Traces of History in Penderecki’s Oeuvre: From Gagarin to the World Trade Centre
small, Krzysztof Penderecki in Dębica, 1969, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Forum, penderecki_dembica_zaglada.jpg
The works of this Polish composer are filled with historical references: beginning with ones straight out of the Bible, through the outbreak of World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, and continuing onto the attack on the World Trade Centre. Let us hear these events through the music of the exceptional Krzystof Penderecki.
The Creation of the World
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- When: Unknown, anywhere in between 5,780 and 4.54 billion years ago
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: Kosmogonia (Cosmogony, 1970)
The flight is going well. I see the land, forests, clouds, and rivers.
Yuri Gagarin during the Vostok 1 mission
The shape of the earth is wonderful and spherical, and its movement is rotary.
Nicolaus of Kuza, 'On Enlightened Ignorance'
In 1970, the United Nations' New York headquarters hosted a concert to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its founding. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Rutgers University Choir performed under the the Indian conductor, Zubin Mehta, with Joanna Neal and Bernard Ładysz as soloists. The programme included a favourite of important commemorations, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, as well as a piece by the then-37-year-old Krzysztof Penderecki, specially comissioned for this occasion.
Written for three voices, a mixed choir, and an orchestra, Kosmogonia (Cosmogony) is something of a Western reflection on the world’s creation, as well as how it functions and facilitates our lives every day. In it, Penderecki invites us on a wild journey – from the words of the astronauts Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn, through Biblical quotes, an Epicurean poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, fragments of Renaissance treatises by Giordano Bruno and Leonardo da Vinci, mingled with phrases from Antigone and Metamorphoses, to the fragments of writings of the medieval cardinal, philosopher and mathematician, Nicolas of Cusa.
Penderecki apparently said that he could have just as well have used fragments of a phone directory, but it would be better to no to focus too much on the composer’s irony. The texts he employed strongly determined the sound of the piece: even if at times this determination was strictly symbolic. For example, there are moments when the word 'sun' is uttered, and we hear the E-minor chord with the 'sol' note.
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- When: The first historical records to mention Jerusalem are dated back to 2000 BC, and the city was conquered by King David in 1000 BC. Archaeological finds indicate that the first people lived in the area as early as 4000 BC.
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: 7th Symphony (The Seven Gates of Jerusalem, 1996)
This is by far one of the composer’s most monumental works. Two numbers are of special significance in this piece – three (or the hebrew letter gimel), which stands for three co-existing religions, three mixed choirs, and the third millennium of the city of Jerusalem. Seven (zayin): symbolises a partition into seven gates, and fragments of seven different texts (six Psalms from different Biblical books and an extract from the prophecy of Ezekiel, to be performed in the mother tongue of the audience), a seven-sound theme of the twice repeated passacaglia, the seven-metre, and the seven repetitions of the E-major chord.
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- When: 30 or 33 AD, 14 Nissan 3790 according to the Hebrew calendar (according to scholars who question the historical authenticity of Christ, his crucifixion never took place)
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: Stabat mater (1962), St Luke Passion (1966), Utrenja (1971) and others
The year is 1959, and Penderecki will soon write Anaklasis, Dimensions of Time and Silence, and Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima – his most avant-garde and controversial compositions, which continue to inspire young artists to this day. At the same time, he begins to sketch out Stabat Mater, a piece which evokes tradition and stirs up emotions – but for an altogether different reason. Why does the young rebel suddenly return to traditional concepts of harmony, melody and rhythm?
The commentators called Stabat Mater a truly religious piece, even a zealous one, and the fruit of metaphysical experience.
It was one of the first religious pieces in Penderecki’s catalogue (there was also David’s Psalms in 1958). The religious theme later became rather dominant in his work. He presented a Catholic sensitivity but what was equally important in his work was his perspective on Greek Orthodox culture. This Catholic sensitivity finds its fullest expression in his St Luke Passion.
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Penderecki - Utrenja I: The Entombment of Christ (1970)
This Greek Orthodox perspective was used in the two-part Utrenja, made up of Burying and Resurrection. Work on the piece began with studies of the Old Church Slavonic language and research on the poetics of the Greek Orthodox service. Later, Penderecki carried out field trips in search of music – travelling to Bulgaria and Greek Orthodox churches around Moscow.
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Św. Wojciech (St. Adalbert)
When: 10th century, he died in 997
Reference in Penderecki’s work: Hymn to St Wojciech (1997)
This is one of Penderecki’s first 'urban hagiographies' (another one, Hymn to St. Daniel Aleksandrovich of Moscow, was written the same year). St Wojciech (known in the West as St Adalbert) is the patron saint of Gdańsk. The city council commissioned the piece for the Gdańsk’s millennial anniversary.
