Born in Warsaw in 1789 to a landlord and brewer, Maria Szymanowska went from humble beginnings to become one of the first professional virtuoso pianists of the nineteenth century, not to mention a well-respected composer who contributed about 100 pieces to the musical repertoire. The history of her early life and musical tutoring is uncertain, however, it is known she gave her first public recital in 1810, and by the 1820s was already a single (divorced) mother to three children, Helena, Celina and Romauld, touring England, Holland, France, Germany and Italy, and even performing private royal concerts. Her performances delighted critics and audiences alike, earning her a reputation for a delicate tone, and lyrical sense of virtuosity. She was one of the first pianists to perform a memorised repertoire, a feature later copied by Clara Schumann and Liszt and which is now common practice for professional pianists.
She eventually chose to settle in St. Petersburg where she spent the remainder of her life. In Russia, she composed for the court, gave concerts, taught music, and was an influential salonnière (a woman who opened her salon, or living space to intellectuals to allow a safe place to voice and debate opinion on politics, literature and the arts etc). She died in the summer of 1831 at just 42, from cholera in the great epidemic that swept through St. Petersburg that year.
Her music naturally consists primarily of piano pieces, but also chamber works and smaller scale art songs. She is most well-known for the fact that she produced the first concert etudes and nocturnes in Poland, a form now famously associated with Chopin, which Szymanowska preceded.
My favourite composition is her Nocturne in B Flat Major which is light, flowing and, despite its major key has gently melancholy undertones. As a big fan of the nocturne form by pretty much any composer, I can tell you that all of her nocturnes, and indeed her other works are very worthy of a listen as they are, to put it simply, beautiful.