• Górecki: Total Immersion (3 October 2015)

HMG Barbican cover 3.10.15Before you ask, no, I don’t know why there’s an arty picture of flowers next to a flipped photo of the composer.  And while I’m in a grump, I do not understand why, after I carefully vet a proof, a copy editor can introduce new errors or miss ones that I have pointed out.  Here they ranged from inserting a cack-handed and unnecessary ‘explanation’ (underlined here) into a perfectly clear statement and then not editing it properly afterwards – ‘… Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 1, which was described by its composer as a ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’ (ie a sonata in the style of a fantasia). ‘Quasi una fantasia’.’ – to giving one work the movement headings of another and failing to spot the auto-correct in ‘Lunam et Stellas in potestatem noxious’.  But these blemishes in the printed programme cannot detract from what was a terrific BBC SO ‘Total Immersion’ focus on Henryk Mikołaj Górecki last Saturday at London’s Barbican.

I am not accustomed to writing reviews, and this isn’t intended to be one, but I can’t pass the occasion by without thanking the BBC SO for providing this panorama from his earliest acknowledged work (Four Preludes for piano op. 1, 1955) to one of his posthumous pieces (Kyrie op. 83, 2005).  With only three concerts over a single afternoon and evening, it is impossible to represent all facets of a composer.  In this instance, however, there was a glaring gap between 1956 (Piano Sonata) and 1969 (Old Polish Music) – his most experimental years.  This was odd, given the day’s title – ‘Henryk Górecki: Polish Pioneer’.  When I saw the preliminary programme, I did suggest that the Silesian String Quartet might add Genesis I: Elementi (1962) to its recital of the first two string quartets, but nothing came of it. Could the BBC SO not have replaced the rather formulaic Old Polish Music with Scontri (1960) or Refrain (1965)? This cavil apart, the repertoire choices were excellent and gave the large and highly appreciative audiences much to relish.

I started off proceedings with an hour-long talk at 11.00, in which I deliberately complemented the day’s repertoire with discussion of other pieces.  I was told that the 80 people who turned up were double the number expected, and they seemed to enjoy the mix of musical and anecdotal observations.  The Silesian Quartet at 13.00 was in top form, bringing a grittiness and passion to the music that Górecki would have thoroughly appreciated.

Violetta Rotter-Kozera’s biographical film Please Find Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (2012) was screened at 15.00.  Its generally chronological progress was illuminated by archive clips and multiple interviews made in 2011 in the USA and Europe, although the English-language subtitling for the Polish interviewees occasionally left something to be desired. Consistently translating ‘utwór’ (work/piece) as ‘song’ was an irritating sign of the times, but the film is an honest portrayal and a welcome antidote to the Tony Palmer film of 1993.

The 17.30 concert was shared by the BBC Singers under David Hill and the pianist Emiko Edwards.  Edwards played the two student works with fire and understanding, both crisp and robust.  The BBC Singers were also in top form. Their Polish pronunciation was exemplary, as was their tonal and dynamic balance.  It was good to hear the complete Marian Songs (1985), although they are not the most interesting or varied of Gorecki’s a cappella pieces, but no. 21 of the recently published Church Songs (1986) was a good work with which to end the recital.

Those members of the audience who reached their seats early for the BBC SO’s own concert at 19.30 were treated to a reworking of Totus Tuus under the composer Tim Steiner.  The concert itself was the climax of the day, not least because its repertoire was almost entirely new to the audience, which reacted with enthusiasm.  As I intimated earlier, Old Polish Music is one of Gorecki’s most austere pieces, but the new Kyrie (first performed in 2014 and here being given its UK premiere), was a softer, more intimate work and makes one wonder what the rest of the mass commissioned by Pope John Paul II might have been like if Górecki had got round to completing it.  Mahan Esfahani was the cool and elegant soloist in the Harpsichord Concerto (1980), although I wished that the conductor, Antoni Wit, had not allowed even the reduced complement of strings to obscure the cross-metric subtleties of the solo part.  The final work, and the one that startled the most, was the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972).  My distant recollection of this rarely performed work (I’ve heard it live only twice before, at the Holland Festival in 1993 and later that same year in Katowice at a celebratory concert for Górecki’s 60th birthday) was revived by Wit, his two soloists (Marie Arnet and Marcus Farnsworth) and the BBC Chorus.  The symphony’s impact was palpable. As both it and the whole day demonstrated, Górecki was far more than just his Third Symphony, and those present recognised this.  Thank you, BBC SO!