St Wojciech was born in the Czech town of Libice, and was educated in Magdeburg, where he learned German, Latin and the language of the Veleti (Slavs of the Połaby region). In 983, he became the head of the Prague diocese. He was known for his uncompromising stance, as a result of which he came into conflict with the believers. After many episodes, he began an evangelical mission among the Slavs, being one of the few missionaries to know their language. St Wojciech conducted a mass christening in Gdańsk and commanded the cutting down of a holy oak, which was then an axis mundi of the people of Gdańsk. The local pagans did not receive St Wojciech’s mission with understanding, and this resulted in his tragic death. He was stabbed in the heart and killed, and his head cut off and mounted onto a pole. Bolesław Chrobry, the first Christian king of Poland, bought back the corpse of St Wojciech for its weight in gold and buried it in Gniezno.
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St. Daniel Aleksandrovich of Moscow
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St Daniel of Moscow (St Danilo, a forefather of all Grand Princes of Moscow, son of Alexander Nevsky), photo: CC / Wikimedia
When: born 1263, died on March 4th, 1303 in Moscow
Reference in Penderecki’s work: Slava svyatomu Daniilu knyazhyu moskovskomu (1997)
In 1997, the private Russian TV channel TV-6 commissioned Penederecki to write a piece for the 850th anniversary of the founding of Moscow. He wrote a hymn to St Daniel – Slava svyatomu Daniilu knyazhyu moskovskomu. The pious prince and son of Tsar Alexander Nevsky led a strengthening of the Russian Kingdom, which had nothing like the riches of present-day Moscow. Perhaps apart from the Danilov, founded to honour the patron of the Russian knyaz. He was buried there, and now the monastery is the headquarters of Russian patriarchs.
Possessions in Loudun
- When: 1626-34, Loudun, a calm little town in the West of France.
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: the Devils of Loudun opera (1969)
It is said that after the death of Moussant, a prior, strange things began to happen in the Ursuline convent. Screams come from the place, and nuns experienced very strong visions (including erotic ones), and were subject tostrong convulsions. The first to be possessed was the head of the convent, Jeanne de Belcier, known as Joan of Angels. Other nuns followed her. "I experienced a strong feeling of love towards one person and I had an improper desire for unseemly things", Joan was supposed to have said. Fate had it that Joan of Angels was a cousin of the delegate of King Louis XIII, who informed his ruler about the turmoil, as well as the infamous Cardinal Richelieu. The local parson was then accused of having cast a spell on the nuns. A document was prepared by the inquisition, in which Father Urban Grandier supposedly signed a pact with the devil. After many tortures, the priest was burnt alive. This execution was witnessed by a few thousand people, but it was not very efficient – the possessions continued and the spread to other women in Loudun and the surrounding area.
Mother Joan of the Angels - Jerzy Kawalerowicz
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The pact that the inquisition signed with Urban Grandier, or the pact with Lucifer, signed by the inquisition, photo: CC / Wikimedia
We, the influential Lucifer, the young Satan, Beelzebub, Leviathan, Elimi,
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and Astaroth, together with others, have today accepted the covenant pact
of Urbain Grandier, who is ours. And him do we promise
the love of women, the flower of virgins, the respect of monarchs, honours, lusts and powers.
He will go whoring three days long; the carousal will be dear to him. He offers us once
in the year a seal of blood, under the feet he will trample the holy things of the church and
he will ask us many questions; with this pact he will live twenty years happy
on the earth of men, and will later join us to sin against God.
Bound in hell, in the council of demons.
Lucifer Beelzebub Satan
Astaroth Leviathan Elimi
The seals placed the Devil, the master, and the demons, princes of the lord.
Public exorcisms which took place within the convent (stripping the nuns of all their dignity) were a local source of entertainment for the subsequent years. This story inspired generations of artists: Aldous Huxley and John Whithing (a source of inspiration for Penderecki and Ken Russel, who devoted his Devils to these tragic events), as well as Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. The latter transported the story to the eastern territories of the Two Nations’ Republic, to the familiarly named town of Ludyń. The novel was then brought to the screen by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.
Penderecki focuses on Urbain Grandier, depicting his drama at the crossroads of psychology and politics (with being burned on the stake portrayed as a source of moral triumph). His first opera had two premieres – the first took place in Hamburg, and it was directed by the famous Konrad Swinarski, the second one took place in Stuttgart, directed by Günther Renner (the latter was much better received).
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The Great War
- When: 1914-1918, beginning with the assassination of Archduke Maximilian in Sarayevo.
