Much of Szymanowski’s violin music was written for his close friend Pawel Kochanski, who must have had not only a remarkable technique but also a gift for that soaring, ecstatic style which is displayed so beautifully in the two violin concertos and in the smaller works for violin and piano. The Nocturne and Tarantella (always intended to be a single work) was composed in 1915 while Szymanowski still lived in his family home in Tymoszówka, in what is now Ukraine but was then Poland. It was a period of intense creativity, moving between friends’ houses and absorbing his recent interest in Greek myth, in Sicilian culture, and in Persian poetry. “We used to meet,” wrote his friend August Iwanski, “almost constantly until the middle of 1918. The weeks we spent with the Jaroszynskis in hospitable Zarudzie were particularly memorable. Pawel Kochanski and his wife were also staying there and every evening usually ended with a superb piano and violin concert. Mornings and afternoons were filled with talking, strolls in the park, tennis and bridge.”
This happy life was violently disrupted by the 1917 revolution, when Tymoszówka was destroyed and Szymanowski had to settle in the new Poland. He attached himself ever more closely to Polish causes and to Polish folk music.
The violin writing in Nocturne and Tarantella includes a lot of double-stopping, often on open fifths where a single finger has to stop two adjacent strings, also harmonics, left-hand pizzicatos, and long elegant lines high above the piano accompaniment, like a lark in full song. Szymanowski’s harmony is richly impressionistic. Perhaps his mind was back with his recent travels in the Mediterranean, since the Nocturne includes a passage which suggests Spain, with the violin strumming the four strings in Andalusian rhythm, while the Tarantella speeds along relentlessly (apart from a single relaxation of the tempo) in a truly Neapolitan spirit.
Hugh Macdonald is Avis Blewett Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published books on Scriabin and Berlioz, and his book of essays Beethoven’s Century appeared in 2008.