Who was she?

Maria Szymanowska, “a great talent bordering on madness” (Goethe) (1)

It is a strange paradox for artists to be idolised during their lifetime only to be hurriedly forgotten after their deaths … Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831) was an example, all the more flagrantly as she was one of the small but growing number in Europe of lady pianists, composers and teachers, whose artistic talents emerged from the salons to find success with the general public. So who was this « ravishing Almighty of the sound world » according to Goethe's expression, quoted by Romain Rolland? (2)

A precocious talent

Marianna Wolowska was born in Warsaw, the year of the French Revolution, into a Jewish family converted to Catholicism. Precociously talented, she astonished audiences by the quality of her improvisations on the spinet. At eight, she started to take piano lessons: her two teachers, Lisowski and Gremm, would remain the only ones to teach her the rudiments of music and pianistic art. She was to hone her brilliant technique and musical expression through relentless individual work and advice from experienced musicians encountered during her career. She would also closely follow the development of the piano itself, her preference evidently being for Broadwood, an English make.

In the declining capital of a Poland split between three empires and looking to France with hope, her father ran a prosperous brewery which became a secret meeting place for Polish patriots. With his wife he regularly welcomed representatives of the intellectual and artistic elite in Europe, including Paër, Franz Xavier Mozart, Rode, Lipinski, Klengel, Lessel, Kurpinski, Angelica Catalani and Elsner, Chopin’s future teacher…

The young "Marynia", already well-known in Warsaw salons, was sent to Paris. In 1810, she played before several famous people. Cherubini, as a mark of esteem, dedicated his Fantasy in C to her.

On her return, she married Jozef Szymanowski, a landowner, and quickly became the mother of three children. Celina was her youngest daughter: in 1934 in Paris, she would marry Mickiewicz, the great Polish poet who was to become a professor at the “Collège de France” with Michelet and Quinet as colleagues.

A triumphant career

Between 1815 and 1820, she undertook her first concert tours: first in Poland at the residence of Prince Radziwill, then in Dresden, Vienna, London, St Petersburg and Berlin. At first these were just private concerts, but little by little she made a name for herself and gained new contacts, decisive for the development of her career.

Apart from being a virtuoso concert pianist, she is also recognised as a composer: three of her five melodies commissioned by Niemcewicz appear in the 1816 edition of Historic Polish songs, set to verses written by him. This collection, created to revive the memory of an entire people, would be republished many times in the course of the 19th century.
In 1820, Breitkopf & Härtel began to publish the works of Szymanowska: her Twenty Exercises and Preludes for pianoforte, which Schumann liked (3), as well as her Six Romances for voice and piano, to texts by Shakespeare, Pushkin (the father of Alexander) and Cardinal De Bernis. This was also also the year of separation for the couple whose interests had become incompatible. Maria decided to keep her daughters with her and pursue her profession as a musician.

Concerts and tours

From 1822 to 1827, she made a more or less uninterrupted succession of concert tours, indisputable successes, across Europe. First Russia: Vilnius, Saint-Petersburg (where she made the acquaintance of Hummel and Field), Moscow, Riga, Kiev (where she played with Lipinski, “the Polish Paganini”) and Lvov. She came back with the title “First Pianist of The Empress of all the Russias”.
In the summer of 1823, she was in Karlsbad and Marienbad, where Goethe heard her and thenceforth held an undying admiration for her, as testified for example in his poem Reconciliation. (4)

She crisscrossed Germany and gave public concerts in all the major towns. In April 1824, she played at the Paris Conservatory, with Baillot, the excellent violinist. Hanry, the publisher, had her nocturne The murmur printed, which quickly became a fashionable piece. From London (public concerts and private lessons) she went to Geneva and Italy, with letters of recommendation from Rossini. In March 1825, she played at the Louvre and afterwards was acclaimed once again in Amsterdam and London. She finally regained Warsaw, where she triumphed at the National Theatre on the 15th January and 7th February 1827. In the audience was a particularly attentive young man: Chopin...

A vast undertaking

These tours were a vast undertaking that she managed with her brothers and sisters, assisted by a few patrons and friends. Her correspondance and her ‘Albums’ – collections of poems, drawings and dedicated scores - provide a moving testimony. Far from being simple ‘autograph collections’, these items reflect the intensity of the relationships that she was able to make, and the esteem in which her contemporaries held her. They also show her cleverness: an initial collection of compliments quickly became a magnet for people eager to add their name... Among these figured Salieri, Beethoven, Kalkbrenner, Spontini, Paganini, Goethe, Moore, Clementi, Boieldieu, Auber, Meyerbeer, Reicha, Giuditta Pasta, Weber and Pushkin.

On the 1st November 1827, Szymanowska left her native town to settle in St Petersburg definitively. There she divided her time between the education of her daughters, composition (Ballades by Mickiewicz, Nocturne in B flat), lessons and concerts. Her salon was frequented by the capital’s cosmopolitan elite including Wiazemski, Galitzine, Field, Glinka, Mickiewicz, Pouchkine, Krylov, the painters Oleszkiewicz, Orlowski and Wankowicz.

At the height of her glory, she was abruptly carried off by the cholera epidemic which hit St Petersburg in the summer of 1831.

Elisabeth Zapolska Chapelle

Translation : Frederick Goodman, 2011

(1) « …das gröβte Talent gleichsam nur als Folie… » in : Letter from Goethe to Ottilie, his daughter in law, 18.08.1823
(2) « die zierliche Ton-Allmächtige » in : R.Rolland Goethe et Beethoven , Ed.du Sablier, Paris 1931 p.135
(3) R.Schumann Gesammelte Schriften über Musik und Musiker (1836), Bd.I p.203
(4) To Madame Marie Szymanowska, Marienbad, 1823

Article published in PIANO N°25 (2011/2012)