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: Dies Illa (2014)
"Dies irae, dies illa", "Day of wrath, day of anger". When writing about World War I – an event often considered as the beginning of the 20th century and the beginning of modernity – Penderecki uses the Latin text once used in Tridentine rite funeral masses. He has great predecessors who also used this text, including Mozart and Verdi. Penderecki had also employed it before, in his second piece about the extermination of Jews. "We modern civilizations have learned to recognize that we are mortal like the others", as Paul Valery put it.
After more than 50 years of addressing historical material from the past centuries, only now did Penderecki decide to touch upon an event that actually formed the fundaments of his creativity and a life marked by World War II. According to Professors Elie Barnavi and Krzysztof Pomian, "It was the Great War which gave birth to Nazi ideology".
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- When: from September 15th, 1935 through to the late 1940s.
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: Brygada śmierci (Death Brigade) (1963), Dies irae oratorium ob memoriam in perniciei castris in Oświęcim necatorum inexstinguibilem reddendam (1967), Kaddish (2009)
Krzysztof Penderecki was born in 1933, in the town of Dębica (Dembitz in Yiddish). The majority of its inhabitants were Hasidic Jews, life rolled at a slow pace, and the locals would sentimentally recall the Franz Josef era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The echoes of Jewish music – which must have resounded in the young composer’s ears – frequently reiterate throughout his work. The composer told Polish Radio:
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It’s a strange thing that this music, which I had in my ears then, now returns. In two of my pieces klezmer music came back in a way in which I was aware of it – the Sextet (2000), and even the Concerto grosso (2001). I most likely heard motifs like these as a child
In 1963 Penderecki realised a naturalistic radio show entitled Brygada śmierci (Death’s Brigade), based on the text of Leo Weliczker – a member of the Sonderkommando, the division called up by the Nazis in order to erase traces of their crimes. Jewish prisoners formed a part of this brigade, and Leo Weliczker was one of the few who managed to escape and preserve his diary. The pre-premiere showing took place in Warsaw, with the legendary actor Tadeusz Łomnicki reading out the text. Two lights were mounted on the stage – a dead-blue colour and a screaming red. Weliczker’s text, entirely devoid of emotion and horribly detailed, was performed without any alterations. Penderecki employed the entirety of the original, only adding sound effects.
Another piece devoted to the Shoah was written by Penderecki almost by chance. Initially, it was Henryk Mikołaj Górecki who was supposed to write a composition for the uncovering of a monument commemorating victims of fascism in Auschwitz. He could not finish the work – he found the theme too horrifying. He passed the task onto Penderecki, who completed the piece in less than two months. In the score, he employed biblical texts (among them fragments of the Apocalypse, as well as the Tridentine funeral mass) and poetry (Broniewski, Różewicz, Aragon and Valery). Penderecki’s work stirred much controversy.
In his music, a less controversial portrayal of the Holocaust is his Kaddish, a piece which also bears the surtitle Łódzkim Abramkom, którzy chcieli żyć. Polakom, którzy ratowali Żydów (To the Abrahams of Łódź Who Wanted to Live. To the Poles Who Saved Jews). Penderecki explained:
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When writing music for kaddish, I evoked the prayers of Eastern Georgia, Ukraine and Romania. I was advised by my late friend, Boris Carmeli. Before dying, in mid July, he passed on his remarks, he corrected the accents. He would sing me various melodies that he was sung by his grandfather, thus they had to be at least as old as the mid 19th century.
In 1945 atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The photograph depicts the atomic mushroom cloud above Nagasaki. photo: CC / Wikimedia
When: August 6th, 1945, 8:15 am. The consequences of dropping this bomb onto Hiroshima still linger today.
Reference in Pendercki’s work: Threnody To The Victims of Hiroshima (1959-61)
American planes started out at 2:45am, and at 7:25 the pilot informed of good atmospheric conditions. On 8:15:19 an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was codenamed ''Little Boy''. It fell to 508 meters above the courtyard of the Shima hospital and detonated at 8:16:02 (all of the hours are UTC+09:00, Japanese local time). The mushroom cloud reached over a dozen kilometers in the air and 30% of the town's inhabitants were killed (70-90 thousand people). The city was almost entirely swept off the earth’s surface. In a letter to the mayor of Hiroshima, Penderecki wrote:
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May this threnody express my deep belief that the sacrifice of Hiroshima will never be forgotten and lost, and Hiroshima will become a symbol of brotherhood between people of good will.
