Penderecki Threnody


Adam Mickiewicz Institute and present Penderecki 's Garden.


52 strings, eight minutes, 37 seconds, completed in 1960, K. Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima has become one of his most well known works, used even in the soundtracks of films by David Lynch, Wes Craven and Alfonso Quran. In this podcast, we explore its genesis, how its textures suggest an incomprehensible terror and sorrow, and its transition from abstraction to memorial.


As openings go Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima packs a punch. That opening strings fortissimo shriek - held, then its gradual dispersal into a seething swarm of Molto vibrato tremors and of glissandi sliding steadily upwards and downwards over the interval of a quartertone, whose sirenlike quality suggests electronic music more than it does a normal string instrument. Then the sudden barrage of pizzicato and percussive effects is arguably more a soundscape than a musical work. And it's not even just sonically that Threnody  is hitting you either. Visually, too - it's looking more like a work of abstract art or a diagram even than it is a musical score.


Each part opening by way of a blacked out fortissimo triangle, out of which is travelling a thick, hard, straight line, which further along the page begins to waver or wiggle at various speeds. Not a standard treble or bass Clef five line stave or normal looking note in sight, or at least not until page four. Also, no bar lines to speak of, just ghostly dotted lines that partition sections off into chunks measured in seconds.


And when the first percussive sounds are called for, they're denoted by further alien hieroglyphical markings. Markings that Penderecki himself had devised and which later would become part of the universally accepted graphic notational language.


No wonder then, that this was the work which catapulted the young Christoph Penderecki, still firmling in his 20s to international attention, leaping in quick succession from winning him third prize at a 1960  Composers competition in Katowice, to being broadcast the following spring by Radio Warsaw, to getting its public premiere that September at the Warsaw Autumn Festival and the same year scooping the Tribune International de Composite UNESCO prize in Paris.


And if you're looking for a nutshell encapsulation of exactly what it was about the work that captured the public imagination, then it would be hard to top the description proffered also in 1961 by the West German music critic - Carl H. Bruner who described it as a 'profoundly disturbing piece of apparently hopeless cataclysmic atmosphere in a highly individual technique of composition and instrumentation'.


So, how was this disturbing cataclysmic, highly individual work born?


Well, given that it sits so early on in Penderecki's career and stands as his breakthrough piece, it's worth going briefly back to his musical beginnings. Penderecki was born in 1933 in Southeastern Poland and grew up in a family that was both, devoutly Roman Catholic - in fact, both of his parents wanted him to go into the Church and full of keen amateur musicians. Penderecki himself played the violin and piano, although it was the violin that he loved.


Initially, though, he had no plans for a career in music. And it wasn't until 1954,  age 21 that he dropped his degree in art, literature, and philosophy at Krakoff University, enrolling instead as a composition student at Krakoff's State Academy of Music, where he came under the influence of the department's principal compensation teacher, Arthur Malawski, who, like Penderecki was a violinist. And who both encouraged, adventurousness and championed tradition.


Years later, Penderecki admiringly summed up Malawski's approach with these words that will become significant later on, as we delve further into Threnody's compositional approach. The general principles at the root of a work's musical style, the logic and economy of development, and the integrity of a musical experience embodied in the notes the composer is setting down on paper - never change.


The idea of good music means today exactly what it meant always.


One further very important Polish tradition that Penderecki would have been immersed in during these years as a composition student in Krakov, was that of colorism. Exploring expression through instrumental textures and colours as heard, for instance, in the early 20th century works of Carol Szymanowski. Here's the opening of Szymanowski's first fviolin Concerto to give you a flavour .


Back to Penderecki in 1954, though, and his switch to composition at this particular time meant that he was in pole position to benefit from an incredibly key moment in Poland's artistic history, namely the cultural thaw.


Now Poland, if you remember, had been under Soviet control since the end of the Second World War. Pushed firmly behind the Iron Curtain and if you want an illustration of just how profound the severing of contact with Western culture had been, Penderecki didn't hear Stravinsky's 'the rite of spring' for the first time until 1957.


However, as a result of the politics following the death of Stalin in 1953, the mid 50s saw Soviet grip on Polish life finally begin to ease. And as it did so, the Polish authorities decided that experimental and progressive art could be a powerful tool in repositioning Poland on the international stage.


