Maria Szymanowska: 20 Etudes & Preludes

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

In 2020, I was commissioned by PWM Edition to record five films showcasing educational piano music by Polish composers. Captivated by my new musical discoveries, I have continued to independently explore and review the music of Chopin’s land…

Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM Edition) continue to live up to their remit of promoting Polish music with regular, excellent editions whose primary aim is to shine a light both on greater- and lesser-known works.

Having set new standards with Jan Ekier’s Chopin National Edition (while also preserving for posterity the revered Paderewski Edition of Chopin’s works), they have recently launched the first volume in a new edition of the works of Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831).

The sturdy, superbly presented and surprisingly inexpensive volume delivers Szymanowska’s Twenty Etudes and Preludes, dating from 1819.

In this review I will briefly consider the significance both of the composer and of the work itself, as well as appraising the new publication…

Maria Szymanowska

Born in Warsaw in 1789, the daughter of successful brewer Franciszek Wołowski and his wife Barbara (who hailed from one of Poland’s oldest aristocratic families), Maria Szymanowska was one of the nineteenth century’s first professional piano virtuosos. She was a student of (among others) Karol Kurpiński, whose influential Polonaises have also been resurrected by PWM Edition; I have reviewed them here.

In 1810 she married Józef Szymanowski, about whom little is known, but with whom she had three children. The couple separated in 1820 and eventually divorced, their children remaining in Maria’s custody.

As a concert pianist, Szymanowska toured extensively, making several visits to perform in the UK, in the major European capitals, and eventually settling in St. Petersburg. There she composed for the Russian Imperial court, taught and gave regular concerts. She died of cholera in 1831 during the St. Petersburg epidemic.

In her short life, Szymanowska had enjoyed a full and distinguished career as one of the leading musicians of an age that bridged the transition from Classical to Romantic eras. The legacy of her surviving compositions is clearly of significant interest.

The Twenty Etudes and Preludes

Szymanowska’s compositions are mostly for piano (more than 100 works), although she also wrote songs and chamber music.

Typifying the stile brillant that was popular in the decades preceding the arrival of Chopin and Liszt, the Vingt Exercises et Préludes pour le pianoforte (Twenty Etudes and Preludes, 1819) is perhaps her most important work, making it an appropriate starting point for the PWM survey.

Etudes (Reicha, Cramer) had appeared in the previous decade, but a more direct antecedent of Szymanowska’s Etudes and Preludes could be Clementi’s Préludes ou exercises and first book of Gradus ad Parnassum, which appeared in 1817. Szymanowska can be credited with introducing the etude to Poland with her pieces. The famous studies of Carl Czerny began to appear around a decade later.

Although Szymanowska’s etudes present a succession of tangled technical challenges, suitable for players at diploma level, they are also forerunners of the concert etude genre adopted by Chopin for his Études Op.10 (1833) and Op.25 (1837) and by Liszt. In other words, they are as suitable for audience enjoyment as they are for the pianist’s personal use.

While some of these etudes are little more than studies, most have melodic charm, in some cases hints of humour, and in a few cases genuine lyricism. I am particularly taken with the melodic qualities of Nos. 9 and 14, while the yearning emotion of No. 20 is extraordinary for its time, and truly beautiful.

The New PWM Edition

As stated in my introduction, the new edition of this music is the first volume in a new series from PWM Edition. The series is edited by Irena Poniatowska, while Ewa Bogula has edited the present volume, PWM 12 139. The edition is financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

The publication has a stiff cloth-bound presentation, with stitched binding that is as suitable for practical performance as it is for library use. The paper is in PWM’s usual classy ivory cream colour.

The book sports 138 pages, and after the title and contents pages these make up three sections, the first of which is a seven-page Introduction written by the series editor, appearing first in Polish, then in English translation (by John Comber). This includes a full-page etching of the composer, as well as a reproduction of the title page of the music’s first edition.

Poniatowska’s Introduction is highly scholarly and rather dry in tone. She concerns herself particularly with the position of these pieces within the evolution of the etude, meaning we learn little about the composer’s life or the personal context of the music. From an academic perspective, hers is a hugely useful analysis; the performer will perhaps glean less inspiration, however.

The music itself follows, the scores beautifully engraved, well spaced and clearly presented. Fingerings (presumably the composer’s) appear in most pieces, and are certainly helpful in establishing the didactic intentions and specific technical challenges introduced.

Thirdly there is an 18-page Critical Commentary, as “in-depth” as they come. Commendably, it is presented in full in both Polish and English.

The first five pages here discusses the various manuscript and 1819 Breitkopf & Hārtel publication, shedding more light on the private history of these pieces than the earlier Introduction. This is essential reading. The remaining pages give the expected, exhaustive bar-by-bar analysis of pertinent textual issues.

Concluding Thoughts

Combining the melodic charm and elegance of Viennese classicism with a prescience of the yearnings of an emerging virtuoso school of pianism, it is easy to see the music of Maria Szymanowska as a missing link between Mozart and Chopin; as a pianist, it is equally difficult not to love it as such!

PWM’s new edition of the Twenty Etudes and Preludes makes a superb addition to the library of any serious classical pianist, and can be welcomed with unalloyed enthusiasm.

We must hope that subsequent imprints in this series live up to the exemplary standards on display here. This really is a stunning edition!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.