Master Class ♦♦ Myth Buster ♦♦

Learn to Scale Szymanowski’s Suite from the ‘Dance of the Mountaineers’

"KAROL MACIEJ SZYMANOWSKI should rank high on anyone’s list of unjustly neglected composers. He started out writing Chopinesque piano pieces, flirted with Straussian exuberance, evolved into something of an Impressionist, and ended up as Poland’s answer to Bela Bartok, infusing his concert works with the complex rhythms and spiky harmonies and intervals of his native land. In the course of his career, Szymanowski wrote about two hours’ worth of violin music, including two concertos and several very individual pieces for violin and piano. As a pianist, Szymanowski was a bit unsure of his ability to write idiomatic violin music, so he enlisted the help of an expert friend, Paul (or Pawel) Kochanski. They developed a musical symbiosis equivalent to the Brahms-Joachim partnership.

The (more or less) Polish Bartók.

Szymanowski was born in 1882 in Ukraine, where his parents and other affluent Poles owned land. After music studies in Warsaw, he moved to Berlin and founded a contemporary Polish music society there; as a composer he briefly imitated the surging late-Romantic style of Richard Strauss. A 1914 visit to France sharpened his interest in the Impressionist style. Until then, a traveling pianist-composer, Szymanowski spent the World War I years on his Ukrainian family estate. But between the Bolshevik revolution and Austrian occupation, he was eventually driven to Warsaw, where he developed an individual, rather dissonant, folk-inflected style.

He also headed the Warsaw Conservatory for some time. Tuberculosis forced him to pass his last years in a Swiss sanatorium where he died in 1937 at the age of 55.

Pawel Kochanski became a noted soloist in his day, warmly praised by such colleagues as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and Carl Flesch. Pianist Artur Rubenstein, who strongly advocated Szymanowski’s music, was Kochanski’s frequent recital partner. Kochanski was a strong supporter of new composers---not just Szymanowski, but also the likes of Bloch and Prokofiev. He immigrated to the United States in 1921, and taught at Juilliard from 1924 until his early death in 1934.

"Szymanowski was a wonderful pianist, but he didn’t know beans about the violin."

Among his other accomplishments, Kochanski was a composer / arranger. His closest collaborations over the years were with Szymanowski, whom he met in 1901. The two became close friends, performed in recitals and produced a few choice violin scores together. Of particular interest are the Nocturne et Tarantella, Op. 28 (1915); Myths, Op. 30 (1915); and the Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 35 (1916).

Starting in the early 1960s, VINCENT SKOWRONSKI, an American of Polish heritage, became infatuated with the works of Szymanowski when he discovered an unusual, fairly modern recital piece written by none other than Karol Szymanowski---the Taniec z Harnasiow (Dance of the Mountaineers). “I became hooked on his stuff because it was quite good,” he says, “but the drawback is that it needs a gestation period for it to sink in, before you really begin to like it.” Moreover, “Szymanowski was a wonderful pianist, but he didn’t know beans about the violin,” Skowronski says. “Thanks to Kochanski, this work is beautifully written for the instrument.” The music is Szymanowski’s, the technical assurances are Kochanski’s.

Even so, “beautifully written” does not preclude some acerbic harmonies. “Don’t get turned off if you can’t immediately assimilate what Szymanowski is trying to say,” Skowronski advises. “Its not ugly writing, but its difficult. A lot of the writing is very high on the instrument. If you can’t handle that, then you’ve got real problems. You’ve got to have the chops to do it. Once you learn the piece and get to understand the particular style of Kochanski, you’ll see that it’s all very well crafted.”

Skowronski warns against problematic rhythm issues. “The piano is often playing against the time, and there’s a tendency for one player to chase the other,” he says. “Rhythmically you’ve got to be rock solid and sure of what you’re doing.” “Then, it’s plain difficult writing. You’ve got to be careful not to be sloppy. There are trills written underneath octaves, and that’s very difficult. If you don’t articulate the trill enough, it sounds god-awful, and at the same time you’ve got to play your octaves in tune.”

Myth Buster
SKOWRONSKI says: "The music is Szymanowski's, the technical assurances are Kochanski's."

“There are harmonics involved, and modal things come in and out. Things that you swear that you practiced that should come out perfectly in tune, somehow sound out of tune because of all the augmented seconds and minor thirds; you’re not really quite sure whether you’re in major or minor, and half the time you’re in neither. When you put that together with the piano part, it’s a stunning effect, but you can still play wrong notes---and it sounds like it. Trilling under the octave makes the octave play out of tune, because the half-step trill makes the overtones get shaken up, and it sounds like bad intonation, even though it’s not. Maybe it’s not supposed to sound in tune. But when you put it together, it works.”

Article by James Reel, Strings Magazine, April 2009.

Refer to Directory of Articles: