Polish pianist and composer Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) was a pioneering figure of significant importance in the history of classical composition and piano performance.
Szymanowska has been called the first musician to take Europe by storm. She toured internationally, meeting and befriending many of the leading intellectual figures of her day, and her piano playing was admired by aristocratic patrons and musical observers alike, including the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Szymanowska may have been the first pianist to play from memory. She wrote more than 100 compositions, and her contributions among a group of early pianist-composers whose music established the piano as an instrument suitable for virtuoso solo displays have been generally underestimated. Both as a pianist and composer, Szymanowska influenced one of the greatest musical figures of the nineteenth century, the Polish-French composer Fryderyk Chopin.
Szymanowska was born Maria Agata Wolowska on December 14, 1789, in Warsaw, Poland. She never attended music school; what music schools there were in Warsaw at the time would not have been open to women in any case. Instead she was educated at home by a succession of littleknown piano teachers. Her talent was recognized, and she is thought to have been accepted as a student by Jozef Elzner, who was also one of Chopin's early teachers. She gave her first public concert in Warsaw in 1810 at the age of 21, and quickly moved on to give a second concert in Paris, France, one of the music capitals of Europe at the time.
The public concert was not as highly developed as an institution in Szymanowska's time as it would be a few years later. Instead, Szymanowska's parents groomed her as a pianist by inviting well-known guests to their Warsaw home and presenting their daughter as the evening's musical entertainment. These guests included both aristocrats like Prince Antoni Radziwill, and musical guests included Napoleon Bonaparte's kapellmeister (or music director) Ferdinando Paer and violinist Jacques-Pierre-Joseph Rode. All these artists would be of importance in Szymanowska's future career, providing her with a network of contacts she could exploit in her European travels.
In 1810 Szymanowska married Polish aristocrat Jozef Szymanowski, putting her performing career mostly on hold as they raised three children. It is not known what caused the couple's divorce in 1820, something that would have been rare in Catholic Poland, but it is likely that her musical ambitions played a role. She remained close to her children, who stayed in her custody after the divorce, but her surviving correspondence makes no reference to the frequent periods of separation from them that she would have experienced once she resumed her touring life.
Szymanowska used her time off the road profitably: she turned to composition, which could be done at home. Her works were published in Warsaw, Paris, and other European capitals over the next decades. Especially interesting were a set of 20 “Exercises et Préludes” (Exercises and Preludes), published in Leipzig, Germany, by the world-class Breitkopf &Härtel firm in 1819. Like Chopin, Szymanowska wrote pieces that, although designated as exercises, held the attention of pianists and audiences in purely musical terms as well. She wrote some 100 pieces in all, many of them for the piano; others were songs, several of which accompanied the words of Poland's national poet, Adam Mickiewicz.
The influence of Szymanowska on Chopin as a composer is apparent not only in her tendency toward the use of exercise-type forms (known as Etudes in Chopin's case), but also in her attraction to Polish dance forms such as the polonaise and the mazurka. Szymanowska did not invent these forms, which had been used even in the eighteenth century by composers seeking to catch the essence of Polish folk music, but she doubtless provided Chopin with a strong model: the genre distribution of her pieces resembles that of Chopin more closely than that of Irish pianist-composer John Field, the figure generally cited as Chopin's direct predecessor. Szymanowska introduced the nocturne (night piece), which became one of Chopin's favorite genres.
Szymanowska resumed her performing career around 1815 and gradually gained an international reputation. Her public position as a pianist lay somewhere between the world of the aristocratic drawing room of the eighteenth century and the public concert of the nineteenth century exemplified by figures such as Franz Liszt; she might perform for small groups of connoisseurs or for a crowd of perhaps 1,000 people, but rarely to a larger auditorium. Szymanowska began to hit her stride around 1818, when she went to London and began to make the rounds of musical gatherings of the city's top connoisseurs of the arts. She followed up her English tour with appearances in Berlin, Germany, and then, in 1822, she made her first trip to Russia, where she met composers and performers who could easily have been her rivals—Field and Johann Nepomuk Hummel—but who became her friends and backers. Czar Alexander I gave Szymanowska the honorary title of First Pianist of the Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Maria.
