NATIONHOOD- what it means to be Polish, how political events are mirrored or challenged in music, position of the artist in relation to government
Work: Polish Requiem
Penderecki – Polish Requiem: Introitus, opening 40s secs music alone, then fade down and run as bed until silence towards end of speech
Hello – and welcome to an exploration of one of the big names of modern CM, and the country he came from – his name? KP. The country? Poland. And across 5 episodes with me JP, we’ll explore not just 5 KEY Pieces – a starting point if you’re new to his music - but also HOW his work is part of a deep, varied and often traumatic national history. So this is part listening guide, part biography - part Polish, part WORLD… history.
In this episode – we’ll explore Penderecki and Nationhood, with the help of his Polish Requiem…
Penderecki – Polish Requiem: Quid Sum Miser, opening 30 secs then slow fade
How long do you think it takes to write a piece of music? For Mozart, he could write an overture for an opera in a single night. The likes of Schubert and IB wrote at least one song every single day. Penderecki’s Polish Requiem…. is on another scale altogether. He composed it across 30 YEARS, expanding and revising. He started it in the early 1980s, at a crucial time in Poland’s modern history – and so the PR becomes a staggering chart, a musical diary, of a country’s evolution…
Penderecki – Polish Requiem: Dies Irae, opening 15 secs instrumental then fade with voices entry
HOW IT CAME ABOUT
A Dies Irae is a Day of Wrath – and Pend’s Polish Requiem certainly grew at a time of deep anxiety and tension, which often boiled into outright violence. You can hear that in the music.
At the start, Pend didn’t plan to write a whole requiem. It began as a commission by Solidarity, the trade union founded in 1980. It soon had more than 10 MILLION members. It was a massive political force. This was at a time when Poland was still part of the Soviet Bloc, run by a Communist satellite government. Poland was very much a one-party state.
So, approached by a group like Solidarity - KP’s was going to have to plant his flag on one side of the divide. Solidarity had asked Pend to write a piece to accompany the unveiling of a statue – the statue would commemorate those killed in ANTI-government RIOTS 10y before. Penderecki’s response was a Lacrimosa…
Penderecki – Polish Requiem: Lacrimosa, 46s then fade but keep as bed
The original part of KP’s Requiem – the Lacrimosa. That was dedicated to the trade union leader Lech Walesa [leck ver-WHEN-ser]. He had worked as a shipyard electrician, and went on to become the leader of the Solidarity movement and trade union. If you run forward a bit to 1990, Walesa would become the first democratically elected President of Poland.
It was Walesa who had helped organize protests in 1970 where shipyard workers protested against rising food prices. More than 30 workers were killed there.
The word “Lacrimosa” is the Latin for “tearful” – and phrases in the text include ‘the guilty man to be judged’ and – more peacefully – the phrase ‘eternal rest’. So Penderecki’s ‘Lacrimosa’ is a sort of MUSICAL monument of its own. A musical memorial.
And it became more than Solidarity, big as that theme was in the first place. KP started adding new sections to the original Lacrimosa. And so over time that brought it closer to the shape of a full Requiem. Lots of different sections with different texts. And so the Polish Requiem, as it took shape - became something timeless. It became a memorial to Polish national heroes through time.
More of Lacrimosa fade up, then fade down
ANOTHER SECTION OF THE PIECE
When KP wrote an Agnus [ang-neus] Dei [day-ee] section of music, he dedicated it to Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński [steff-anne ver-SHIN-ss-key] – Wyszyński’s credited with keeping Christianity alive in Communist Poland. Back in the 1950s, cardinals had been supporting resistance efforts; a wave of government persecution though saw many of them put on trial. Wyszynski himself was put under house arrest, and was forced to witness the brutal torture of other detainees. The cardinal died of natural causes in the 1980s. But with that backdrop of repression vs. hope Wyszyński was a timely symbol for KP to choose. The idea of the power of faith against all odds.
It’s appropriate, too, that this man is commemorated in the PR with the music of peace and calm – Agnus Dei, after all means ‘Lamb of God’. Slow-moving choral lines almost take us into a church service…
Agnus Dei, excerpt then fade to silence by end of para
In the 1930s 65% of the Polish population were Catholic. Then, by the late 40s and 50s, when Penderecki was a teenager, that figure is believed to have risen to around 95%.
And yet, with a communist gov, Poland was a nominally atheist society.
That meant creating explicitly religious music like a PR was really an act of dissent. As Cardinal Wyszynski’s example showed, outspoken religious leaders could be arrested and sometimes even killed. So MUSIC was another outlet for religious belief. In Pend’s words, in his music – he was “just trying to tell the truth.”
