Written in 1973, Krzysztof Penderecki's First Symphony was premiered in Peterborough by one of the world's best orchestras, the London Symphony Orchestra, under the composer, in June of that year. The world premiere was followed three months later by the first performance in Poland, at the Warsaw Autumn Festival, by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Witold Rowicki. Penderecki wrote more symphonies in later years: No. 2 in 1979-80, No. 3 in 1988-95, No. 4 in 1989 and No. 5 in 1992. Symphony No. 1 re-appeared at the Warsaw Autumn in 1998, the musicians being the MDR Leipzig Radio Sinfonieorchester under Johannes Kalitzky. Krzysztof Droba, an acclaimed Penderecki researcher, contributed this searching to the Warsaw Autumn programme leaflet:
symphony no. 1
"Penderecki's recent statements show clearly that he attaches a special importance and significance to symphonies. The symphony rescues what 'is most important in the artistic and human dimension'. The composer sees the artistic dimension connected to the 'imperative of retrospection' and 'creative synthesis', and the human dimension tied with the drama of human existence. Penderecki says he wants to write also the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies, and this music will be about the man, the human drama.
Of Penderecki's five symphonies, all but the First fall within this humanist horizon. The technique and esthetics of the First make it belong to sonorism. 'My Symphony No. 1', said Penderecki in 1995, 'was written in 1973 at the age of forty. This is the time when you cross the line of shadow. I made an attempt to summarize the twenty years of my music experience, of avant-garde, radical pursuits. The Symphony collated what I was able to say as an avant-garde composer. Its four symmetrical movements - Arche I, Dynamis I, Dynamis II and Arche II - reflected on my desire to rebuild the world from scratch. True to the avant-garde logic, this grand destruction involved a longing for a new cosmogony, too' (Krzysztof Penderecki: 'Labirynt czasu', Warszawa 1997, p. 50). Penderecki's music from the 1950s until the early 1970s - from 'Threnody' (1950) up to 1st Symphony (1973) offers perhaps the most complete implementation of this 'new cosmogony' in a typical, Polish, sonoristic form.
Polish sonorism fundamentally redefines the approach to music composition. The ever-present element of colour and sound becomes absolute. The so-called 'pure sound', based on new material (especially on non-traditional articulations and textures), becomes a factor which defines and governs all sound processes and all aspects of a work of music. Of course, Poland of the 1950s produces music of varied degrees of sonoristic advancement; for instance, one can hardly classify Witold Lutosławski's music as sonoristic. It is Penderecki's music that brings the most consistent and far-reaching sonorisation. Other composers (Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Wojciech Kilar, Kazimierz Serocki, Witold Szalonek) will follow later. This type of sonorism may be called total, for conventional elements of music not only change their mutual relationships but disappear altogether. The point in case are, for instance, the melodic and harmonic factors. Like the atonal music of the early 20th century with its obsessive avoidance of any tonal associations, the totally sonoristic music becomes a-harmonic (anti-harmonic) and anti-melodic through the avoidance of any pitch-defined material. 'Threnody', 'String Quartet No. 1', 'Polymorphia', 'Fluorescence', 'De natura sonoris I', 'Quartet No. 2' strike one with revolutionary insolence, but with cognitive optimism, too, for it is possible to build a new world of music with new sounds and textures and to break away from the hundreds-years-old tradition of the melodic-harmonic approach. In opposition to the Darmstadt school, this new world is powerfully expressive and produces dramatic stories.
Penderecki's entry of the symphonic track put, however, an end to the sonoristic cosmogony (symphonic manifestoes of the 'new Romanticism' came later), and the 'Symphony' marks a retreat from the sonorism which used to organize music across the board. The sonoristic dress, the purely sound-based dramatic development of the music cloaks established qualities which seem to be reconstructed and acknowledged principles and procedures which seem to be reformulated.
One can therefore listen to the Symphony tonally, looking for points of support in the outstanding 'a' and 'c' sounds, those peculiar tonal spans which hold up the half-hour-long music action. One can listen to it classically, tracking the symmetry of form whose extreme movements produce a relationship of exposition (Arche I) and reprise (Arche II), while the extensive middle movements provide a vast processing space. Yet one can also listen to the First sonorically, as to music born out of whip cracking. This whip crack is an impulse, a sign for the music to rush into the wilderness of textures, through sonoristic mountains and valleys, run around a big portion of the world and finally, after a good romp, return home.
This is how I like to listen to Penderecki's First the most".
Prepared by the Polish Music Information Center, Polish Composers' Union, October 2002.