Symphonie concertante for piano and orchestra op. 60

Composed in the Spring of 1932, over a period of not quite four months (from March until June), Symphonie concertante op. 60 for piano and orchestra (dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein) is really a piano concerto, which Szymanowski had been intending to write for many years; he had even made some drafts of it, but in the end he did not use them. After his dismissal from the Conservatory he returned to the idea of a concerto, but with himself in mind as the soloist, since, having lost his Rector’s salary, he decided to earn a living by giving performances. The newly composed work was thus to be a “concerto” both in essence and in name, as is indicated by his letter to Zofia Kochańska from 9 XI 1932:

“I started writing a piano concerto (but at present it’s a great secret). [...] I don’t even know if this concerto is good or bad music, I am writing it without any of that self-criticism which is always so implacable. It just seems to be easy and pleasant to write (regardless of the fact that it might turn out to be a horrible piece of kitsch). [...] I think I’ll have finished this piano concerto by the summer, at least in draft, and will slowly start the instrumentation…”

The idea of calling the work a “symphony” appeared later, which can be seen in the composer’s letter to Kochańska dated 3 April:

“it seem as if, together with the Conservatory, I have been freed from some chains which had been binding me so far, and I am now working on this concert with the greatest ease and willingness (again, please keep it a total secret that this is a concert – you could say this is the Fourth Symphony) and, notabene, I have a feeling that it will be a first-class little piece…”

On 9 June 1932 Szymanowski wrote to Jachimecki:

“I am terribly tired – just today I put the last note of the score of my Fourth Symphony!”,

and on 12 June to Z. Kochańska:

“now I have scribbled a piano concerto far better than Harnasie…”

on 27 September to Stanisław Wiechowicz:

“That Fourth Symphony its really almost a concerto, fortunately not too difficult so perhaps I will manage to play it not too badly…”
Szymanowski was not a professional pianist, and did not have the technique of a virtuoso; his infrequent public appearances were limited to playing the piano part in songs and in violin compositions. In the new concerto, he shaped the solo part with a view to his own performance capabilities, adjusting it to his hand; hence, the work is very different from the typical “pianism” of contemporary concertos – those by Maurice Ravel or Prokofiev. In order to add brilliance, somewhat lacking in the piano part, Szymanowski increased the role of the orchestra, in a colourful and impressive style akin to Harnasie {Harnasie}, so that the soloists’ figures are constantly being supplemented and “ornamented” by the picturesque and brilliant timbres of the symphonic ensemble, to a degree which goes beyond the usual convention of the concerto form and the idea of a dialogue. This fact gave the composer the idea of calling the work “symphonie concertante”, although this title, while undoubtedly raising the symphonic qualities of the score, at the same time weakens – perhaps too much – the significance of the solo part, which in reality is not so modest as to prevent the work being called a “concerto”. In its three-part structure, with a lyrical middle movement and a lively, dance finale, as well as in its general character and expressive content of the music, the work has a lot more in common with a piano concerto than a symphony, – although, on the other hand, the richness of colouristic ideas and the subtleties of the orchestral timbre are to be associated more with the impressions received by the listener from symphonic music. However, the title is, after all, a secondary and negotiable aspect; the important thing is that the composition, in exactly that individual shape in which it was planned, is fully convincing, impressive, and full of unusual delights. Szymanowski, intending to perform his Symphonie concertante on as many stages as possible, imagined it from the beginning as music which is easily accessible and attractive, although not at all primitive and – obviously – worked out in accordance with his subtle and modern taste. After the remarks of a Danish critic about the work, which was performed in 1933 in Copenhagen, the composer said to Iwaszkiewicz: “My God, is it really that serious? All I wanted was to write a little “Unterhaltungsmusik” for the wider public!” The work decidedly avoids complicated experiences, large drama, even sadness. It strikes one with its quite uncommon degree of cheerfulness and brightness of spirit. Undoubtedly it was not just a question of attracting a “wider public”; judging by the works which followed, Szymanowski during that period had a deep psychological need to escape from his problems into a sphere of brightness and optimism; perhaps just such a musical expression was for him a necessary antidote to the failures and the illness he had recently undergone.

