Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909) was one of the greatest figures on the Polish cultural stage in the second half of the 19th century: an exquisite composer, a dedicated pedagogue and a great animator of musical life. And yet, even though his accomplishments cannot be overstated, over the years his work and achievement have largely been forgotten. Today, well over a century after his death, the time has come to change that.
Noskowski was born in Warsaw on May 2, 1846. His talent was soon noticed by Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński, one of Chopin’s contemporaries and a distinguished composer himself. Noskowski was tutored by Apolinary Kątski and graduated in violin from the Warsaw Institute of Music, where he also studied counterpoint under Stanisław Moniuszko. He continued his studies in Berlin and was taught composition by Friedrich Kiel, under whose supervision he wrote his diploma work, the very well-received Symphony in A major. Between 1875 and 1880 he worked as artistic director in Constance at Lake Constance, where he wrote Piano Quartet Op. 8, String Quartet No. 1, Symphony No. 2 ‘Elegiac’, as well as a cycle of piano Cracoviennes praised by Franz Liszt. With Liszt’s support and recommendation Noskowski found publishers in Germany, but he forsook a promising career as a composer and chose instead to return to Warsaw where he became head of the Warsaw Music Society in 1880.
Due to its sheer volume, it is nigh impossible to present a comprehensive list of Noskowski’s contributions to the musical culture in Poland. He thoroughly re-organized the Warsaw Music Society, adding a choir whose members he tutored without remuneration; he formed two symphonic orchestras from scratch, as well as several chamber ensembles, and performed with them as a pianist and violinist; he organized concerts featuring the work of Dobrzyński, Moniuszko, Pankiewicz, Rutkowski, Paderewski, Żeleński, Münchheimer and numerous other artists whose compositions he also often played himself and who had never been offered similar exposure before. In 1885, with the help of W.Wiślicki and P. Maszyński he founded the Society’s music school and in 1888 became professor of the Music Institute. Noskowski tutored an incredible number of over 60 Polish composers, including all leading representatives of Young Poland, such as Mieczysław Karłowicz and Karol Szymanowski, as well as Piotr Maszyński, Eugeniusz Pankiewicz, Antoni Rutkowski, Henryk Melcer, Felicjan Szopski and Ludomir M. Rogowski. In 1894 he organized the first formal celebration of the anniversary of Chopin’s death in Żelazowa Wola which combined a concert for 2000 guests with the unveiling of a monument commemorating the great composer. The founding of the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1901 was the crowning glory of his social activism.
One must not fail to mention that Noskowski personally financed several of these projects, including the orchestras and ensembles, from the salary he received as head of the Society. To provide for his family, he was forced to abandon more ambitious creative work and begin writing simpler compositions, less challenging to perform and more appealing to wider audiences, such as stage music for outdoor performances organized by popular Warsaw venues. But the worth of these songs and piano miniatures should not be belittled: many, like the ones included in Noskowski’s songbook for children with lyrics by Maria Konopnicka, were sung by whole generations of Poles. Noskowski also authored numerous compositions capturing the national spirit, for a cappella choir and orchestra, such as Jasio (a folk ballad), Wędrowny Grajek (Wandering Busker Suite) and, above all, Świtezianka, a dramatic cantata to the words of Adam Mickiewicz. However, it is the symphonic poem The Steppe (“Step”) from 1896 that signals Noskowski’s turn toward more ambitious work. In the years to follow he wrote operas: Livia Quintilia (1898), The Judgmnet (“Wyrok,” 1906) and The Revenge (“Zemsta,”completed by his student, Adolf Gużewski), as well as symphonic works evoking the national spirit, such as A Feast of Fire (“Święto ognia,” a choreographic fantasy), From the Life of the Nation (“Z życia narodu,” a variation on Chopin’s Prelude in A major), finally, Symphony No.3 ‘From Spring to Spring’ (“Od wiosny do wiosny”) commissioned by the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1904.
All of Noskowski’s musical achievements exhibit his mastery as a composer and his best works, especially the symphonic and chamber compositions, are on a par with those by his European contemporaries such as Smetana, Dvořák, Grieg, Borodin, Elgar or Sibelius. The Steppe, Świtezianka and Noskowski’s last two symphonies are also an example of the patriotic current in Polish art, aiming to uplift the heart in the times of historical turmoil. However, when Noskowski died in Warsaw on July 23, 1909 he had already been criticized for the late-Romantic aesthetics, and sidelined even by some of his former students. Deemed overly conservative, his music was denied importance and value, even though several of Noskowski’s critics were not familiar with his work. Thus, beyond a modest tomb in Powązki, Warsaw’s historical cementary, Poland has not a single monument of the great composer whose passion and dedication laid the foundations for the development of Polish music as a collective phenomenon which to this day has continued to influence European culture.
A monument, however, even a most opulent one, unless it signifies the presence of the spirit of whomever it is dedicated to among those who raised it, is nothing more than a lifeless stone. Our key task today is to open contemporary national culture to the work of great, but often forgotten artists. To say that Zygmunt Noskowski’s work deserves recognition is not enough. His music demands it.