You can catch the three concerts on the BBC as follows:

String Quartet no.2http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fldxd  (available on BBC iPlayer until the beginning of November)
BBC SO concert plus String Quartet no.1 in the interval: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flpnl  (available on BBC iPlayer until the beginning of November, presented by Petroc Trelawny, with Mahan Esfahani and myself)
BBC Singers and Emiko Edwards: this will be broadcast on Radio 3 during the last week of October and will then be available on iPlayer for 30 days

And here are a few links to the immediate reviews – both good and middling:

• George Hall: 3* http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/04/total-immersion-henryk-gorecki-review-bbcso
• John Allison: 4* http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/classical-music/gorecki-total-immersion-barbican-review/
• Gavin Dixonhttp://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/total-immersion-henryk-g%C3%B3recki-barbican
• John-Pierre Joyce: 5* http://www.musicomh.com/classical/reviews-classical/bbc-so-wit-barbican-hall-london
• Richard Whitehousehttp://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=13157

and added to on 11 November:

• Fiona Maddockshttp://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/11/daniil-trifonov-royal-festival-hall-review-angela-hewitt-gorecki-total-immersion
Paul Driverhttp://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/culture/music/article1616360.ece (first two paragraphs, the remainder subject to subscription)

My programme essay and notes may be found by clicking on this link.

• Panufnik, Penderecki, Zubel

To add to forthcoming Polish music events in the UK, there are two celebrations this month, in Glasgow and Manchester.  Next Saturday and Sunday (20-21 June), ‘Panufnik. A Celebration’ takes place at City Halls, Glasgow, with three concerts devoted almost entirely to his music.  A few days later (23-26 June), the RNCM in Manchester hosts ‘Seven Gates: The Music of Poland Explored’. Penderecki will conduct the first UK performance (!) of his Seven Gates of Jerusalem, only 18 years after it was premiered; his music and that of the much younger Agata Zubel (b.1978) take the foreground.  Lutosławski features at both events in a supporting role, with Górecki and Szymanowski also included in Manchester.  The Manchester repertoire has some little-known Penderecki works embedded in it, and of the three films Andrzej Wajda’s feature on Katyń and Wiktor Skrzynecki’s documentary about the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ will be well worth seeing.  For repertoire details, see below.

While I am delighted that these composers are being played and heard, I can’t help feeling that the repertoires of both events reinforce the impression in the UK that Polish music still consists of composers (Zubel excepted) who are either dead or reaching their creative dotage.  The one exception in this country, largely confined to sacred music, is Paweł Łukaszewski (b.1968), who has made a strong impact in choral circles here and was featured last year at the Presteigne Festival, which also promoted another Polish composer in his 40s but little-known in the UK, Maciej Zieliński (b.1971).  Zubel’s music is especially welcome this year in this context, and anyone wanting to hear her recent music, but who can’t get to Manchester, is recommended to seek out her CD ‘Not I’ on the Kairos label.

In case you missed it, Hyperion released a CD earlier this year of string quartets by Paweł Szymański (b.1954) and Paweł Mykietyn (b.1971), both of whom are well-established and no longer up-and-coming in Poland yet are virtually unknown here, despite Szymański having had some exposure with the London Sinfonietta some 25 years ago.  I am still waiting for high-profile performances of composers now in their 30s, like Szymański was when the BBC commissioned Partita IV for premiere at the Sonorities Festival in Belfast in 1987.  What about – and this is to name just a few composers in addition to Zubel, some deeply involved in multi-media work, who are headline figures in Poland and have international profiles elsewhere – Wojtek Blecharz (b.1981), Andrzej Kwieciński (b.1984), Dariusz Przybylski (b.1984), Marcin Stańczyk (b.1977) or Jagoda Szmytka (b.1982)?  There are dozens more (by focusing on those born in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I am not forgetting that there are older – even younger – composers equally worthy of investigation!).

