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Great European Lives: Maria Szymanowska – the pioneering Polish pianist

Portrait of Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), 1816. Found in the Collection of Biblioteka Narodowa, Warszawa. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on the concert pianist and composer whose star shone brightly but briefly.

The summer of 1831 brought cholera to St Petersburg. It was in the Neva and the canals, it was in the wells and the culverts. The first cases were reported in early June and within days the daily death rate was in three figures. The epidemic would go on to kill nearly 6,500 people in the city.

Three weeks after quarantine laws were introduced and cordons thrown around the most virulently-affected areas riots broke out and physicians were attacked, the result of rumours they were spreading the disease deliberately in poorer areas. A German surgeon was murdered and a hospital was burned to the ground. The bacterium didn’t care, it kept spreading and kept killing, respecting neither age nor status.

It was weeks before the news reached western Europe, just ahead of the spread of the disease itself, and while the death of Archduke Constantin, the son of the Tsar, was mentioned, it was the name of another victim that led the reports.

‘We are much pained to announce the death of Madame Szymanowska, an amiable lady and accomplished pianoforte player, who has fallen one of the victims of the cholera in St Petersburg,’ intoned the London Atlas in October. ‘If this be the class of artist which the cholera selects, woe be to music, for it will single out her choicest ornaments.’

A pioneering concert pianist and highly-regarded composer who was a direct influence on Chopin, Maria Szymanowska captivated audiences across Europe during her relatively brief career as a performer, among whom was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who credited Szymanowska with ‘a genius akin to madness’. He even dedicated one of his last poems, Aussöhnung, to her in 1823, writing, ‘And so your heart is comforted and knows it is alive, and beating, and will keep beating in gratitude for a gift so undeserved, eager to give itself up, to make return. Now you feel – if only it would last! – the double joy of music and of love’.

Szymanowska is little known today but as well as being a brilliant pianist and composer of more than 100 published works she blazed a trail for women performers and composers as well as for virtuosi of all genders. She was one of the first instrumentalists to give concerts in the form we know them today and is believed to have been the first to perform pieces from memory, something with which Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann were later credited. Audiences in Poland in 1823 were astonished when she performed her own Caprice sur la Romance de Joconde from memory when the piece hadn’t even been committed to paper, let alone published.

It’s clear from what contemporary records remain that Szymanowska was a captivating concert pianist.

‘She performed two pieces by Hummel in her most spirited manner,’ gushed one review of a recital in London in 1825, ‘throwing into her execution all the varieties of light and shade, melancholy and fire, which renders her style so pleasing.’

‘She swept the keys in the most difficult passages with the rapidity of light,’ enthused another, ‘science and delicacy equally distinguished her performance, which closed to the loudest applause.’

Szymanowska’s success was extraordinary on many levels. The idea of a performance virtuoso was a new one, let alone a woman pioneering the role. Add to that Szymanowska being, at the peak of her powers, a single parent to three children whose ex-husband was notably reticent in providing financial support and her success takes on extra dimensions.

Divorce was rare in the early 19th century but in 1820 her marriage to Jozef Szymanowski ended at his behest. A gentleman farmer, Szymanowski thoroughly disapproved of his wife’s desire for a career and the rare level of independence that went with it. His was a world of cattle and harvests; to him salons and pianos were trifles and fripperies, especially for the wife of a gentleman.

Szymanowska stood firm, however, and established herself at the expense of her marriage. While Szymanowski reluctantly agreed to support his three young children financially it didn’t last long, and it wasn’t long before Szymanowska was the sole breadwinner for her young family.

Born in Warsaw to a successful brewer and a mother descended from Polish nobility, Maria amazed her parents from an early age with an extraordinary ability to improvise on the keyboard. The family home was already a cultural hub, attracting poets, writers, artists and musicians to evening salons, all of whom were astounded when the young girl swinging her legs from the piano stool began pulling off complex inversions, inventions and improvisations.

Tutors came and went – women were barred from attending music schools at the time – and all expressed amazement at the girl’s sheer ability, including Jozef Elsner who would go on to be Chopin’s first piano teacher.

Having established a reputation in her home city, in 1810, the year of her marriage, Szymanowska began to widen her performance horizons. She travelled to Paris to play at some of the city’s leading concert salons in Paris, creating such an impression that Luigi Cherubini, one of the leading composers of the day, went straight home and wrote his Fantasy for Piano in her honour.

Bearing three children in the space of two years, a daughter in 1811 and twins, a son and a daughter, the following year, paused her career momentum as a performer, but Szymanowska turned to composition instead, producing some complex virtuosic pieces for the piano in particular. Robert Schumann was among those who praised her Twenty Exercises and Preludes for Piano.

Szymanowska’s return to performance ended her marriage, and for much of the 1820s she was on the road almost constantly, touring the concert halls of Europe and earning rapturous reviews. St Petersburg brought her the acquaintance of leading composers of the day such as Johann Hummel and John Field while Tsar Alexander I was so impressed he appointed Szymanowska to the post of First Pianist to his daughters.

From Vilnius to Milan she travelled the continent relentlessly, making a triumphant return to Warsaw in early 1827, selling out the National Theatre on two occasions, an audience that included a young and starstruck Frederic Chopin. Szymanowska became one of Chopin’s greatest advocates, providing support and, importantly, advice to the young composer. When in the late 1820s Chopin travelled to Paris for instruction by the once great but increasingly bitter Friedrich Kalkbrenner, for example, Szymanowska warned Chopin that Kalkbrenner was ‘a scoundrel’, intent on ‘cramping your genius’.

She developed an impressive social circle that included Pushkin, Paganini, Salieri, Meyerbeer, Weber, Goethe, the poet Adam Mickiewicz who went on to marry her daughter Celina, Beethoven, Glinka and Rossini, all of whom were recorded in the scrapbooks she kept containing letters, signatures, personal messages and drawings by some of the biggest names of the Romantic movement.

Her appointment to the Russian imperial court brought Szymanowska much-needed financial security, meaning she could scale down her exhausting touring schedule. She settled in the Russian capital, publishing new works that were distributed across Europe, giving piano lessons to the children of the nobility and still filling concert halls with occasional recitals. The regular salons she hosted drew the city’s leading composers, writers and artists, and any major cultural names visiting St Petersburg made leaving their calling card at Szymanowska’s residence their first duty on arriving in the city.

She was just 42 when cholera struck, the spread of the disease across Europe and the relative remoteness of St Petersburg from other major European capitals meaning her death was not marked as widely as it could have been. Her posthumous reputation dimmed accordingly, but her presence can be heard in Chopin’s piano works and seen in the subsequent rise of the composer-virtuosi, from Liszt to Clara Schumann.

Goethe had met Szymanowska in Marienbad in 1823. Many scholars believe he fell deeply in love with her; certainly he left one of the most eloquent descriptions of a pioneering woman who blazed a trail through the concert halls and salons of early 19th century Europe. ‘Inspired by her,’ he wrote in a letter to a friend, ‘both court and town live on in an atmosphere of music and joy.’

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