Schools of Polish Composers: A Quick Guide
default, Schools of Polish Composers:
A Quick Guide, A postcard showing the Katowice Music Conservatory, photo: Polona.pl, center, katowice_panstw._konserwatorium_muzyczne.jpg
Culture.pl presents an overview of schools, groups and milieus of musicians from
Before we get started, what is the definition of a school in the musical sense? The musicologist and critic Bohdan Pociej describes it in the following way:
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The word ‘school’ is above all used to define a group with common ideas, attitudes, approaches, general ways of making and composing music; ‘school’ can be understood as a place, a territory, an intellectual-artistic aura…
From ‘Podkowiański Magazyn Kulturalny’, nr 40, summer 2003, trans. AJ
According to literary historians, the modernist breakthrough in Polish literature took place around 1890, with the poetic debuts of Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Franciszek Nowicki and Andrzej Niemojewski. Modernism entered music some time later. Its beginnings are dated back to 1905, when Grzegorz Fitelberg, Ludomir Różycki and Apolinary Szeluto set up the Publishing Company for Young Polish Composers, supported financially by Count Władysław Lubomirski, a patron of the arts and himself a composer. Young artists promoted their compositional ideas with great difficulty. In simple words, breaking away from romanticism was a challenge, as it had been dominating Polish music since Frederic Chopin’s day, well over half a century earlier. These 19th-century ideals were guarded by the most important representatives of Polish music, such as the opera expert Zygmunt Noskowski (second conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic, and head of the Warsaw Music Association; he also taught composition at the Warsaw Music Institute) and Emil Młynarski (head and conductor of the Grand Theatre opera, first conductor of the Warsaw Philharmonic, and highly regarded by foreign orchestras). The aim of the organisation was to publish music by young Polish composers over in Berlin, allowing them to abandon the trends and milieus dominating in Warsaw.
Karol Szymanowski ‒ 9 Preludes, Op.1
Their first concert took place in 1905 in Stamary Hotel in Zakopane. Fitelberg played the violin and Szeluta played the piano. They performed Fitelberg’s second violin and piano sonata, some preludes by Karol Szymanowski, and piano pieces by Różycki. The money they collected during the concert financed the publication of Fitelberg’s Sonata through Albert Stahl’s office in Berlin. A more ceremonial concert was organised in the newly-opened Warsaw Philharmonic on 6th February 1906. How were the musical innovators perceived? The critic Jan Tetra would later write:
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They sparked interest, evoked words of protest, admiration, ridicule, fiery prophecies, and contemptuous shrugs.
The composer Mieczysław Karłowicz described it rather differently:
I consider the orchestra pieces by Różycki and Fitelberg the best, although in the case of both I failed to recognise any first-class invention. The audience took the position of ruthless indifference to these pieces, i.e. they didn’t come. During the first and second evening, there were only a handful of listeners. At the same time, a ‘carnival’ evening at the Philharmonic featuring the operetta diva Kawecka, who whistled and sang racy songs, had a sold-out auditorium.
They did not do very well, but it didn’t really matter. The organisation had sympathisers among young musicologists, who understood the limiting impact of the older generations. The music of Young Poland was being played during concerts in Berlin, where even Richard Strauss was seen. In Munich, their work was promoted by Adolf Chybiński, while Zdzisław Jachimecki, then staying in Vienna, later a professor in Kraków, also sang their praises.
Meanwhile, other critics wondered whether Young Poland was ‘Polish’ enough...
So, both Mr Szymanowski and Mr Różycki are currently under the influence of some evil spirit which depraves their creations, while aiming at eliminating their individual and national originality and transforming them into parrots that imitate the voices of Wagner and Strauss. […] Let us hope that Szymanowski and Różycki will both soon liberate themselves from this sort of influence. It is only then that they will have the right to use the title ‘Young Poland’, as now they do now undeservedly. What is a ‘Poland’ that does not serve its own homeland, as Chopin and Moniuszko did, but instead is slave to some seasonal German musician and propagates the ideas of musical Bundists?
Aleksander Poliński in ‘Kurier Warszawski’, trans. AJ
Ludomir Różycki - Cello Sonata in A minor, Op. 10 (1906) SCORE
The musicians associated with the Publishing Company for Young Polish Composers never created a coherent aesthetic programme. Rather, they were linked by common efforts in creating a new musical community, the promotion of new trends, and how they all entered into European musical life. A similar strategy was used by Piotr Perkowski, Stanisław Wiechowicz and Feliks Roderyk Łabuński in their Association of Young Polish Musicians established in 1926 in Paris. Later on, many others would join their association, including Grażyna Bacewicz, Jerzy Fitelberg and Michał Spisak.
