Krzysztof Penderecki in Nashville

A casual walk along lower Broadway in downtown Nashville will take you past Printer’s Alley, along the Ryman Auditorium (legendary home of the Grand Ole Opry) and smack dab in front of the talent boards of the tourist honky-tonks offering down home country music. You are not likely to see the name Krzysztof Penderecki anywhere here promoting the evening’s entertainment.

But just one block south and across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame you will find the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, new home of the Nashville Symphony.

Exterior of Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Exterior of Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Interior of Schermerhorn.

At the end of January, Krzysztof Penderecki from Krakow, Poland came to Nashville to conduct the orchestra in a concert of his own music, as well as the Sixth Symphony of Shostakovich. The obverse of such an unlikely convergence of musical cities might be Taylor Swift singing at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany.

But Nashville boasts a resident opera company, a ballet company and a symphony orchestra that, like the Louisville Symphony in the 50s and 60s, records contemporary cutting edge classical music, their contract being for the English Naxos label. The Nashville Symphony’s recording of Joan Tower’s “Made in America” was honored with three Grammys, including classical album of the year. – Tower link

The orchestra has also recorded music by American centenarian Elliott Carter whose 101st birthday was one of my blog subjects last December. – Carter link

“Happy Birthday, Mr. Carter: Centennial Plus One” blog link

Much like Hollywood, the world capital of movies, Nashville is the capital of country music. Sixteenth and Seventeenth Avenues South, familiarly called “Music Row,” boast more recording studios than Hollywood does soundstages. But this human-scaled city, dubbed the “Athens of the South,” is a true cultural nexus and it is somehow fitting that a maverick in the classical music world like Krzysztof Penderecki would be conducting the resident symphony orchestra.

The Nashville Symphony was founded in 1920. The longest serving music director was Kenneth Schermerhorn. He died in 2005 after leading that orchestra for 22 seasons; the new symphony hall is named after him. Schermerhorn did not live to conduct the inaugural concert; he died the year before.

Krzysztof Penderecki is the most prolific and controversial of the twentieth century Polish composers who constitute what is often called the “Polish Renaissance.” Not since Chopin in the nineteenth century has Poland occupied such a prominent place in the world of classical music. There have been many great Polish performing soloists this past century but major international recognition of its composers has been somewhat elusive.

Penderecki composing.

Four composers who constitute this Renaissance are the subjects of a volume of Phaidon Press’ Twentieth Century Composers series: A Polish Renaissance (20th-Century Composers) link

This well-illustrated book documents the individual lives and works as well as the creative intersections of four 20th century Polish masters: Andrzej Panufnik and Witold Lutoslawski were born within a year of each other just before WWI; they were teachers and mentors to the next generation of Penderecki and Henryk Gorecki, both born in 1933. These four men, different in style and thematic inclinations, share several traits that give their music a common visceral connection. Foremost of these is the strong centuries-old tradition of Polish folk music; a close second is the shared culture and musical traditions of their Catholic religious faith. And on a secular level, the tragic fate of Poland in twentieth century political upheavals has also imprinted common markers on these two generations of composers. Nazi occupation during the Second World War, followed by that of the Stalinist and post-Stalinist USSR, left Polish music with fragmented, erratic connections and influences in the realm of mid-twentieth century European modernism. But when a cultural thaw began in the late Fifties, Penderecki was ready to express in a creative torrent all the repressed and conflicting streams awash in mid-twentieth century music.

Krzysztof Penderecki shot to prominence when three of his pieces were submitted anonymously in 1959 to a young composers competition hosted by the League of Polish Composers—he won all three awards. Shortly after, a composition originally titled 8' 37" (an homage to John Cage’s notorious 4'33") brought international recognition. In its revised title, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, it became a concert house staple not only because of its dedicatory title, but for the ferocious new voice it introduced into staid concert halls, one that thrilled as much as it shocked. The piece, scored for 52 string instruments, has none of the lyricism one associates with the string section of the orchestra; it often sounds more like the “kitchen,” the percussionists who strike, rasp, and throttle their piercing instruments. The demands placed on the strings in this piece not only challenged the players’ skills but often placed the survival of the instruments themselves in jeopardy. Many musicians objected to tormenting their beloved instruments with this music, but such revolutionary sound soon became a barometer of just how modern an orchestra could be. Penderecki spoke of this search for new voicings on traditional instruments in a 2000 interview with Chicago musicologist Bruce Duffie:

