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ClassicsOnline Home » PENDERECKI, K.: Symphony No. 3 / Threnody (Polish National Radio Symphony, Wit)
International Record Review
By George Hall
BBC Music Magazine
By Peter Burwasser
Orchestral Works Vol.
Symphony No. 3;
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings
orchestra; De Natura Sonoris II for Orchestra
Penderecki was born in Dubica, a small town in Poland between Cracow and
L'vov, and studied at Cracow Academy of Music and the Jagiellonian University.
He first showed himself to be a composer of enormous talent and bold
imagination at the Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1959 and 1960.
Penderecki quickly became part of the European avant-garde, achieving
fame with his Threnody (1960) and a number of other pieces, in which he
imparted a keen expressivity to his then 'sonorist' musical language. The St
Luke Passion (1963-5) proved how successful this expressive sonorism could
be in sacred music. He continued to be as inspired by timeless religious themes
as by humanism. His cantatas, oratorios and dramatic compositions, performed
all around the world, include Dies Irae (1967), Devils of Loudun (1969),
Cosmogony (1970), Utrenya (1970-71), Canticum Canticorum (1973)
and Magnificat (1974).
Looking back, Penderecki explained his great stylistic shift: 'The
avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world of
Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the
aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – a
liberation. It opened a new reality, a new vision of art and of the world. I
was quick to realise, however, that this novelty, this experimentation and
formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the
In the mid-1970s, this involvement with tradition became deeper, when
Penderecki entered into a dialogue with music he 'rediscovered' for himself. He
internalised the post-Romantic tradition and combined it with the technical
achievements of his earlier music. Major works written in this new style soon
followed: concertos for violin (1976), cello (1982) and viola (1983), Symphony
No. 2 'Christmas' (1980), the opera Paradise Lost (1978), Te
Deum (1980) and Polish Requiem (1980-84).
Further formal and stylistic investigations led Penderecki to foreswear
post-Romanticism, in favour of a new approach to the synthesis of the modern
with the traditional. This inspired operas of such stylistic diversity as the
expressionist Black Mask (1986) and the post-modern Ubu Rex (1991).
The composer advocated the need for 'unifying all that has been' to create a
synthetic and universal language. 'What I have been doing,' he said in an
interview of 1997, 'has been to collect and to transform the experience of the
entire century.' Compositions drawing on this new musical aesthetic included Symphonies
Nos. 3 (1988-95), 4 (1989) and 5 (1992); concertos for flute (1993) and violin
(No. 2, 1995) and, most importantly, the oratorios Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996)
and Credo (1998). This last synthesis is associated with a condensed
expression and a limited, purified array of technical means. 'Today, having
gone through the post-Romantic lesson, and having exhausted the potential of
postmodern thinking, I see my artistic ideal in 'claritas' (1997).
The appearance of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshimo was a
major event. The piece contained previously unheard means of powerful
expression – explosive and liberating. By employing both known and unknown
modes of articulation, Penderecki made strings sound akin to percussion and
wind. He drew on two contrasting compositional techniques: the extreme freedom
of aleatoricism and the exacting one of serialism.
The series of sonorist events opens unexpectedly with a poignant cry in
the highest possible register. It ushers in an orgy of hissing, 'noise' and
rasps, played in all possible ways. The music intensifies with series of
clusters, subdued at first, then glissando aggressive and rising. After
a while, they recede before a sequence of pointillistically-scattered sounds
which, despite sounding improvised, are intricately woven into a 36-voice
canon. The streams of clusters return, rising to the full 52 voices – first in
a cry, then dying down to pppp.
'I had written this piece,' the composer once reminisced, 'and I named
it, much as in Cage's manner, 8'37". But it existed only in my
imagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Ian Krenz recorded it and I could
listen to an actual performance, I was struck with the emotional charge of the
work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those
'digits'. I searched for associations and, in
Fluorescences for orchestra (1961) was written a year after Threnody
and almost immediately after Polymorphia, as a continuation of his
experiments with sound. Yet in Fluorescences he goes towards – even
beyond – the boundaries of sonorism' s potential. He did this in two ways:
first, he augmented his forces to a full orchestra, with quadruple wind and
brass and, above all a percussion section of vast dimensions: 32 instruments
for six players. Secondly, he expanded the repertoire of the orchestra with a
series of 'instruments' worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch. Unconventional ways of
playing conventional instruments, such as the percussive use of strings,
playing the interior of the piano or mouthpieces, were evidently not enough for
Penderecki. He thus employed instruments such as an alarm siren and flexatone,
pieces of wood, tin and glass, Swiss cowbells, Mexican guiros, Javanese gongs and
a typewriter. One might say that Penderecki penetrated beyond the sphere of
musical 'sound', into that of purely acoustic phenomena known from the modern
world at large.
Listening to Fluorescences
is a fascinating adventure. At first, one is shocked by the explosion of
sound described by W. Schwinger as 'radically cruel' (1994). Their expressive
force is heightened by a use of extreme dynamic contrasts as well as of colour.
