What Makes a Composer Polish?
full-width, mapofcomposers.pl, photo: promotional materials / AMI, center, mpc_final-4.jpg
As the Adam Mickiewicz Institute presents its new website mapofcomposers.pl – a comprehensive online resource about Polish contemporary classical music – Filip Lech, our music writer, takes a closer look at what makes a composer Polish.
The new, interactive website, mapofcomposers.pl, available in both Polish and English, presents profiles of the most celebrated Polish musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Many will surely begin their Map of Composers journey by searching for the name ‘Chopin’. Could any name be more evocative of the phrase ‘Polish composer’? Unfortunately, Chopin doesn’t make the cut, as he composed in the 19th century, when Poland wasn’t technically a state…
So, who then is a Polish composer?
A Polish Jewish Russian (Soviet) composer
Mieczysław Weinberg (Wajnberg) is likely the best example of just how many identities a Polish composer can simultaneously hold. Wajnberg was born in 1919, shortly after Poland regained its independence, in Warsaw. At the time, it was a teeming, multicultural city, abuzz with life and possibility.
Wajnberg’s father, Szmuel (Shmuel) Wajnberg – who introduced young Mieczysław to Warsaw’s musical scene – was born in Moldavia, from where he later escaped from pogroms. Szmuel ran the Yiddish musical theatre Scala and Mieczysław debuted there as a pianist in 1929, at the age of 10. Ten years later, he himself had to flee to the East from the approaching Nazi German army.
The composer spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union, where he became an important fixture of the music scene. After the war, the authorities criticised his music for being too pessimistic. In 1953, he was arrested during the Stalinist purges and was accused of ‘bourgeois Jewish nationalism’. He was freed thanks to the intervention of his good friend, the Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich.
Weinberg’s compositions were performed frequently in the USSR and he wrote many theatre and film scores, including the soundtrack for the classic war movie The Cranes Are Flying. The Soviet authorities, however, were never particularly fond of the composer – he never received any state awards, which, in a totalitarian state, were a testament to his worth as a composer.
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A pioneer of electronic music
The story of electronic music is most often told from the perspective of men. Only recently have initiatives by musicologists and music lovers begun to uncover and describe its vibrant ‘herstory’. One prominent figure in Poland is Elżbieta Sikora.
A pioneering sound director and composer, Sikora was one of the first women to work at the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) in Warsaw. PRES was the seventh radio centre in the world to produce electronic music and the first such institution behind the Iron Curtain.
After her experience at PRES, Sikora left for Paris, where she studied at the Service de la Recherche with Pierre Schaeffer and François Bayle. In 1981, she moved to France permanently and collaborated with electronic music studios in Europe and North America.
For many years, Sikora was the director of the Musica Electronica Nova festival in Wrocław.
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There are so many émigrés in the 20th- and 21st-century history of Polish music that a whole separate map could be created just for them! Some left Poland in the 1920s and ’30s in search of modern music. Others escaped from the Nazi German and Soviet armies, often settling abroad for good.
The next waves of emigration took place under the communist regime, as artists and musicians left in search of both artistic and social freedoms. Some managed to become part of artistic communities abroad, while others were unable to devote their lives to composing in their new contexts.
Roman Palester left for Paris in 1947 and two years later, he decided to stay indefinitely. The communist authorities, however, regarded him highly. Palester was a professor at the National Academy of Music in Kraków; his pieces were printed by the Polish Music Publishing House and were played abroad. He could not, however, submit to the socialist realist doctrine – he chose freedom over comfort.
Palester was the culture editor of the Polish Broadcasting Station of Radio Free Europe, which broadcasted uncensored messages and information from Munich to the Poland under the communist regime. Despite the sheer volume of work, he continued to compose music, but he didn’t have the time to promote it. Only now do we have the opportunity to hear his pieces, thanks to contemporary recordings.
Some composers leave behind an autobiography, their correspondence or a series of interviews. Others leave only their music. Barbara Buczek is such a composer – she remains a mystery. The only thing we know for certain is that her music was extraordinary.