Grażyna Bacewicz: Complete String Quartets – Silesian Quartet
The Lviv School of Dodecaphony
One of the composing techniques that emerged in the beginning of the 20th century was Arnold Schönberg’s dodecaphony (dodeka means ‘twelve’ in Greek, hence it is a twelve-tone technique). Schönberg searched for a new way of organising pitch that could replace the tonal system of major and minor. He suggested a series of twelve sounds, each of equal importance. Some criticised the method for being too abstract and mathematical, even unmusical.
In Poland, dodecaphony did not really find popularity, with the exception of several composers gathered around Józef Koffler – a lecturer in Lviv and the first Polish dodecaphonist. He studied in Vienna: first law, then philosophy, finally musicology and conducting. Koffler wasn’t Schönberg’s direct student, although they did know each other and wrote each other letters from 1929. Koffler’s interpretations intertwined dodecaphony with the stylistics of neoclassicism. Another Lviv composer who created his own version of dodecaphony was Tadeusz Majerski. He was clearly inspired by Schönberg’s ideas, but for him it was beauty and the emotional message of music that were of utmost importance.
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Józef Koffler - 15 Variations d'après une suite
Among Koffler’s students were Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Jakub Mund and Jerzy Freiheiter. Unfortunately, their influence on the history of Polish music was limited. Koffler, Mund and Freiheiter – Polish Jews – died during the Holocaust. Haubenstock-Ramari and Regamey migrated away from Poland and had limited impact in their former home country.
A fact? A spontaneous movement? A myth? An alleged phenomenon? Maybe a figment of the imagination of an irresponsible publicist? These various visions of the same phenomenon relate to the ‘Polish Composition School’, which was undoubtedly created by music critics from the West as an answer to the changes in Polish composition that occurred in the early 1960s.
From the book ‘Sonorystyka w Twórczości Kompozytorów Polskich XX Wieku’ by Iwona Lindstedt, 2010, trans. AJ
The Polish Composition School, or New Polish School, is a phenomenon that appeared after October 1956, together with the end of socialist realism and the consequent encouragement from the government to create experimental and progressive art. That same year saw the inaugural edition of the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music, the largest international festival in Poland presenting contemporary music. Young artists finally gained the possibility to listen to music by foreign composers, and their own compositions could finally be heard by journalists from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
Tadeusz Baird: Four Essays (1958)
The New Polish School never formally existed, but it might actually be the most recognisable phenomenon in the history of Polish music from the last century. Among the various contributing composers were: Krzysztof Penderecki, Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Wojciech Kilar, Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki. The works of these artists represent many genres and aesthetics, they even often contradict each other; nevertheless, some music experts decided they should all fall into the same group. The reason was the composers’ fascination with the resonance of their pieces and their use of avant-garde methods.
The New Polish School should be viewed more as a social and cultural phenomenon than a musical movement. In the words of Roman Berger, a composer observing the development of Polish music from Czechoslovakia: ‘Polish New Art and the works of Polish composers of that period emanated an idea of freedom, the Spirit acted within it.’. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt commented: ‘Their pieces show a spirit of engagement which is difficult to define, and inspiration from above.’
The Polish Radio Experimental Studio
Mazes, Notes & Dali: The Extraordinary Life of Krzysztof Penderecki
standardowy [760 px]
Studio Eksperymentalne Polskiego Radia, 1962–1972. Na zdjęciu: Józef Patkowski, fot. Andrzej Zborski/dzięki uprzejmości Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie
Another child of the post-Stalin era was the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES). It was established in 1957, thanks to Włodzimierz Sokorski, head of the Radio Commission and former supporter of social realism. It was the first institution of its kind in the Eastern Bloc. It mainly concentrated on utility music, i.e. pieces and sounds used in television, films, radio shows and theatre stagings. One can safely posit that every Pole who watched TV in the communist-regime era regularly encountered the works of pioneers in Polish electronic music. Apart from these commissions, PRES composers, such as Bogusław Schaeffer, Krzysztof Penderecki, Andrzej Dobrowolski, Włodzimierz Kotoński and Elżbieta Sikora created their own original pieces.
Electronic music was a novelty in Poland, so composers working in the studio had to learn everything from scratch. Their works were produced by engineers and sound directors, such as Krzysztof Szlifirski, Bohdan Mazurek and the self-taught Eugeniusz Rudnik. This led to a bizarre situation, where technicians were both producers and co-authors of the studio’s creative output.
