Born in 1882 in the Ukraine in a community of Polish émigrés following the partition of Poland, Karol Szymanoski's early musical education took place at home. Later he attended a nearby music school run by relatives. In 1901, he moved to Warsaw, just in time to join an important musical movement, the Warsaw PO, which led him to a group of four musicians called Young Poland in Music. This group of artists remained together only a short time, but backed and performed Szymanoski's early pieces, including 1906's Concert Overture, and 1909-10's Second Symphony and Second Piano Sonata. These early concerts were a resounding success.
In the years preceding the First World War, Szymanowski traveled extensively and was influenced by a variety of European and African music. He increasingly turned his attention inward to exotic imagery. The combination of external influences and internal reflection and imagination led to a masterpiece, the opera King Roger. The war years, which Szymanoski spent in ‘splendid isolation,' produced a prolific amount of work, including the First Violin Concerto and Third Symphony.
The Russian Revolution brought this period of production to an end. A deep depression left Szymanowski unable to compose music for a time. He wrote a novel, The Ephebe, of which only fragments survive. Having all his previous career avoided folk music influences, from 1922 on Szymanowki embraced them. Notable works from this period include the 20 Mazurkas op.50 and the ballet Hamasie.
By the mid-1920s Szymanowski was renowned on the world stage. His fame gained him teaching positions at the Warsaw Conservatory and the Music Institute of Warsaw. After his dismissal from the last post in 1932, he wrote the Symphonie concertante and the Second Violin Concerto.
By the early 1930s, and now in frail health, Szymanowski was forced to take on exhausting European concert tours to make money. He died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1937 of tuberculosis.