Content: Many Themes, Many Dimensions | Lutosławski | Penderecki | Górecki | The "Polish Composers' School" Syndrome | Bargielski | Emigrants | Polish Minimalists: Tomasz Sikorski and Zygmunt Krauze | The Perspective of the Last Decade of the 20th Century | The youngest generation.
Many Themes, Many Dimensions
The term 'Polish composers' school' was popularised in the early 1960s mainly by German music critics. This term was coined to name the specific style of Polish music in which the tone of sound is a foundation of the structure of a musical piece. The birth of the 'Polish composers' school' was possible as a result of the political détente after Stalin's death which in Poland led to a political crisis in 1956. That was a time of rejecting the personality cult in the sphere of politics, and social realism dogmas in the area of culture. The inauguration of the 'Warsaw Autumn' festival of contemporary music in October 1956 also played a significant role in the establishment of the 'Polish composers' school'.
The stage of the 'Warsaw Autumn' festival became the site of the first Polish performances of works that make up the canon of contemporary music (including Igor Stravinsky's Spring Festival). 'Warsaw Autumn' also become a manifestation of new aesthetic tendencies in Polish music. At first those new tendencies were related to the use of dodecaphonism, and later to the use of a technique called sonorism in Poland which was based on the priority of the tone of sound over all other parameters of a composition.
These aesthetics are represented in Polish music mainly by Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) and Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) as well as Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (born 1933) and additionally by Kazimierz Serocki (1922-1981), Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981), Wojciech Kilar (born 1932), Witold Szalonek (born 1927), Bogusław Schaeffer (born 1929), and Włodzimierz Kotoński (born 1925).
The music of Witold Lutosławski belongs to the greatest accomplishments of the entire century although a basic and important portion of this music was composed in the latter half of the century, between 1958 - Muzyka żałobna / Funeral Music and 1992 - Symphony No. 4. In the musical scores of the time the composer created his own very characteristic language and individual form of musical beauty as a result of which he was called a 'contemporary classic' even during his lifetime.
In Funeral Music Lutosławski laid the foundations of twelve-tone harmonics which are technically and aesthetically distant from the achievements of Arnold Schönberg's Vienna school. In Gry weneckie / Venetian Games (1961) he initiated the limited employment of elements of chance referred to as 'aleatoric counterpoint'. In the String Quartet (1964) he introduced the idea of a form composed of two parts, the first of which is introductory and the second assumes the main responsibility for expression. In the 1980s the composer fully developed his principle of 'chain techniquel according to which the sound material overlaps between parts or layers of a musical work.
Looking at the work of Witold Lutosławski one may observe how consistently and intensely it grew as an integral whole. From Funeral Music Lutosławski started building his own original world which was not, however, hermetic and isolated. Lutosławski found the amazing point where tradition transforms itself into the future, he found the boundary between the acceptance of the transgressed tradition and the reserve towards new lands one discovers. Although Lutosławski was extremely innovative and inventive, he never became radical and avant-garde. He referred to the lyricism of Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, and Brahms as his models, but was very far from traditionalism.
Lutosławski's most important works are four symphonies (1947, 1967, 1983, 1992); pieces for orchestra: Concerto for Orchestra (1954), Funeral Music (1958), Venetian Games (1961), Livre pour Orchestre (1968), Mi-Parti (1976), Novelette (1979), Łańcuch 3 / Chain 3 (1986), Interludium (1989); instrumental concertos: Cello Concerto (1970), Double Concerto for oboe, harp and chamber orchestra (1980), Partita for violin and orchestra (1988 - version of the partita for violin and piano composed in 1984), Łańcuch 2 / Chain 2 - Dialogue for violin and orchestra (1985), Piano Concerto (1988); vocal/orchestral works: Three Poems by Henri Michaux for choir and orchestra (1963), Paroles Tissees for tenor and chamber orchestra, Les Espaces du Sommeil for baritone and orchestra (1975), Chantefleurs et Chantefables for soprano and orchestra (1990); and chamber pieces: String Quartet (1964), Preludes and Fugues for 13 string instruments (1972), Łańcuch 1 / Chain 1 for chamber orchestra (1983); music for solo instruments: Variations on Paganini for 2 pianos (1941), Sacherian Variation for cello solo (1975), Epitaph for oboe and piano (1979), Grave - Metamorphoses for cello and piano (1984), Partita for violin and piano (1984), Subito for violin and piano (1992).