Buczek was so protective of her privacy that most journalists struggled to find things to write about her life story. The only thing they could write with confidence was that she liked to give away her belongings and that she often wore stretched-out jumpers.
Buczek’s extremely complex compositions were even once considered impossible to perform. Experts classify her work as part of the ‘new complexity’ subgenre. She was most interested in the philosophy of culture, and, in particular, the cross-sections of contemporary music with other fields of art. Buczek eventually left her composing aside, instead focussing on pedagogical work.
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A Strzemiński follower
Art theory can be another source of inspiration for musicians. Zygmunt Krauze first saw Władysław Strzemiński’s paintings as a high school student, towards the end of the 1950s. Strzemiński’s theory of unism was an extraordinary discovery, one Krauze sought to transform into a musical experience. He wanted to create a piece of music which was devoid of contrasts. In his own words:
Even the Gregorian chant has elements of the unistic idea. These songs are very homogeneous, uniform. In Chopin’s compositions, for example, the finale of the ‘Sonata in B flat minor’ can be regarded as unistic. The first idea is presented at the beginning of the composition and then keeps developing, until the very end, with no changes.
Krauze composed a number of pieces which he considered unistic. He also passed on his love of Strzemiński to a new generation of Polish composers – such as Marcin Stańczyk, who was inspired by Strzemiński’s Afterimage series. In his music, the ‘afterimages’ are reflections of the musical events.
Władysław Strzemiński’s Łódź
An engineer & radio technician
One of the most important names from the Polish Radio Experimental Studio in Warsaw was, without a doubt, Eugeniusz Rudnik. Although he studied at the Military University of Technology, he had had no formal education in the field of sound engineering or music. Nonetheless, he successfully produced pieces by renowned composers, such as Krzysztof Penderecki or Arne Nordheim, and soon began to record his own compositions.
Rudnik could easily be considered a patron of contemporary experimental music composers seen as ‘amateurs’ – the self-taught who create music that can boldly compete with that of musical masters.
Who is Eugeniusz Rudnik?
A creator of operas
…which, at first sight (and sound), have absolutely nothing to do with the 16th-century art form.
In his first opera, TRANSCRIPTUM, Wojtek Blecharz invited the audience to join him on a walk around the Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera in search of trauma. In his Park Opera, the audience wandered through Skaryszewski Park in Warsaw, as Blecharz wanted to remind people that opera was meant to be a social event. Meanwhile, in Body Opera, he opened up his listeners to the possibility of the physical reception of sound and stimuli, such as smell, which are often neglected in music.
What is opera to Blecharz? In an interview with Culture.pl, he stated:
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Opera in Italian simply means ‘work’. For me, it's a place of work with sound, about sound, through sound, and so on. I realised that I would never compose a symphony – a form determined by its layout, limited. The phenomenon of the opera is that, at its dawn, it brought together fields of art that didn’t go together. It combined lyrics with music, thanks to which the text was taken to entirely new levels of expression – it created a new quality. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it became the utmost form of art, regarded more highly than even traditional theatre.
Dodeka means twelve in Greek. Dodecaphony, therefore, is known as twelve-tone technique. It was invented by Arnold Schönberg, a Viennese Modernist painter and composer. Schönberg was looking for a new way to organise sound – one that could replace the tonal major system. He proposed a series of twelve notes, in which all sounds are equivalent.
In Poland, there was little interest in dodecaphony – with the exception of a few composers who gathered around Józef Koffler, a lecturer in Lviv and the first Polish dodecaphonicist. They became known as the Lviv School of Dodecaphony.
Koffler studied in Vienna: first law, then philosophy and finally musicology and conducting. He was not a student of Schönberg’s, although they did cross paths and began a correspondence with one another in 1929. He proposed his own dodecaphony idiom, in which the modernist technique met neoclassicism.
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classical contemporary music
contemporary polish classical music
Polish Radio Experimental Studio
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