And so in 1956, the year of the so called cultural thaw came a major moment. The launch of the aforementioned Warsaw Autumn Festival. Poland's largest international contemporary music festival, which suddenly allowed young Polish composers to hear and respond to Western music and for the West - to hear the music Poland was producing.


This new climate gave birth to what's been known as the new Polish school. Never a formal entity, and its composers were all very different to each other, but they did all share a common interest in sound and colour. And they employed Avantgarde techniques such as replacing traditional tonality and pitch relationships with coloristic blocks, clusters, rhythms, and special Sonic effects used by using normal instruments in unconventional ways. And because of all that - very Polish interest in sound and colour, it was a passionate music in a way that a lot of Western music at that time was less so.


Twelve tone composition, in particular was often seen as quite emotionally dry thanks to the focus it placed on the compositional process.


One further key addition to the Polish musical scene came in 1957 with the creation of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. This pioneered the first Polish electronic music producing incidental music for film, television, radio, and Theatre, but also original standalone pieces. And Penderecki became one of its composers. So now back to the young Penderecki, and in his student and early works we can hear him experimenting, as all these new musical styles and ideas entered his radar. His three miniatures for clarinet, for instance, a student work from 1958, [... BARTOK].


FAst forward to 1958 and his first choral work, Psalms of David, draws on Stravinsky and Shernberg, all be it also with the beginnings of a more personal voice.


1958 was also the year Penderecki graduated, although he instantly returned to the Academy as a teacher of counterpoint and composition alongside writing a journalistic column reporting on performances of new works and also lecturing at Krakow theological seminary.


Meanwhile, by this point his language was becoming more Avantgarde, and while he was still experimenting to find a personal sound, his music itself was beginning to no longer sound experimental.


And hand in hand with this, he was getting noticed. In 1959 he entered three new compositions in the second Youth competition of the Polish Composers Union in Warsaw, and all of them won prizes. Strophies composed that year for soprano, speaker and ten instruments won first. Psalms of David took second, as did another 1958 work, Emanations. And here you're really hearing Penderecki, the violinist composer. Testing the limits of the instrument whose sound production he knew most intimately. And in doing so, producing the beginnings of the language that made such an impact with Threnody because Emanations is scored for two string orchestras, tuned a semitone apart. And features devices such as cluster chords, wailing, glissandi, and quantilistic writing. That's themes comprised of isolated notes.


Even more impactful was Anaklasis of the following year. Score for 42 stringed instruments and percussion. This presented an even wider span of sonaristic colour. And was performed at West Germany's Don Auschingen Festival.


Threnody, though, took things up a considerable notch because this one was all about what one Orchestra of strings could do by itself, without the help of traditional percussion instruments. And the breadth and range of his sound palette here and its multilayers of nuance were strikingly new. Plus, crucially, all of these new technical innovations didn't detract from its emotional kick. They were responsible for it, which brings us back to that palpable feeling of incomprehensible, terror and sorrow and how exactly his textures achieved that.


Threnody is scored for 52 stringed instruments: 24 violins, which are mostly divided into four groups of six, then ten violas, ten cellos, and eight double basses, all of which are divided into two groups.


The first thing to say about the work is that some of its most arresting sounds are the result of the same skill that had been yielding powerful music for centuries. Namely, knowing the coloristic strengths of each individual orchestral section and how to use them to maximum effect.


For instance, that opening shriek...


...Is created by each instrument playing the very highest note that it's capable of. One with no definite pitch. And of course, that pitchless note will vary slightly from player to player, creating a slightly unstable tone. Later, he'll get his sections to play unison pitched notes, and these again will produce a very different effect, depending on the section. Sticking with the violins, a high register unison called from them sounds less like a scream and more like the feeling behind a scream. Sustained terror, if you like.


Back, though, to that opening cluster court and while nothing screams quite like a violin's highest possible note, if you want a thicker, more electronic sound, you're going to find that in the lower strings. So it's only when the double basses enter the fray that the first chillingly electronic siren-like calls first appear.


And indeed, the double bass had featured in Penderecki's sound experiments with friends of the Academy, even playing it in the bathroom apparently. Perhaps it was also at the Academy, or maybe at the Polish Radio Experimental studio that Penderecki also discovered that if you get any stringed instrument to slowly glissando up and down over the distance of a mere quartertone, it sounds very eerie. Or how chillingly siren-like a string section sounds if you get it to play a low register cluster chord of quarter tones and then fan that sound out, half the section glissandoing up and half the section glissandoing down before closing in again.