…….

Panufnik.  A Celebration
City Halls, Glasgow, 20-21 June 2015

BBC Scottish SO, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Ewa Kupiec

Panufnik: Divertimento, after Janiewicz (1947), Lullaby (1947), Sinfonia rustica (1948), Polonia (1959), Piano Concerto (1961/several times revised), Sinfonia sacra (1963), Violin Concerto (1971), Symphony 10 (1988), unidentified piano music
Lutosławski: unidentified piano music

…….

Seven Gates: The Music of Poland Explored
RNCM, Manchester, 23-26 June 2015

RNCM New Ensemble, Dominic Degavino, RNCM SO, Chamber Choir and Chorus, Piero Lombardi Eglesias, Maciej Tworek, Krzysztof Penderecki (other soloists and ensembles tba)

Penderecki: Violin Sonata no.1 (1953), Three Miniatures for clarinet and piano (1956), Brigade of Death (tape, 1963), Agnus Dei (1981, arranged for eight cellos), Cadenza for solo viola (1984), Entrata (1994), Symphony no.7 ‘Seven Gates of Jerusalem’ (1996), String Quartet no.3 (2008),
Górecki: Harpsichord Concerto (1980)
Lutosławski: Dance Preludes (1954), Chain 1 (1983), Piano Concerto (1988)
Szymanowski: Songs of a Fairytale Princess (1915), Masques (1916)
Zubel: Suite for percussion trio (2011), Streets of a Human City (2011), Shades of Ice (2011)

Films:
• Katyń (Andrzej Wajda, 2007)
• Górecki: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Tony Palmer, 1993, not 2008 as given in the brochure)
• 50 years of [the] Warsaw Autumn (Wiktor Skrzynecki, 2007)

• Nugs and Bling: Three Silesian Graves

For the first time since Górecki’s funeral four years ago, last week I paid a visit to the cemetery near Katowice’s Cathedral of Christ the King.  I had seen (and posted) a photo of the grave, but its gravestone – or, rather its rough nug of a monument (‘nug’ is the possible etymological root of ‘nugget’, and deserves to be reinstated for its sound alone!) – makes it stand proud of the conventional gravestones around it.  From every angle it looks quietly and solidly imposing.  Although I was there three weeks after All Saints’ and All Souls’, the cemetery was still a blaze of colour.

IMG_6289 copy

IMG_6287 copy

IMG_6292 copy

IMG_6291 copy

IMG_6290 copy

A little further down the main avenue is the grave of Górecki’s fellow Silesian and composer, Wojciech Kilar (who died on 29 December last year) and his wife Barbara.  Its shiny black arch and gold lettering are striking, to say the least, as is the mottled marble cross that lies on the grave and points through the opening.  Maybe arch is the wrong image: it seems to be more like the dark night pierced by light.  It certainly stands taller than any other memorial.

IMG_6293 copy

IMG_6295 copy

On into an adjoining cemetery.  To the right, in the second row, is the grave of the Polish actor, Zbigniew Cybulski.  He died in 1967, running for a departing train in Wrocław.  He slipped on its steps and fell under the wheels.  He was only 39, but he had made a huge impact on Polish cinema, most famously for his role in Andrzej Wajda’s film Ashes and Diamonds (1958).  His memorial has a ruggedness that parallels Górecki’s.  Its stone still had not been cleared of the dozens of candles placed there at the start of the month.

IMG_6296 copy

IMG_6297 copy

• New Book: Polish Music since 1945

A new collection of essays on post-war Polish music has just been published by Musica Iagellonica in Kraków.  It is edited by Eva Mantzourani, who convened a conference four years ago, at the Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, UK, under the title ‘Polish Music since 1945’.  Scholars young and old came from far and wide, and this volume of 31 essays is the result of those very stimulating days in May 2009.  It may be purchased at the Musica Iagellonica online shop for 85zł (c. £17/$27, plus postage).  The list of contents is given below.

