Violin Concerto No. 1 op. 35 was written in Zarudzie, in 1916, and was dedicated to Paweł Kochański. While working on the instrumentation, Szymanowski wrote to Spiess (9 September 1916): “I must say I am very pleased with the whole – again various new little notes – and yet a little bit of a return to the old. – The whole terribly fantastical and unexpected”. This work is the first modern violin concerto – the first to abandon the tradition of the the nineteenth century and the major-minor system in order to embrace a new sound and colouristic language, and a new expressiveness. Moroever, this Concerto does not draw, even in most general terms, on any other type of violin concerto known previously, and presents an exceptionally original idea, both in terms of its mood aura, the emotion contained in the work, and the form. It is really a concerto-poem – one which does not abandon the concerto and virtuoso features, but which rejects the classical structure and takes on the character of a one-movement (although internally highly differentiated) poem. However, it is a poem not at all in the sense of a symphonic poem with a literary programme, but only in the sense of having individually designed form which contains highly poetical content. Szymanowski, by sketching in his instrumental composition a complex musical “story”, whose material is provided by changing feelings and moods, follows in fact in the footsteps of Chopin and his ballads. However, the musical-expressive content of First Concerto does not really evoke the climate of a ballad, neither has it anything of a demonic drama about it. It is worth noting that the absence in the work of expressiveness of the dramatic type clearly excludes it from the romantic tradition and convention, where dramatic turbulence and conflicts, at least in some part of the work, were – particularly in large forms – a virtually indispensable element of a musical statement. In Szymanowski’s work there is no drama or tragedy – rather, we meet here sharp, almost painfully sensual tensions and passionate, ecstatic raptures, emerging from colourful and unusual, not to say magical, sound images. Although influences of romantic lyricism can be found in this work, the new harmonic devices, the intensity of feelings and the heat of emotions go beyond all the models of nineteenth-century music. Hence, the work could be described in terms of a special, personally felt expressionism, rather than romanticism.
The special character of the poem which is the First Concerto results from being saturated with two emotional elements: fairytale fantasy and eroticism. The first is reflected in the timbral language of the work, in its ornamental figures and colouring; the second – in the intense melodic-harmonic raptures, full of sensuality, but also in the subtle play of “love” nuances, in phrases which bring to mind flirtatiousness, coquetry or delicate caress. The rich, sumptious melodic lines are based on the “oriental” intervalic steps familiar from previous works (particularly characteristic is the interweaving of minor thirds and semitones), but also at times on clear tonal, diatonic motifs, although the harmonies of the accompaniment sometimes contradict the tonal understanding of a phrase. The harmonic language of the Concerto presents a large range of devices: alongside radically new sonorities , there are more traditional passages, reminiscent of Szymanowski’s earlier music. Here, for the first time, appears the effect which the composer employed later on a number of occasions, consisting in a momentary return to harmonic progessions drawing upon the Romantic style, to the pure triads, to clear tonality – in order to achieve a particular expressive effect, comprehensible within the context of the whole. In this way, that which previously had constituted the usual basis of the sound language, in the works of Szymanowski becomes a particular, local means of expression, enriching the new music, and in this way acquiring a new meaning. What is also strange is that the “traditional” places of this kind do not break up the unified style of the Concerto, but seem to result naturally from the course of the music; we perceive them as precisely expressive, and not stylistic, phrases.
The work generally is characterised by a large spectrum of timbres, feelings and moods. There is much delicate, penetrating lyricism, which is an individual feature of Szymanowski’s work (high violin registers, tuneful motifs wafting in and out in rich meanders, sublimated timbres of the orchestra); alongside this, plenty of colourful fantasy (wispy, “goblin” figures, beautiful, sensual colouring of the violin part and orchestra), and lastly – passionate, ecstatic raptures in the peak moments of the composition. Szymanowski’s ability to paint sound pictures has an enormous significance for his style, and for the attraction of the work – not only in the use of the violins, but also (primarily) in the orchestra. Here the composer reveals himself to be a great master of orchestral colouring – one of the greatest of his era. The finesse of the instrumental ideas in the Concerto seems to exceed even the delights of the orchestral sound in Symphony No. 3 and the Songs of Hafiz op.26. The succulent combination of selected harmonies with the appropriate instrumentation, producing unforgettable timbres (as, for instance, in the the main motif just before the end of the Concerto), deserves special attention.
Five phases, differing in moods and motivic material (although occasionally there are local returns to previous phases), can be discerned in the structure of Violin Concerto No.1. In spite of contrastive juxtapositions, it would be difficult to talk about movements of the concerto; the phases are too deeply embedded in the uninterrupted musical flow of the whole composition. In contrast with the Third Symphony, where the movements, although not marked by the composer, are at least separated by pauses with fermata, here there are no clear caesurae; on the contrary, the composer tries to ensure that the “movements” pass one into the other smoothly, almost imperceptibly. We might call them “links”, bearing in mind their lack of autonomy and their strong association with the others, but also their expressive distinctiveness. The music of the first link might, in most general terms, be described as fairytale-fantastical, that of the second link – as lyrical-passionate; the third link is a kind of scherzo, while the fourth is a gentle, soothing nocturn; the final fifth link, which contains a solo cadenza, brings a synthesis of all the previous phases.
In spite of its internal differentiation, the First Violin Concerto is, in its concept and sound aura, an aesthetically unified and highly individual work, about which one would like to make the same comment as about the Third Symphony: in the history of music, there is no other composition that is related or similar to it. And in view of its easily engaging, unique charm and attraction, it can, without reservation, be counted among the most beautiful violin concertos ever written. Unfortunately, the composer had to wait six years for its world premiere: this took place on 1 November 1922 in Warsaw Philiharmonia (link do Traveller: Warsaw Philharmonic Hall) ; the soloist was Józef Ozimiński, the conductor Emil Młynarski. It was not until two years later that the Concerto was performed by Paweł Kochański with Leopold Stokovsky in New York, and then in other American cities.