And it's also worth pointing out that while cluster chords were nothing new, it was much less common for them to be composed not just of semitones, but of quarter tones.


And while there's perhaps not so much of an increase in dissonance between a cluster of semitones and a cluster of quartertones, there is a change in density. So get a whole cello section to play a tonal cluster of quartertones and then slowly glissando upwards as a double bass section simultaneously presents its own tonal cluster of quarter tones and slides it downwards. That combination of width and density is highly impactful, an atomic cloud of sound.


Another key ingredient is the skill with which Penderecki handles his dynamics. Most obviously, perhaps there's the works many of dark dynamic contrasts, something that was very much a feature of Avantgarde writing. And the first time this powerfully comes into play is when that very first sustained forte pedal note suddenly drops down to a tiny PPP whisper that feels every bit as devastating.


Less obviously, there are his finer nuances, and perhaps none more so than the fact that the work's very first fortissimo scream drops down just a degree after its 1st 15 seconds to forte, at which level it then remains for a further 15 seconds. And the impression that creates is like the aftermath of the initial shock as the horror, the terror or whatever it is - beds in and becomes the new normal. Some might argue that that's more shocking or harrowing than the initial explosion had been.


Perhaps the next moment when the shock is of the type that jars the senses, though, is when the first brutal hailstorm of percussive and pizzicato effects is unleashed, where the players, one group at a time, are required to produce a virtuosically, fast succession of different sound techniques. Knocking on their instruments with their fingernails, or even the nuts of bows interspersed with short, sharp notes that are plucked and bowed in various unusual positions.


And the extended techniques really are something, with the strings being bowed in every place and from every possible angle. For instance, one of the most arresting sounds produced across the entire piece comes as the cellos via quantilistic stabs carry out a direction which calls for playing on the bridge by bowing on the wood of the bridge at a right angle at its right side. The result sounds uncannily like dogs barking.


So far so new. However, now think back to the fact that even developing in such an excitingly modern and experimental environment, Penderecki never lost his appreciation of musical tradition because what is just as interesting as all the brand new sounds is that while the last thing you're consciously registering upon first hearing of Threnody  is traditional genres and forms.


Listen in, take a closer look at the score, and you'll actually find that some of Penderecki's texture most powerful tricks are firmly rooted in the past.


It's just that he's translated them into new sonaristic techniques. So if you listen back to the very opening, you'll notice that another key element of that shrieking tonal clusters power is that it doesn't arrive as a tutti explosion.


Instead, the separate parts are entering one at a time. As if the initial terrified reaction to whatever it is doesn't come upon everybody all at once, but instead moves through the group gradually. And the musical device by which this is happening is a series of imitative entries of exactly the kind of here in the late 15th century cannons of the Franco Flemish school. And later Penderecki will be drawing on the polyphonic devices developed by twelve tone composers such as Schurnberg. For instance, a percussive 36 voice Cannon with its inversion.


Likewise, its rhythmic polyphony we're hearing then, as one by one, those initial longheld lines become either slowly rising and falling glassandi slides or Molto vibrato throbbings. And in doing so - become a massive tremors, moans and sirens further accentuated by the fact that Penderecki gives his players interpretational room for manoeuvre. He hasn't stipulated a speed at which every player's waiver has to happen.


Still, a runaway piece loses its audience, so all that bubbling cauldron of nastiness needs to be held together by something strong. And for this equally, Penderecki draws on tradition because despite the mood of chaos, this fiercely avantgarde work is in fact cast in good old ternary 'ABA' form. A simple Sonata form, even the opening cluster for a first theme, followed by a contrasting theme of angrily knocking percussion, then a central section, developing the percussive material in quantulistic textures, then the recapitulation, the re- appearance of that chord but now remixed, recalling the greater complexities of the central section.


In fact, you could even go so far to say that - while there's no tonality or key relationships to speak of, Penderecki is using his opening  cluster chord, much like he would a tonic home chord. Further balance in order comes from the fact that dynamics come in waves which rise and retreat with steady regularity. Likewise, the way pitch ascends and descends, the way textures widen and narrow, stabilise and explode, and the psychological effect all this rise and fall creates is largely whatever you feel it to be.


For some, it might be the continuous tension of never knowing when or where the axe might next fall. While others may find that it leads them to reflection. Either way, though, there's an emotional response.


