Tragedy and loss

Mourning the passing of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose music processes trauma

It’s only been a month since we woke up to the unfortunate news of Krzysztof Penderecki’s death on March 29th. Penderecki’s musical preoccupation with tragedy and global trauma makes his passing seem especially relevant to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Since his 1960 breakout piece Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, he continued to write music meant for public grieving: the terrifying Dies Irae, the massive Polish Requiem and dozens of other works from the late 1950s until his death. And he was especially familiar to Oregon audiences, thanks to his long association with the Oregon Bach Festival, including a stint as composer in residence and a 2001 Grammy award for Best Choral Performance for the Festival’s world première recording of his Credo (you can read their homage here).

It’s difficult for us not to correlate the death of Penderecki to the masses of tragic deaths happening during the pandemic: so far we’ve lost composer Charles Wuorinen, soul legend Bill Withers, experimental music legend Genesis P-Orridge, giants of jazz McCoy Tyner and Ellis Marsalis, architects Michael Sorkin and Michael McKinnell, stage director Gerald Freedman, and thousands of others. We also lost a local philanthropist and woman whose name adorns our concert hall, Arlene Schnitzer.

While not all of these deaths can be attributed to COVID-19 (and there are, of course, thousands of other tragic deaths not named), their coinciding with the current health crisis will be solidified in future generations’ memories–victims of the same faltering healthcare system that will lead to even more needless loss of life. I am also reminded of composer Lili Boulanger, who died at the age of twenty-four during the Spanish Flu pandemic and could have become as emblematic of French music as Debussy and Ravel. 

Like so many others, I’ve been stuck inside my neighborhood for the last two months. In such a short time, COVID-19 has seemingly reoriented all of society around itself. As Oregonians we have been lucky that Governor Brown took decisive action, as Oregon has one of the lowest rates of infection in the country. But we still have lost over 50,000 Americans, and recently surpassed a million infections. The social impact takes its toll on us as individuals. As the cabin fever sets in, I have little to do right now except compose, read, write and reflect upon life, death and tragedy. Sadly it took his passing for me to reacquaint myself with Penderecki’s music, and (to quote Keats), now more than ever it seems rich for him to die.

New Polish School

Penderecki is one of the most recognizable names from the so-called New Polish School, a loose affiliation of mid- to late-century composers that also includes Henryk Gorecki and Witold Lutosławski. These composers, and lesser-known contemporaries Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki, inherited the legacy of Karol Szymanowski (perhaps the most notable Polish composer since Chopin) and sought a new form of music, rejecting both the forced populism of the Soviet Union and the alienating serialism of Darmstadt and Cologne. All of these trends shared a common goal of forming a new musical identity from the ashes of the last half-century of destruction across Europe.

Under the influence of the USSR’s Ministry of Culture and Zhdanov’s doctrine, Soviet composers rejected the “formalism” of the Bourgeois West and wrote music that was anti-elitist and broadly accessible. Meanwhile, composers of former Axis countries retreated into post-Webernian serialism, a new abstract realm that sought to destroy any residues of the Austro-Germanic musical tradition through atonality and mathematical precision.

Polish composers were seeking their own musical retribution. After briefly reemerging as the Second Polish Republic in the decades between the wars, the new nation had been decimated by the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1939, and lost millions to the war, the occupation, and the Holocaust. Penderecki was born in 1933–old enough to remember these events, but not old enough to really comprehend their gravity at the time.

After the war he studied composition with Franciszek Skołyszewski in Krakow, becoming a young adult during the period of de-Stalinization in Poland–a period which culminated in the Poznan protests of June 1956 and the subsequent “Polish October” reforms of Wladyslaw Gomulka. The young composer would eventually win all three top prizes in the 1959 competition for the Union of Polish Composers, submitting three pieces (Stanzas, Emanations, and Psalms of David) under different pseudonyms, using different handwriting for each. 

