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Szymanowski on Music: Selected Writings of Karol Szymanowski. Edited and translated by Alistair Wightman. Pub.: Toccata Press, London, 1999. ISBN 0907689 38 8. 390pp. Hardback £35.00 RRP

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One of the composers who has occupied increasing prominence in my general listening over recent years is Karol Szymanowski. That his music is more widely known and played is much to be welcomed; he has been revealed as the most significant Polish composer since Chopin. His compositions carry the imprint of many influences and speak of a musical mind that was deeply and roundly cultured. The entry on Szymanowski in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians makes tantalising reference to his writings, listing several in the sources, and not having any available in English until now has been a source of frustration to this investigative listener.

The volume is cast in sections, with Wrightman's useful and authoritative introduction to Szymanowski's life and thought forming a much needed context for what follows. Here Wightman draws to good effect upon the writings of others, particularly a volume edited by Jerzy Maria Smoter, to give a well-crafted portrait of Szymanowski's background and early years. As this contextual piece continues brief quotations from Szymanowski himself introduce many of the threads of composition, performance, musicology, philosophy, literature and sense of place that occupy the rest of the book. This section will be particularly useful for those with patchy or no prior knowledge of Szymanowski, or indeed those, like myself, who refer back to the mini-biography in tandem with reading the main texts. Some might wonder why this book includes only 'selected writings' and Wightman points out that this is due largely to the repetitive nature of Szymanowski's output. The volume presents approximately two-thirds of his writings.

Part one - On Critics and Criticism - consists of three texts that are should be seminal reading for anyone at all interested in the practice and social role of music criticism. I would however choose to dispute Szymanowski’s point that critics should seek to cover that which is currently fashionable over that which is not. Nevertheless he usefully analyses the position of Polish music in relation to what were then the more mainstream concerns of European composition. In doing so he staunchly defends the position of both his writings and compositions.

Part two – On Folk Music and Nationalism – explores these issues in some depth. From short interviews to more lengthy discursive pieces a picture quickly emerges of a composer opposed to the direct quotation of folk melodies, but one who placed emphasis on the "memory" of such tunes. In this respect Szymanowski was similar to Enescu in terms of approach. It is tempting also to read many of his writings in a quasi-ethnomusicological light, given that he concentrates at length in providing a response to Bartók’s own writings and providing in-depth analysis of Polish highland music.

Even Chopin is commented upon in terms of his Polishness, which Szymanowski claims, is misunderstood by most non-Poles. This point is again taken up in a lengthy piece about Chopin in Part three – On Nineteenth-century music. The section sees Szymanowski adopt the guise of a widely read musical historian. A solidly constructed argument regarding Romanticism in Music is advanced and the matter of its influence. He might start from the point of a provincial Pole, but in wide sweeps he includes Goethe, Shakespeare, Bach, Spohr, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, Bruckner, Schopenhauer, religious devotion and Nietzsche along the way. In fact, should one want an orientation of the topic from the viewpoint of a cultured man in 1928/9, this text would be hard to better.

Part four – On Twentieth-century music – sees Szymanowki extend his analysis towards his contemporaries. In doing so, one learns much of what he thinks about those on the wider musical scene - much of his thought is positive, being an open-minded individual - and the relative isolation of Poland in understanding many ‘outside’ composers. Russian composers – particularly Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky – alongside Debussy, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Reger, and the "extremely radical" Arthur Bliss are singled out for attention. Wagner, Strauss and Schoenberg are the subject of an essay, as are Stravinsky, Les Six, Stravinsky, Ravel, Dukas and the Future of Culture in their own individual tracts. The last mentioned, given as a conference paper in Madrid in 1933, displays the timeliness of his thought and concerns over politically influenced nationalism as the stock-in-trade of music rather than its own freely determined ends and objectives.

Szymanowski was director of the State Conservatory in Warsaw from 1926 until retiring in 1930. Part five reflects his thoughts on the purpose, aims and value of music education. He defends the need for a world-aware conservatoire, reflecting his own outlook, and sets out the social benefits of education and music in combination for the Polish people. In this respect his writing was then not only ground-breaking for a Pole – a point he was aware of – but even today still carries strong resonances. One only has to think of how widely known and integrated Poland and its culture has become across Europe in recent years. The part music and its performers have played in that process is inestimable, and indeed, forms a model for other emergent countries to follow should they so wish.

The final part – On the Composer’s Life – is the most personal and autobiographical. Included is an introduction to planned memoirs (never completed) and a somewhat hostile interview about his work as a composer and his background. His touching memorial to Paweł Kochański, the violinist upon whom Szymanowski relied for technical advice and inspiration in his sting writing, completes the section and the volume. A pity perhaps that even a few pages were not found for some of his poems, stories or opera libretti on Benvenuto Cellini or Don Juan. One wonders – only briefly, mind – if he thought that Berlioz did a slap-dash job on the Florentine sculptor or that Mozart left a facet of the womaniser un-scored. Surely not, for he was far too knowledgeable and respectful a man, but to see his thoughts might have further rounded out his own creative ambitions in the operatic field.

Absorbing, enlightening about its author and intellectually rewarding this book is unreservedly recommended for those wanting to know more of this fascinating man and his world view.

Evan Dickerson



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