Among those influenced by Szymanowski are Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Henryk Górecki. Yet nearly 75 years after his death, performances of Szymanowski's colorful, elegantly crafted music are rare, even in his native country.
"It is a very sad thing, but as a pianist in Poland, you are asked to play Chopin and nothing else. Nobody asks you to play Szymanowski," says Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski. Paradoxically, it was the very fact that he felt no pressure to program Szymanowski's music that first sparked Anderszewski's interest. Determined to find out whether there was more to the composer's scores than first met his eye, he decided to give a concert performance of Métopes, a set of three Debussy-esque piano miniatures inspired by the mythology and landscape of ancient Greece.
"I learned measure after measure without understanding what the music was all about," Anderszewski says. "One day, when I could more or less play through the piece, an incredible line suddenly appeared, hidden within the music. It's a line that is not very obvious unless you know the piece very well. This discovery was one of the greatest artistic satisfactions I've ever had. It was like sailing into unknown waters and suddenly seeing a new piece of land."
Anderszewski: who has recorded an album dedicated to Szymanowski's piano music: is sharing his discovery with Carnegie Hall audiences in three concerts this spring, which offer a well-rounded portrait of one of the 20th century's most intriguing and unaccountably neglected composers.
Szymanowski remains off the beaten path in both the United States and Europe. When concertgoers do encounter his music, many are apt to find it appealing but somewhat elusive. "Szymanowski is unclassifiable," says Anderszewski, "and that is the problem of this music. We live in times where people need to connect to a period, to a style, to a movement, to a fashion. And Szymanowski is very difficult to pin down stylistically, so people get a little lost."
Like his exact contemporary Igor Stravinsky (both were born in 1882), Szymanowski was a cosmopolitan figure who traveled extensively, spoke five languages, and ingested a range of cultural influences. After gravitating toward France as a young man, he spent his later years shuttling between Paris, Warsaw, and a log cabin in the mountains of southern Poland. For much of his life, in fact, Szymanowski had no fixed address; the flip side of his music's chameleon-like diversity is its slightly disorienting sense of rootlessness.
Although Szymanowski had great respect for Stravinsky, whom he considered "the most decisive factor in revolutionary modern music," he didn't live long enough to reinvent himself multiple times as the Russian did. Nor did he share Stravinsky's openness to neoclassicism, serialism, dissonant modernism, and other strains of early 20th-century music. For all its apparent complexity, his art remained fundamentally lyrical and conservative. Isolated in Russia during World War I (he was exempt from military service because of a leg injury), he produced a string of impressionistic works under the influence of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Alexander Scriabin. Finally in the 1920s and early '30s, he forged a new stylistic synthesis indebted to the densely motivic, folk-based idioms of Béla Bartók and Leoš Janacek.
Despite his belated embrace of Polish folk music, Szymanowski rejected ethnic labels and disliked being identified as a nationalist. Polish music, he argued, should be "national, but not provincial" in spirit. In common with other members of Poland's cultural diaspora, however, he retained emotional ties to his homeland, especially after Poland regained its independence in 1918. In accepting the directorship of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1929, he turned down a lucrative appointment in Cairo, explaining that he preferred "to be a pauper in Poland than a rich man elsewhere."
Sadly, Szymanowski got his wish in the form of financial problems that dogged him for the rest of his life. Anderszewski notes that the composer was "a very bad businessman. He was hopeless with anything to do with public relations or trying to sell his music." To supplement his meager income from royalties and commissions, Szymanowski was forced to undertake punishing concert tours as a pianist that curtailed his compositional activity and ultimately destroyed his health. By the time he died of tuberculosis in 1937, the 55-year-old composer was a charity case.
Yet Szymanowski has never lacked for champions. Besides Anderszewski, the roster of eminent performers associated with his music includes pianists Arthur Rubinstein and Krystian Zimerman, and conductors Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitzky. Their common denominator, according to Anderszewski, is a passionate commitment to revealing the hidden lines and secret treasures that lie just below Szymanowski's shimmering surfaces.
"If you get to work on this music, and search and listen to it, you sometimes discover such amazing logic. But it's not something that is obvious. It is music that needs a really committed interpreter. I think there is some music: Mozart and Beethoven, maybe even Bartók or Stravinsky: that will work if you play it more or less okay, if you play the notes, even though it might not be a great interpretation. The music, on its own, is straight enough to convince a public. But if you are not completely committed to Szymanowski, his music is just not understandable. This is, I think, one of the reasons why his music is seldom played."
On the other hand, Anderszewski adds, "In my experience, if one does play Szymanowski well, one usually gets amazing reactions. If I hadn't discovered his music, I don't know where I would be today."
"The Szymanowski Project" begins April 13, with Anderszewski joining The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of the composer's "Symphonie concertante."
Anderszewski returns to Carnegie Hall in performances of additional Szymanowski works with the Belcea Quartet and soprano Iwona Sobotka on May 1 and 2.
Violinist Henning Kraggerud joins Anderszewski for Szymanowki's Mythes during the performance on May 2.
Visit Carnegie Hall for tickets.