Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Great Polish Composers: Maria Szymanowska

Maria Szymanowska, Great Polish Composer, Great Polish MusicMaria Szymanowska , nee Marianna Agata Wolowska, was born in Warsaw, on December 14, 1789, however much of her early life is obscure, in particular the early development of her music.  She began playing the spinet and clavichord at the age of eight, and studied piano with Antoni Lisowski and Tomasz Gremm, and composition with Franciszek Lessel, Jozef Elsner and Karol Lupinski.  

Her first performances were held in Warsaw and Paris in 1810, during which she married Jozef Szymanowski.  They had three children, one of which later married the famous Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz.  In the 1820s Szymanowska embarked on an extensive European tour, which culminated in St. Petersburg, where she settled and composed music for the russian imperial court.  It was at this time that her marriage to Jozef ended in divorce.

It was not until 1815 that her professional career took off in earnest.  She performed in England in 1818, and embarked on a tour of Western Europe from 1823 to 1826 making  public appearances in France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, and several performances in England at the Royal Philharmonic Society, private performances for the royal family and several English dukes.  Wherever she went she her performances were received with great acclaim by critics and audiences alike, who praised her lyrical virtuosity.  

It is noteworthy to mention that Szymanowska was the first professional piano virtuoso in Europe and the first pianist to perform a memorized repertoire to the public. She was certainly ahead of her time, and years ahead of Franz Liszt and Clara Wieck-Schumann. It bears mentioning that in her time there were many women composers from across Europe who were worthy of recognition and praise, unfortunately we do not hear much about them today, if anything.

After her lengthy tours, she returned to Warsaw where she remained for some time and in 1828 resettled in Moscow, and then St. Petersburg.  There she served as the court pianist to the imperial russian tsarina.

Maria's compositions were mainly for solo pianos and miniatures, as well as songs and chamber work.  Slawomir Dobrzanski, a music historian, described Szymanowska's music as follows;

Her Etudes and Preludes show innovative keyboard writing; the Nocturne in B flat is her most mature piano composition; Szymanowska's Mazurkas represent one of the first attempts at stylization of the dance; Fantasy and Caprice contain an impressive vocabulary of pianistic technique; her polonaises follow the tradition of polonaise-writing created by Michal Kleofas Ogiński. Szymanowska's musical style is parallel to the compositional starting point of Frédéric Chopin; many of her compositions had an obvious impact on Chopin's mature musical language (2001 abstract).

Such lofty praise was not without merit. Scholars have since debated the degree to which Szymanowska influenced the work of Chopin, and contend that her abilities as a composer foreshadowed that of Chopin as well as that of her contemporaries.

Szymanowska's accomplishments, and her stature drew the attention and admiration of many notable composers, musicians and poets, such as Luigi Cherubini, Gioacchino Rossini, Johann Hummel, John Field, Pierre Bailot, Giuditta Pasta, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Adam Mickiewicz. 

She relied on a vast repertoire of works from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin as well as her own compositions.  Her greatest works included mazuarkas, polonaises, waltzes, nocturnes and etudes.

She died prematurely on July 24, 1831, in St. Petersburg, a victim of a cholera outbreak in the city.

Suggested Website:

Free online Audio tracks of some of Szymanowska's  compositions:

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