Penderecki Brigade


Adam Mickiewicz Institute and present Panderencik's Garden.


On the 8th September 1939, when Christoph Penderecki was just a few weeks shy of his 6th birthday, German forces took control of his hometown of Dębica with its majority Jewish population. Between then and the liquidation of the Dębica Ghetto in 1943, the young Penderecki has to witness the Nazi regime's systematic intimidation, segregation, and extermination of Europe's Jews as it played out literally on his own doorstep. 20 years later, he took Leon Villitzka's Holocaust memoir - 'Brigade of Death', and constructed a work for narrator and electronics, which, following its premiere, would not be performed again until 2011.


I'm music journalist Charlotte Gardner and reflecting on a painful history in this podcast, I explore 'Brigade of Death' and the reactions of different generations of listeners to Penderecki's work.


How do you create a musical work that marries the impression of terror, tension, fatigue, selfpreserving, emotional shutdown, monotony with unflinchingly real description of some of the worst acts of barbarism ever committed by one group of human beings against another?


Should you create it at all?


And if you should, then when?


These are questions that composers had to grapple with en masse during the 20th century in a way that no previous generation of composers had ever had to do. And it could be argued that either consciously or subconsciously, those thoughts crept into 20th century musical style. Certainly in his musical history of the 20th century, the rest is noise. New Yorker critic Alex Ross identifies one of the last century's dominant strains as being what he terms 'catastrophic style', a dissonant, often brutally violent language that appeared to reflect rather than reject or transcend, the horrors of what Leonard Bernstein aptly called 'the Century of Death'.


Christoph Penderecki's avantgarde music of the late 1950s and early 60s very much fits into that catastrophic category, with its highly dissonant twelve tone harmony and quartertone heavy tonal clusters, its fierce extremes of dynamic, violent percussive techniques, and darkly unsettling sound effects that often didn't sound as though traditional instruments were making them at all, although they were. And indeed, decades later, when he moved on to a much more easily palatable neoromatic language, Penderecki would comment that he wrote the music he did because of when he lived. So while Penderecki's conscious personal mission during that period was simply to explore the possibilities of sound production, there's nothing abstract or academic about the emotional kick those works nevertheless had. Even when the actual title sounded purely intellectual and emotionally neutral.


'Emanations', for instance, or 'Anaclassis'. This was something that Pandoretsky himself recognised and then harnessed in 1960, when, after hearing the impression of apocalyptic horror conveyed by work, he had simply titled 'Eight Minutes and 37 Seconds', he renamed it 'Threnody' or 'Lament to the Victims of Hiroshima', under which title it launched his international reputation as a composer whose brand of experimental, passionate sonorism was a language tailormade for responding to horrifying world events in a manner that hit home.


'Threnody' really did make him an instant hero of Poland's Avantgarde movement. In international terms, his works were being performed as far afield as Japan and America. Meanwhile, back at home, not only did the concert performances continue a pace, but there was also a burgeoning career in incidental music for theatre and radio, much of which came through his work at the newly established Polish Radio Experimental Studio, where a progressive band of composers and engineers were exploring the possibilities of electronic sound production.


So when in 1964, Polish radio were commissioning a radio play with music to mark 20 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp, Penderecki was an obvious choice. Not just the Polish Avantgarde's hottest new international name for his attentiongrabbingly emotive sounds, but also an experienced and widely admired creator of incidental music. The Holocaust, however, was personal to Penderecki to a degree that Hiroshima was not. Born in 1933. Penderecki had grown up in the southeastern Polish town of Dębica. During the interwar years, Dębica was home to a majority Jewish population, around two thirds of the town's inhabitants.


So although Penderecki's own family were not Jewish, their town centre home was surrounded by Jewish homes and Jewish playmates. Also, of course, Jewish culture and in later life it was this early musical backdrop that he attributed the many Jewish references heard in his own music over the course of his career. Such as the Klezmer echoes heard in two works from the year 2000, The Sextette and his Concerto Grosso. When Nazi forces marched into their town in 1939, though that physical and social proximity meant that the horrors wreaked upon its Jewish community happened quite literally outside the Penderecki's own back door. First came the intimidations, the requisitioning of property and abductions. Then came the creation of closed ghetto, the executions and the deportations.