The career of Krzysztof Penderecki's music began in the late fifties and early sixties. The composer's inventiveness in treating sound focused first on the unorthodox articulation of sound by string instruments, e.g. playing beyond the bridge or tapping the sounding board with the bow rod. In other words, treating string instruments as percussion instruments. At the same time, Krzysztof Penderecki developed a technically rich method of using so-called clusters, or sound planes, formed by neighbouring sounds. In this way, Penderecki created his own very original and identifiable sound idiom based on the percussion sound of non-percussion instruments, and on the expressiveness of rising and internally mobile sound planes wandering in acoustic space.
A turning point in the composer's career and musical aesthetics was marked by St Luke's Passion composed for the WDR radio station in Cologne (1966). This work started a series of Penderecki's great oratorio and cantata religious works and monumental symphonies that referred more and more clearly to the aesthetics of late Romanticism. In the nineties, Penderecki's music quite clearly expressed postmodernist aesthetics.
Using universal themes and texts fundamental to European culture, Penderecki rejected the attitude of an avant-gardist who experiments with a new language of sound. It has become a popular conviction that Krzysztof Penderecki's music is a summary of the achievements of 20th century music to date - a summary with a broad perspective of the history of music from the medieval choral to the avant-garde and open to the world of western and eastern culture. Krzysztof Penderecki's method is a reinterpretation of tradition, and thus the composer follows the way of various returns while continuously being aware of the present time.
Krzysztof Penderecki's most important works include: Tren - Ofiarom Hiroszimy / Threnody - To the Victims of Hiroszima (1960), String Quartet No. 1 (1960), Anaclasis for strings and percussion (1960), oratorio Dies Irae to the memory of people murdered in Auschwitz (1967), Kosmogonia (1970); religious works: St Luke's Passion (1965), Jutrznia / Morning Prayer (1970), Magnificat (1974), Te Deum (1980), Polish Requiem (1984); operas: Diably z Loudun / The Devils of Loudun (1969), Raj utracony / Paradise Lost (1978), Czarna maska / The Black Mask (1986), Ubu Król / King Ubu (1991); works for orchestra, e.g.: II Christmas Symphony (1980), Passacaglia (1988), Adagio (1989); concertos, e.g. for cello, violin; chamber music, e.g. Trio for Strings (1991).
Krzysztof Penderecki's contemporary, and from the early sixties one of the main actors on the Polish composers' scene, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki owes his worldwide fame to the commercial success of Symphony No. 3 - Symphony of Grievous Songs (1976) in the early nineties.
A particular period in Górecki's music is marked by works composed between 1971 Ad Matrem and 1980 Harpsichord Concerto. Only five (besides the two already mentioned) compositions were created: Symphony No. 2 ('Copernican') for soprano, baritone, choir and orchestra (1972), the famous Symphony No. 3 ('Grievous Songs') for soprano and orchestra, psalm Beatus Vir (1978) for baritone, choir and orchestra as well as choral works: Euntes ibant et flebant (1973) and Amen (1974).
In the early nineties, Symphony No. 3 became one of the most popular recordings of classical music. This was due to commercial British radio stations which played back parts of a new recording of the work with Dawn Upshaw and orchestra conducted by David Zinman. After the Symphony three more works by Górecki became specific hits on the market - the Harpsichord Concerto and the first two string quartets - Już się zmierzcha / It is growing dark already and Quasi Una Fantasia.
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's music caused a reaction of followers of the aesthetic fashion of postmodernism in music. Music lovers in the West became used to American repetitive music as created by Steve Reich and Philip Glass and to its British version by Michael Nyman. The ascetic and persistent repetitiveness of Górecki's music merged itself in the listeners' perception with their aesthetic habits and opened them up to the extraordinary, different perspective of the Polish composer's works. The perspective was marked by the religious overtone of Górecki's music which forms a kind of cultural unity with the expressiveness of Arvo Part who builds his new Middle Ages and with the music of John Tavener who builds his new Byzantium and, moreover, with the quasi-religious experience of new age. The folklore quality of Górecki's music concurred with the popularity of the 'music of the world' - the interest in exotic folk traditions regardless of their origin. Górecki's music satisfied a vogue that goes far beyond the boundaries defined by contemporary music festivals.