So there you go. In composing Threnody, Penderecki opposed the strictures of Western European serialism, proposed in its place a compositional strategy which combined strictness with freedom and in doing so, created a musical language of such intense expression that when, in May 1961, it was broadcast on Radio Warsaw with Jan [...] conducting the great Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, it blew its first listeners away. Only at that point it wasn't called Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It was called Eight minutes, 37 seconds, as a nod to one of the most famous pieces of Western Avantgarde music, John Cage's four minutes, 33 seconds. Which subversively consists of four minutes, 33 of silence.


However, then came a name change because that same month of May 1961, the music director of the Polish Radio Roman [...] was going to Paris for the next annual session of the Tribune International desompositor UNESCO. And he planned to take his station's new recording of Penderecki's work with him. However, he wasn't convinced with its title. So shortly before leaving, he contacted Penderecki, and after a short deliberation, Penderecki renamed it Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, in which guides it went on to win the Tribune International Decompositor UNESCO Prize and then receive its official public premiere that September at the Water Autumn Festival. This time with Andres Makovsky conducting the Krakoff Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.


Now Threnody is hardly the first major classical work to be given a rename or nickname after its first performance, as a result of the mood that it's provoked in its listeners. Beethoven's Moonlight Piano Sonata, Tchaikovsky's, Pattitique Symphony Number six, Mozart's Jupiter Symphony. The list goes on.


More unusual is that with Threnody, which, by the way means lament, the renaming and dedication was done by Penderecki himself at the suggestion of somebody else. Something that a few composers had famously declined to do in the past. Take France Liszt, who had firmly resisted when his own programmatically potent 'B minor piano Sonata' was suggesting in the extra musical subtext to everybody else who heard it.


As for Penderecki, though he described it as a natural step once he'd heard it performed and had felt the emotions it evoked. 'I was struck by the emotional charge of the work', he said. 'I searched for associations, and in the end I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims'.


So the next question is, does it matter? Is Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima, any less of a tribute to and lament for the victims of Hiroshima? Because Penderecki only gave it that title and dedication afterwards.


Is hearing it a less moving experience with that knowledge? Was he even telling the truth? Was he really led by its emotional charge, or is it an emotional fake, rather than giving the world an anguished response to the suffering unleashed by the atomic bomb?


Was Penderecki instead capitalising on it? A cynical attempts to harnesses, undeniable emotional charge into creating the sort of popular success that perhaps would have alluded a piece whose original title was ultimately a pale imitation of a work that had hit international headlines almost a decade earlier?


Well, of course, one could argue most things both ways, but it seems much more likely that what Penderecki said in that interview is the truth. For starters, while he may have conceived the worker's abstract music, you cannot get away from the fact that what he ended up with does sound like an emotional reaction to something or a vision of a horrifying scene.


So if he was guilty of opportunism, it was the best sort. The realisation that perhaps his work could do some good.


And well he might, when his formative years had been played out with a ringside seat for some of the 20th century's most appalling war crimes and acts of violent oppression from the Jewish ghetto and all manner of summonary executions that his town had been the scene for during the Second World War. To the violent suppression of anticommunism activities that the postwar years had brought. Also, don't forget that the atomic bomb itself would have been burned onto his consciousness. The memory of how the Second World War horrors had been stopped by new horror. And the awareness that that new horror hadn't disappeared, it was merely lying dormant, capable of being used again.


In that context therefore, is it really any wonder that when Penderecki listened to his music and heard terror and horror translated into sound, or even if it was somebody else who suggested the name to him, why would he not take that connection on? Especially as listening to the work under the title of Eight Minutes 37 doesn't make it less emotionally powerful, but it does nevertheless detract from the listening experience because it's a cognitive dissonance of hearing such emotionally powerful sounds under such an abstract title.


So Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima.


One further quality touched on by this podcast's trailer, the fact that it occupies an artistic space and possesses a timelessness that has allowed it to transcend both decades and genre.


Alfonso Quran used it in Hydrostopian film 'Children of Men'. David Lynch used it in 'Twin Peaks' for a key sequence depicting a nuclear explosion. But perhaps even more interesting than it's used in film soundtracks is the way in which it's also captivated pop musicians. From the Manic Street preachers using a lengthy extract to open their song 'You Love US'...


... To Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood writing his own 34 String response to it - Popcorn Superhat Receiver.


Threnody continues to produce art as well as emotion. Further proof  - if anyone needed - of threnody's enduring relevance for modern times.


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 '