The Pendereckis themselves were also moved. When the Ministry of Health based itself in the town banking house below their apartment, they were moved to a house whose Jewish owners had been ejected. Years later, in an interview, Penderecki said:  "I saw what really happened to the people there. They were my colleagues. We played together. Then one day the ghetto was made. They were living there for a couple of months, and then they were sent to Auschwitz. Or I don't know where. Being very young, you never forget. So I think that I had to write music first of all, to say which side I am on."


In 1958, Penderecki used his very first choral work from the Psalms of David to say which side he was on. The 1964 Commission from Polish Radio, though, gave him the opportunity to make a musical statement on a whole other level. The text his music was to accompany was fragments of a Journal written during the Second World War by Leon Weliczker, an 18 year old Jewish prisoner who had been coopted into a Sonderkommando or special unit that was tasked with the raising all traces of a mass murder carried out by Nazi forces in Poland at the Janowska concentration camp by unearthing and then burning the body of the victims.


Weliczker had been one of the few who later managed to escape preserving his Journal as he did so, and the extracts selected from it for Polish radio are a very hard read. Even today. A full account of what Weliczker heard, saw and was made to do with the exhumation and eraser process chronicled in the most graphic detail. He explains the tools and technique required to remove a decomposing body from a mass grave in one piece without it falling to pieces. The practical and physical difficulties encountered during this process, such as the difficulty of keeping a hold of the corpse's slippery hands, which kept sliding from the workers grasps. About the process of burning the bodies, then of sifting and grinding into powder the bone fragments that survive the flames, about their provisions, which were eaten, using bodies as makeshift benches, about the arbitrary executions of unit members, the crying children in the neighbouring cell at nighttime.


It ends with the most distressing account of all. Mothers and children being made to stand naked next to the fire, ready to be executed, a frightened child refusing to be undressed by its mother, a soldier yanking away from his hands, picking it up from his feet, smashing it against a tree and throwing it into the flames. Half an hour of this content, and while Weliczker details all this mostly in a language that's dispassionately factual - slight structure provided by rhythmic repetition of the routines that marked the start and close of each day - this, in fact, adds to its power. His text is pervaded by a sense of all feelings being pushed right down in a bid to mentally survive.


One wonders what feelings Penderecki would have had reading this with his own personal memories. Although perhaps the answer to that question lies in what he created.


The eventual work 'Brigade of Death' was completed in 1963, 30 minutes in length. It combined narration by the prominent Polish actor Tadeusz Łomnicki with taped music, manipulated orchestral and electronic sounds that Penderecki had created in the experimental studio in collaboration with sound engineer Eugeniusz Rudnik. The orchestral element of this had been performed by the Kraków Radio Orchestra, conducted by Penderecki. As for genre, it's a very hard work to categorise. Ostensibly, it's a radio play or monologue with incidental music, only it sounds much more than that because of the way in which Penderecki's sounds by turns, colour, punctuate, or attack Łomnicki's words.


Essentially, narration and incidental music and effects are so tightly interjoined that they are one. It's impossible to extricate one from the other. So Penderecki's own description of it as a radio piece sounds about as spot on as it's possible to be. As for emotional effect, its power is overwhelming. To open a sudden electronic heartbeat, the one you heard at the start of the podcast. At first, steady but becoming nervous, jumpy. We have to wait a full minute for Łomnicki's voice to enter, which eventually it does in such a soft [...] whisper that it's barely audible as Weliczker stands exhausted in line at the end of a day's work, surrounded by bodies, wondering whether he is about to be shot or marched back to the barracks in order to do it all again tomorrow.


The text you're about to hear reads in English. We stand among the corpses, foot to foot among the blood clots. We are waiting, not knowing if it is for death, or perhaps today for the return to the death prison where we will sleep tonight, like the three brigades ahead of us.


The text continues. Our [...] reports the condition of the people. There are 42 of us here. Rex, UM, everyone turns clockwise. However, this turning does not proceed as smoothly as in the camp because our movement is impeded by the corpses among which we're standing.


