The Kennedy Center

Concert Overture

About the Work

Karol Szymanowski Composer: Karol Szymanowski
© Robert Markow


KAROL MACIEJ SZYMANOWSKI:  Born in Timozówka, Ukraine, October 6, 1882; died in Lausanne, March 29, 1937

        Karol Szymanowski is not a name often encountered at symphony concerts, yet he is widely regarded as the greatest Polish composer between Chopin and Penderecki. Though the land where he was born had lain within Ukraine since 1793, the people of the region were of long-standing Polish blood and culture, and Szymanowski always considered himself a Pole. His creative life may be viewed as a large cycle in which he began writing in the style of Chopin (always his most admired composer), passed through German post-Romanticism, Oriental influences, a highly-developed Impressionism, and ended with a return to music strongly rooted in his Polish past.

         The Concert Overture was Szymanowski's first orchestral composition, completed in September, 1905.  The first performance was given in Warsaw on February 6 of that year. Szymanowski revised the orchestration in 1912-13.The work bears comparison with Richard Strauss's tone poem Don Juan of 1888, also written when the composer was in his early twenties. Both works are drenched in hyperemotional romanticism, are saturated with densely packed orchestral polyphony, feature wildly twisting melodic lines, require a large orchestra, and loosely follow sonata-form structure. The ecstatic, exuberant nature of Szymanowski's work is apparent from the opening theme, proclaimed by strings and six horns (again, much as in Don Juan). Performance directions like estatico, amoroso, zornig (angrily) and affetuoso pepper the score. The exultant, energetic quality of the principal theme is balanced by the quiet restraint of the second, marked dolce amoroso. Another Straussian feature is the use of the solo violin, whose ardently expressive qualities within an orchestral context Szymanowski would later exploit more fully in two violin concertos.

        Like many of Szymanowski's instrumental works, the Concert Overture was inspired by a literary work, in this case the poem "Witez Wlast" (The Knight Witez) by Tadeusz Micinski, described by musicologist Jim Samson as "a Nietzschean affirmation of man's power over the old gods." The stylistic affinity for Strauss, as well as for Wagner, Mahler and Reger, derive from Szymanowski's visit to Berlin in 1905. This style infused a number of his early works before he went on to find a more personal one rooted in his Polish heritage.