The 'Polish Composers' School' Syndrome
Contrary to external symptoms - the change of style in the music of a considerable group of Polish composers and the simultaneous spectacular debuts of very innovative composers seeking new qualities in music - the term 'Polish composers' school' should be treated metaphorically rather than literally. Composers considered representatives of this school have a lot in common (mainly the prevalence of tone colour over other components). However, the individual detailed aesthetic and technical solutions they propose are different.
Kazimierz Serocki's music is original not only because of the sophisticated tone colour, which is often a result of using unusual combinations of instruments and ways in which sound is produced, but also because of the employment of topophony, which is the spatial arrangement of groups of instruments on the stage.
Tadeusz Baird distinguishes himself in the Polish music of the sixties and seventies by the specific type of expression achieved owing to the use of the twelve-tone technique. Baird was called the most outstanding lyrical and romantic composer of the period and admitted he was close to the music of Alban Berg and the aesthetics of Dimitri Shostakovich's late work.
Włodzimierz Kotoński has been faithful to electro-acoustic music since the time of his first composition, i.e. Etiudy na jedno uderzenie w talerz / Etudes for one strike of the cymbal (1959), and extended the list of outstanding accomplishments of the genre with such well-known works as: Alea (1970), Skrzydła / Wings (1973), Antiphonae (1989). Over time he started using the capacity of the computer studio. Electroacoustic music did not, however, dominate the output of its Polish pioneer. The seventies and eighties changed Kotoński's paradigm - he turned to the 'romanticising' style and specific euphony.
Bogusław Schaeffer's music occupies a special place in the landscape of Polish music. Schaeffer initiated a number of innovative techniques in Poland , not only in the sphere of sonorism and serialism, but also in topophony, aleatorism, graphic music, happening, collage, instrumental theatre, open forms, conceptualism and works showing the influence of jazz. Schaeffer was a painter, graphic artist, theoretician and critic. In the seventies, he embarked on a career as a fashionable and recognised playwright and focused,on themes associated with the meaning of art and the spiritual condition of the artist in his mainly surrealistic plays.
Witold Szalonek's Les Sons (1965) for symphony orchestra may be taken for a type of sonorist manifesto to which the composer has largely remained faithful to date. Szalonek's work is dominated by an overbuilt group of wind instruments which are the main protagonists in the score. The assortment of sound effects also includes striking the keys of instruments, speaking through the instrument, using only mouthpieces, and blowing bottles. Even today, a long time since it was considered surprising and amazing, this organised 'chaos' of sound remains exciting. Witold Szalonek's most important works are: Mutazioni for chamber orchestra (1966), Quattro Monologhi per oboe solo (1966), Improavisations Sonoristiques for clarinet, trombone, cello and piano (1968), 1+1+1+1 per 1-4 strumenti ad arco (1969), Musica Concertante per Violbasso ed Orchestra (1977), Little B-A-C-H Symphony (1981) and Meduzy sen o Pegazie / Medusa's Dream of Pegasus (1997).
The composing career of Wojciech Kilar also had a very spectacular beginning. His early scores excited listeners with their erupting energy, fireworks of vitality, spontaneity of sound, e.g. in the orchestral work Riff 62 based on a jazz beat. A constructivist work for orchestra and choir of sopranos entitled Upstairs-Downstairs (1971) is the target and top achievement in this aesthetics. In 1974 Wojciech Kilar made a violent turn in his music. It is in this period that he composed Krzesany (1974) for orchestra, Bogurodzica / Mother of God (1975) for choir and orchestra, Kościelec 1909 symphonic poem (1976), Exodus (1981) for choir and orchestra and Piano Concerto (1997).