Polish Music since 1945
PART I: Polish Composers in Context

• Charles Bodman Rae: ‘The Polish musical psyche: From the Second Republic into the Third’
• Adrian Thomas: ‘Locating Polish music’
• Marek Podhajski: ‘Polish music, Polish composers 1918–2007’
• Ruth Seehaber: ‘The construction of a “Polish School”: Self-perception and foreign perception of Polish contemporary music between 1956 and 1976’
• Bogumiła Mika: ‘Between “a game with a listener” and a symbolic referral to tradition: Musical quotation in Polish art music since 1945’
• David Tompkins: ‘The Stalinist state as patron: Composers and commissioning in early Cold War Poland’
• Maja Trochimczyk: ‘1968 – Operation Danube, ISCM, and Polish music’
• Alicja Jarzębska: ‘Polish music and the problem of the cultural Cold War’
• Niall O’Loughlin: ‘Panufnik and Polishness’
• Violetta Kostka: ‘Tadeusz Kassern: Music from his American period’
• Barbara Literska: ‘The “commissioned” works of Tadeusz Baird’
• Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek: ‘Paweł Szymański and the multiple narrative in music’
• Marta Szoka: ‘The music of Paweł Mykietyn: In between pastiche, deconstruction and the great narration’
• Caroline Rae: ‘Dutilleux and Lutosławski: Franco-Polish connections’

PART II: Analytical perspectives

• Beata Bolesławska-Lewandowska: ‘Lutosławski’s Second Symphony (1967) and Górecki’s Second Symphony (1972): Two concepts of the bipartite late avant-garde symphony’
• Teresa Malecka: ‘Górecki’s creative journeys between nature and culture: Around the Copernican Symphony
• Stanisław Będkowski: ‘Wojciech Kilar’s last symphonies: Modification of a paradigm’
• Zbigniew Skowron: ‘Lutosławski at the crossroads. Three Postludes: A reappraisal of their style and compositional technique’
• Suyun Tang: ‘Lutosławski’s tonal architecture as defined by a Schenkerian tonal model’
• Aleksandra Bartos: ‘Witold Lutosławski’s Portrait of Woman 2000: New aspects of his compositional technique’
• Amanda Bayley and Neil Heyde: ‘Interpreting indeterminacy: Filming Lutosławski’s String Quartet’
• Cindy Bylander: ‘Back to the future: The interaction of form and motive in Penderecki’s middle symphonies’
• Regina Chłopicka: ‘The St Luke Passion and the Eighth Symphony Lieder der Vergänglichkeit: The key works in Penderecki’s oeuvre’
• Tim Rutherford-Johnson: ‘Theological aspects to Penderecki’s St Luke Passion
• Agnieszka Draus: ‘Infernal and celestial circles in Paradise Lost: Milton and Penderecki’
• Tomasz Kienik: ‘The musical language of Kazimierz Serocki: Analytical aspects of his musical output’
• Iwona Lindstedt: ‘Sonoristics and serial thinking: On the distinctive features of works from the “Polish School”’.
• Anna Masłowiec: ‘The sonoristic score: Inside and outside’

PART III: Polish jazz, film music and the marketplace

• Zbigniew Granat: ‘Underground roads to new music: Walls, tunnels, and the emergence of jazz avant-garde in 1960s Poland’
• Nicholas Reyland: ‘Experiencing agapē: Preisner and Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue
• Renata Pasternak-Mazur: ‘Sacropolo or Sacrum in the marketplace’

• WL100/33: Zanussi documentary (complete)

Krzysztof Zanussi’s 1991 documentary on Lutosławski has just appeared on YouTube, complete.  I wrote almost three months ago about two excerpts that became available there in mid-January (WL100/13) and I’ve reproduced that post’s opening paragraphs below.

