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Nielsen and Szymanowski

The recent agreement between the Szymanowski Society in Poland and the Carl Nielsen Society in Denmark to further the knowledge of the other Society's composer did not come by more ore less by accident. Both Societies center on composers who were the absolutely leading ones in their respective countries during the first decades of the 20th Century.

Apparently, Szymanowski and Nielsen never met in person. They were meant to, though, having both being selected for the 1927 ISCM Festival in Frankfurt-am-Main, Nielsen with his Fifth Symphony, first performed in 1922, and Szymanowski with his even more recent Stabat Mater (1925-26).

Unfortunately, the international jury had also chosen another big work with chorus involved, a composition by the now more or less forgotten Croatian composer Bozidar Sirola (1889-1956), and it proved impossible for the arranging committee to make more than one big choral performance happen. Szymanowski's work was postponed (and to the shame of ISCM not performed at an ISCM festival until after his death!), and he did not feel like going to Frankfurt, where, on the other hand. Nielsen and his family enjoyed the success of the Fifth Symphony, conducted by a young Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Nielsen and Szymanowski might also have met in Copenhagen, since the Polish composer was part of an official Polish delegation visiting in the autumn of 1920 in order to prepare for Polish concerts and exhibitions. Actually, Szymanowski chose to sneak out of the Scandinavian leg of that trip and joined his friend, pianist Artur Rubinstein on a trip to the US instead. When Szymanowski finally made it to the Danish capital in 1933 (to be the piano soloist in a performance of his Fourth Symphony conducted by his friend Grzegorz Fitelberg - a fragmentary recording is still kept in the archives of the Danish Radio) and again in 1935 (to be part of a chamber music concert featuring his own music), Nielsen had already passed away.

There is no record of Nielsen having heard any of the relatively few Szymanowski performances in Copenhagen during his lifetime. He would probably also have shared the reactions of the Copenhagen critics to the Scandinavian premiere of Szymanowski's 2nd symphony, given on 30 August 1924 by the Tivoli Symphony Orchestra conducted by Nielsen's friend Frederik Schnedler-Petersen. It was labelled as "chaotic", "a bad copy of Richard Strauss" and "without any individuality".

Being stylistically quite different themselves, the two composers did not really share their taste in contemporary music. Szymanowski, for instance, was much more enthusiastic about Igor Stravinsky than Nielsen ever became. They shared, however, the obligation to make an effort for improving the social and economical conditions of composers as such, independently of the validity of their music. They also both felt the need for international collaboration - Nielsen mainly in Scandinavia, not being all that fluent in foreign languages, Szymanowski on his side being engaged in the doings of the ISCM from the very beginning and in that respect being part of a more widespread European network.

Both were appointed directors of the leading institution of musical education in their country. Nielsen was member of the board of the Copenhagen Conservatory for some years before becoming director in 1931, only a few months before his death. Among his plans was a project of furthering popular music education, inviting the general public to take part in weekly lectures on musical subjects at the Conservatory for a very low fee. He was to give a couple of those lectures himself. 

Szymanowski became director of the Warsaw Conservatory in 1927. He resigned after a couple of years, not feeling up to the struggle against a quite conservative staff of teachers. That left him with a gap in his income - he was never a rich man, nor was Nielsen - and that was precisely what motivated him to increase the number of concert appearances, including those two visits to Denmark. 

There is a "hidden" link between Nielsen and Szymanowski, since they were both chosen as contributors to the series of Vocalises-Etudes, commissioned by the vocal professor A. L. Hettich of the Paris Conservatory. Gabriel Fauré (at that time director of that venerable institution) wrote the very first one out of more than 150, and Nielsen composed No. 57 (in 1927), while Szymanowski did No. 59 the following year. Both compositions are rarely heard these days. Luckily, they can be found on cd, and they were also performed during the Nielsen Society event (8 September 1008) celebrating the newly coined collaboration with the Szymanowski Society.

Finally, it should not be overlooked that Szymanowski and Nielsen shared the gift of being excellent authors: Szymanowski wrote a novel, some short stories and a number of poems, and his essays on musical matters are just as enjoyable reading as Nielsen's essays on various musical issues or his childhood memoirs.


For more information on Szymanowski and his music, look here.



Karol Szymanowski presiding in a board meeting at the Warsaw Conservatory. The photo below shows Nielsen (left) placed in a less central position, since at the time of the photo he was only member of the Copenhagen Conservatory Board, having not yet taken over the directorship afther the violinist Anton Svendsen (in the middle). Svendsen passed away in late 1930, and Nielsen took over in early 1931 which gave him less than a year to put his personal stamp on that venerable institution.




Karol Szymanowski (right) was photographed in February 1933 at Copenhagen's main tourist attraction, the statue of the Little Mermaid, with (a.o.) the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg. Szymanowski, who was lodging with his cousin, one of the Polish embassy secretaries, in order to save hotels costs, was the piano soloist in a performance of his Fourth Symphony with the newly founded Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra.


Szymanowski photographed in 1935 at Villa Atma in Zakopane in Southern Poland, close to the Slovakian border. Today, the villa houses a charming Szymanowski museum. It is also the site of the Szymanowski Society.
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