And from here it's a relentlessly, devastating half hour. First, because of Łomnicki's crystal clear delivery. Often this delivery comes at a gentle voice, medium volume, with a factually informative tone corresponding to the factual tone of the text itself. However, he also works a dynamic range as wide and at times as contrasting as that of Penderecki's music. Later, for instance, he'll fire a rasping German voice into his text like a Sforzando bullet. Speed is also used, cleverly, accelerating or slowing to create a mood. Then there's Penderecki's mix of instrumental and electronic sounds, murmurs, screams, sirens, some clearly electronic. Other times clearly instruments echoing some of the apocalyptic sounds heard in 'Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima', such as glissando in cluster chords.


Sometimes the sounds are so far in the background that you can't even put a finger on what the noise actually is. Other times it's centre stage filling your head. There's a stark simplicity to it all. Often less is more. And silence is as much a part of his armoury as actual sound is. For example, about four or so minutes in the narrator describes the prisoners carrying the dead bodies to the fire with a tally being kept as each is thrown into the flames. Translated, the narration will read:


"The corpses are called figures. Throwing in the dead you go right up to the fire. Everyone working on this job has blackened hands, face, hair. Putting one corpse in the fire. He runs quickly for the other, for to walk, even with a quick pace, is dangerous. Everyone is afraid to hear the wellknown, 'Come on, why is the work going so slowly'?"


As for the sonic landscape behind all this, it's been very hard to make out up until this point. It sounded like the rumble of a machine or a furnace, probably electronic. But over this section, as the voice gradually speeds up, you gradually realise there are now cluster chords of lower strings, in the electronic mix, too glissandoing up and down.


And from here on it's all unmistakably from the same composer who also gave us the tense maelstrom of shrieks and sirens heard at the opening to threnody. After another few seconds you begin to discern a whispered, sustained shriek from upper strings, sounded as high as their instruments can reach.


A crescendo is now happening.


A real siren sound emerges with low strings, creating their own siren effect, sounding upwards, glissandos in their own highest registers, and when the voice stops, the crescendo continues. The upper strings now a teeming swarm of Molto vibrato tremors and wavering glassandi as the lower sirens continue until the overall pitch rises to rest. If that's the right word on a tense scream of white noise. Before abruptly cutting off.


Another key moment comes when a new 19 year old prisoner, Marek, liked by everybody, including the camp guards and thus considered a lucky man by his fellow prisoners, is suddenly singled out for summary execution by a junior officer. As the officer barks: "Komm, komm" Penderecki's blaring emergency electronic sound waves and violent cacophony of Strangler Sandy percussive and pits Cartoo effects and angry brass calls come out of nowhere, actually interrupting the narrative. And this is before Marek is even harmed.


Penderecki's sounds are a representation not of the deed to come, but of the shocked mental state of both Marek and of the rest of the prisoners as they realise that if even Marek isn't safe, then nobody is.


Then when, after a brief silence, Weliczker resumes his conversational thread to describe how the execution actually takes place, the event is related simply, concisely, with no obvious emotion and with no background sound to his words. So it's not programmatic music in any sense. As Penderecki's sound engineer Eugeniusz Rudnik commented: "Penderecki's greatness is that we managed to resist the temptation of naturalism and didn't show skulls cracking open in a roaring fire."


The author's text is multiplied ever so subtly, intelligently and delicately. Perhaps Penderecki's and Rudnik's most delicate treatment of all is how they deal with a section where, in upsettingly meticulous detail, the text describes how the burned bones that can't yet pass through a sieve are made to disappear by being smashed by hand, as fine as luxurious flower in Weliczker's own words. While simultaneously the plundering continues, with any valuable gold or platinum fragments collected separately. The narrator's clear voice dies away, and that upsetting text is instead delivered via multiple overlaid whispers.


A month before the radio premiere in January 1964, Polish music publishers organised for 'Brigade of Death' to be given a live prepremier performance in the Chamber Hall of the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, in which Tadeusz Łomnicki would narrate live to the recorded tape.


Now, regardless of subject matter, the musical context of such an event was an interesting one because a lecture acoustic music was a relatively new phenomenon in Poland, and one which the Polish critical and musicological press was struggling to either be interested in or to take seriously.


This wasn't because the right efforts weren't being made either or because the names being dangled in front of them weren't big enough. The aforementioned Polish radio experimental studio had been founded in 1957, only a year after the cultural saw and the launch of Poland's new International Festival of Contemporary Music, 'Warsaw Autumn Festival '. Warsaw Autumn has then done its best to educate and excite Poland about electronic music's possibilities. So for its 1958 edition, it had invited Carl Heinz Stockhouse, in no less one of the key music technology figures of the Darmstadt school, to deliver an illustrated lecture on electronic music.


