Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1995

Poloneza czas zaczac:

Polish Music in Ann Arbor

Luke Howard graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Brigham Young University. He is currently a doctoral student in musicology at the University of Michigan, where his dissertation research focuses on Polish sacred music since 1956.

In early 1995 the University of Michigan School of Music, the University Musical Society and the Nicolaus Copernicus Endowment will co-sponsor a program of performance and study entitled "From Polonaise to Penderecki: Polish Music at the University of Michigan." This program will feature the music of Fryderyk Chopin, Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Henryk Gorecki. While the influence of Chopin's music and its position in the 19th-century repertoire is already firmly established, the contributions of these later composers to the development of music styles in the 20th century are not so clearly defined. In the post- World War II era these three composers have generated Polish music's reputation as vibrant and expressive, evocative and provocative. The Copernicus Music Program offers a timely opportunity to assess more fully the lasting impact each of these composers has made on the contemporary music scene.

In 1956, after a period of relative isolation from western music developments, Polish composers burst onto the international stage at the Warsaw Autumn Festivals of Contemporary Music. In many respects the new "Polish School" dominated the European avant-garde during the subsequent decade the UNESCO prize for contemporary composition was awarded to works by Polish composers eight times between 1959 and 1973. The objectifying distance of time will now enable us to more fully assess the impact these composers have made on the broader music scene. The death of Witold Lutoslawski in February 1994 and the recent phenomenal success of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symphony No. 3) have forced a reconsideration of both these men's music. Penderecki's works, meanwhile, can no longer lay claim to the labels of "avant-garde" or "contemporary." What was once new and fresh now belongs to a past generation, and this, of course, affects attitudes and responses to his music. We have reached a defining moment, a referential point from which to judge the development of modern Polish music in our own time, and to identify the direction it will take in the future.

The prominence enjoyed by Polish music over the last 40 years would not have been possible without the pioneering work of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937). It was Szymanowski who first incorporated the Polish cultural heritage into a modernist musical vocabulary. He can be credited with liberating Polish music from the predominantly Germanic and Romantic traditions of the late 19th century, and infusing it with a native aesthetic bearing - not so much in the political spirit of nationalism, but from a sense of artistic integrity to the culture. All Polish composers since Szymanowski partake of this legacy; for Lutoslawski, Penderecki, and Gorecki, in particular, their own Polishness profoundly affects their compositions.

Lutoslawski's music came to international attention in the late 1950s, along with the works of his associates, in the Warsaw Autumn Festivals. A generation older than the emerging Polish avant-garde, Lutoslawski was by this time an experienced and mature composer. His more traditional training, as well as his first-hand knowledge of prewar musical developments, resulted in a relatively conventional basis in his music, to which he added a selective and sparing use of avant-garde techniques, such as chance elements in Venetian Games (1961) and a concentration on musical texture and sonority in Les espaces du sommeil (1975). Lutoslawski's music has tended to reflect a more cosmopolitan aesthetic than either Penderecki's or Gorecki's. Perhaps this explains why, of the three, Lutoslawski's music holds a much firmer place in the standard repertoire of performing ensembles around the world.

The complexity and innovation in Krzysztof Penderecki's music has resulted in a greater degree of scholarly attention to his works than is given to the music of either Lutoslawski or Gorecki. Penderecki made a name for himself in the early 1960s as a young, innovative composer of highly dissonant works that challenged both performer and listener. His music called for new playing techniques and new methods of notation to produce unconventional sounds and textures that resulted in sometimes shocking yet powerful expressions. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961) combined these qualities with a strong political message, and was Penderecki's first international success. St. Luke's Passion (1965/66) and the Polish Requiem (1984), although sacred works, were also fed by a political impetus that, that combined with religiosity, inspired a substantial portion of Penderecki's compositions.

Henryk Gorecki's career began like Penderecki's - as an enfant terrible at the Warsaw Festivals, exploring new treatments of sound and texture in such works as Scontri (1960) and Genesis (1962). In the mid-1960s, however, Gorecki's musical style underwent a significant change, as he radically simplified his materials, and increasingly relied on quotation of folk and church melodies - a characteristic trait that continues in his music today. Although his early experimental works enjoyed a level of critical attention similar to Penderecki's, Gorecki fell into relative obscurity outside Poland during the 1970s and 1980s, due partially to ill-health, reluctance to travel far from his home town of Katowice, and the unavailability of high-quality recordings of his music. Gorecki's rise to unprecedented international prominence during 1993, through the London Sinfonietta-Dawn Upshaw recording of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is a welcome, yet enigmatic, phenomenon. International exposure to Gorecki's music, then, has been massively widespread, yet relatively recent and limited to basically one work.

The future directions of Polish music depends to a great extent on how the music public responds to recent events. The passing of Lutoslawski doubtless will influence people's reactions to his music. The death of a composer tends to either "canonize" the music into the repertoire, or bring about its gradual descent into musical oblivion as the composer is gradually forgotten. In either case, Lutoslawski's corpus of compositions is now finite, and for performing arts administrators and audiences alike, familiarity and predictability in the repertoire are strangely comforting, as well as commercially more viable.

Penderecki's early works are beginning to reach the age where they no longer fit the historical categories to which they once belonged. Groundbreaking milestones in modern music such as the Threnody and St. Luke's Passion can no longer be called "contemporary" when the compositions themselves are older than many of the people who now perform them. Will Penderecki's works, then, retain their significance for current and later generations, becoming true classics, or will they merely become museum pieces, meaningful only in the context of their original creation? It's a question whose answer will become increasingly significant in the near future.

It is difficult to predict what will be the lasting effect of Gorecki's current fame. Hopefully it will result in increased public and critical attention to his other works. Recent releases on CD of his earlier music such as the Beatus Vir (1979) and Lerchenmusik (1984) testify to broadening interest in his music beyond the fad response to the Symphony No. 3. Increased scholarly study of Gorecki's music is already evident, as well.

The vitality and richness of Polish music in the late 20th century and its prominence on the current musical scene would seem to assure its future. Yet much depends upon whether the individual successes of these three composers can be shared by others. One hopes that Lutoslawski's current firm place in the standard repertoire not only will last, but will extend to other Polish composers as well. One hopes that the scholarly attention given to Penderecki's music will lead to a wider critical interest in Polish music in general, and that the popular success enjoyed by Gorecki will be accorded his compatriots too. In addition to showcasing the current state of Polish music, the Copernicus Endowment's "From Polonaise to Penderecki" Composers Series endeavors to make these hopes a reality.

Luke B. Howard

Last update: April 28, 1995
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