Symphony No. 2 op. 19 (1909-10) is the most brilliant work from the early period of Szymanowski’s development. Constructed, like Sonata No. 2, in two movements: allegro and theme with variations ending in a fugue, it is superior to the latter in every respect. The composer was exceptionally pleased with his new symphony, and he wrote to Spiess while working on it (8 August 1909):
“it’s a long time since I liked anything as much as this Symphony. It is as if some new little boxes with musical values have opened up in me, but not at all in the ultra-modern meaning – on the contrary, it could be said to be a little Zopf-Musik [backward music].”
These “little boxes did not refer to any visions of Szymanowski’s future style, but simply to a series of brilliant musical ideas, visible particularly in the variations. Symphony No. 2 is one of those works which can be regarded as closing the current phase (and being clearly situated on its edge) rather than opening a new one. Its two-movement structure is at the same time contained in the formal plane of the traditional symphony, if one takes into account the fact that the beginning of the second movement (the theme and the first two variations) can be distinguished as a separate slow passage, the later variations have the character of a scherzo, and the last variation with fugue constitutes a powerful finale.
The first movement (Allegro moderato. Grazioso) functions as an introduction – one that is emotionally undecided with somewhat blurred contours – to the important, musically exhilarating events of the “main” part. In the allegro, attention is drawn from the beginning to its first, basic theme – very clear and memorable in spite of having a complicated structure. The B-major tonality, emphasised by the first orchestral chord, quickly dissolves in the chromatic progressions, which is why referring to this work as Symphony in B major is as much a matter of convention as calling Piano Sonata No. 2 – Sonata in A major. The tonal feeling is undoubtedly not the most important element in the perception of this complex music. At some moments it is still reminiscent of
Richard Strauss, as for example in the link phrase which runs upwards in sixteenth-notes, or in the frequent effect of the solo violins emerging from the orchestra (this applies also to the first entry of the theme, which is why one of the Warsaw critics remarked after the premiere that this was probably the first symphony to begin with solo violins!). However, one can also encounter moments closer to Debussy (the episode with string tremolos and harp glissandi after the second theme). What one hears most of here though is Szymanowski – in his “wandering” of the string line in high register, in the ecstatic discharges, in the enormous undulations of emotion, in the quick passing from lyricism to exaltation, from drama to sudden calming – as in the succulent passage in the transformation (and in the coda), when after the orchestra reaches the peak of the tension there is the sudden entry of trumpets and trombones con sordino, delicate as a whisper. In this part of the Symphony one can at times already find a foretaste of the moods of Violin Concerto No. 1. But at the same time one can find here many “Regerian” counterpoints, and the technique which characterised Szymanowski during his youthful phase; this, of course, applies to the Symphony as a whole.
After the dishevelled first movement, the theme (Lento) – beautiful, deep and concentrated, while at the same time chromatically sophisticated – brings a radical change. It opens a series of unforgettable variations with very clear musical and expressive profiles, which are also formally crafted with mastery and discipline. The first two variations develop the elegant lyricism of the theme, increasing its temperature. The third, very extensive variation (Scherzando. Molto vivace) is one of the most magnificent passages in the whole Symphony; graceful, mobile and dazzling in manipulating motifs (including the theme of the first movement) and rhythms. The lively dialogues of various instrumental groups turn it into a kind of little concerto for orchestra. The next two variations bring subtle stylisations of a gavotte and a minuet; their nature as dance music is somewhat veiled and combines with some original harmonics (unexpected links of simple chords in the gavotte, which anticipate Prokofiev!). This “scherzo” group of variations gradually quietens and becomes more gentle before the finale, opened by the sixth variation – which rushes in like a tempest, full of power and demonic passion. It is an introduction to the grand Fugue with an exquisite, rhythmically sharp theme, led out of the theme of the variation, but no less bold and modern in its shape and expression, like the theme of the fugue in Sonata No. 2. The main theme is joined by four other themes (including those from the first movement), creating together a most finely crafted whole, which makes use in various voices (also in counterpoint) of all the important motifs from throughout the Symphony. This beautiful and sumptious music is enlivened by emotional rapture, typical of Szymanowski. The quiet and calm Lento episode suddenly contrasts with them, like an alien, lyrical-meditative interpolation. The effect of the Finale, with its return of energy, is thus all the greater; its climax is the final, deeply moving segment of the work (Largo, fff), where the triumphant and majestic brass conjoins polyphonically with sixteenth-notes phrases of the strings, creating together an expression of unique ecstasy.
The score of Symphony No. 2 (dedicated to Grzegorz Fitelberg) was not published by Universal Edition, because the composer intended to introduce a number of changes in instrumentation. However, busy with other projects, by then in totally different style, he kept putting off this work; and completed it only in 1936 with Fitelberg’s collaboration. The score was first published by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne [Polish Music Publishing House] (Kraków) in 1954. For this reason, one of the most important symphonies, representing the final, twentieth-century phase of late Romanticism in European music, has been absent from the world scene, and lacked the recognition it deserves.