Poland is a country with a rich musical history, from the brilliant piano works of Chopin to the captivating virtuosity of Paderewski to the inventiveness of Penderecki and Lutosławski later in the 20th century. However, many intriguing Polish composers have received little recognition for their work, particularly outside their homeland. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing one of these overlooked composers, Mieczysław Karłowicz.
Karłowicz was born in 1876 to a noble family in what is now Belarus (then part of Poland) to the linguist Jan Karłowicz and Irena Sulistrowska. In addition to his main profession, Jan was an orchestra director and mountaineer, and in both of these activities his son would follow in his footsteps; during his childhood, Mieczysław also heard several works by the likes of Brahms and Smetana. From 1882 to 1887, Karłowicz’s family moved between Heidelberg, Prague, and Dresden before finally settling in Warsaw. There, he began studies in violin with Jan Jankowski and Stanisław Barcewicz.
Because of poor health, Karłowicz was forced to give up his violin studies a few years later, switching to composition under the tutelage of Gustaw Rogulski in Warsaw and then Henrich Urban in Berlin (where he also studied philosophy, psychology, and physics). During this time, he composed incidental music for Jozefat Nowiński’s play The White Dove, whose section “Bianca da Molena” receives occasional performances in Poland today.
Having completed his studies in 1901, Karłowicz returned to Warsaw, and in 1903 he took up a directorial position at the Warsaw Music Society. During this period of his career, especially after moving in 1906 to the mountain resort of Zakopane, Karłowicz focused primarily on symphonic poems. Some of his best-known works in this genre include Eternal Songs, Returning Waves and the Lithuanian Rhapsody, the latter of which is based on Lithuanian and Belorussian melodies; describing his construction of the Rhapsody, Karłowicz stated, “I have tried to encapsulate within it the total grief, sadness and eternal servitude of that race whose songs I heard in my childhood.” Both pieces illustrate his mastery of orchestration and ability to bring out each section of the orchestra in a very compelling manner.
An avid mountaineer like his father, Karłowicz joined the Tatra Society, provided accounts of hiking trips, and was fond of skiing and photography. Unfortunately, these activities ultimately brought his life to a premature end. In February 1909, three months after completing the symphonic poem A Sorrowful Tale, Karłowicz was killed in an avalanche while on a skiing trip at the age of 32.
Karłowicz left behind five complete symphonic poems, several songs and piano works, incidental music to The White Dove, a Serenade for Strings, as well as a symphony titled “Rebirth” and a violin concerto dedicated to his former teacher Stanislaw Barcewicz. Although the composer’s early death may have deprived us of his most developed work, his extant compositions are shining examples of the sweeping late Romantic style. Influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss and Wagner, Karłowicz was initially criticized by many in Polish music circles for diverging from the norm, but his works eventually gained appreciation during his lifetime, with one critic calling his tone poem Eternal Songs a “precious musical gem shining like a rainbow.”
Despite his many influences, Karłowicz developed his own musical language, one which is rich with color, texture, and emotion. It is high time that he be recognized as one of the leading lights of the late Romantic era.
I will leave you with recordings of Karłowicz’s violin concerto and his “Rebirth” symphony, both of which are important but underperformed contributions to their respective genres. If you’re interested in other lesser-known Polish Romantic composers, I’d suggest looking at Grzegorz Fitelberg (who completed Karłowicz’s unfinished tone poem Episode at a Masquerade), Zygmunt Noskowski, and Emil Młynarski.
Thank you so much for reading – if you enjoyed this feature, please leave a like or follow. Next week’s post will be on the Canadian composer Jean Coulthard, one of a triumvirate of women composers who dominated Canadian classical music in the 20th century!