Fade Lacrimosa back up, [hopefully around 1m13s now/1m20s, fade down to silence by rest pause c.1m38s]
Religion in Poland has a complex and often violent history.
And I do think to understand Penderecki’s Polish Requiem and the composer more broadly, it’s important to have a quick overview of Poland as a country – and the key part played by religion. A requiem is, first and foremost, the music of suffering – of grief, and of coming to terms with what lies ahead…. All big themes in Poland-zone national story.
In writing a requiem, Penderecki was expressing more than just the anxiety of the 1980s, but actually dominant anxieties of his country across the centuries. Partition, domination by foreign powers, and oppression- these are not just facts of Poland’s recent past – in a history dating back 1500y, you could go back right to the legendary tribal leader Mieszko I [Meesh ko], back in the 900s, and you’d find similar themes. Mieszko I was considered a pagan by neighbouring groups, and so was often attacked by the Christian German tribes from the west. Mieszko changed religions to appease the neighbours; he received backing from the Vatican, and made himself and his people Catholic Christians around 966. So even back then, back in the 900s, we come across the same dominant concerns – religion, foreign competition and how to both define and then protect your identity.
And these things continued. Wind forward to the 1700s – neighbouring powers took advantage of Poland’s weak internal situation. Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria over 123 years. But despite these challenges the flame of independence burned strongly over the next century. There were frequent - unsuccessful - uprisings.
Finally, after WW1, Poland gained independence as a state. Only WW2 soon struck – attacked by two neighbours again. 6y later – Poland’s still on the map, but with newly drawn borders within the Soviet Bloc.
This, then, was the tumultuous, volatile backdrop for Penderecki’s Polish Requiem. Religion had been such a core part of Polish identity, and it was hard fought for. The Church was associated with the people, and it played a political role – through history, when Poland was virtually disappearing from the map, swallowed up by foreign powers, it was the Church that was preserving Polish culture and tradition. Post WW2, the church continued to play that role.
KP himself said: ‘we were all anti-Communist and we had to be together with the Church to survive. I just wanted to write religious music to show my position. It was a political approach.’
Appropriately, then, the PR points to some of the other Polish figures through time who have taken a stand…
Let’s look at the Recordare for a moment. That movement is dedicated to Maximilian Kolbe [kolber] – he’s a Polish priest who hid more than 2000 Jewish people in his friary during the Nazi occupation; he himself was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. Even there, his determination to protect others continued; after a prisoner tried to escape the camp, the deputy camp commander ordered ten captives to be starved to death as a deterrence. One of those selected protested about their family that would be left behind. Kolbe heard his cries and stepped forward offering to take his place.
With the Recordare, KP’s interweaving lines and dissonant, clashing harmonies often give way to a single solo line, on its own. Anxious climaxes lead to sudden shocking quiet. At one point there’s a solo singer, a lone voice; at another, a solo oboe. Sometimes it’s a shockingly sparse, exposed texture. Lonely, even. Could this be musical picture of the individual versus the crowd? Of someone taking a stand, calling out, praying even? Maximilian Kolbe was locked in a bunker for two weeks, but the guards observed him kneeling calmly and praying inside. So could this section of the PR be a musical depiction of that? The lone voice in a difficult time, the voice of hope?
It’s no coincidence that a traditional Polish HYMN comes back again and again in the PR – the theme of this Recordare movement is based on it.
Fade up Recordare
Other sections of the Requiem commemorate the Katyn Massacre where more than 20 000 Polish officers were killed by the Soviets in 1940; You weren’t even allowed to talk about that event during the communist period. Another section of the Requiem reflects on the 1944 Uprising in Warsaw.
And then there is the “Ciaconne” which was added to the Requiem much later, after the death of the Polish Pope JP II in 2005.
So the PR is a commemoration of major moments and people in Poland’s history. And to commemorate such momentous events, it’s a work of great drama, great theatricality. First of all, it’s huge - it’s 17 movements long, nearly 2 HOURS of music; it’s one of KP’s largest pieces of the 1980s. And given the context the orchestra pointedly includes church bells and a whip at various moments. It’s sometimes quite terrifying, even grotesque, in its raw power…
Penderecki – Requiem: Tuba Mirum, opening 25s then fade slowly to silence
POLITICAL STANCE: ARTIST AND GOVERNMENT RELATIONSHIP
But was Penderecki as straightforward as this? Was he really solely reflecting on atrocities, and planting his flag firmly on the side of the oppressed?
Maybe it’s a surprise, having been commissioned by Solidarity, that Penderecki had been a bit of a darling of the Polish Government. His career skyrocketed to success in 1959, when THREE of his works won first prize in a national competition.
