Music for four strings
Violin music was first heard in Poland at the time when first violins occurred in Polish lands. A precise date is yet difficult to establish today. (There are records of first violins and lutherie workshops existing in the 2nd half of the 16th century.) Nor are there any sources containing scores of violin music. This is not as surprising as it sounds, as composers of the Renaissance or even the baroque period would not specify instrumentation in their scores.
The first more generally recognised Polish violinist and composer who left behind a vast body of significant works was Adam Jarzębski (2nd half of the 16th c.–1649). As a member of king Sigismund III Vasa's court ensemble, Jarzębski sent most of his life in Warsaw. He, nevertheless, made a study trip to Italy, the homeland of violin music, like many composers and instrumentalists from across Europe did in early 17th century. Interestingly, Jastrzębski almost never specified instrumentation in his vast output, which has survived to this day. This included the violin, the instrument he knew and liked best, and used most often.
Adam Jarzębski - Tamburetta
The evolution of Polish violin music speeds up at the end of the 18th century, when virtuoso soloists come to the fore. Endowed with amazing talents, they stunned the audience. Listening to them play, more sensitive listeners would occasionally pass out from too much excitement, while others held the virtuosos in utmost respect from, wondering if the superhuman skill was not perhaps an outcome of dealings with the dark forces. The reality was different, yet no less exciting: Polish virtuoso violinists were among the European elite at the time.
Before the Romanticism had fully set in in European music, a Vilnius-born Polish violinist, conductor, music animateur and self-taught composer, Feliks Janiewicz (1762–1848) entered the stage. He spent a greater part of his adult life in Great Britain, mostly in Edinburgh. Nowadays, he is still in the shadow of Wieniawski or Szymanowski, yet an increasing number of inquisitive violinists reach for his pieces. Janiewicz composed five violin concertos, along with numerous chamber pieces with the participation of the violin.
He was soon followed by another virtuoso violinist, who found more widespread fame. Born in Radzyń in the region of Podlasie, Karol Lipiński (1790–1861) demonstrated exceptional talent from his youngest days. He played both the violin and the cello so well that he had a hard time choosing which career to follow. He decided on the violin, and found himself performing in Europe's top concert halls, including Italy, where he twice took to the stage along with the great Niccolò Paganini and was deemed his equal. Like Paganini, Lipiński composed as well, not only for violin solo. He is the author of numerous pieces for violin and orchestra, with Concerto in D major Op. 21 "Military" ranking among the best known. Lipiński would write the then highly valued capriccios, polonaises and rondos. His music is full of displays of virtuoso skill that pose a challenge to the performer and astonish the listener. Among the most difficult of Lipiński's works are his capriccios; they contain a catalogue of virtuoso violin techniques.
The best known Polish virtuoso violinist, not only for lending his name to the popular violin competition, was and still is Henryk Wieniawski (1835–1880). A true citizen of the world, he studied at Paris conservatoire, performed across Europe as well as North America, and was an esteemed educator teaching in Saint Petersburg and Brussels among other places. As a composer he managed to bring together brilliant virtuosity and lyrical romanticism. He was also greatly attached to Polish traditional folk music, which he channeled in his polonaises, mazurkas and kujawiaks.
Henryk Wieniawski - Kujawiak in A minor
Wieniawski wrote two violin concertos, which to this day remain popular with violinists around the world, in particular Concerto No. 2 in D minor. Violin Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor was composed in 1852–1853. Twenty-year-old Wieniawski wrote it with himself in mind as it was thought proper for a virtuoso at the time to have in their repertoire a few original pieces apart from classical compositions. The first movement of Wieniawski's First Violin Concerto brims with technical challenges, which – if performed well – create a bravura effect. The second movement, or Preghiera (A Prayer), is lyrical and deeply romantic, while the final Rondo is light and dancey. More popular with violinists, the Second Violin Concerto was written much later. Wieniawski – now an experienced performing artist – knew perfectly how to construct a violin concerto that would be satisfying both to the performer and the audience. History proved him right and the piece is the most frequently performed Polish violin concerto along with Mieczysław Karłowicz's composition and Karol Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1.
