Podcast #2

Opening of the Quartet, fade as bed from 13s


Hello and welcome to our latest exploration of KP – and how the music of one man can reflect a whole country and more. I’m JP – and in this episode, we’ll dig deeper into how someone’s childhood can shape what they go on to create.


We’ll do this with the help of one of KP’s most personal works – his String Quartet No 3.



47s into String Quartet No 3


In the last episode with me we explored the Polish Requiem - a work for vocal soloists and a huge orchestra that includes church bells and whipcracks. It’s a 17 movement piece. Well now, we’re going to the other extreme – to four string instruments, and a musical memory box.

Penderecki wrote relatively little chamber music, so surely – his String Quartet No 3 had something important to say. We can guess as much from the work’s subtitle – ‘Leaves of an Unwritten Diary’.


Fade up


Penderecki finished his quartet in 2008, and it’s in a totally different soundworld to its predecessors. The first 2 quartets sat firmly in Penderecki’s avant-garde period; THIS quartet, though, is more retrospective, more conciliatory in style. There’s a wide range of musical references, from Bartok to Beethoven – and, as we’ll soon find out, there are key links to Penderecki’s own childhood as well.



The Quartet is based on the idea of contrast: it swings wildly from percussive outbursts to moments of solemn, intense calm. The lively comes up against the more lyrical, the romantic. KP himself was a MAN of contrasts, his music lurched from avant-garde to post-romantic, and his 3rd quartet almost does the same in the space of barely 20 mins. It switches restlessly from one speed to another, from one IDEA to another.


But among all these contrasts in his String Quartet No 3, there’s ONE KEY idea that crops out again and again. And it’s the idea you should listen out for. There’s a reason Penderecki called this piece “a sentimental journey”.


Gypsy tune, Adagio notturno



Listen to the Adagio notturno, and there’s a certain motif, a short musical phrase, a fragment, that sounds like it’d come from folk music. KP explained that it’s a traditional gypsy tune that he had heard in his youth played on the violin by his father. This theme becomes almost an obsession for KP in the 3rd quartet – he admitted: “ it grew so much in the successive variations that it nearly took control of the whole piece”.


Fade up – folk melody, growing more intense 


So KP’s String Quartet No 3 is based, partly at least, on a memory – one that we can all relate to, a memory of a parent. 


But it is also much more than that – by referencing a GYPSY FOLK tune, KP is memorialising a culture that had been brutally suppressed.


Fade up – more aggressive


Poland is one of the first multicultural states in history; minority rights had long been protected by law.

KP came from a truly multicultural area of Eastern Europe. His grandmother was Armenian. His grandfather - German. Although KP himself was not Jewish, he was raised in a small city whose population was about 70% Jewish. Penderecki even spoke a bit of Yiddish. In his own words – “I’m quite a mix”.


The date here is very important. KP was born in 1933. So within years of his birth, all of this pluralism and tolerance would be thrown into chaos…


Fade up – sadder



In 1939, the Second World War broke out, Poland was occupied, and KP’s local region became a hub of Nazi activity. On the outskirts of town, the Nazis established a massive military base for weapons testing. It’s believed around 15,000 slave-labour prisoners died just building that base. 


And the war came even closer to KP than that. Ghettos were made in his hometown, around 1600 people were housed there. KP’s family home was just a few blocks from that ghetto in the town centre – a short walk. And that meant Penderecki, still just a child, saw everything happen.


String Quartet


For his String Quartet to be based upon a gypsy folk tune, Penderecki is reflecting on a culture that was almost wiped out. This music becomes a way of not just facing up to childhood memories, but to issues that shake the very core of Poland then and now – independence versus state control, freedom versus oppression.


Fade up


The String Quartet No 3, then, becomes an admission of just how important KP’s childhood was in shaping his sound.


Throughout his career, he would write many pieces connected with the WW II, with the Holocaust and with oppression. These issues had affected his family from his earliest days – two uncles were killed in the WW II. And then to grow up in a house that backed onto a ghetto – in his own words – “I saw what really happened to people there. They were my colleagues – we would play together. Being a child, being very young, you never forget”. 


Music like the String Quartet No 3, then, becomes a way of coming to terms with intense trauma. Perhaps that’s WHY it veers from one emotional extreme, from one speed, from one idea – to another. It’s like someone thinking aloud – telling you their story. And fighting to keep control of their emotions.


Fade up


So what does this quartet and his childhood say about KP’s musical influences more broadly? 


