Karol Szymanowski: Symphony No.2


Composed in 1909 when Karol Szymanowski was only 27 years old, his unconventional Second Symphony was influenced by the likes of Alexander Scriabin, Richard Strauss and Max Reger. This symphony gave Szymanowski his big European break, so to speak, with the Polish premiere taking place in April 1911. Szymanowski revised the symphony many times, meaning that other European premieres heard altered versions of the work. The extensive use of the solo violin in the opening movement also paved the way for Szymanowski’s first Violin Concerto. 


The Music
Movement I 

Opening in a similar fashion to a violin concerto, the sweet sounding soloist opens this two-movement symphony with the foundation theme. Szymanowski’s rich orchestrations shine through as the orchestra becomes more involved and the concerto-like set up soon dissolves. The Romantic-inspired theme soars across the orchestra, with the upper strings leading the way. Intricate melodic lines are then heard, first in the woodwind and then back again in the strings. There is a lot of passion running through the veins of this movement, with Szymanowski’s use of the solo violin adding a unique twist to the symphony. 

There is a lot of contrapuntal writing throughout this opening movement, with long lines slowly intertwining together creating luscious rich textures that burst with colour. Quick changes in tempo also add to the contrapuntal effect, with Szymanowski exploring rhythmic developments. Huge orchestral swells fill the area with sound as the brass bolster the orchestra sound up a notch or two. Szymanowski’s dramatic and intense drive through these sections are fruitful and show his use of colours are vivid and explorative. After an intense climax, the dynamic drops and the movement closes ominously with a final pizzicato note from the strings.


Movement II

The longer second movement opens mysteriously with a slow-moving string theme. This melody forms the basis of this theme and variations movement. Five variations are heard throughout the movement, with each one being informed by a past theme. Szymanowski does a seamless job of moving between variations, creating smooth transitions and subtle changes to create a very well-rounded movement of music. 

Using folk dance themes, a majority of this movement is joyous and festive, with celebratory themes singing clear for all to hear. A strong rhythmic core adds to the brevity of the movement, with Szymanowski taking great care with the structure of the movement. As the tempo picks up towards the end of the symphony, the brass make a welcome return as the angular violins lead the way melodically. The movement concludes with huge climax that sees the brass take hold of the theme before the final blow played across the whole orchestra.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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