by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)
Acknowledged by the Grove Dictionary of Music for occupying ‘an important position in the history of Polish music before Chopin’, the name of Maria Szymanowska (OBM) may be familiar to students and teachers of today. Born in 1789, she carved out a career for herself as a professional concert pianist and a composer, and from 1815 sustained a successful performing career totaling around 100 concerts until three years before her death in 1831. She travelled extensively, socialized, and performed amongst the cultural elites in various European countries. However, her roots were somewhat humble.
Coming from a working class Polish-Jewish family with her parents being owners of a brewery, she was educated at home. She received her piano training under private tutors in Warsaw and never attended a music conservatory.
Following a few years of piano lessons, Szymanowska’s musical talents shone through, and her name began to be recognized and circulated within the cultural circles of Warsaw. She is known to have performed in private salons and homes.
Originally known as Maria AGATA Wołowska, she married JÓZEF Szymanowski (OBM), an estate owner in 1810. It appears that her career took flight after the marriage, which is highly unusual considering the dominant gender roles of the day. After officially becoming Maria Szymanowska, she entered motherhood bearing three children – two daughters and a son. In 1812, her name first appeared in the Polish press, and she became known to the public. In 1815, she started her international concertizing career as possibly the most successful professional female pianist before Clara Schumann (OBM). During Szymanowska’s lifetime, she became associated with two of the major literary figures of the time: the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (OBM) and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (OBM). She is famously known as the dedicatee of Goethe’s Aussöhnung (Reconciliation to Fate) verses, in which he laments the suffering caused by passion and juxtaposes the pain by depicting angelic qualities of music, no doubt inspired by Szymanowska’s playing when the former became a close friend of the pianist. Other major figures she encountered include Alexander Pushkin (OBM) and Mikhail Glinka (OBM) during her years in St. Petersburg and Moscow after emigration to Russia as the prestigious “First Pianist to the Russian Court,” a title bestowed on her by Tsar Alexander I (OBM). Information from sources are divided as to whether she studied formally with the Irish composer John Field (OBM), yet it is without doubt that they were friends with each other and spent time together in Russia. As for her relationship with Chopin (OBM), although there is no account of their correspondences or meetings, he was nevertheless familiar with Szymanowska’s name since he wrote in a letter to a friend that he had plans to attend Szymanowska’s recital at the National Theatre in 1827. As two top ranked musicians living in Warsaw, with Szymanowska, being the established artist, and Chopin, the talented, emerging artist, it is highly possible that they did meet each other despite Chopin being 22 years her junior. Other major composers of the era including Hummel (OBM), Field, and Cherubini (OBM) – all dedicated works to her.
As Maria Szymanowska had no formal compositional training, her works appear to be more creative and less confined by the strict rules of compositional structures and styles. Despite being relatively more active as a pianist, by no means was she an underachiever in the compositional realm. She signed and negotiated a contract with the German publishing firm Peters. Another German publishing firm – Breitkopf and Härtel – published her entire body of work. John Field’s recommendation letter addressed to the firm is well documented. She has been the subject of many recommendation letters by distinguished musicians of the day. The majority of her compositions were written between 1815 and 1820. They include etudes, mazurkas, polonaises, nocturnes, and songs. These genres are immediately recognizable as the ones, in which Chopin later excelled. Among Szymanowska’s output, her Vingt Exercises et Preludes are widely acknowledged as her most successful piano compositions and thus provide the modern pianist with a glimpse of technical capabilities and her musical language. Polish pianist Sławomir Dobrzański (MGBH), author of the book Maria Szymanowska, Pianist and Composer, dedicated an entire chapter recounting the similarities between Chopin and Szymanowska’s works in terms of keys, figurations, and musical idioms. Although Chopin, without a doubt, pushed the boundaries of technique and pianism further, Szymanowska can be regarded as a pioneer who first composed etudes in a musical style, which can be performed as concert pieces. Robert Schumann (OBM) once referred to her in Music and Musicians: Essays and Criticisms as “the feminine [John] Field” and commented that her compositions have “much in them that was new and extraordinary,” a testament that she was indeed an innovator.