“On 19 January 1991, BBC 2 showed a one-hour documentary on Lutosławski.  It was made by the distinguished Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi.  Witold Lutosławski in Conversation with Krzysztof Zanussi (1990) utilises excerpts from a BBC Omnibus documentary Warsaw Autumn (1978)filmed by Dennis Marks in 1977, as starting points.  Zanussi steers Lutosławski through key moments of his life, interspersed with the composer conducting rehearsals or special recordings of excerpts of his music.

The results are mixed.  At times, the premise is realised archly, as at the beginning, when the interview set-up seems rather self-conscious.  At other times, Zanussi’s probing produces some interesting responses.  Lutosławski recollection of his father is rather touching, for example, and his recollection of life in the 1980s (during Solidarity and then under Martial Law) fascinating.  As always, he can be alternately open and guarded.

The interiors were filmed either in his downstairs sitting area (it’s open-plan) or in his first floor, L-shaped study (see my earlier post Lutosławski’s Carpet).  The major musical extracts are from Musique funèbrePreludes and FugueChain 2 (with Krzysztof Jakowicz) and the Third Symphony.”

 

• WL100/13: In Conversation with Zanussi

On 19 January 1991, BBC 2 showed a one-hour documentary on Lutosławski.  It was made by the distinguished Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi.  Witold Lutosławski in Conversation with Krzysztof Zanussi (1990) utilises excerpts from a BBC Omnibus documentary Warsaw Autumn (1978)filmed by Dennis Marks in 1977, as starting points.  Zanussi steers Lutosławski through key moments of his life, interspersed with the composer conducting rehearsals or special recordings of excerpts of his music.

The results are mixed.  At times, the premise is realised archly, as at the beginning, when the interview set-up seems rather self-conscious.  At other times, Zanussi’s probing produces some interesting responses.  Lutosławski recollection of his father is rather touching, for example, and his recollection of life in the 1980s (during Solidarity and then under Martial Law) fascinating.  As always, he can be alternately open and guarded.

The interiors were filmed either in his downstairs sitting area (it’s open-plan) or in his first floor, L-shaped study (see my earlier post Lutosławski’s Carpet).  The major musical extracts are from Musique FunèbrePreludes and FugueChain 2 (with Krzysztof Jakowicz) and the Third Symphony.  Two excerpts from Witold Lutosławski in Conversation with Krzysztof Zanussi (amounting to the second and fourth quarters of the documentary) were uploaded to YouTube yesterday, so here are the links with a little commentary to each.

Excerpt 1

This section is concerned firstly with the post-war decade and socialist realism.  Habitually, Lutosławski was extremely guarded about this period, as he is here, especially in the excerpt from the Omnibus film.  The three-day conference to which Lutosławski refers took place in western Poland, at a place called Łagów, in August 1949.  (Less than half of the members of the Polish Composers’ Union attended, rather than the ‘all’ that Lutosławski mentions.)  Secondly (c. 7’45” in), the film shows Lutosławski accompanying a group of young children singing one of his children’s songs, Rzeczka (River, 1947).  The final section (c. 11’20” in) moves the questioning of the relationship between the music and social-political contexts to the 1980s.  It shows a fragment of Lutosławski’s speech on the first day of the Congress of Polish Culture in Warsaw on 12 December 1981.  Overnight, Poland found itself under Martial Law.

 

Excerpt 2

This section concludes the documentary with a brief discussion of the return to democracy in the late 1980s and then focuses on the Third Symphony.  There are two musical passages here, from figs 84 to 89 and from fig. 93 (Coda), in what appears to be a specially recorded session with Lutosławski conducting the Great Polish Radio SO (WOSPR) in Katowice.

 

• Grave matters

I’m catching up on Polish arrears, having dallied since my visit to Warsaw last month by staying in London to see Covent Garden’s Ring cycle (frankly, I might just as well have listened to it on the radio, so inept and wilfully contrary was the set design and production; the final half hour in particular was a total travesty).  And then I succumbed to a week of ‘underweatherness’ here in Cornwall, and that has meant a backlog of deadlines.

