The Narrative of a Composer's Biography: Some Aspects of Szymanowski Reception

By Cesetti, Durval | Musical Times, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

The Narrative of a Composer's Biography: Some Aspects of Szymanowski Reception


Cesetti, Durval, Musical Times


A composer's reputation is slowly constructed in a process that relies not solely on musical characteristics but on many other factors as well. Furthermore, the perceived status of a composer's oeuvre - reflected in the amount of exposure it receives in concerts, recordings, radio, and through published scores - has a powerful influence in shaping how new listeners will ultimately consider its worth. When confronted with a piece by an unfamiliar name, the novice listener might be curious to listen to it, and may even become a fervent admirer of it later, but it is hard to deny that a part of us instinctively tends to accept that a lack of prestige especially in a composer from a bygone era - must be connected to some kind of musical lack, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle that reinforces the original perception. Because of this, it is imperative that the musical establishment constantly reassess the value of a composer's output, lest it remain stuck with outworn notions and prejudices that try to shoehorn unique individuals into Procrustean models. Whether a composer such as Szymanowski deserves a greater space under the limelight is something that could be debated for a long time based on purely personal views. However, if this debate is to arrive at a productive and valid conclusion, one must leave personal preferences aside for a moment, and examine which factors - historical, biographical, sociological and musical - might have influenced the way posterity has perceived his value.

The notion that history is simply a collection of facts, which are impartially observed and presented to the reader, has been persuasively dethroned by historians such as Hayden White, who emphasises that historical accounts are basically verbal fictions, relying on previously accepted concepts of how a narrative should be established.' Events, on their own, do not contain sense; by selecting and ordering them into a coherent whole, we are indeed presenting an interpretation and evaluation of them. White affirms that 'the more we know about the past, the more difficult it is to generalize about it'.2 However, generalisations are just as inevitable as they are unwelcome; one must first accept them before deconstructing their elements. Evidently, the need to create meaningful narratives out of many disjointed facts applies not only to large historical events, but also to personal biographies; there are certain concepts of how a 'great' composer should look, and those who do not fit these concepts are not granted admission into the introductory books used in music history survey classes.

However, before moving on to the complex issues involved in the manipulation of a composer's biography for public consumption, one should also explore more prosaic reasons that might be partially responsible for the neglect that Szymanowski's output has suffered outside Poland. For example, it is undeniable that his music tends to be highly difficult and complex, for performers, theorists and listeners alike. The 1951 Record Guide, for example, affirmed that his 'highly wrought music full of exquisite effects of color [...] is unlikely ever to be popular; but those with a taste for recondite art will continue to be fascinated by its rarefied and ecstatic beauty'.5 Even those who appreciate Szymanowski's artistry have acknowledged his passion for complexity (often for its own sake). Stuckenschmidt blamed this on his 'aristocratic dislike of the commonplace', which made him 'afraid of being too easily understood - a fear that is somewhat decadent, yet immensely creative and fertile'.4 When Szymanowski made two trips to the United States in the early 1920s in order to publicise his works, his own publisher was sceptical (rightly, as it turned out to be) that these trips would result in anything concrete, since he did not think that Americans possessed the complex sensitivity required to appreciate Szymanowski's subtle and intricate appeal.5

The difficulties Szymanowski presents to performers are also staggering. …

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