Maria Anna Szymanowska
Born: December 14, 1789, Warsaw, Poland
Died: July 25, 1831, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Born in Warsaw, Poland into a Jewish family of modest means, Maria Agata Wolowska began her musical studies by teaching herself piano from a young age. Her parents enjoyed her performances for family gatherings where she improvised and accompanied her mother’s singing. She continued her studies with local teachers, Antoni Lisowski and Tomasz Gremm, and made her piano debut in 1810 in Warsaw and Paris. Later that year, she married a wealthy landowner named Josef Szymanowski and had three children. She was in high demand as a concert pianist, charming audiences throughout Europe with both her technical skills and personality. The famous German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his 70s, is said to have fallen in love with her and expressed his affection for her in his "Aussöhnung" verses of 1823:
“And so your heart is comforted and knows
it is alive, and beating, and will beat
in gratitude for a gift so undeserved,
eager to give itself up, to make return.
Now you feel—if only it would last!—
the double joy of music and of love.”
Szymanowska’s frequent performances away from home were met with much disapproval from her husband. Her career caused so much tension in her marriage that she separated from him and took the children with her. Forging a life on her own, she concertized and lectured on piano technique to support her family. She also composed 110 works including twenty songs, chamber music, and piano pieces, all of which were published by Breitkopf and Hartel and other publishers in Russia and Poland. Among her 90 miniature piano pieces were nocturnes, waltzes, polonaise, mazurkas and études. Chopin, as a Polish pianist from the generation after Szymanowska, was very likely influenced by her compositional choices.
In 1822, Szymanowska became the first female pianist at the Russian court and performed concerts in the Russian Society of Musical Amateurs. Several years later she withdrew from the rigorous schedule of concert life and settled in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her attention turned to raising her children, teaching piano, and collecting all her manuscripts in an album, now housed in Kraków at the Jagiellonian Library. Szymanowska often held salon gatherings at her home which were attended by musicians, poets, artists and friends. She died prematurely at age 42 of cholera, which she contracted while living in St. Petersburg. Despite her short life, Szymanowska was able to accomplish a great deal as a musician and contribute to the future development of both piano and vocal music.