Today – 12 November 2012 – is the second anniversary of the death of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.  Two nights ago, Polish Television broadcast a new documentary about him (Please Find, directed by Violetta Rotter-Kozera), with contributors from Europe and America, including myself.  I should have been in Katowice last Friday to see a private screening with the family, but circumstances got in the way.  I’m looking forward to seeing it in due course.

This morning, BBC Radio 3 broadcast the second movement of his Third Symphony, choosing not Dawn Upshaw’s breakthrough recording (now 20 years old), but the first ever recording, by Stefania Woytowicz with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jerzy Katlewicz.  Upshaw and Woytowicz are two quite different singers, and I admire them both, but for me that first recording captures the excitement and extraordinary atmosphere of the late 1970s and the powerful shock that the symphony made on me and on others who were lucky enough to come across it at the time.  It was this recording, for example, that captivated the conductor David Atherton, who played a huge role in promoting it during the 1980s.

This is all a bit by-the-by.  I had intended to visit Henryk’s grave on my visit to Katowice.  Niestety, nie zdążyłem.  I did, however, manage to visit Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw last month, mainly to pay homage to particular people, but also to sample again its special atmosphere.

…….

Finding it as it was.

…….

My first main port of call was the grave of my friend, the Polish musicologist and critic, Andrzej Chłopecki, who had died a month earlier.

…….

Some distance away, not far from the cemetery chapel, lie a number of composers and conductors who shaped Polish music in the second half of the twentieth century.  First and foremost, there’s the grave of Witold Lutosławski and his wife.

Here’s the grave from the rear.  I was present at his funeral and watched from this vantage point as his stepson climbed into the grave to place his urn on the floor of the chamber.  It now has a classically restrained gravestone and had evidently been attended to recently.

Next door lies that great champion of Polish music, the conductor Witold Rowicki. His grave is more demonstrative!

A little further to the right of Rowicki’s grave is one set aside for Jan Krenz, a champion of contemporary Polish music.  It seems strange to me (but it’s not unusual there) that such monuments are erected before death.

Behind Rowicki’s grave is that of Stefan Rachoń – a far less well-known conductor, at least outside Poland –  and his widow, the opera singer Barbara Nieman.

On the other side of the main path from these graves are several more.  Notable among them are those of Kazimierz Serocki and Tadeusz Baird, whose music deserves to be far more widely known and appreciated.  Baird, Krenz and Serocki formed ‘Grupa ’49’ as the youngest generation of composers during post-war socialist realism.

…….

One of the most striking graves is that of the film-maker, Krzysztof Kieślowski.  If only I had his eye for framing.

• Do Historians Hate Music?

I’m a peaceable sort of chap, but occasionally my musical hackles are raised. Today, they’re up again, occasioned by the arrival in the post of Anne Applebaum’s just-published tome Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Allen Lane).  Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve spent a good few years of my life exploring Polish music in this very period.  So for me to head straight for chapters such as ‘Homo sovieticus‘, ‘Socialist realism’, ‘Ideal cities’, ‘Reluctant collaborators’ and ‘Passive opponents’ is a totally predictable action, one undertaken I’m afraid more in hope than expectation.

The plain fact is that most historians seem not to like music.  Or, rather, they avoid writing about it if they possibly can.  Literature and the visual arts – fine, although even they are often poorly attached appendages.  Is it therefore a case of such historians believing that music has no place in social, political or cultural history?  Or is it that they have no analytical or descriptive vocabulary with which to discuss it?  There have been occasional exceptions that bridge this gaping hole, one of them being in the writings of Norman Davies.  Davies not only makes the effort but also understands cultural contexts and has the writing skills to convey the significance of music and the other arts to his readers.  Another exception is the historian Toby Thacker, whose Music after Hitler, 1945-1955 (Ashgate, 2007) is a searching enquiry that covers both East and West Germany.  (Applebaum does quote from a 2002 article by Thacker, but his book is not in her bibliography.)  There are also historians whose brief is cultural history, such as Frances Stonor Saunders and her perspective from outside the Soviet bloc in Who Paid the Piper?  The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, 1999).