While his fellow Polish composers at least experimented with serial procedures, Penderecki eschewed such strict techniques. From early compositions such as Strophes and Psalms of Jacob his interest in timbre is already apparent, showing the influence he took from serial aesthetics without fully embracing them. His timbral experiments would culminate in his breakout composition Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima–an outburst of tortured screams from the string orchestra–alongside other notable pieces such as Anaklasis and Fonogrammi. In these works Penderecki pioneered a new style of graphic notation, which was necessary to realize the complex textures that could not be notated traditionally. Despite the music’s technical precision, the looser rhythms of these scores gave the music a naturalistic feel (in contrast to the tightly controlled Darmstadt aesthetic), absorbing the listener in a new world of sound masses and timbre-based composition.

Although there were historical precedents, Threnody and similar pieces by Xenakis and Ligeti could be considered precursors to the ambient, noise and drone music that would emerge later in the century. Penderecki saw his own influence grow within his lifetime. Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood collaborated directly with the composer numerous times, and used the extended string techniques pioneered by Penderecki in his score for the 2010 film There Will Be Blood. But whereas Xenakis wanted to emulate architecture and Ligeti wanted to create dense polyphonic tapestries, Penderecki was most explicit about the programmatic intent of his music.

Tragedy and loss

We have been collectively figuring out what it means to be an artist in the twenty-first century. One common thread that unites the last fifty-so years of music is tragedy. In the book Music After The Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989, Tim Rutherford-Johnson identifies the common theme of tragedy and coping with trauma among multiple strands of modern music. Penderecki would revisit themes of tragedy and loss throughout his career.

If Threnody is not the most terrifying piece of music ever written, then that honor must instead go to his Dies Irae, dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz. The Polish Requiem starts with the usual text of a Requiem (Kyrie, Dies Irae, Lacrimosa, etc.) and inserts words lamenting recent Polish tragedies including the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising and the Katyn massacre. The St. Luke Passion tackles the death of Christ with the emotional heft that it deserves. All of these later works also incorporate voices singing from either Catholic liturgy or other Biblical sources, in a seeming turn away from his earlier experiments in non-melodic abstract walls of sound.

This is the contradiction at the root of Penderecki’s music: at once he is a neo-romantic composer of sacred vocal music and a radical modernist of the Polish avant-garde. But, as we cannot have life without death, or order without chaos, Penderecki found a delicate balance between these worlds. Like many great composers he was both a progressive and a conservative, simultaneously seeking new means of musical expression while retaining a keen understanding of those who came before him and finding the new within the old. His technical mastery through intensive study was never an end in itself but a foundation upon which he could build an entirely new sound world. And this new sound world was not constructed as a retreat from the horrors of our reality, but as a space for us to confront these tragedies head-on.

On my worst days of my self-isolation, even music–the thing that I have dedicated my life to–feels inadequate. Saccharine pop music sounds like a cruel joke. Metal, punk and Death Grips hit the mark on nihilism and misanthropy but are too active. As our world is now irreversibly different than it was even two months ago, the past’s music and the emotions it conjures are no longer enough for me.

But Penderecki is not like that. His music is a product of humanity’s traumatic past and our attempts to understand the grand questions that emerge unanswered from those tragedies.

This is a vital part of Penderecki’s legacy. The music we write is a reflection of the world around us, and subsequently helps us understand that world; more than most 20th-Century composers, Penderecki was aware of what his music meant to his audience. While I did not witness the tragedies that inspired Penderecki, I still feel an intense resonance with his music. If his passing has led other composers to reinvestigate his music, the influence of Penderecki’s legacy will surely be felt for generations. 

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Dzien Dobry Pan Karol (Charles),

    Thanx soooo much for your truly wonderful & heartfelt article about Penderecki.

    I have many stories about my times with KP to share, but I’ll leave those for another time.

    For now, you will appreciate that when I asked him if he would’ve liked to score another film, he remarked that “The Name of the Rose” was his pick!

    Czesc,

    Bobski

  2. Robert McBride says:

    Thank you for this! It was interesting to learn that Bruckner was one of his inspirations.

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