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Karol Szymanowski: 6 Songs, Op. 20 (1909)

Updated: Oct 18

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)

soprano Theodora Nestorova

pianist Eunmi Ko

Karol Szymanowski set this wonder-filled cycle of 6 Songs (Op. 20) for voice and piano from texts by his longtime collaborator and friend, poet Tadeusz Miciński, in 1909. They were eventually published in Poland in 1925 and the texts were derived from the collection W mroku gwiazd [In the gloom of the stars]. In a surrealist and expressionist fashion true to the genus of poets to which Miciński belonged, Szymanowski excerpted various fragments and selected verses from Miciński’s poetic works and patched them together in each song. From this synthesis emerged the song cycle’s narrative hero – a symbolic bard figure with a “shattered harp of dreams” journeying through life and death among the scenery of fantastic visions and imaginings. This character deeply connects to nature throughout the progression of the songs yet questions his existence. Miciński’s text is rife with evocative themes, images, and metaphors which highlight the romantic modernity of Szymanowski’s compositional texture. While categorized as contemporary in style, Szymanowski was famously heavily influenced by Romantic composers Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Max Reger, Alexander Scriabin, and impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.


Even early in his career, musical opportunities in Warsaw became limiting to Szymanowski, so he sought advancement in Berlin, where he formed the Young Polish Composers’ Publishing Co. (1905–12) to propagate new works by Polish artists. Szymanowski traveled extensively and enthusiastically during this period. In doing so, he found confirmation and validation of his burgeoning homosexual identity, leading him to a compose highly expressive poetry and prose in aesthetic celebration. Isolated from the European musical community during World War I, Szymanowski used the accounts he kept from his travels to delve deep into study of Arabic art, Islamic culture, and ancient Greek drama and philosophy. As Poland became an independent state in 1918, Szymanowski steeped himself further in the Polish folk idiom with the purpose of creating a Polish national style, akin to Chopin. His compositional techniques in this time became more conservative, abandoning his previous atonal musical vocabulary. In 1927, Szymanowski was offered the rectorships of the Cairo, Egypt and Warsaw Conservatories; he chose Warsaw. In the following years, he struggled greatly with pulmonary tuberculosis as his health declined. During this period, however, Szymanowski delivered prolific compositional output; the versatile composer wrote works ranging from operas to ballets to chamber works.



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