The first part of the work (Moderato), the mood of which was described by the composer in a letter to Jachimecki (8 November 1932) as “very cheerful, almost merry”, is characterised by a special – one might say – bold, surprising variability of tempo, expression and character of the music, using contrasts and juxtaposing elements seemingly alien to each other in a teasing and stylistically fresh manner. The treatment of the sonata allegro form, or rather breaking away from it, is also teasing: Szymanowski abandons the central development section, and employs the features proper to it to the ending, after the reprise of the main theme. Because of this, the main dynamic and expressive weight of the first movement falls on the last phase, providing – through its energetic “explosion” – the necessary outlet for the tensions which had been growing thoughout the whole capricious course of the allegro.
The main theme, played by the pianist in octaves against the background of consonant F-major chords in strings, attracts the listener with a sweet charm, while at the same time imposing quite complex sensations. The initial, characteristic motif-signal, password or call and answer – opens a long, very tuneful line, kept on the whole within the traditional harmony (which, however, is shortly to be disrupted with the entry of two-note sonorities). This theme, in spite of its seemingly easily accessible beauty, is aesthetically equivocal; those maliciously disposed might, perhaps, look in it for associations with café music, and even the tango; others might perceive a slight wink or at least a gentle, good-natured smile of a great composer.
As if awakening from a sentimental reverie, the composer introduces, together with a trumpet motif and an energetic gesture from the strings, a sudden change of tempo and mood. The quick, piquant passages and chords of the pianist, deriving from the theme, lead to a spectacular climax. The second theme (Andantino tranquillo e dolce), in Szymanowski’s favourite punctuated rhythm, sounds softly in the flute against the background of the delicate rustle of the orchestra, then increases in force in the chords of the piano. After the return of the energetic and jocular (somewhat jazzy) passages, the theme powerfully explodes in the strings, introducing at last the great emotional rapture – Szymanowski’s mark – and some elements of thematic transformation. The calming of the tension and the mysterious, appealing sound of frullato flutes with percussion precede a magnificent reprise of the main theme, played now by the violin against the piano chords. However, this apotheosis of melodiousness and harmony turns in an (again) energetic link into gaudy and sharp timbres and rhythms, reminiscent of the colouring of the brigand scenes in Harnasie. The soloist’s cadenza, which transforms the theme, is also rough in its chords and rhythms. It begins the proper development section of the first movement, since the motifs of the second theme, which return after it, bring the greatest density of its transformations and tensions, as well as a veritable explosion of energy, culminating in a very modern-sounding coda, rhythmically sharply torn, and played in harmony by the piano and the whole orchestra. The slow second movement (Andante molto sostenuto) seems to unfold before the listener some truly heavenly delights of colour and expression. The delicate rustle of the strings (tremolo, con sordino, sul tasto – on new harmonies) and the almost whispering, “impressionistic” piano figure provide the background for the melody of the flute, genuinely inspired in its lyrical reverie. This is simply one of the most beautiful melodies in the whole of Szymanowski’s legacy; not at all simple, devoid of tonal relationships (in spite, it might seem, of momentary centralizations), it takes a long time to develop on (nearly) all the steps of the twelve-note scale, drawing attention with each interval step. The counterpoint is provided by the solo of the viola. Later the melody is taken over by the solo violin, counterpointed by the muted trumpet. The piano, as if in a poetic trance, keeps moving from delicate arabesque to beautiful, subtly selected harmony of two-note sonorities in both hands. The harmonic beauty of Szymanowski’s music, usually of the highest order, here seems to achieve its pinnacle. The “nocturnal” second movement of the Symphony ends with delicate, ornamental little piano figures.
The final third part (Allegro non troppo), which enters without a break (attacca), is the most magnificent stylisation of the oberek dance in symphonic music. The fiery, elemental dance with persistently repeated motifs and circling design is crossed here (as in some Mazurkas op. 50) with the timbral and expressive colour of Podhale. The theme emphasises the sharp, aggressive rhythm at the expense of melodiousness: the extremely concise, reduced to a minimum, melodic motif only sharpens additionally the rhythmic energy of the theme, introduced first quietly by the percussion, then by the strings in a low register, and finally by the piano in bass. The theme rapidly grows and increases in power, and its expansive force finally embraces all the instruments, leading to a great, “brutal” culmination.
This is opposed by an episode full of light, brilliant humour: an original, mobile “tapping” figure of the piano, then the staccato of the violins with and ascending glissandi; the vitality and feverishness of the dance are emphasised by the shrill sounds of the wood. The fundamental expressive contrast appears only in the second episode – a calm and lyrical one, stylised as a melodious kujawiak dance. The wistful melody, very Polish in spirit and at the same time original in its form, is played by solo violins, then the piano with very subtle and sophisticated harmonies. The dance rhythm regains its strength when the first episode, or rather its development, comes back. From that moment the colourful brilliance and spectacular effectiveness of the concerto-symphonic timbre keeps growing. The return of the theme is preceded by the last, most enthralling episode of the work, the “great oberek” played by strings circling high, with the accompaniment of the whole orchestra and piano passages; the joyous energy, elemental force and dance intensity reach here an ecstatic expression. The climax brings back the rhytmic motif of the theme, which closes the work with a bright brilliance.

Szymanowski was pleased with his Symphonie concertante as with few other of his works, and this is hardly surprising. In terms of motivic and timbral inventiveness, power of expression and perfection of composition, this is one of his most successful opuses. The great melodic charm of the themes, the enchanting emotionalism, and the spectacular rhythm mean that the work could be one of the most popular, favourite piano concertos with today’s public, just as, in their time, were the best romantic concertos. This will undoubtedly happen if this work becomes more widely known and is performed more frequently by various pianists. Apart from the excellent qualities already mentioned, there is also the work’s highly individual style and colouring: this composition is clearly different from other piano concertos of its time – by Ravel, Bartók, Prokofiev – and has its own, very distinctive timbral and expressive character. The world premiere of Symphonie concertante op. 60 took place in Poznań on 9 October 1932; the composer played the piano, the conductor was Fitelberg. On the 27th of the same month, Szymanowski wrote to Kochańska: “my piano ‘debut’ with the concerto in Poznań on the 9th. You can imagine what an évenement this was for me! Everything went superbly, so much so that I had to play the whole finale as an encore! Don’t laugh at me – I suppose I really treat my ‘pianism’ as a joke, but I give you my word, people were totally amazed at how I can play like that. I don’t really understand how I managed to get to the point where I could play reasonably correctly in general, and even with some éclat.” Shortly afterward Szymanowski played the Symphony, also with Fitelberg, in Lvov (5 November) and in Warsaw (11 November and 18 December 1932). The following year he was supposed to begin a foreign tour with this work, although to some extent he realised the foolhardiness of this enterprise: “… it will cost me a lot since, as you know, I have had little to do with piano playing” (he wrote to Wiechowicz on 27 September 1932); “Piano playing bores and tires me terribly, especially as it is too difficult for me, but what can one do!” (letter to Kochańska 4 September 1932).