One is soon drawn into the endless display of sonorist snapshots, much in the manner
of 'avant la lettre' video clips. The greatest surprise comes towards the
piece's apex: the orgy of sound, more akin to chaos than music, recedes before
a single note – a pure C, presented by all instruments and in all possible
ways. The coda reverts to the previous variety of sound.
Penderecki composed Fluorescences
for the Donaueschingen Contemporary Music Festival of 1962. Its
performance, by the South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans
Rosbaud, was received as an artistic provocation, which might have been the
exact function of the work. As the composer wrote in the concert programme: 'In
this composition, all I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond all
De Natura Sonoris
II for orchestra (1971), an
orchestra miniature, alludes to apiece written five years before, De Natura
Sonoris I (1966), though it is wholly different. It takes a restrained
approach towards pure-sound experimentation, with an aloofness from easy and
crude effects. Written for a notably limited orchestra – no woodwind or
trumpets, few percussion – it seems to favour subtler tones and colours. While
its predecessor seems to be painted with sound, a somewhat lurid 'still life',
the second could be described as a 'sonorist narration'.
It begins mysteriously,
with the lingering, plaintive voice – perdendosi – of two particular
instruments: flûte à coulisse (piston flute) and musical saw, in
combination with the sound of the violas. These sounds return to end the piece:
in-between, string clusters and blocks of brass present a musical soundscape
that rises and falls. A magnificent, inevitable climax occurs, followed by a
calm decline to the final niente. In this music, one feels the presence
not of a sorcerer's apprentice, but of the great master.
Symphony No. 3
(1988-95) is the work of a mature mind, construed slowly and painstakingly.
'I've been writing my Third Symphony for seven years,' Penderecki said
in an interview. 'Two movements were written in 1988 and performed at the
festival in Lucerne as a separate piece, Passacaglia and Rondo. But
I've known all along it was going to be a symphony. (…) It's just that my ideas
take a long time to mature' (1997).
As early as its
initial outline, the work was to consist of five movements: an Introduction,
Scherzo, Passacaglia, Adagio, and closing Rondo. Only their order
was modified in the final version. In 1995, Penderecki composed the first three
movements, using the two written in 1988 to conclude the whole.
1. Andante con moto
is an indication of what is to come. Low strings obstinately beat a
memento-like motif, a sound at a time. Strings take off in a series of minor
seconds, only to stop on an outlandish chord.
2. Allegro con brio
functions as Act One of this symphonic drama. Timpani and strings enter
violently with a motive of Beethovenian aplomb, one that will dominate the
entire Allegro. There is a tension-packed interplay of the full
orchestra and a series of great solo cadenzas. Alarming, contemplative,
then lamenting sounds from the trumpets and violas periodically restrain this
constant gallop. An episode filled with the sounds of the tom-tom, roto-tom and
bongo betrays, in its dry, diabolic tone, the proximity of The Black Mask.
3. Adagio is a
particularly beautiful movement. Its music is contemplative, lyrical,
nostalgic. Strings – then horn, flute and piccolo – sing a ceaseless song,
reminiscing on the past. For a moment the orchestra explodes violently, only to
recede into the mood of a marcia funebre. Yet the initial song recurs,
leading to a euphonic apotheosis, possibly with metaphysical connotations.
4. Passacaglia interrupts
the contemplative mood with a vengeance. It evokes the aura of an antique
tragedy, severe and ominous. Low strings reiterate the note D obstinately,
obsessively – straining the listener's attention to its very limits. The theme,
built of highly specific intervals – ninths and tritones – finds it
increasingly difficult to break through the growing denseness of sound, which
gradually builds into a tumult, a shriek. Then – silence, followed by the
'call' of the bass trumpet, the plaintive English horn, and the subdued cantabile
of seven cellos.
5. Scherzo – Vivace
is built on continual movement, on the obsessive repetition of a single,
primal motive. It has a spirit and form not unlike that of Beethoven's last Scherzos,
and much of the temperament of Mahler's symphonies, or of Goya's Caprichos.
Some of its passages remind one of a witches' Sabbath, or a danse
macabre. This frenzied moto perpetuo is arrested twice, giving way
to episodes which, in their sparer texture, echo a traditional trio. The
first of these, is a dialogue of winds, grazioso and scherzando. The
second, dominated by the dark colouring of low instruments and gestures from
the tom-tom and xylophone, once again ushers in the demoniac aura of The
Black Mask. A powerful coda ends the symphony with truly Beethovenian
In his Third
Symphony, Penderecki has produced a work consciously related to the great
symphonies of the past century, yet clearly of the present era. Alternately
moving, shocking and enthralling, it is among the most eminent pieces of the
genre at the close of the century.
adaptation by Jan Rybicki and Richard Whitehouse
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PENDERECKI, K.: Symphony No. 3 / Threnody (Polish ...