Violin Concerto No. 2 op. 61 (1932-1933)

Violin Concerto No. 2 op. 61 was written at the request of Paweł Kochański, who had for a long time wanted to have a new work by Szymanowski in his repertory. The opportunity to realise this idea arose in 1932, when the violinist intended to spend a holiday in Zakopane. On 9 March 1932 the composer wrote to Zofia Kochańska: “I am terribly keen to work with Pawełek! Perhaps a new sonata might emerge out of that – or maybe even another concerto!” In July the Kochańskis came to Zakopane and Szymanowski, making use of Paweł’s technical advice and guidance as a violinist (as was the case when he was working on the First Concerto), quickly drafted a composition. Kochański later arranged a cadenza for it. On 6 September the composer wrote to Mycielski: “Paweł provoked and simply squeezed out of me a whole (second) violin concerto (of course so far only in draft). I wrote it in just under 4 weeks, so you can imagine how I had to work and how very tired I am.” Szymanowski began work on the instrumentation only in the following months, and did so intermittently for obvious reasons, since he had just begun his performances of the Fourth Symphony. The score of the Concerto was finished after a year – in September 1933.
Violin Concerto No. 2 is very different from the previous one. Not a trace is left of the flowery poetry and fairytale fantasy, ornamental sumptuousness, erotic heat and ecstatic explosions of that work. Yes, there are moments of great emotional elation, typical for Szymanowski, but they are sparingly measured out, and far from manifesting subjective states of the soul: rather, they are cheerful, triumphant, full of joyful delight and euphoria. The dominant tone in the music of the new work is objective and matter-of-fact; there is clarity of thought, a bright, sunny aura and a smile, although there are also moments of delicate lyricism.
In the Second Concerto Szymanowski moved the furthest away from the traditions and models of German music: from the post-Wagnerian spirit, and the new expressionism and the Viennese dodecaphony, in relation to which this work places itself, as if to make the point, virtually at the opposite pole. As nowhere else, here Szymanowski avoids chromatic densities, brings out the diatonic, modal clarity (although variable in the material used), and moreover indicates clearly the tonal points of reference. However, all that is beyond the traditional harmonic system and the intricacies of romantic modulations; the tonal anchorings change infrequently, but more important than these are the evolutions of the timbre of the chords, motifs of melodies and virtuoso figurations. The extraordinary compactness and economy of thought become the foundation of a rich discourse, variable in detail. The themes are simple and laconic, but the form of the musical course derived from them is by no means simple, although it remains clear and logical in its development. Against the background of European music, Violin Concerto No. 2 is striking in its originality: it is difficult to find any model for it among the violin concertos which precede it, whether in terms of aesthetic spirit and character, or form. In the type of expression and timbral colour this music is not reminiscent of any other style . In the theme of the second movement one might see a shadow of Stravinsky (from The Soldier’s Tale), though it may be as well a reference to folk dancing and the “angular” style of playing of violinists from Podhale. Perhaps the greatest number of aesthetic and expressive analogies might be found in comparison with Bartók’s late works – Viola Concerto and Divertimento, possibly also Violin Concerto No. 2 – but these were still to be written. However, in its essence Szymanowski’s Second Concerto (like his First Concerto) is a separate and unique work. Its originality is also apparent in its form. There are no disjunctions in the flow of the Concerto, but the extensive cadenza by the soloist divides it clearly into two parts with different material and structure: the first one is close to a series of variations, the second – to a rondo. One should add that in each of them there appears a marked out – as if a prolonged digression – separate slow movement, which interrupts and momentarily “suspends” the thread being developed, as happens in Chopin’s Fantasia in F-minor and in Polonaise-Fantasia. Only after that lyrical digression is there a return to the interrupted flow and its natural conclusion.

The first part (Moderato) begins in an unusually discreet and quiet manner: against a static, “pastel” background of strings and clarinets there sounds a simple (with folk features), maximally economical phrase of the soloist. To begin with, it remains with the material of only three notes: F-F sharp-G, then it moves to three other ones – A-B flat-D creating in total a strange, incomplete diatonic Phrygian-Doric scale (on the base of A, emphasised with basses). This compact phrase, repeated by the French horn, is, however, only the introduction; out of its motif there grows in a moment the real, full theme with a very bright, cheerful expression. Beginning also on three notes, but from G sharp, it now runs in Lydian E tonality, and its second sentence already abandons the ascetic modesty of the introduction and develops into a fullgrown, tuneful melody, which then passes into mobile figures. The course of this part appears like a series of short, increasingly more lively variations of the theme with growing energy and tension, which finds its outlet in the beautifully sounding climax of the orchestra by itself, where the theme at last reveals its joyful nature, enthralling in its power. After this rapture comes the digression already referred to – the slow episode (Andante sostenuto) with the very lyrical melody of the violins, which keeps changing tonal reference and “wanders” in a reverie, in a manner so typical of Szymanowski. The short “scherzo” link and the sudden increase in tension prepare for the second culmination of the orchestra, which brings a very expressive reprise of the theme.
After the solo cadenza written by Kochański, based on secondary motifs from the first part, comes the second movement (Allegramente) with its rhythmically sharp, merry, dance theme. Its archaic-modal material with passing pentatonic scale brings to mind melodies from Kurpie, but the aggressive rhythms, the harmonic timbre of the violins and the rough expression are again associated with Podhale. This part, rich and full of brilliance, both in the solo part and in the orchestra, is reminscent of a rondo with two episodes. After the first, lyrical episode, the theme, or rather its transformation, returns – the most sophisticated, piquant and colouristically inventive passage of the Concerto, with sharply bitonal harmonies and timbre effects suggestive of folk bagpipes. In place of the second episode there appears an expansively developed, expressive, tuneful part (Andantino), with a beautiful melody, based on variable diatonic passages. After this poetic “digression”, the vivacious theme returns, with new developments and another reminder of the theme of the first part. The dazzling, joyful coda is derived from the main motif of the dance theme.
Violin Concerto No. 2 was performed for the first (and only) time by Paweł Kochański on 6 October 1933 in Warsaw Philharmonic Hall (link do Traveller: Warsaw Philharmonic Hall) under the baton of Grzegorz Fitelberg. This was the violinist’s last performance; a heroic one since the artist, suffering from cancer of the liver, must have been fighting pain while playing, which was visible to the audience watching his face. Kochański died in New York on 12 January 1934. The first violinist to play the Concerto in the United States was Albert Spalding, conducted by Sergiusz Kusewicki on 30 December 1934 in Boston. Szymanowski took Paweł’s death very much to heart (it was the second death of someone close to him within a short period of time: in December 1933 he lost his brother, Feliks Szymanowski. Passing the score of the Second Concerto to Eschig for printing, he dedicated it: “A la memoire du Grand Musicien, mon cher et inoubliable Ami, Paul Kochański” (To the memory of a Great Musician, my dear and unforgettable Friend, Paweł Kochański).