podcast #5

Episode 5: Symphonies, including Symphony No 7, ‘Seven Gates of Jerusalem’


Work – Symphonies

How does one man go from writing this  -

Threnody excerpt, opening

To this  - 

Symphony No 2, ‘Xmas’, 2nd mvt opening, fade down [NAXOS, National Polish Radio SO]

That’s the question of this episode. I’m JP, and this is our final outing together exploring the life and work of one of Poland’s most celebrated modern composers – KP. And today, we get to the essential takeaway point and, for some, controversy, of KP. How can one man’s musical language change so dramatically over time?


We just heard part of his 2ND Symphony. That was written in 1980 and subtitled ‘Xmas’ – that’s because it repeatedly quotes Silent Night. And beyond traditional Xmas melodies, Penderecki’s 2nd Symph draws on the lush Romantic soundworld of past composers. Looking back on the sounds of Mahler, Strauss and Wagner the century before. It’s more straightforward in its melodies and its harmonies than KP’s earlier work. 


Now, you can imagine after the shrieking experimentalism OF those early pieces, many using or inspired by electronics, to many people such a stylistic change came as quite a shock….



Symphony 2, ‘Xmas’, 4th mvt, opening [up to c.40s?], fade down


Penderecki’s shift in style and outlook was criticised! After that Symphony No. 2, Penderecki was accused of being burned out; he was even told to take a break from composing. That’s because some people wondered whether such a shift in musical language was a sign of a composer in TROUBLE – a creative crisis. 


Well, let’s ask that question…


With the help of our final piece in my KP Beginner’s Guide – we might be getting some answers from his Symphony No 7 –


Symphony 7, 1st mvt, up to 18s then fade [NAXOS – Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra]


In the last episode with me, we explored KP’s collaboration with the Radiohead musician and composer Jonny Greenwood – they’ve toured and recorded together. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to know that KP said: “now is the time of synthesis.”


And his later music really does this – it tries to reconcile the abrasive sounds of his youth with a more romantic, more directly MELODIC approach.


I think this scent of conciliation is clear in his 7th Symphony. It in many ways combines the different styles and outlooks from across his life. There’s a streak of romanticism with bold melodies, dramatic gestures and lush orchestration, but then on the other hand there is also still an occasional emphasis on the idea of pure sound – there are still moments of shrieks and murmurs in the instruments, hinting at the experimental writing of his youth.



Excerpt Sym 7, 2nd mvt, opening, fade from 19s down to silence by 23s



Appropriately for a man who also scored some classic Polish films, the 7th Symph is also at times quite filmic. With the help of a choir, there are many moments of great tension and drama.


And there’s drama from scale. KP’s Symphony No. 7 is subtitled the ‘Seven Gates of Jerusalem’ – with seven parts to its structure, it’s a musical monument of its own. Part symphony, part cantata/oratorio – the orchestra and the choir coming together. And in those forces, Penderecki is drawing on a long tradition – composers like Verdi, Orff and Bach, wrote for this epic coming together of voices and instruments.  

And once again, KP returns to the religious inspiration of so many of his works.


Symphony 7, 3rd mvt, fade from 32s down

KP uses texts from the Psalms and fragments of the Prophetic Books. That’s because the 7th Symphony was commissioned to mark the 3,000th anniversary of the foundation of Jerusalem. 


That’s why the 5th mvt, for example, opens with words of celebration – ‘Praise, Jerusalem, Thy Lord’…. 


Symphony , 5th mvt opening, fade to silence


At times the language reminds me of Carl Orff – a kind of ritualistic, highly theatrical language…


Symphony No 7, 5th mvt, fade up from 12m34s, to 13m05s


The founding of a city is quite a dramatic act, isn’t it?  – just symbolically speaking, let alone literally. And KP mirrors this with theatrical music. Just look at the instruments he uses. The 5th mvt uses tubaphones – these are instruments that KP actually designed. They were inspired by Australian instruments he had come across. They’re made out of lots long pipes. THAT’s the kind of thing that WAGNER used to do – inventing his own instruments or developing others to help give wings to the music he heard in his head, to lend it that epic full-bodied sound. It’s like BOTH composers are striving for BEYOND – beyond what has been done before. Giving flight to the imagination.