The music of Zbigniew Bargielski (born 1937) is a separate case, very picturesque but by principle not illustrative. It is more the graphic than the pictorial colour which is striking. One would want to sense sonorist origins in the sound structure of Bargielski's music but, although sonorist tricks are not absent from the scores of the author of Trigonalia (1994) for guitar, accordion, percussion and orchestra, sonorist origins are an illusion. More than in sound mixtures which change like in a kaleidoscope, Bargielski is interested in the colour temperature of selected elements which are treated as focal in the sound palette. His special preferences are the guitar, accordion, percussion and violin. Zbigniew Bargielski has on many occasions revealed the secret of his compositions - the so-called 'centring' technique. A composition contains some centres, for example central sounds or intervals, or centres of rhythm and tone which constitute centres of gravity in a section of form - they are poles around which matter gravitates. The form also develops, as the composer put it, 'like a block': a period of musical time is composed of one element. The period of time appears again but reveals two elements. Then three elements appear. They are the same, similar, or modified elements. If variations are used, they are treated in a specific and erroneous way. The form grows therefore like one floor on top of another, like layer on top of another layer which is developed, enriched and thickened more and more. This is a most intriguing, inventive and both aesthetically effective and attractive approach to composition.
Particular attention in a description of the composer's works should be given to operas, solo and chamber pieces with the accordion as well as to the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1975), string quartets Alpine (1976), Spring (1980), Martwa natura z krzykiem / Still Life with a Scream (1986), Still Night, Still Sound (1980), for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. Sonnenlieder for mezzo-soprano, baritone, bass, choir and chamber orchestra (1983), oratorio Ziemia niczyja / Nobody's Land (1983), Requiem for orchestra (1992) and Slapstick for chamber orchestra (1998).
Zygmunt Mycielski (1907-1987), Stefan Kisielewski (1911-1981), Roman Palester (1907-1989), and Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) were composers who symbolised the so-called 'bad presence' syndrome in the history of post-war Polish music. The 'bad presence' in Mycielski's and Kisielewski's music was influenced by their public activity in the sphere of politics as a result of which their works were frequently sentenced by communist authorities to absence from musical life and the composers themselves were forced to a type of 'inward' emigration.
In a description of Andrzej Panufnik's music it is necessary to indicate how he was inspired by folk and ancient music. Also, his use of religious motifs of Catholic origin, the constructiveness of the sound language reflected in building musical structures with simple interval patterns and shaping musical form like geometric systems which did not prevent the composer from developing very emotional, sometimes romantic expression. Andrzej Panufnik composed, e.g., ten symphonies: Sinfonia Rustica (1948), Sinfonia Elegiaca (1957), Simfonia Sacra (1963), Sinfonia Concertante (1973), Sinfonia di Sfere (1975), Simfonia Mistica (1977), Metasinfonia (1978), Sinfonia Votiva (1981), Sinfonia di Speranza (1987), X Symphony (1988), numerous smaller symphonic works, three string quartets (1976, 1980, 1990), a piano concerto (1962), violin concerto (1971), bassoon concerto (1985) and cello concerto (1991).
Polish Minimalists: Tomasz Sikorski and Zygmunt Krauze
Tomasz Sikorski (1939-1988) initiated the minimalist music style in Europe apart from American models. His music originates from acoustic nuances, resonance and echoes. It is often a music of whispering. Sikorski was the first composer in Poland who introduced the category of contemplative music represented in the USA mainly by Morton Feldman.
The music of Zygmunt Krauze (born 1938) is usually classified as belonging to this minimalist style and the composer is regarded one of the forerunners of the style in Europe. The composer's very important inspiration came from the painting and theories of Polish avant-garde artist Władyslaw Strzemiński (1893-1952) from whom Krauze borrowed the term unism to describe his aesthetics. Zygmunt Krauze's unistic works are by assumption a homogeneous space, devoid of dramatic conflicts and significant contrasts. This does not mean, however, that 'nothing is happening' in these works. On the contrary, many subtle and delicate 'things' are happening in this music. Zygmunt Krazue's most important works included: Piece for Orchestra I, II, III (1969, 1970, 1982), Folk Music (1972), Aus aller Welt stammende (1973), two piano concertos (1967, 1996), an opera entitled Gwiazda / The Star (1981), Symphonie Parisienne (1986), three string quartets (1965, 1970, 1983), piano quintet (1993); La Terre for soprano, piano and orchestra (1995).
