative persona was being subjected when he was a young student in the composition class, his First Piano Sonata seems to be an ambitious attempt at a synthesis of various traditions. One can discern in it, on the one hand, strong echoes of youthful fascination with the music of Chopin and Scriabin, and on the other – an attempt to face the challenge of the heritage of German Neoromanticism, personified by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Max Reger. Valuable testimony as to the origin of this work was provided after many years by Ludomir Różycki, who at that time was studying in Noskowski’s class together with the composer, and who, with the latter, was the main co-founder of the so-called “Young Poland” movement in music: “Above all he loved, adored, Chopin, and immediately after Chopin’s music he had a great liking for Scriabin’s piano works. When he was writing his Piano Sonata (the first one), I would very often find him at the piano, studying in great detail the structure of Chopin’s and Scriabin’s piano passages. He saw in that music the secret of the piano style, and he had to discover it.”
The form of the Sonata follows the classical-romantic model. By opening the cycle with Allegro moderato, with the chordal first theme, it is reminiscent of Chopin’s last sonatas. The middle movements are the reflective Adagio and a Minuet, full of subtle grace, both of them evoking a very romantic mood. The finale, preceded by a twenty-bar introduction, is a three-part double fugue, with a “polyphonic synthesis” of the thematic material from all the movements of the work.
Szymanowski himself, in spite of lacking faith in his own talent and, by the same token, a belief in the value of his first creations, seemed to regard his Sonata in B minor op.8 as the most valueable achievement from the period of his studies. In 1910 he presented this composition for the Chopin competition for composers in Lvov, organised on the hundredth anniversary of the composer’s birth. It received first prize.