Penderecki took a conciliatory approach with the government and his warmish relationships with officials caused some tensions with his fellow creatives. Penderecki might spend a morning writing a piece to commemorate Polish riots, and then the next day he’d have a coffee with Communist officials. That stance caused tension with some of the creative community of Poland.
But again, is it that simple? Champion versus dissident, friend vs foe? Can a composer really be so one or the other? When their life and their commissions depend on pleasing, both an audience and the person who is commissioning you.
To write a piece like a Polish Requiem at a time when neither Poland or religion were necessarily at the top of the official agenda, that was quite a daring act surely. To write religious music under Communism – again, surely - daring.
He’d done it before. And again, it was not a smooth ride. Pend’s St Luke Passion was written back in the mid 60s. And its religious subject matter as well as its avantgarde musical language put it at odds with the authorities. The Passion success in the West though forced the authorities to eventually allow its performance in Poland. They did, though, include a bizarre stipulation. The Luke Passion could be performed in Poland only if Penderecki removed the word ‘Saint’ from the title. So in Poland, the piece was advertised as the ‘Luke Passion’ instead. And because of this debacle, Western audiences came to see Pend’s music as a snub to the Soviets…
So if anything is clear from all of this, an awful lot is disputed. And so it’s important that the PR puts individuals at its heart . Individual examples of human suffering and sacrifice. If it shies away from being explicitly political, then it is direct about the human spirit.
And KP was well placed to write from the heart…
Libera Me, domine
A Requiem is a song of suffering, and Penderecki had experienced this first hand. His uncles were officers in the Polish Army, killed by both the Nazis and by the Soviets. One of them was lost in the Katyn Massacre. The ‘Libera Me, Domine’ [Lee-bear-oh mare DOM-in-air] section of the PR memorializes that specific event. So part of the Polish Requiem is DIRECTLY related to KP’s OWN family story.
In writing about Poland, he couldn’t help but write about himself.
Penderecki – Requiem: Sanctus, opening then fade from 45s to 52s then silence
POLITICS/RELIGION: TAKING A STAND
Penderecki admitted his Polish Requiem was defined by the tensions of Polish politics in his lifetime. He said: “I was not living in an easy time. If I was born in New Zealand, maybe I would never have written a work like the Polish Requiem, and other pieces connected with war.”
Penderecki went on to say: “I think I had to write music to say which side I am on… So I wrote this huge requiem, dealing with some historical moments – like uprisings, dedicated to people like Maximilian Kolbe.”
The Polish Requiem, then, is Penderecki saying which side he’s on. He’s putting himself on the side of those suffering – and using music to process that.
Penderecki – Requiem: Agnus Dei, opening then fade from 26s
Writing the Polish Requiem literally as the 3rd Polish Republic was being formed, perhaps Penderecki had more than nationhood on his mind, but God and life itself. A Requiem is, after all, looking ahead – facing death in the eye, and what lies beyond.
Violinist Anne Sophie Mutter has described KP’s music as “an immediate and direct connection to ‘up there’, which is expressed in sound.” In other words, this isn’t just about connecting with other people, or with what it means to be Polish. It’s actually about connecting with God – and therefore, with what it means to be human.
The suffering of the Polish people tells of an intensely human struggle. Searching for your identity is at once both an individual and a universal question. We’re all trying to find out and keep hold of who we are. Perhaps that’s what makes Penderecki’s Polish Requiem speak so powerfully today.
Fade up Agnus Dei
If you enjoyed dipping our toes into Penderecki’s Polish Requiem, there’s lots more great composers and pieces that may highlight what it means to be Polish…
Like Penderecki, Andrzej Panufnik [and-DJAY pan-oof-nick] travelled the world with his music; he actually defected to the UK in 1954. His Polonia Suite, his Poland Suite, includes the fast Polish folk dance. His Suite is a celebration of different aspects of Polish culture.
Andrzej Panufnik – Polonia Suite: Mazurek, fade up from 11s, then down from 33s
Penderecki’s Polish Requiem has quite a precedent with choral music going back a long way in Poland. Records show that two nuns from the Order of St. Clare were writing masses in the 1700s. Their names were Zofia Kaniroska (1743) and Teresa Fabianska (1760).
So Poland has a rich history of religious music and vocal writing, meaning lots more for you to explore…
Penderecki – Requiem: Finale, then fade down as bed from 30s to silence
Thanks so much for joining me JP – next time, we’ll explore how a composer can reflect on their own life experiences through music. I’ll be back to explore Penderecki’s childhood and influences in the next episode. It’s a beginner’s guide to Penderecki and Poland – and until the next time – take care! thanks for listening, and keep exploring!
Finale – fade up from 2m36s on timpani roll