You know, the problem for all composers, not only for me, is that we have to use instruments, which were built 300 years ago. The newest instrument in the orchestra, maybe, is the saxophone, but it’s over 100 years old now…. What can you expect after what we have done in the fifties and sixties with all the old instruments? Our experimenting with strings, using also some elements of electronics but not with electronic instruments, trying to transcribe the sound, which I heard in a studio and adapted for the instruments in Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It doesn’t sound like a string orchestra, but it is a string orchestra. If you go one step farther, you will destroy the instrument, of course. I almost did. [Laughter.] I remember in the sixties many orchestras went on strike and refused to play my music because I developed new techniques.

Penderecki’s music employed none of the sometimes-acerbic serialism of Schönberg, Berg and Webern, but went off in a new direction entirely, dissonant but not rigid in ideology, passionate and ferocious, yet with moments of a harsh lyricism that seemed to burst forth out of nowhere. Here is a performance of this landmark piece, the video displaying photos of the Enola Gay and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. While Penderecki never intended the music to be strictly programmatic, its painful wildness does eloquently reflect the tragedy of that terrible day. At 1:25 when the photo of “Little Boy” appears, there is a first hint of the percussive string sound that returns full force at 6:40. One minute after that, appears a photo of Penderecki:

The most extreme reaches of Penderecki’s early style, massed unison strings, tone clusters and microtones running amok in ferocious dissonant competition with an array of percussion devices, reaches its apex with the still early composition Polymorphia. Here is a YouTube video that captures the most disturbing dark suggestions of that music. The video artist Saki666Dark, whose other work on his own website you may not want to see, captures the heart of a haunted civilization awash in terror. After listening to this you are certain to recognize this composer’s work, even though you may not have previously known his name:

You may remember the unique sound of Penderecki’s music from film soundtracks as early as 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene presented here from The Shining is just one of many where Stanley Kubrick used compositions of Penderecki, rather than original score:

Here is another scene from The Shining that features Penderecki’s “The Dream of Jacob,” a composition from 1974:

The Shining uses six separate Penderecki compositions. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist employs at least five. David Lynch for Wild at Heart and Inland Empire chose other pieces. One of the most recent filmmakers to use Penderecki’s music is Alfonso Cuaron in Children of Men; he chose the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Penderecki has also composed original music for films, most notably Alain Resnais’ 1968 Je T’aime, Je T’aime. A review of his IMDB page will give you a more complete listing: Krzysztof Penderecki link

In an old interview Penderecki expressed his avowed goal as a composer this way: “All I’m interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition.” As an artist he has embraced no system or ideology. His music simply sounds like that of no other contemporary composer. Because he has avoided the tenets of the Second Viennese School, of Aleatory and Cagean composition, of electronic music, of the Minimalism of Riley, Glass and Reich, as well as the intellectual structures of Carter, Boulez and Wuorinen, he has been labeled with some validity, a maverick. And there is little doubt that the political and cultural isolation of Poland during and after WWII has enabled his entire generation to find their individual voices rather than adhering to an existing style. Here is a brief biography that will give you a sense of the political scene in Poland as Penderecki came of age: Penderecki biography link

It also provides one of the clearest explanations of Penderecki’s technical acumen:

Penderecki filled his works with dissonant threads, atonal melodies, microtones (quarter tones and three-quarter tones), and the quarter-tone cluster, in which notes are, grouped a quarter-step apart. He also juxtaposed highest and lowest possible notes and inserted moments of music with an indeterminate pitch. At times, the string section would emit eerie notes, produced by partial string vibrations that are known as whistling harmonics. Sirens, silences, and snapping fingers were also part of these early works.

But just a few years later there appeared the beginnings of a change in his compositions. A Stabat Mater that was later incorporated into his St. Luke Passion ended with a traditional major chord; it proved to be the start of an exploration of classical tonality. It was akin to an Indy race driver deciding to drive a Chevy off the showroom floor. This new direction became apparent when he began a parallel career as an orchestra conductor in 1971. Early on he concentrated mainly on his own works, but by 1974 he had included a broad range of compositions beyond his own. His concerts with international orchestras drew upon the standard, largely 19th century repertory; this established canon must have had some influence on his evolving ideas of a still untapped potential within the tradition of classical tonality. Here is an excerpt of Penderecki conducting part of the first movement of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony.” At 75, his energy is remarkable. He conducts without a baton and uses his left hand as much as his right, a singular style:

Concurrent with this plunge into tonality was Penderecki’s embrace of then out of favor classical form works such as the symphony and concerto. His Second Symphony from 1980, though modern in sound, was the beginning of an ongoing inquiry into the value of the classical symphony. He has now composed eight symphonies, one number short of those left to us by Beethoven, Dvorak, Bruckner, and Mahler. He has not yet indicated whether he will write a ninth symphony, a dangerous bridge to approach for any composer susceptible to the “Beethoven Curse.” Always prolific, Penderecki has composed concertos for cello, violin, viola, flute, clarinet, horn and piano, a distinctly retrograde venture into another traditional genre, but one that has thrilled its many soloist dedicatees. One of the most famous of these is cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich who played in the world premiere of Penderecki’s Sextet in June of 2002. Penderecki also has embraced chamber music in the last twenty years, and with considerable passion. Here is a rehearsal and discussion of the Sextet by its players, at the Musicverein Hall in Vienna. Penderecki is present, seen giving notes at the conclusion of the video:

Surprising to many listeners is that, in a sonic world that lends itself easily to dissonant scores in horror films, much of Penderecki’s music also reflects the deep convictions of faith of his Roman Catholicism. The history of post WWII Poland and its struggle for a return to democracy is inseparable from the role of the Catholic Church, even to the extent of their being a first Polish Pope. The Polish Requiem, completed in 1984 and commissioned by Solidarity and Lech Walesa, became a clarion for national identity and a testimony of the oppression and pain of the Polish people through most of the twentieth century. Here is an excerpt from the Dies Irae/Tuba Mirum section. It is from a 1988 television broadcast and both picture and sound quality are not first-rate. But it is amazing to see and hear what a stylistic transversal Penderecki has made from the early works.

Many of these choral works reflect Penderecki’s intense interest in vocal polyphony from the early sixteenth century. The first question Duffie asks him in the interview is: “What is it about the human voice that intrigues you?” Penderecki’s response is simple: “I think it’s the most beautiful instrument ever created.” In his constant search for “new instruments it is clear that Penderecki has found that the human voice with its extreme range and flexibility, especially as he merges it with traditional instruments, provides the most varied and complex sound imaginable, and it is always the “sound” that he seeks to discover.

The complete Duffie conversation with Penderecki can be found here:

Bruce Duffie interview with Penderecki link

Penderecki had long avoided composing a piano concerto as the shadows cast by Bartok, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich were long. He was working on a lighter piece, a Capriccio, when the World Trade Towers were struck. That same day he composed a deeply moving chorale theme and set about to revise the Capriccio. It grew into a profound lament on the tragedy, though he did not want it to be solely a threnody like his earlier work for the victims of Hiroshima. Here is what he has said about the origin of the work:

The conception of the concerto changed completely, I wrote a darker, more serious work. The title Resurrection should be understood in a wider, symbolic and universal context. It stems from the chorale that crowns the work and is a symbol of life's victory over death, of faith bringing consolation. I composed the chorale straight after the tragedy in New York. It was a purely human move, and at the same time a gesture of protest against cruelty.

He has revised the concerto a number of times. It is the most recent incarnation of the work that he conducted in Nashville with long-time collaborator Douglas Barry at the piano. It is an intensely emotional piece and is written on a symphonic scale, the piano part being first among equals in the Brahms mode. Perhaps this is a closeted ninth symphony. Here is a performance of the opening minutes of an earlier version than the one performed in Nashville:

Not many critics speak of Penderecki’s orchestration and tonal colors with the same reverence that they do of Ravel’s and Bartok’s, but in its far-flung daring it goes beyond even them in originality and audacity.

But it is this later revisionist style that has won him many new listeners and has alienated just as many modernists. They feel he has all but abandoned his early promise by embracing a shopworn school of tonality, however imaginative. My own feeling is that this is the kind of criticism that is always dished out by so-called “purists,” literalists who don’t feel an artist is free to develop and change as he matures in whatever way he finds compelling. Anyone who listens closely to Penderecki’s music of the past 35 years will discern still the legacy of that early sonic revolution of the late 50s and early 60s; it was made by a young “Turk” intoxicated with sound itself and with the potential of what yet unexploited sounds could be made by instruments that had been the mainstay of the Western musical canon for centuries.

Penderecki today.


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