Karol Szymanowski’s early orientalism made his name – but his return to the music of his native Poland was an equal epiphany for him, writes Jim Samson in the Guardian:

There is much of interest and beauty in the later music. But the composer himself seemed aware of how much had been lost. He once remarked, in an oblique reference to the First Violin Concerto, whose inspiration was the poem May Night by Tadeusz Mycin´ski: “Our national music is not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka … It is rather the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night in Poland.”

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Szymanowski more or less went through the typical three periods in his music. His earliest period was greatly influenced by Richard Strauss and Max Reger, and his middle period added the influences of Claude Debussy, and Oriental idioms. The third and final period of Polish nationalism and modernism produced perhaps his finest works: both of his violin concerti, his two string quartets, his ballet Harnasie and his marvellous Stabat Mater. My favourite is his Symphony No. 4 “Symphonie Concertante” for piano and orchestra, which really gets the pulse going. The finale seems to be a foot-stompin’ cross between a mazurka and a bacchanale. Definitely music to turn the amplifiers up to eleven.

In September 1934, Szymanowski bitterly complained in a letter to his friend, Polish pianist Jan Smeterlin: “Polish officialdom (the Government) repeatedly refuses to recognize me. They do so only when I am needed for propaganda purposes, as it is impossible even for them to deny that among creative artists (not virtuosi) I alone (and not solely amongst composers but in other fields as well) have already acquired some reputation abroad. This is another story, which I will tell you another time. The fact is that they care nothing for me here, and that I could die without anyone lifting a finger. My funeral will be another story. I am convinced it will be splendid. People here love the funeral processions of great men. I see no reason why I should be silent about the scandalous conditions to which I am subjected. You can tell the world about it. I have tried everything I can and there seems to be no response.”

Szymanowski was right. Arthur Rubinstein wrote in his autobiography My Many Years: “When he was no more, the authorities trumpeted pompously the loss of their great son. They prepared a Warsaw funeral with an unheard-of mass of publicity. A hundred thousand people were massed to watch the funeral. A special train transported his body, accompanied by ministers and the family, to Cracow for the grand burial at the church at Skalla, where only the greatest of the nation were allowed to lie. They put on the catafalque the insignia of the Grand Cross of the Polish Restituta, the nation’s highest honour. What a bitter irony! For years they had made my dear Karol suffer through their meanness and now they were willing to spend a fortune on this big show.”

Szymanowski Focus, curated by Piotr Anderszewski, is at the Wigmore Hall, London on 5 and 7 May.