KP took his first musical steps in the wake of the War’s destruction. At such a crucial time in a composer’s development – their teens and 20s, KP was surrounded by loss.


So it’s no surprise that the young KP would go on to write avant-garde music; a movement admitted by many to be a reaction against the horrors of the war. Overblown, romantic music for huge orchestras, with big sweeping tunes and lush chords – all of that was associated with the War and what had helped cause it. So the avant-garde was a way of distancing yourself from that past – of regaining control. Isn’t that what the avant-garde was all about? Intense structure, mathematical formulae. Order the world had lost.


As a student, Penderecki took quickly to Western music. The avant-garde composer Luigi Nono, arrived in Warsaw in 1958. And he had a big impact on Penderecki’s generation. And hearing Penderecki’s stated intensions in the early 60s, they sound quite John-Cage-like, really. KP said 'All I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition'. 

And that last word is key. KP’s early years were about escaping tradition. His pieces in the 1960s included music for typewriters and gongs, really exploring the idea of music as sound; his early works are full of what are called ‘tone clusters’, dense packets of notes all clashing together. KP rejected traditional music notation in favour of graphics, like graphs for music. His early pieces showed the influence of Webern, Boulez and Stravinsky – he was seen as provocative and controversial.


And yet wind forward to the 2000s and this semi-autobiographical String Quartet No 3 – and it’s music of reconciliation. Gone are those harmonic and textural extremes of his early works, in favour of a middle ground.




KP was once asked if when composing, a plot or story developed in his head.


His answer was: ‘No.’ Music for KP was ‘pure abstraction.’


And yet, even in the very titles and dedications of his music – KP is making clear a very direct human connection. Perhaps, to look at the subtitle of this quartet, the leaves of his diary are unwritten – because they were put elsewhere. In his music…


Gebirtig excerpt


If you enjoyed Penderecki’s String Quartet No 3, and exploring the context around it – there’s a wealth of music and composers to explore further.


Mordechai Gebirtig was a Polish composer and poet who was killed in the Holocaust. He was shot in the Krakow Ghetto. He had been a respected folk artist in Yiddish literature and song. As a musician, he was self-taught, but he could tap out tunes on the piano with one finger. And that ONE FINGER – led to some classic Yiddish tunes. His Yiddish songs are still performed today. Mordechai Gebirtig is one of the most performed singer-songwriters in modern Israel.


So just as KP’s quartet is keeping the memory of his childhood friends and colleagues in that ghetto alive, so too are the notes from those who were tragically lost – Mordechai Gebirtig is remembered through his music.




Szymon Laks


Then there’s Szymon [simon] Laks, a Holocaust SURVIVOR. The Polish violinist, conductor and composer spent 3 years in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau, but survived. Music saved his life; he was spared the physical labour that killed most of his contemporaries, because he played in and conducted the camp orchestra.


Interestingly, UNLIKE KP, in the years following the WW II,  Laks’ music is really retrospective, Neoclassical – looking back at the harmonies and melodies of previous eras. Laks’ music is far from the angst-filled atmosphere of KP’s work. Perhaps having seen Auschwitz and Dachau first hand music for Laks was a form of escapism. 



Gorecki – Symphony3


Then there’s one of the most famous classical pieces to be inspired by this period…


Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony was inspired by the chorus of the Holocaust. Some of the text it draws on was taken from a prison cell wall, the words scrawled upon it by a prisoner. 


Like the works of Laks, this is music of peace and calm – it processes difficult memories and difficult truths with a disarming beauty.



Fade up Gorecki


Then, in recent times – there’s Marta Ptaszynska [ta-dJINska]. She was born in 1943, so she didn’t have the vivid childhood memories of KP – but the period still helped define her work and focus - growing up in the post-war years. In 1992, Ptaszynska wrote a Holocaust Memorial Cantata, which premiered in Chicago.



Penderecki and all of these composers point to the humanity of Classical Music – it IS a composer’s diary, helping them to process what they have experienced. And so through their music, we remember one of the world’s most traumatic and violent periods. Through this music, it will NEVER be forgotten.



Fade up Penderecki


Thanks you for joining me JP, exploring the music of KP and what that tells us about Polish culture and identity more broadly. Next time, I’ll be taking you on a virtual to the Olympic Games – we’ll explore KP’s Olympic commissions, and head to the electronics studio. Until then though – thanks for listening, and keep exploring!


Fade up Penderecki ending of Quartet – final c.10s