As a concert artist, she travelled extensively throughout Western Europe and later settled in Russia. There are numerous reviews of her performances, and a review published in the Kiev press described her as a “genuine virtuoso pianist.” However, not only was she a virtuoso, the Dresden review reported that “she possesses a magnificently strong touch on her instrument, combined with delicacy and much expression.” Another review, which appeared in Leipzig in 1824, noted that “skill and musical spirit are equally strong in her.” With her busy traveling schedule and performances all over Europe, Szymanowska became one of the first Polish pianists to reach audiences outside of her native country, which is an achievement in itself, especially when considering the confinements of travel in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a successful female performing artist, she was one of the first in the field. She appealed to the audience of the day with her feminine grace, as recounted in the Weimar Literary Newspaper in 1823, “she gains insight into the spirit of a musical composition with a subtle female delicacy of feeling.” The London Courier review of 1824 described her playing that possessed “grace and spontaneous charm…the biggest attributes of the female sex.” Through these reviews, it is apparent that her playing, somewhat different amongst the leading male pianists of the time, brought about a breath of fresh air to audiences and critics, which was much appreciated. At her recital in Poznań in 1823, she performed her own composition Caprice sur la Romance de Joconde by memory and stunned her audience with yet another pioneering feat. Aside from solo concerts, she performed the Concerto for Two Pianos by Dussek (OBM), with Hummel (OBM), the leading piano virtuoso of the day, demonstrating her possession of comparable pianistic abilities.
In 1820, an important event occurred in her life. Szymanowska divorced from her husband and took up the role as the sole breadwinner of the family through her concerts and compositions. For a woman to divorce her husband at that time was groundbreaking as far as gender roles are concerned. A woman possessing a flourishing career was almost unheard at the time, let alone a divorced woman retaining her married name. Moreover, she was battling through a new frontier as a concert artist since the concept of a public concert was just beginning to be developed. As a divorcée in the 19th century, Szymanowska made a bold move and immigrated to Russia with her three children, establishing a salon, which became a musical center at St. Petersburg, welcoming both local and visiting artists.
The story of Maria Szymanowska deserves far more attention than it is currently receiving. Prior to the 1980s, her name had fallen into oblivion in the English-speaking world due to extremely limited sources and texts in English. Until this time, information about Szymanowska was mostly documented in Polish and Russian texts. Only since the 2000s had two books had been published by Anne Kijas (MGBH) and Sławomir Dobrzański respectively. In 2013, Dobrzański has also released in Poland a CD album of her complete piano works. Most of her works are available for printing at www.imslp.org
Szymanowska’s role in history demands further investigation because her influence in the realms of music and gender roles are threefold. She was at the forefront of groundbreaking piano performance practices, before Franz Liszt changed the piano solo recital forever and her concert played by memory was certainly a novelty at the time. Her compositions planted the seed of the beginning of Romanticism and her etudes played a part in propelling the advance of piano technique. Lastly, she transcended traditional gender roles and social class divisions by appropriately utilizing her musical talents and became one of the first independent career women in classical music history. Szymanowska died suddenly at the age of 42 from cholera in Russia. If it were not for this premature death, there may have been further pioneering and influential acts by this courageous and ambitious Polish musician.
- Azoury, P. H. Chopin through his contemporaries: friends, lovers and rivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.
- Dobrzanski, Slawomir. “Maria Szymanowska and the Evolution of Professional Pianism.” Chopin Foundation of the United States. N.p., n.d. Web.
- Dobrzański, Sławomir, Maja Trochimczyk. ….Maria Szymanowska: pianist and composer. Los Angeles, CA: Polish Music Center at USC, 2006. Print.
- Grove, George. A dictionary of music and musicians. London: Macmillan, 1902. Print.
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- Swartz, Anne. “Maria Szymanowska and the Salon music of the early nineteenth century.” The Polish Review 30.1 (1985): 43-58. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.
- TROCHIMCZYK, Maja. “Szymanowska and Chopin in Paris .” Chopin with Cherries. N.p., 12 Nov. 2011. Web.