And it’s not just a historical parallel with Wagner. KP makes use of spatial arrangement of performers with the SYmph no 7. Where people are placed in different positions around the space  to have the greatest dramatic effect – both visually and aurally. It’s the kind of thing Bach did, and going further back, Gabrieli, too. The idea of not just WHO’s performing, but WHERE. The spectacle and the sound…


Symph no 7, 5th mvt, fade up from 14m50s, fade down from 15m30s


At times sounding like Shostakovich there, in the 5th mvt – it’s like a Kaleidoscope of musical styles and sounds, heavy on brass and percussion and piling sound and melody upon sound and melody. Brick by brick, building by building – Jerusalem is being formed…



Symphony no 7, 6th mvt, opening chord, 10s then silence


So let’s place his 7th Symph’s changing language in context – 


Penderecki composed eight symphonies, alongside four operas and many choral settings. They involved mainly religious texts. His early work showed the influence of radicals like Webern and Boulez. He was famed for embracing so-called tone clusters – dense packets of sound, notes clashing together, a musical crunch. 


And beyond just clusters, KP was well recognised for writing in unusual ways – making instruments sound  in ways they hadn’t sounded before. He wouldn’t just write for a violin to be played with a bow, for example, he might suddenly ask them to play behind the bridge, to bow on the tailpiece… He even asked players to sing whilst playing, just humming along. Sometimes he asked players to record themselves on a tape, and then play it back later in the piece, whilst they were playing the next section. This all created distinctive and often harsh textures in his early music. One piece of his actually caused a full-on riot in 1962.


So what changed?


Symph 7, 3rd mvt, 1m40s fade up, fade down from 2m02s


Well for one, certainly in the 70s, JUST AS HIS MUSICAL STYLE BEGAN TO CHANGE - KP was travelling a lot. That meant he was exposed to a wide range of music, music that had been banned when he was growing up in Communist Poland.


KP lived in Berlin for 2y; there, he went to the Philharmonic every week. He said one of his first obsessions was discovering the music of Bruckner, which hadn’t been played in Poland at all. KP said that, because of that, I quote - “my music changed. It was exactly after.”




But it wasn’t just the often religious, romantic language of Bruckner that shaped KP’s sound going forward. 


Western performers also had an influence.



By travelling, KP was able to strike up close relationships with top Western musicians; he wrote a violin concerto for Isaac [eye] Stern, ditto Anne Sophie Mutter. In the cello world, he became good friends with Rostropovich over 20y, and wrote 5 pieces for him. Just like the electronics studio had in the late 50s, now, in the 70s and beyond, Western performers were shaping KP’s understanding of of sound - the capabilities of sound. What it could do and be…



Penderecki Violin Concerto No 2 - excerpt? [NAXOS]




And there’s also a simpler argument – which is that young people tend to be more rebellious than older ones.


Yes the overthrow of Stalinism in the 50s saw a big thaw in tensions and that meant an outpouring of the avant garde music. But maybe Pend was avant garde  in his earlier years simply as an act of youthful rebellion, just like rock n roll unfolding in America. 



Perhaps it was quite natural then, for KP to get older and therefore slightly more conservative or even RETROPESCTIVE in his music. 



Penderecki Symph 7

KP’s own explanation of his changing musical language couches his work in the context of Polish politics – and the politics of MUSIC.



KP once said: 'The avant-garde gave you an illusion of universalism. The musical world of Stockhausen, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – it was a liberation...I was quick to realise however, that this novelty, this experimentation, is more destructive than constructive’. Penderecki’s use of language is really interesting, as he went on to say that he was, quote, 'saved from the avant-garde snare by a return to tradition'. He explained: ‘Without the avant-garde, I wouldn’t have been able to develop as a composer. But now – it is a thing of the past!




In other words, KP came to feel that whilst it was an important step, the avant-garde did not provide the ultimate goal; it was the petrol station on your musical journey, NOT the hotel.

And not just that, but maybe it was a diversion too – a distraction, even, if held onto for too long. KP felt that the avant-garde had strayed too far from the original path, going too far from the expressive and directly lyrical qualities of Western music before. He wanted to embrace a language of conciliation.