Some say that the making of this piece was self-serving. In the beginning it was supposed to be named 8'7", 8'34" or 8'26" and the name was meant to refer to the length of the piece (its surtitle is 8'37''). The original score of the Threnody was lost in the post on its way to the German publisher, and Penderecki had to reconstruct it from memory. It later turned out that it had been retained by customs officers, who suspected that it contained some secret plans relating to the construction of an atomic bomb, or, at least to the military secrets of the Warsaw Pact. A deep analysis of the customs officers proved that in the end it was just a musical score, and the package was delivered to the addressee. The most fascinating part of this story is that the two scores – the original and the one reconstructed from memory – turned out to be identical.
Martyrology of the Polish Nation
- When: The Katyń war crime, Spring, 1940. The death of Maximilian Kolbe in KL Auschwitz on August 14th, 1941, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising September 1st - October 3rd, 1944, the seaside massacre 14th-22nd December, 1970, the death of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, May 28th, 1981, the death of Pope John Paul II
- Reference in Penderecki’s work: Polish Requiem (1981-2005)
For 24 years, Penderecki created a musical image of Polish contemporary martyrology – from the murder of Polish officers in Katyń, through to the pontificate of John Paul II. He actually began with the events of December 1981 – Martial Law. Lacrimose was composed first, that same year. Mścisław Rostropowicz marvelled at the piece, and he reserved the privilege of conducting its fuller version. Later it was Agnus Dei for Cardinal Wyszyński ('He was a great man, with an exceptional charisma. I always felt small next to him, even though that is a rare feeling for me', Penderecki would recall).
In 1983, Penderecki wrote Dies Irae. Three parts formed the base of a version which was presented for the composer’s birthday celebrations in Washington. A year later, Dmitri Rostropovich played the Polish Requiem in Stuttgart, enriched by the Requiem Aeternam, Kyrie, Tuba Mirum and Mors Stupebit as well as Lux Aeterna, Libera Me, Domine abd Finale (this is now known as the 1984 version). In 1993, he added Sanctus and, after the death, of John Paul II – Chaconne per Archi. The whole piece is an hour and a half long.
The sonatas and oratoriums created in Poland in the 1970s and 80s – a period of social upheaval and political change – were monikered by Stefan Kisielewski as lithurgic 'socialist realism'. For Kisielewski, these pieces resembled the equally accessible works of the Stalinist era. In the 1990s, Dorota Szwarcman named the music created by Pendercki and Kilar‚"music of moral blackmail", and Andrzej Chłopecki created a contemporary take on Kisielewski’s label – ''sacro polo''.
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Attack on the World Trade Center
- When: 11th September 2001, the first airplane hit the Twin Towers at 8:46am, the second one at 9:03am
- Refererence in Penderecki's work: Piano concerto Zmartwychwstanie (Resurrection) (2012)
In 2002, Penderecki once again shocked the audience, or more precisely, divided it. The performance of his piano concerto entitled Resurrection – written by the composer in response to the 9/11 attacks – was booed, with many people leaving the auditorium. In his Love me Pender text, Jan Topolski asked:
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Is the true meaning of postmodernism, in which we apparently live, equal with the notion that it suffices to sit down in a library over a music score, and cut out Rachmaninov’s strings, Mahler’s pathos (and his title!), Chopin’s figurations and passages, Ravel’s instrumentations, and harps and bells of film music and simply put them together? That’s it? And it’s ready?
Maestro Penderecki himself explained the genesis of his composition in the following words:
I began working in June , and after a few months I was about halfway, a kind of capriccio was formed. But after September 11th, the concept underwent a radical change. I decided to write a darker and more serious piece. I withdrew part of the material, and went back to a certain place in the structure and introduced a choral.
Chłopecki’s review of the piece made quite a splash, and part of the Polish music milieu published a letter. Among those who signed it were: Zbigniew Bujarski, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Zofia Helman, Jacek Kaspszyk, Krystyna Moszumańska-Nazar, Wiesław Ochman, Janusz Olejniczak, Ewa Podleś and Antoni Wit.
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Originally written in Polish by Filip Lech, translated by Paulina Schlosser, 18 Nov 2014
Sources: Trzejkompozytorzy.pl, K. Lisicki, Szkice o Krzysztofie Pendereckim (Sketches on Krzysztof Penderecki) (1973); A. Lewandowska-Kąkol, Dźwięki, szepty, zgrzyty. Wywiady z kompozytorami (Sounds, Whispers, Rasps. Interviews with Composers) (2012); M. Tomaszewski Penderecki. Bunt i wyzwolenie. Rozpętanie żywiołów (Penderecki. Rebellion and Freedom. Unleashing the Elements) (2008), Jędrzej Słodkowski, Kadisz Pendereckiego (Penderecki’s Kaddish) (2008), Europejskie rewolucje (European Revolutions) Elie Barnavi, Krzysztof Pomian and others.