The perspective of the last decade of the 20th century
Composers born after the war became increasingly present in the panoramic picture of Polish music of the nineties. Two names deserve particular attention: Eugeniusz Knapik (born 1951) and Paweł Szymański (1954). Eugeniusz Knapik spent the last decade of the century working with Belgian playwright and painter Jean Fabre to compose the operatic trilogy The Minds of Helena Troubleyn in which the thoroughly innovative content and stage design is combined with music which might be paradoxically called 'originally eclectic'. Knapik, a pupil of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, is strongly attached to the tradition of musical form which originates primarily from Beethoven and Brahms as well as to the culture of sound that we owe, for example, to Richard Strauss, Skriabin and Messiaen. Eugeniusz Knapik found in his music a 'golden middle' of proportions between the contemporary and traditional, which makes it difficult to say whether he places his sound language in the space of history, or whether elements of late romantic and impressionist tradition are placed in the realm of modern language. Knapik's operatic trilogy The Minds of Helena Troubleyn with a libretto by Jean Fabre, was composed in 1987-1996 and includes the following parts Das Glas im Kopf wird vom Glas - Silent Screams, Difficult Dreams - La liberta chiama la liberta. Knapik's work entitled Up into the Silence (1996-2000) - a song for soprano, baritone, string quartet and symphony orchestra - is also based on the aesthetics of opera works.
Paweł Szymański describes his music using the term 'surconventionalism' which he invented with Stanisław Krupowicz (born 1952). This composing technique, or rather sound matter transformed by the composing technique, is rooted in historical conventions and sound gestures which very often date back to the Baroque period. Composed as 'precomposition' material (so they are not quotations), they become basic elements making up Szymański's sound structures. This technique resembles a type of palimpsest - it is as if a different text, half-covered and half-revealed, shows through another text. Paweł Szymański's daring and virtuoso performance always takes place in a strict and constructive discipline. It is music which either astonishes us with its metaphysical depth, or an explosion of almost ludic sensuality. It is a music of hypnotic beauty of illusory constructions - probably the most important Polish music composed in recent years. Among Szymański's compositions attention must be given mainly to: Partity II (1978) and IV (1986) for orchestra and Partity III (1986) for harpsichord and orchestra, Cztery utwory liturgiczne / Four Liturgical Works (1981), Sonata for instruments (1982), Dwa utwory / Two Pieces for string quartet, Appendix for piccolo flute and instruments (1983), Lux Aeterna (1984), Two Etudes for piano (1986), Quasi una Sinfonietta (1990), 5 Works for string quartet (1992), Miserere for voices and instruments (1993), Piano Concerto (1994), Recalling a Serenade for clarinet and string quartet (1998).
Stanisław Krupowicz's symphony Fin de Siècle (1993) may be treated as an example of the idea of musical surconventionalism. The form and narration of this work is constructed by the composer by means of idioms and conventions of 20th century music: the deliberate eclecticism at the level of sound, harmony and facture, figures and processes, produces a fully sovereign and integrated work which is neither a collage nor a kind of stylistic juggling. Krupowicz's most important works composed in recent years are compositions which use elements of Gregorian chant such as Miserere for chamber choir (1996) and Christmas Oratorio (1997). Krupowicz, who has worked for many years in a computer studio at Stanford University, became known in Poland in the latter half of the eighties as the most significant author of computer music e.g. Tako rzecze Bosch / Quoth Bosch for tape (1985), Wariacje pożegnalne na temat Mozarta / Farewell Variations on Mozart for amplified quartet and tape (1986), Concerto for tenor saxophone and computers (1987), Tylko Beatrycze / Only Beatrice for female recitative voice, amplified string quartet and tape (1988).
A special place in the picture of Polish music is occupied by Krzysztof Knittel (born 1947). His output may be described using terms which were particularly fashionable in the seventies and eighties, such as counter-cultural and alternative. Knittel combines his experience gained in an electro-acoustic music studio with the practice of live electronics and improvised music, as well as including poetry, visual arts and elements of rock into his artistic projects. He has become the leading Polish composer in the area of performances, particularly his project entitled Pociąg towarowy / Freight Train - a kind of work in progress which assumed different forms during performances with different artists. The premiere of Knittel's Heart Piece - Double Opera, composed with American composer and guitarist John King, with a text by Heiner Müller, became the greatest event of the 'Warsaw Autumn' festival in 1999.