Symph 7


Now if you were confused by the Penderecki’s changing language – how did he feel? 

He said “I am constantly changing my style so much, more my technique actually, that even I oftentimes get a little confused. It means that I am constantly hungry for more”. So that changing style, a sign of a curious musical mind…


We should say really it’s the sign of a mindfull stop. It’s totally natural for a composer to change in style over their lifetime – KP began composing aged 7, writing a Polonaise, the kind of Polish dance that CHOPIN wrote – and yet within two decades he was writing the experimental pieces of his early manhood. That in itself is a big stylistic shift, just like the one to follow.


And I mention Chopin quite deliberately.  THIS music might be the key to understanding KP’s changing language. 




Late in life, KP spoke about the importance of his Polish predecessor, Frederic Chopin.

He said: “I would like for my music to survive, as Chopin’s music did. Times have changed, but Chopin’s music has endured and I hope mine will as well.”


And WHY did KP think Chopin’s music HAD endured so strongly? Well, in a word – melody.


In 2016, KP said: “without beautiful melodies, music cannot exist. I am a melodist and I am not ashamed to admit it. I used this word 20 or 30y ago, then of course everyone would turn against me, maybe even laugh at me. But now I see that those who do not use melodies are not composers… Most people when listening to music cannot even hear the harmonies”. For a man who in his youth was so obsessed with new and daring TEXTURES – pure abrasive sound itself – that emphasis on melody, on a singable tune, even talking about the general public, then, could be seen as an about turn.


But that’s what KP admired about Chopin – the ability to write melodic music that at the same time did something new and surprising for its era.


For KP, “Chopin had everything” – melodies that we can recognise as TM Chopin immediately, yet harmony that was always, in KP’s words, “fresh and contemporary”.



Chopin in his own way was both melodic and appealing, but also distinct and daring.


What better time to embrace such duality than now? The modern age IS the age of synthesis. Rock stars have written musicals; classical composers like KP have their music used in Hwood blockbusters like Shutter Island; Even back in the 60s - The Beatles were using instruments like string quartets and the cor anglais in their records; today, thanks to streaming platforms, you can listen to a Beethoven symphony followed by an Adele pop song.


So perhaps in changing his musical language - KP was just moving with the times – this is not the era of labels and pigeon holes. In fact, KP said that recently, the classical and pop languages have moved closer together – virtually every pop record out today is using electronics, drawing on the technology KP used in his youth in the electronics studio – just today it’s turning out a very different sound. 


And KP showed the two worlds can work side by side. Just look at his concerts with JG – 50k young people turned out to hear not only JG’s music, but KP’s avant garde works of the early 60s, played on the same programme.



And such freedom was not just a sign of the musical times, but of the political times too. As KP’s language shifted, Poland gradually opened up and eventually freed itself of Communist rule.


In 2013, KP acknowledged: “Now is a time there’s no need to change anything – because we are happy, we are members of the EU, we have changed for good now.”


As an independent country, free from foreign occupation; as members of the international community through the EU and NATO – perhaps the avant garde sounds of KP’s early music were simply an expression of anxiety. Of fear, even when Poland felt do alone.  And so as the situation relaxed and Poland could assert its own identity, KP felt he could express that relief and freedom – through his music.


Symphony 7


So who was the real KP? Just as a human being can’t be pigeon holed, neither can their music.


KP once said that the word “labyrinth” best represents the journey of a creative artist. He argued: “artists don’t need to be in a group” – in other words, they’re free to strike their own path and draw on lots of different influences. KP certainly went his own way; he was friends with fellow Polish composer Lutoslawski, but by his own admission - they rarely discussed their music together; KP and Gorecki only met about 5 times in their entire lives.


I think one of the most revealing lines I’ve come across from KP is the following. In an interview, he said: “all the artists I remember from the past – they were really lonely. Me too”. 


In effect, then, individualism was key – that is what was often denied in Poland for so long under Nazi and then Soviet occupation.



In KP, then, perhaps we find one man articulating the fears of an entire nation – and finally its freedom.


Excerpt, Symphony 7, 7th mvt, from 10m57s – 11m30s [ending]


Thanks so much for joining me JP – exploring KP and what his music says about Poland and about people more broadly – I really hope you’ve enjoyed it.