And from that moment, the festival was presenting electroacoustic compositions annually. Including in 1957, Poland's own first independent electroacoustic piece, Włodzimierz Kotoński's, a study for one symbol stroke, which barely got a mention in the critical press. Likewise, the critical press largely ignored electroacoustical festival performances that followed from the lights of Penderecki himself and Italian avantgardist Luigi Nono. Even while the audience figures for these concerts suggested that the general public, at least was fascinated.


However, neither critical indifference nor being ignored entirely were fates that were about to befall 'Brigade of Death'. The audience in the Chamber Hall that night left in silence. Stunned. Then came the views of the press. In a critique titled 'Misunderstanding', the composer Zygmunt Mycielski, editor-in-chief of Poland's main musical publication, 'Ruch muzyczny', stated that it had been a mistake first to present such a text to the Polish public at all, and then further mistake to set it to music. He wrote, I am surprised that an artist of Penderecki's standing would mix a realistic document with an attempt at creating an acoustic framework that immediately suggests a work of art.


Art ends where genuine realism begins. The writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz went further attacking the quality of the music, too. For him, it was a questionable declamation accompanied by questionable music. The radio play itself terrifying in its barbarity and exceeding all endurance. He declared that presented before an audience seated on comfortable chairs in the warm concert hall, the work seemed to play to the worst human instincts. He suggested that with 'Brigade of Death', Penderecki had crossed the line between emotion and brutal barbarism at a time when he should have been more sensitive to Polish sensibilities.


Even the concert organiser, the director of Polish music publishers, Tadeusz Ochlewski, said his organisation shouldn't have programmed it. Although he did staunchly defend the work's actual quality. The visual presentation was also criticised because the performance had taken place with special effects created by two lights mounted on stage. One red and one blue.


Now, in the wider context of electro-acoustical performance, you can see why they did that. This was still a new genre, and it had been noted at the Autumn Festival that audiences didn't know what to do when sitting in a hall with nothing to look at, beyond a pair of speakers with no further tools to wait for reception and understanding of these strange new sounds.


So you can see why the lights might have felt like a helpful addition. However, in the event, they seemed to have added to the distress and impression of insensitivity.


The result of this backlash was that the scheduled radio production didn't happen. Penderecki withdrew the Peace from circulation, and it wasn't performed live in public again for 47 years. Although it did eventually make it to radio broadcast in 1996.


It's not hard to understand how distressing that half hour must have been for that Warsaw audience. Perhaps it's slightly harder for modern mindsets to understand why the peace was also severemently denounced and rejected. However, time and place are everything.


Regarding the latter for the majority of the people in that concert hall in 1964, the events described in Leon Weliczker's journal had happened on their very own home soil. They would have felt, to varying degrees personally connected to what had gone on. And for some people, it was all still too difficult to talk about.


Regarding the former, 20 years may seem like a significant chunk of time to have passed. Enough of a gap to be able to approach the topic with a bit of emotional distance. But consider again the audience's physical proximity to the events, in the context of how fresh the memories of 9/11 still are to us. Again, 20 years on for anyone who is old enough to have watched that day unfold.


What is more, some people were still coming to terms with the extent of the atrocities. It had only been three years previously that the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the key masterminds of the Holocaust, had taken place in Jerusalem. This had been one of the first trials to be widely televised, and with its many eye witness statements, including from Jewish ghetto survivors, it had represented a pivotal moment in international Holocaust awareness. And a pivotal moment in society talking about it.


Really, though, the issue with 'Brigade of Death' was the text. Often an artistic response to a horrific event. Won't exactly sanitise a subject, but it might present it through a semi-imagined or stylized framework that allows an audience to approach and process it from a position at least of distance.


'Brigade of Death', though, was a verbatim lifting of raw text from a deeply traumatic, genuine historical document. There was nothing distant or sanitised about it. All about Penderecki's treatment of it with his own catastrophic musical language.


In fact, if anything, Penderecki's treatment of the text accentuated its horror. A pertinent comparison would be the Holocaust themed cantata written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947. A survivor from Warsaw. This, too, features a spoken narrative, and its musical language is a violent twelve tone one.