In 1823 Szymanowska toured what is now Ukraine, as part of a violin-and-piano duo with Polish violinist Karol Lipinski. She made a three-year tour of Western Europe between 1823 and 1826, reaching the apex of her fame as she performed in Austria, Germany, France, England, Italy, and the Netherlands. She met Goethe at the Austrian resort of Marienbad during this period, and the top composers of the time, including Muzio Clementi, Anton Reicha, Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries, and the dean of Italian opera composers, Gioacchino Rossini, were unanimous in praising Szymanowska's playing. In the mid-1820s, just before the emergence of Chopin, Liszt, and the other pianists who defined Romantic piano music, she had an unusually high critical reputation and would likely have been well known to these younger figures.
Part of Szymanowska's appeal was that she played from memory. She may have been the first pianist to do this; although that distinction is usually given to Liszt and to Clara Schumann, wife of composer Robert Schumann, Szymanowska is known to have played from memory earlier than either of those performers. At a recital in Poznan, Poland, in 1823, she performed her Caprice sur la Romance de Joconde without written-out music, something that was considered unusual enough at the time to attract considerable attention from local newspapers. Szymanowska played with equal facility on the “Walter” model pianos popular in Europe's eastern half and on pianos with the so-called English action that predominated in London and Paris. In the late 1820s she had an English-action piano shipped across Europe to her home in Warsaw.
Headed to Russia
Szymanowska returned home to Warsaw and gave two recitals in January and February of 1827. The young Chopin may have attended these concerts; his career was just gaining momentum in Warsaw, and Szymanowska became one of his biggest backers. When Chopin went to Paris in the late 1820s and was offered instruction of dubious value by the declining virtuoso Kalkbrenner, it was Szymanowska who warned him against Kalkbrenner's attentions. “He [Kalkbrenner] is a scoundrel,” Szymanowska said forcefully, according to the Web site of the Chopin Society. “His real aim is to cramp his genius.” Scholars believe that Chopin was familiar with Szymanowska's music, and that echoes of her music can be heard in his early works. The ending of Chopin's Etude in A major, Op. 25, No. 1, in particular, appears closely modeled on Szymanowska's Etude No. 18 in E major.
Later in 1827, Szymanowska moved to Russia permanently, settling in Moscow and then in St. Petersburg. She called a halt to her touring career, although she remained active as a performer in her own St. Petersburg apartment. Her home became a center of cultural activity for Poles such as Mickiewicz, who frequented her salons (intellectual and artistic meetings) and later married her daughter Celina. Szymanowska also performed in the homes of Russian aristocrats. A concert program survives from an 1827 musicale at the home of one Countess Dierzhavina, billing “Mrs. Szymanowska” as the featured attraction on a rondo by Hummel and on the grand finale, a potpourri of tunes, perhaps improvised, from the opera Der Freischütz.
Publications of Szymanowska's works continued unabated in the late 1820s. But her life was cut short by a cholera epidemic that struck St. Petersburg, and she died there on July 24, 1831. Mickiewicz called her the “Queen of Tones,” and the Polish Music Center noted that she was “praised for the brilliance and expressive quality of her tone”; a contemporary observer said that “she made the piano speak and sing.” Critical evaluation of Szymanowska's works is still in its infancy. Like the output of Clara Schumann and practically every other female musician with whom she shared the problem of balancing career and family, her music was almost completely neglected for decades after her death. It has only recently begun to be rediscovered.
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial ed., Nicolas Slonimsky, ed. emeritus, Schirmer, 2001.
New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., edited by Sadie Stanley, Macmillan, 2001.
Musical Quarterly, October 1960.
“Biographical Essay About Chopin,” Chopin Society, http://www.chopinsociety.org/chopin/biography (February 4, 2008).
“Maria Szymanowska,” Polish Music Center, http://www.usc.edu/dept/polish_music/composer/szymanowska.html (February 4, 2008).
“Maria Szymanowska & the Evolution of Professional Pianism,” Chopin Foundation of the United States, http://www.chopinfound.brinkster.net/ip.asp?op=MariaSzymanowska (February 4, 2008).