Karol Szymanowski was born in 1882 in Tymoszówka (today's Ukraine) and died in 1937 in Lausanne. He began studying composition in 1903 with Noskowski. Szymanowski is held to be representative of the beginning of new music in Poland. He travelled many times abroad and lived in Berlin (1906-08), Vienna (1912-14) and Russia (1917 - 19). In 1920 he settled again in Warsaw and was professor of composition and director of the Warsaw Conservatory from 1926 to 1929.
With late romantic models (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin) as his point of departure, Szymanowski composed a large corpus of symphonic music. In later years, European influences of the most varied kinds - Richard Strauss, Scriabin, and Stravinsky - broadened his range of sound and colour as far as expressionism, but he never renounced the classic-romantic sense of form which he had acquired at the start. Another significant element in his work is Polish folklore; this can be observed especially in the compositions
written after 1920.
Szymanowski's late-romantically influenced symphonic corpus culminated in four symphonies, two violin concertos, and a number of choral works (Stabat Mater, Veni Creator) and cantatas ("Agave", "Demeter"). It is as an opera and ballet composer that he is of great significance in the development of a Polish "national style". His opera "Hagith" was performed for the first time in 1922, and in "King Roger" (1926) he achieved a valid combination of neo-romantic expressiveness and the elemental melodic richness
of Polish folk music.
His chamber music consists primarily of songs, pieces for violin and piano, and piano solo music. The two string quartets, Opp. 37 and 56, occupy an almost unique position in Szymanowski's work, for chamber music for more than two instruments is almost entirely
missing in his list of compositions. (A Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, composed in 1907, was later eliminated.) In the sets of songs ("The Hafis' Lovesongs" 1915; "Songs of the Fairytale Princess", 1915) and in the cantatas, the composer was inspired by the poetic content to express extramusical ideas in musical terms, but in the string quartets he returns to the classically orientated source of "absolute music“.
QUARTET No. 1 in C major, Op. 37
was composed by Szymanowski in the autumn of 1917 and dedicated to Henry Pruničres. The original plan called for a fourth movement, a fugue. In 1922 the quartet was awarded a first prize by the Polish Ministry of Culture but it was not performed until 1924, when the String Quartet of the Warsaw Philharmonie played it in the concert halt of the Warsaw Conservatory. Shortly afterwards it found a place in the repertoire of several of Europe's finest ensembles.
The quartet is symmetrical in structure. The first and third movements are in sonata form, while the second movement (Andantino semplice) is in a three-part song form with varied recapitulation. In its effect, the work is less expressive than other compositions by Szymanowski from the same period, a consequence of its inclination towards classic models. Cantilenas develop into broad melodic spann accompanied by what are for the most part mild tonality-related harmonies. The chief factor in the formal development is the melody which is worked out both thematically and contrapuntally. A predominant linear emphasis leads to a high degree of independence in the individual parts. There is a clear inclination towards classicism. Experimentation with sounds is set aside in favour of a lyrical calm and detached basic mood.
STRING QUARTET No. 2 Op. 56
was written by Szymanowski in 1927 and dedicated to Dr. Olgierd und Julia Sokolowski. The first performance by the Warsaw String Quartet, was in May 1929 in the concert hall of the Warsaw Conservatory. In the same year, the Quatuor Kréttly played the work in Paris.
It is in three movements: Moderato, Vivace scherzando and Lento. Like the First Quartet, the second is closely aligned with classical formal models, but goes much further into the new sounds and harmonies which Szymanowski had evolved in his cantatas (Stabat Mater) and in the mazurkas for piano. The presence of folk-music elements anticipates their use in the Fourth Symphony and the Second Violin Concerto.
The structure of the first movement shows the composer searching for new modifications of the sonata form. The second movement is a Rondo linked with variation forms; its melody and rhythm are inspired by Gorale folk music, but only motives or melodic segments of folk music appear, and these are worked out in a free fashion. The third movement is a four-part double fugue with themes that are likewise of folk origin.
The material drawn from folk music motives is worked out in a highly individual way in the Second String Quartet. The work presents a synthesis of several composing methods. The structure and the manner in which themes are shaped tend to proceed from a traditional concept of form. The second movement, in its rhythmic excitement, is particularly tinged by Szymanowski's "national" period. In the fugue, on the other hand, there is an unusual, highly personal combination of contrapuntal writing and folkloristic elements.
Composed in a period of neo-classicism, Szymanowski's two string quartets demonstrate that the classical tradition can be allied with a neo-romantic, even expressionistic, concept of sound without there being a break in style. That alliance is here of a quite individual nature, which has secured for these two works an outstanding place among the string quartets of the 20th century.