A music interpretation of the texts of the Latin funeral mass (missa pro defunctis), Krzysztof Penderecki's Polish Requiem for four solo voices, mixed choir and symphony orchestra (1980-1984-1993) evokes the rich tradition of the genre, borrowing from what was typical of the former ages and styles of music as well as invoking the centuries-old music symbols of death. Indeed, reflection on death and the Final Judgment is present in a lot of Penderecki's music, such as Strofy (1959) and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1959-61), but also St Luke's Passion (1965), Dies irae (1967), the oratorio dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz, and Paradise Lost (1978). True to its genre, the Polish Requiem uses excerpts from the Latin funeral mass liturgical texts, supplemented by the Polish supplications of "Święty Boże (Jesu pie)". All parts of the Polish Requiem were composed in 1980-84 with the exception of Sanctus, which dates from 1993.
The work's eight parts are 1. Requiem aeternam, 2. Kyrie eleison, 3. Dies irae (Dies irae - Tuba mirum - Mors stupebit - Liber scriptus - Quid sum mister - Rex tremendae - Recordare - Jesu Pie- Ingemisco - Preces meae - Confutatis - Lacrimosa), 4. Sanctus, 5. Agnus Dei, 6. Lux aeterna, 7. Libera me, Domine, and 8. Libera animas.
The Requiem makes references to music of the same genre written by other composers, from Johann de Ockeghem, Pierre de la Rue and Orlando di Lasso to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi and Hector Berlioz to Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. However, Regina Chłopicka, the author of a number of studies on Penderecki's music, points out:
"[...] Alluding to so many, Penderecki does not identify himself with anyone, finding his own way and place in the history of the genre and producing a specific synthesis of tradition and modernity. He reaches out for a number of traditional elements, yet transforms them, builds a new hierarchy and subjugates grand dramatic forms of a monumental, theatrical character to his own, original concept. The 'Polish Requiem' could be called a dramatic oratorio or an oratorian music theatre whose main subject is man's attitude to death. Instead of God, however, this theatre puts man in the centre rather than God, and focuses on his vacillation between hope and doubt and faith and despair and his pursuit of universal values and of the sense of existence. The oratorian music theatre of the 'Polish Requiem' is staged within four main dimensions, four zones of symbolic meanings. The first of them is offered by the music theatre of horror invoked by the vision of the Last Judgment and from the sequence 'Dies irae' and the responsorium 'Libera me'. The second one is born out of references to communal rituals of prayer which form a kind of a mystery theatre. The third sphere expresses the feelings and emotions of a man analyzing his living, while the fourth one - which could be termed the 'Polish' zone - shows Penderecki's ties with the 'here and now', the man's rooting in the history of his time" (Regina Chłopicka "Polskie Requiem" in: "Muzyka Krzysztofa Pendereckiego. Poetyka i recepcja", Akademia Muzyczna w Krakowie, Kraków 1996, p. 31).
Lacrimosa, intended for soprano, choir and symphony orchestra, was written first, in 1980. Penderecki did this setting of an excerpt from a medieval sequence Dies irae for Lech Wałęsa and Solidarity, dedicating it to the memory of the victims of December 1970. It was performed by Jadwiga Gadulanka in the solo part and the Choir and Orchestra of the Cracow Polish Radio and Television under Antoni Wit during the ceremony of the unveiling of the Three Crosses monument in Gdańsk on 16th December 1980. The work was included in the Requiem as its integral component, as was Agnus Dei, a prayer for choir a cappella written in 1981, upon the death of Primate Stefan Wyszyński, and performed during his funeral.
The Requiem's culminating point, Recordare Jesu pie, was composed in 1983 as a grand passacaglia featuring an excerpt from the Polish supplication "Święty Boże, Święty Mocny". Here national elements mingle with universal ones as the moving four-sound supplication theme (which, incidentally, appeared before, without words, in St Luke's Passion) is led by the choir and is counterpointedly commented by the solo singing Recordare Jesu pie. This combination of the Latin "Recordare" with "Święty Boże", the supplication sung in Poland in moments of danger, is Penderecki's ideological statement.
It was Penderecki's intention to devote each part of the Requiem to people or events associated with the Polish tragedies of the past ten years. Written under the martial law - a difficult period for Poland - the Requiem was to "cheer people's hearts". As the composer himself puts it,
"Without the overall political situation, without Solidarity, I would not have written the 'Requiem', even though I had long been interested in the subject. When composing the 'Requiem', I wanted to take a specific position, to say which side had my support" ("Studio" 1993 nr 8 s. 16).
Dedications of two kinds accompany the parts of the Requiem: those which commemorate important events in the national history and those which distinguish people whose bearing was a heroic proof of faith. Lacrimosa is dedicated to the victims of December 1970, Agnus Dei to Cardinal Wyszynski, the first and the second parts of Dies irae to the Warsaw Uprising and Saint Maksymilian Kolbe, respectively, and Libera me, Domine commemorates the victims of Katyń.
The Polish Requiem (without Sanctus, which would not be composed until 1993) was first performed by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Wuertemberg City Opera Choir and Süddeutsche Rundfunk Choir under Mstislav Rostropovich in Stuttgart on 24th September 1984.
Excerpts of the Polish Requiem were first presented in Poland during the Warsaw Autumn Festival on 22nd September 1984. The soloists included Jadwiga Gadulanka (soprano), Jadwiga Rappé (alto), Henryk Grychnik (tenor) and Leonard Mróz (bass). The Cracow Polish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Antoni Wit. The entire work (including Sanctus) was premiered by the Stockholm Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under Penderecki in Stockholm on 11th November 1993.
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, March 2004.