Henryk Wieniawski: "Dudziarz" (A Piper) - Mazurka in D major Op. 19 No.2
Kaja Danczowska - violin, Maja Nosowska - piano
recorded at Warsaw 15.01.1978; © 2013 Polskie Radio SA, IMiT
Although he studied the violin at Warsaw conservatoire, Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909), was not a performing virtuoso violinist like the trailblazing Polish violin music composers that came before him. He must be mentioned here for one extraordinary composition: his Violin Concerto in A major written in 1902 for Karłowicz's professor at Warsaw conservatoire, the excellent Stanisław Barcewicz. The three-movement piece drawing on romantic traditions amazes with beautiful themes and an elaborate orchestra part. It is clear to hear that Karłowicz was a natural born symphony composer and did not treat the orchestra part as a mere accompaniment for the violin extravaganza.
Mieczysław Karłowicz: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A major
1. Allegro moderato; 2. Romanza. Andante; 3. Finale. Vivace assai
Kaja Danczowska - violin; Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia i Telewizji w Krakowie, Antoni Wit - conductor
recorded at Krakow 22.12.1978; © 2013 Polskie Radio SA, IMiT
Written only fourteen years later by the first non-violinist composer on our list, Karol Szymanowski's (1882–1937) First Violin Concerto could not be more different. The piece is part of the international violin canon and is considered one of Szymanowski's most significant works. It was a turning point in the development of the genre: no longer does the violin take central stage and the violinist boasts their virtuoso skill, although the piece is exceptionally difficult, demanding and generally breath-taking. The charm and irresistible allure of the work should be at least in part credited to Paweł Kochański, excellent violinist and Szymanowski's friend, who assisted the composer with his violin pieces. The successful collaboration has also yielded such superb violin pieces as the Myths cycle and Violin Concerto No. 2.
Karol Szymanowski - Mity (Myths)
A manuscript of Karol Szymanowski's Sonata for Violin and Piano in D minor Op. 9
Szymanowski's music fascinated young Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969), who grew up to become another major figure of Polish 20th-century violin music. An outstanding performing violinist, she wrote many pieces for her instrument. Among the most prominent are her violin concertos, numerous chamber pieces (five sonatas for violin and piano, two partitas and three sonatas for violin solo), and violin miniatures clearly reminiscent of the rhythms and tunes of Polish folk music. Her last, Seventh Violin Concerto was first performed in Brussels, earning Grażyna Bacewicz an award of the Belgian Government and Gold Medal at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Competition for Composers.
Grażyna Bacewicz: Oberek No. 1
Kaja Danczowska - violin, Maja Nosowska - piano
recorded at Warsaw 27.06.1976 ; © 2013 Polskie Radio SA, IMiT
Also enjoying international recognition are violin works by Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), Although both of them wrote a few pieces for the instrument, let us, nevertheless, focus on two of them.
Penderecki's First Violin Concerto was performed for the first time in April 1977 in Basil. The soloist was excellent American violinist Isaac Stern. The piece proved to be an important voice in the history of violin music and a pivotal point for the composer himself, who included in it clear references to the great romantic traditions.
Composing Chain II for violin and orchestra especially for excellent German singer Anne-Sophie Mutter Lutosławski had a different idea in mind. The four-part work employs "the chain technique", yet subsequent fragments of the violin part do not concur with the orchestral part. The shift in both parts' narration is the founding principle of the whole work.
An overview of 20th-century Polish composers of violin music would not be complete without mentioning Aleksander Tansman, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, and two present-day artists: Hanna Kulenty and Krzesimir Dębski. An interesting new chapter in the history of Polish violin music was written by jazz musicians, including Zbigniew Seifert, Michał Urbaniak or Adam Bałdych, a representative of the younger generation.
The repertory of Polish violin music is still growing thanks to new generations of composers. That is because the violin, along with the piano, remains the most popular and fascinating of all musical instruments, also for those composers who are looking for novel modes of expression and seem willing to deprive the violin of its beautiful sound. Such unconventional approaches allow us to see this noble instrument, so deeply ingrained in European music traditions, in a completely new light.
Adam Bałdych - "Letter for E"
Adam Bałdych Imaginary Quartet: A. Bałdych - violin, P. Tomaszewski - piano, M. Barański - bass, P. Dobrowolski - drums
Feliks Janiewicz ("Tableau of Musicians", Pietro Bettelini, a part of copperplate; public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)
Karol Lipiński (public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)
Henryk Wieniawski (public domain; source - Biblioteka Narodowa)
Grażyna Bacewicz (public domain; source - Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)