Attention should be given also to the extremely subtle lyricism and introversion in the music of Tadeusz Wielecki (born 1954). His most important works include: Ballada dziadowska / Beggars' Ballade for chamber band (1994), Poemat ekstrawertyczny / Extrovert Poem for piano and tape (1995), ID for symphony orchestra (1996) and Concerto à Rebours for violin and orchestra (1998).
It is also worth noting the neo-classicising and at the same time romanticising tone in the very personal musical aesthetics of Aleksander Lasoń (born 1951). His Concerto Festivo for violin and orchestra (1995) was a great success and it was performed in its entirety again in response to an encore during the 'Warsaw Autumn' festival as well as recommended by the Paris International Composers' tribune in 1998. Aleksander Lasoń's rich musical output is summarised in his 3rd Symphony (1999).
Of the above composers, the graduates of the Academy of Music in Katowice - Eugeniusz Knapik and Aleksander Lasoń (sometimes also Paweł Szymański is considered a member of this group) - are the main representatives of the so-called 'Stalowa Wola generation'. The name comes from the place of the generation's spectacular debut during a provincial festival called 'Young Musicians to a Young City' which was held in Stalowa Wola. In this generation of composers it is also worth mentioning the names of Rafał Augustyn (born 1951), Krzysztof Baculewski (born 1950), Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil (born 1947), Lidia Zielińska (born 1953) and Jerzy Kornowicz (born 1959).
The youngest generation
At least two Polish musicians representing a younger generation should be mentioned: Hanna Kulenty (born 1961) and Paweł Mykietyn (1971). The aggressive sound aesthetics of Kulenty, with which she began her spectacular career in the latter half of the eighties Ad Unum for orchestra (1985), two Symphonies (1986, 1987), Arcus for Three Percussionists (1988), Perpetuus for chamber orchestra (1989), has recently changed. Kulenty's scores are increasingly making use of elements of minimalist origin and her sound narratives are becoming more and more melodic. Her works Piano Concerto No. 2 (1991), Violin Concerto No. 1 (1993), Sineque Forte for cello and orchestra (1994), Going Up for chamber orchestra (1995) are usually constructed using the so-called arch polyphony technique. This technique, through non-synchronic climaxes in individual sections of form, causes intensive and unalleviated expressive tension in this music. The success of Kulenty's opera The Mother of the Black-Winged Dreams during a Biennale of the Music Theatre in Munich (premiere - 9 December 1996) makes her one of the leading figures on the Polish composers' scene.
The accomplishment of Paweł Mykietyn (born 1971), who is also a clarinetist and founder of a chamber band Nonstrom, should be considered the most spectacular debut in composition in the nineties in Poland. The aesthetics of his works have clearly drawn on Henryk Mikołaj Górecki and Paweł Szymański. Mykietyn's ostentatiously tonal (major-minor) music, its frequent spontaneity, its poster-like formal expressiveness, always stopped by the composer's artistic instinct at the point beyond which the banal begins in art, are features which make Mykietyn the most prominent and strongest personality in the youngest generation of Polish composers. This opinion is confirmed by the composer's successes: In 1995 his Eine Kleine Herbstmusik for chamber band was claimed as one of the greatest events of the 'Warsaw Autumn' festival. Also, in 1995, his work 3 for 13 for 13 instruments was nominated by the International composers' Tribune in Paris the best work by a young composer and his work Epifora (1996) for piano and tape was recognised by the International Tribune of Electroacoustic Music in Amsterdam in September 1996.
The picture of Polish music composed in recent years has thus many dimensions and themes. It would be hard to describe it using one denominator. This makes it similar to European music where one such denominator fortunately cannot be found. Looking at contemporary music, it is worth observing, however, that a specific changing of the guard has already happened and an increasingly important role is played by composers born after the time of the avant-garde in the history of music in this century. These composers will express the most important things in their music in the next century.