Musically, he absorbed and ultimately exorcised the profound influence of Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Scriabin, developing a distinctive harmonically restless language that often orbits obsessively around a few, highly individual chord clusters. His mazurkas, a classic Polish dance, almost seem to dance in place, like small quasars of musical energy collapsing on themselves. His ballet “Harnasie” suggests he could have held his own in Hollywood, while his Symphony No. 4 has the Wedgwood clarity of a classical piano concerto. He was also one of the greatest orchestrators of his day, eliciting from the orchestra novel sounds that even today will make close listeners do a double take.
It’s hard to account for the astonishing change in the composer’s name recognition, from the early part of the last century, when he was heralded as an indubitably great composer, to today, when he remains doggedly obscure. A 1922 Musical Quarterly survey of his work declared his 1909-1910 Second Symphony “the finest flower in the field of symphonic music in its day,” and compared his Second Piano Sonata to the ultimate touchstone: “If Beethoven had written a piano sonata in 1910, he would have written it in the same way.” Szymanowski was a major fixture in Polish intellectual life between the wars, famous enough to appear (in lightly disguised form) in the monumental Polish novel of his day, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s “Insatiability.”
Although Polish pianists have kept his music alive, for much of the last century Szymanowski’s most important work, “King Roger,” has languished. It’s tempting to believe that part of the problem was the work’s eroticism, but the challenges posed by “King Roger” are far deeper than that. It is ambiguous and impenetrable at a level that transcends other seemingly thorny, symbolically dense operas of the age. Unlike the works of Strauss, or Bartok’s “Blue Beard’s Castle,” King Roger is relentlessly unresolved and morally opaque. Critics have had little doubt, over the years, that the central character is a cipher for Szymanowski himself, but there’s little agreement about what particular crisis or crises are being explored.
There are multiple possibilities. The opera began to take form in 1918, while Szymanowski was reeling from the destruction of his family’s estate by the Bolsheviks. Work on the piece continued for six more years, as Poland became independent and Szymanowski emerged as the obvious musical leader of the new republic. The composer’s style went through a profound change after “King Roger,” with the exoticism and violent energy suppressed within a more classical, refined style. One scholar has suggested that “King Roger” isn’t just a drama about resisting sensuality, but a personal farewell to the voluptuous: “Like the hero of his opera, he has to resist the siren-like calls of the East when he assumed the role of Poland’s leading nationalist composer,” writes Szymanowsk scholar Alistair Wightman.