Composer and teacher. Born in Czechowice- Dziedzice on the 2nd of March 1927 and died in Berlin on the 12th of October 2001.
Composer and teacher.
In the years 1949-56 Witold Szalonek studied piano in Wanda Chmielowska’s class and composition with Bolesław Woytowicz in the National Higher Music School in Katowice. He completed complementary studies in the years 1962-63 with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. From 1967 he led the class of composition at the National Higher Music School in Katowice, directing there in the years 1970-74 the Department of Theory and Composition. In the years 1970-71 he remained in Berlin as a scholar of the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. In 1973 he was appointed professor of the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, where he took over the class of composition after Borys Blacher.
Witold Szalonek is credited with the discovery of 'combined tones' - chords of a specific timbre, achievable on woodwind instruments. Beginning 1970 he led seminars and courses about his own composing techniques at music schools and universities in Denmark, Germany, Finland, Poland, Slovakia and other countries. His pieces were performed at many contemporary music festivals: International Vacation Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, World Music Days of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), Warsaw Autumn, Time of Music in Viitasaari, Gulbenkian Music Festival in Lisbon, Inventionen in Berlin, Alternatives in Moscow, Contrasts in Lviv and more.
Witold Szalonek is part of a group of 20th Century composers who are known for their pursuit of new sound material through experimentation with traditional instruments, obtaining unusual sounds. Szalonek was inspired to conduct such a search when in the sixties he encountered non-European music which used sounds completely different than those generated by European instruments. The instruments of the old continent have a fixed structure and a foreseeable form. Non-European instruments are unstable, undefined and to a great extent unpredictable. Such a sound-material was brought to European composers by electronic music or even more so – by concrete music. However the great expectations that came along with these types of music weren’t fulfilled. It seems that the most important reason was that there were no living performers present whilst playing the recording from tape. Music may be the art of sound and one can listen to it with one’s eyes closed, but for its proper functioning an interaction between the performer and listener is needed. Such an assumption could be confirmed by live electronic music, which humanized the electronic sounds by introducing on stage a person operating the equipment 'live'.
Today one can encounter such elements of electronic technology implemented into live performances rather than just an empty stage filled with speakers playing music recorded on tape. Electronics often appear alongside traditional sounds, where the electronic device is one of the instruments in a bigger band. But also traditional instruments discovered their new, unforeseen sound capabilities in the second part of the 2oth century.
The composer once said:
Back in my student days my attention was drawn by ‘accidental’ sounds of a strange timbre, ‘cocks’, produced for the joy of listeners by unskilled adepts of wooden instruments. When composing the Concertino for the Flute and Chamber Orchestra in 1960 I had an intention to use them constructing certain tone-surfaces of the second part, but not knowing thoroughly their nature I had to abandon that design and I eventually used reed and mouthpiece sounds from brass and wood instead.
The composer didn’t give up on recognising the nature of these 'cocks' and started a systematic study of all strange sounds of woodwind instruments. The result was a list of 'combined tones', as Witold Szalonek called the curious sounds, together with methods of obtaining them. It turned out that by using special fingering and unusual blowing techniques one can obtain not only one but even two, three or four tones at a time from a flute, oboe, clarinet or bassoon. During one of the experiments an oboe produced over 160 combined tones! The composer described everything in an article published in the magazine Res Facta in 1973 and used his discoveries abundantly in his own compositions, beginning with the breakthrough piece Les Sons written in 1965. It gave him the reputation of the most radical and controversial representative of sonorism.
The opinion was confirmed by his next works: Quattro Monologhi per Oboe Solo (1966), Mutazioni for Chamber Orchestra, Proporzioni I for the Flute, Viola and Harp (1967), Dear Land Cantata for Voice and Symphony Orchestra to the Words by Antoni Gołubiew (1909), Aarhus Music for the Wind Quartet (1970). Priority of sound over other elements of the work and a form-creative role of timbre will be from now on present in all of Szalonek’s work. Although the proportions of 'combined tones' and classic sounds shall differ, Szalonek's music remains especially sensitive to colour and mood.
Witold Szalonek won the second prize at the Polish Composers’ Union’s Competition in 1952 for his Pastoral for the Oboe and Piano, the third prize in Artur Malawski’s Competition in 1966 for his Quattro Monologhi per Oboe Solo (1966) and the second and third prize at the same competition in 1968 for his Mutazioni for Chamber Orchestra (1966) and Proporzioni I for the Flute, Viola and Harp (1967). In 1964 he received the Musical Prize of the city of Katowice and in 1967 the prize from the Minister of Culture and Art. In 1990 the Wilhelmian University in Münster granted him an honorary doctorate. In 1994 he won the annual Polish Composers’ Union’s Prize.
In 1999 in Oldenburg the composer received the “Kulturpreis Schlesien” prize, granted to creators involved with Silesia, founded by the Lower Saxony Government. Professor Rudolf Weber gave a laudation and the ceremony followed with a performance of the Ritual Symphony by the Silesian Quartet.
- Pastoral [version I] for Oboe and Piano (1952)
- Pastoral [version II] for Oboe and Orchestra (1952-65)
- Toccata Polyphonica for String Orchestra (1954)
- Polyphonic Suite for String Orchestra (1955)
- Sonata for Chello and Piano (1958)
- Concertino per Flauto e Orchestra da Camera (1962)
- Mutazioni for Chamber Orchestra (1966)
- Quattro Monologhi per Oboe Solo (1966)
- Proporzioni I per Flauto, Viola e Arpa (1967)
- Proporzioni II per Flauto, Violoncello e Pianoforte (Arpa) (1967 - 1970)
- Mutanza per Pianoforte (1968)
- Improvisations Sonoristiques per Clarinetto, Trombone, Violoncello e Pianoforte (1968)
Author: Małgorzata Kosińska, Polish Music Information Centre, Polish Composers’ Union, January 2002; update November 2008. Translated by Marek Kępa, October 2011.