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Composed: 1916
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, piano, celesta, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 7, 1932, with violinist Paul Kochanski, Artur Rodzinski conducting

The eighteen-month period from March 1881 to October 1882 saw the birth of three creative giants in Eastern Europe: Béla Bartók in Hungary, Igor Stravinsky in Russia, and Karol Szymanowski in Poland, who, though less renowned, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. All three were trained in the waning days of a romantic musical nationalism; all went on to redefine this nationalism, moving from an essentially nostalgic use of folk materials to an exploration of their potential to shape an expressive vocabulary at once primitive and avant-garde. Together with writers and visual artists, Szymanowski formed part of the Young Poland movement, which, not surprisingly, offended the more conservative establishment; as a 1907 commentary in The Warsaw Courier put it: the Young Poland composers were “possessed by some evil spirit that deprived their work and stripped it of personal and national characteristics.”

Szymanowski’s attitude toward “national characteristics” was more nuanced: “Let our music be national in its Polish characteristics but not falter in striving to attain universality. Let it be national, but not provincial.” His own lack of provincialism is not surprising; born to a wealthy family, he traveled all over Europe and North Africa. Like many artists, he found aesthetic resonance in pre-World War I Paris, reflecting after a 1914 stint: "I shall never cease in the conviction [that] a true and deep understanding of French music, of its content, its form, and its further evolution, is one of the conditions for the development of our Polish music."

Notwithstanding Szymanowski’s cosmopolitan outlook, his First Violin Concerto reveals homegrown roots. It was conceived as a vehicle for Polish violinist Paul Kochanski (though exigencies of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I caused a change in date, venue, and soloist for the premiere) and inspired by a poem by a member of the Young Poland writers’ group, Tadeusz Micinski (1873-1918):

All the birds pay tribute to me
for today I wed a goddess.
And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom
in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear,
burning in amorous conflagration.

The intense, imagistic lines reveal the overlapping influences of Orientalism and French symbolism and set the stage for an intense and eclectic musical style unconfined by conventional formal procedures: “There is much that is new’, expressed the composer, “but also something of a return to the old.”

The Concerto’s five movements are played without a pause, but there is a kind of architectural symmetry created by the alternation of three vivace movements with more relaxed ones. The opening Vivace assai establishes the central elements, an exotic landscape within which the violin plays. Celesta, harp, woodwinds, and percussion animate this landscape; the violin emerges with a slow, ethereal melody with a melodic contour based on eastern scales. "The sound is so magical that people here were completely transfixed," Szymanowski wrote to Kochanski after the premiere, adding: “and just imagine, Pawelczek, the violin comes out on top the whole time!" This is true both figuratively and literally, as the high register of the instrument shimmers above the ensemble throughout. After a dramatic orchestral buildup, we move seamlessly into the Andantino, which features lustrous cascading lines for both soloist and orchestra.

The central Vivace scherzando lasts just over a minute of perpetual motion surrounding a sweeping violin section, after which the Allegretto changes the atmosphere back to a more introspective one. This time the sinuous Oriental lines have acquired a bluesy feel. The last movement features rhapsodic solo passages that build to a spectacularly romantic climax before returning to a contemplative nocturnal world and an ending that is suggestive and a bit mysterious. Like everything else in the piece, it is highly original and leaves us certain that, whether or not we understand it completely, the work is a masterpiece.

Annotator Susan Key is an editor and musicologist who contributes frequently to Los Angeles Philharmonic program books.