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Nadia Boulanger’s students
The daughter of a French composer and Russian aristocrat, Nadia Boulanger was both a composer and a pianist. Her own works may be almost forgotten, but her impact on the development of 20th century music cannot be understated. She taught several generations of composers, shaped the style of over a thousand artists, including: conductors Daniel Barenboim and John Eliot Gardiner; the creator of modern tango, Astor Piazzola; leading American minimalist Philip Glass; and pioneer in electronic music Pierre Henry. In 1957, she became the honorary member of the Association of Polish Composers. She taught dozens of Poles, including Grażyna Bacewicz, Zbigniew Bargielski, Andrzej Czajkowski, Zygmunt Krauze, Roman Maciejewski, Tomasz Sikorski, Marta Ptaszyńska, Stanisław Skrowaczewski, Witold Szalonek, Antoni Wit, and many, many others.
Nadia Boulanger on Music and Genius
The composer Krzysztof Meyer described his lessons at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleu in Dwutygodnik:
Our last lesson took place at night between 25th and 26th August. Literally at night, because Nadia was always busy from dawn till dusk. I came by at 11pm. Everyone had already left, the palace was empty, and the only person working was Nadia Boulanger. Full of zeal and energy, she was, as always, both playing and singing large fragments of Stravinsky’s ‘Mass’. Then, she started to analyse one of Mozart’s quartets, only to start discussing Monteverdi and his epoch. Midnight passed, then one o’clock, Nadia’s monologue continuing on […] The lovely mademoiselle Nadia had indescribable charisma. She conveyed knowledge in such a suggestive way that most of her students accepted her words without question, entirely giving in to her charm and influence. Myself included. After our lessons, I often jotted down in my diary things like: ‘lovely’, ‘excellent’, ‘such interesting comments on polyphony’, ‘what an outstanding ability to jump from epoch to epoch’.
Olivier Messiaen’s students
Another French teacher Polish composers took a liking to was Olivier Messiaen. We remember him mostly as an exceptional composer, organist and birdsong expert. It cannot be forgotten that he also taught the most prominent innovators of 20th century music: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis. Among his Polish students were Marian Borkowski, Marta Ptaszyńska, Joanna Bruzdowicz, Grażyna Pstrokońska-Nawratil, Krzysztof Baculewski and Eugeniusz Knapik.
What was Messiaen’s teaching style? Marta Ptaszyńska said that they used to drink beer together. On the other hand, Pierre Boulez said that:
He pushed your imagination and helped you think for yourself. That is what you want from a teacher. I always think the relationship between a teacher and a student should be short and maybe violent. You don't need to spend years together. All you need is an explosion: you are the material to explode, the teacher is the detonator.
From ‘I am not shy’ by Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian, April 2008
The Silesian composition school & Generation ‘51
These were the students of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice. The legendary status of the Silesian school was forged by the interwar lecturers Bolesław Szabelski and Bolesław Woytowicz. These composers, for whom Karol Szymanowski was the greatest authority, almost became the school’s rectors. It is them who taught Wojciech Kilar, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Jan Wincenty Hawel, Ryszard Gabryś, and Witold Szalonek.
The first generation of the Silesian school was avant-garde. Szalonek researched and wrote about various sound possibilities. He was inspired by both contemporary music and traditions from outside Europe, such as Balinese gamelan. Kilar and Górecki began with sonorism, but they later abandoned it to explore music brimming with spirituality, religiosity and contemplation, inspired by ancient music and Polish folklore.
Avant-garde and Gorals – Notes on Wojciech Kilar
Aleksander Lasoń ~ Góry
The next generation was represented by Andrzej Krzanowski, Eugeniusz Knapik and Aleksander Lasoń. They were known as Generation ‘51 (they were born in 1951) or the Stalowola Generation (the name comes from the Young Musicians for the Young City festival in Stalowa Wola). Their works were defined as ‘new romanticism’, as the music was intense, diversified, dramatic, neotonal and melodic, similar to the aesthetics of late romanticism.
classical contemporary music
As the years have gone by, newer generations of Polish composers have appeared on the musical landscape. But most remain merely blips or cliques, few having graduated to what might formally be called a school. Only time will tell what other Polish schools will appear to form concrete and influential threads in the way those above have.
Originally written in Polish, Sept 2018; translated by AJ, Mar 2019, additions by AZ
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