The composer's powerful tribute and its breakthrough contribution to contemporary trends in Classical Music today.
The reaction was generally one of astonishment when, during the 1959 Youth Competition of the Polish Composers' Union, all three awards went to just one composer: Krzysztof Penderecki. It was commented at the time, jokingly, that Penderecki wrote the first score with his left hand, the second with his right, and the third he gave to a friend. It was the third year of a new era in Polish music, ever since the Warsaw Autumn festival gave young musicians the opportunity to discover music on both sides of the Iron Curtain. It was around this time that Polish composers began forging their own response to musical developments in the West (specifically regarding twelve-tone composition, serialism and pointillism), the result of which would be identified as the so-called 'polnische Schule', or Polish School of composition. The 26-year old Penderecki was at the forefront of these musical changes, and following three youthful works that experimented primarily with the compositional techniques outlined above, he wrote what would become his breakthrough work.
Composed in 1960 and originally titled 8'37, Penderecki's newest work was written for 52 string instruments, and was like nothing else before it. The scream of violins in their uppermost register, glissando runs that lurch from unison lines, meanderings across registers; everything seems to fit to burst, and yet there is also a sense of dramatic expression, a sense of poignancy, like a cry. Is it because of such associations, or rather because of external advice, that Penderecki decided to change the title of his new composition at the last minute? Today, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima is considered a very significant work, with an award granted by the UNESCO International Tribune of Composers in Paris, a medal in Japan and numerous performances around the world, despite concerns over damage to instruments. Fewer people ask questions concerning the composer's motives behind writing the work, as it gradually becomes a thing of the past.
begins with a cluster chord of all the instruments playing in their uppermost register. After a short while this cluster gives way to a series of aleatoric instrumental figures of extremely detailed articulation, eventually submitting to a process of increasing textural density and dynamic volume, which lasts until the end of the second minute. What follows is a rather more different episode of quiet glissandos and unison/octave instrumental lines, often changing in register and splintering into smaller musical threads. After about a minute and half, the original cluster makes a powerful return, albeit in a new guise, alternately becoming wider and then narrower in its encompassed range and meandering aimlessly between octaves. The fifth minute once again witnesses a return of rather sparse textures and even more violent outbursts of noise, exacerbated by the sounds produced from playing on the soundboard and on the bridge of the instrument. The cluster chord reappears in all its terrifying beauty for the final two minutes, and is treated with alternating diminuendos and crescendos, tremolos and changes in tessitura.
Shocking at the time, today it is clear that Penderecki's breakthrough work laid the foundations for what would eventually become known as 'sonorism', a compositional style typified by the focus it placed on tone and sound, and achieved through unconventional articulations, a variety of textures and colours, and a progressive, kaleidoscopic structural form. Such works would later be written by the likes of Henryk Górecki
, Kazimierz Serocki
and Witold Szalonek in Poland, and Friedrich Cerha and György Ligeti in Austria, together with a whole host of others. In particular, Cerha's Spiegel
(1960-61) and Ligeti's Atmosphères
(1960) seem influenced by Penderecki's work, although this may just be coincidence. Sonorism - along with Penderecki's earlier works and Threnody
- would eventually cause uproar in film soundtracks as a means of conveying danger or terror (as heard in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining
). Those same works would eventually pass into legend as 'music not fit to listen to'.
Such an assertion is wholly undeserved. It's enough to acquaint oneself with the work's starkly logical form, its incredibly dramatic means of expression and its mesmerising changes in tessitura and colour to realise its great worth. Undoubtedly, other important works abound: Polymorphia
(1961) lends an ironically amusing sentiment to the narrative thread (the series of clusters eventually resolve to a C-major chord); Fluorescences
(1962) yields to more radical orchestrations (the use of a saw and a typewriter); the St. Luke Passion
(1964-66) aims for a great synthesis between modernity and tradition. Still, it's Penderecki's earlier Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima
that represents the significant turning point in the history of Polish music in the twentieth century. Similarly, it acts as the benchmark among Penderecki's earlier works, and for many, the true beginnings of his own musical style and even that of contemporary music more generally.
He has inspired a number of contemporary musicians across genres, such as Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who composed his 48 Responses to Polymorphia on the basis of Penderecki's own Polymorphia. In March 2012 the US-based recording label Nonesuch released Krzysztof Penderecki And Jonny Greenwood - a critically-acclaimed collaboration between the two composers. Penderecki's Threnody is also included on the album.
Author: Jan Topolski, December 2010. Edited and translated by James Savage Hanford, February 2011.