"I cannot remember everything. I must have been unconscious most of the time"


But it's also clearly a work of art.  Schernberg's vision of the Warsaw ghetto was an imagined one, designed for emotional effect and to make his point. For instance, his text talks of gas chambers, of which there were none in the Warsaw ghetto. Perhaps it also helped that a survivor from Warsaw's first audience was an international one. Its premiere taking place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after which its European premiere took place in Paris in 1949. Compare that to the domestic audience that January 1964 in Warsaw.


It wasn't even the multinational crowd that descended upon the city each September for the Autumn Festival.


Still, Penderecki himself later stated that: "In the generation of people who survived the war, someone had to write such a piece."


And while it's fair to say that arriving as it did in 1964, 'Brigade of Death' was appearing at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong public, it was also unfair in 1964 to say that, objectively speaking, it wasn't any good on a compositional level. As we've heard it was. It is. And if it weren't, it wouldn't have had the effect that it had on its first audience.


And what happened next makes that point eloquently. Firstly, because following 'Brigade of Death', not only was Penderecki not done with a Holocaust, but the world was not done with commissioning Holocaust themed works from him. As early as 1967 came his short oratorio 'Dies irae' or 'Auschwitz oratorio' commissioned for the international inauguration ceremony of the Memorial to the murdered victims at Auschwitz Birkenau. Holocaust events are also marked in the 'Polish Requiem' he completed in 2005. In 2009, his four movement cantata, 'Kadish' commemorated the 65th anniversary of the liquidation of the  Litzmannstadt Ghetto, drawing on the writings of Auschwitz victim Abraham Citron.


Meanwhile, Penderecki hadn't forgotten 'Brigade of Death' either.


In 2004 he announced that he was looking at the piece again himself.


"Of course, it can irritate and upset", he mused. "But I listened to it in cold blood after so many years, and I think it is a very good piece, but the timing required a distance. Of course, it works like hitting the head with a hammer, but it couldn't be avoided. That's what I meant."


Then, in 2011 it was revived by the 'Autumn Festival', which that year was running as one of its key themes, music and reality, the art of engagement with other topics covered, including the trafficking of Eastern European women to the West. This time the work was billed as an extraordinary piece and one of the festival's key events, and that was what it ended up being.


As before the performance took place in the Chamber Hall of the National Philharmonic. Equally as before, it was met with complete silence. Unlike before, though, there were no spotlights and it was met with a claim.


One critic singled it out as one of the festival's most impressive moments. Going on to say: "It's the word that's key here, and the sound perfectly emphasises it. Heightens the mood and has its own genuine artistic value. All at the same time. Another writer commented: "It must be admitted that despite the passage of time, this text has not lost an extraordinarily devastating power."


A blogger commented: "In the context of so many different radio plays, TV programmes, or historical reenactments, all of varying degrees of garishness or sentimentality, 'Brigade of Death' gives the impression of something very pure and sincere. Penderecki recalls feeling the need to create something like this, and I believe him. I never expected that a radio play from 50 years ago would end up being the greatest event of this year's political Warsaw Autumn".


And that's it as the years and generations have rolled by and as today, we endeavour to hold on to the lessons of the past by never forgetting. The value of this harrowing peace has, if anything, intensified. Because of the fact that its power to shock and upset remain undimmed by the passage of time.


Even in the context of the many documentaries and films that most of us will have seen. In fact, to bring the 20th century reactions to the work right up to the present day, I'm actually going to briefly take this podcast into the first person. To say that of all the hours I've spent with Penderecki's music for this podcast series, this one has been the hardest one.


Reading that script over and over. Listening to Penderecki's treatment of it, it never got easier, ever. Even upon repeated listening.


Timing is everything. And 60 years on from its premiere, one feels that this now should be 'Brigade of Death's' time, lest we forget.


This episode of Penderecki's Garden podcasts was hosted by me - Charlotte Gardner. The show is brought to you by, the flagship brand of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, financed by the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport of the Republic of Poland as part of the multi-annual programme 'Niepodległa 2017 to 2022". Remember to subscribe and help us to promote the show by telling your friends about it.


And if you would like to listen to more records of Christoph Penderecki or read interesting facts about his life and work, take a walk in digital Penderecki'