I have been poring over Applebaum’s book this morning.  It’s a weighty volume, focusing on three countries: East Germany, Hungary and Poland.  In major respects, it promises to be a fascinating read, a work of breadth and synthesis which I hope will help me in placing Polish music of the post-war decade within a wider context.  In fact, Iron Curtain barely acknowledges that there was such a thing as music, let alone its crucial role in socialist-realist propaganda.  And propaganda, not least that involving music and the visual arts, was at the heart of the ‘crushing’ communist machine.

There is mention of the prohibition of jazz and dance music as part of early 50s rebellious youth culture in Poland; elsewhere there is a quotation of the text of an East German mass song.  As for the music intended to promote socialist realism through mass songs or cantatas – or the concert music of the period – there’s almost nothing, except an incomplete recollection of one incident from Andrzej Panufnik, which Applebaum misleadingly glosses. Chopin Year (1949) is discussed, but not the two Festivals of Polish Music (1951, 1955).  Władysław Szpilman gets a mention for his radio broadcasts at the start and end of World War II, but then casually to remark that he ‘continued to work for the radio until 1963′ totally ignores his principal role in writing mass songs – some of them extremely popular – in the 1950s.  Applebaum has a few easily-reached quotes from Panufnik’s autobiography Composing Myself (Methuen, 1987), but these hardly count as a measured response to the issue.  The gaps are yawning.

I have not yet read Iron Curtain through from start to finish, so it is possible that its focus does not require the sort of essential details whose omission is so glaring to me.  Its attention to literature and film, for example, is a little greater, but any book on the period that fails to engage with Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) – although it is in the bibliography – or a literary figure like Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, who was forced into ‘internal exile’ in the early 1950s for not fitting in with Poland’s socialist-realist drive, cannot fail to raise serious questions.  The visual arts are as notable for their absence as is music (a couple of illustrations do not make up for the dearth of discussion of painting, sculpture and poster art).  The general level of interest is summed up by a sentence towards the end of the chapter on ‘Socialist realism’:

In due course, the most obviously Stalinist films became embarrassments to their directors, some of whom denounced or disavowed them after his death in 1953.  The crudest High Stalinist paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction and architecture met the same fate.

Why is music excluded there?

Readers who are curious in any way about the role of music in history are normally compelled to look elsewhere for enlightenment, to the work of music historians.  There are several recent books, by dedicated writers on music, which engage meaningfully with the cultural, historical and political contexts of post-war Eastern Europe.  (None of these authors is referenced by Applebaum, and it looks as if no music historians were consulted.  I can’t tell if specialist historians in the other arts were consulted.)  But no-one can pretend that any of these music-oriented books reaches the ‘broad masses’ who might pick up history books like this one.  There is something deeply wrong about this state of affairs.  Why is there so little reciprocity on the part of historians?  Do they not recognise what they – and consequently the reader – are missing?

Don’t get me wrong: Applebaum’s book looks as if it will, in other respects, be an engaging read, not least for its interviews with ‘time witnesses’.  And I promise to read it for what it aims to be, despite my disappointment at the failure of yet another historian to incorporate musical and other cultural aspects closer to the centre of the argument.

• Zanussi, Wajda and Michniewski on Kilar

As a little supplement to my earlier post today on Kilar at 80, here are two interviews I’ve since discovered by the film directors Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda.  They’re in Polish but with excellent English subtitles.  It’s interesting to observe the different ways in which Zanussi and Wajda talk about their frequent collaborations with Kilar.  Zanussi speaks touchingly and intelligently, referring to Kilar by the semi-formal ‘Pan Wojciech’ (Mr Wojciech).  Wajda is revealing in other ways, freer and more relaxed, and uses the more familiar ‘Wojtek’.

The interviews also offer glimpses of some of the films.  In Zanussi’s case, the excerpts are fairly brief: Struktura kryształu (The Structure of Crystal, 1969), Iluminacja (Illumination, 1973), Brat naszego Boga (Our God’s Brother, 1997).  The excerpts in the Wajda interview are a bit longer: Ziemia obiecana (Land of Promise, 1974), Kronika wypadków miłosnych (Chronicle of Amorous Events, 1986) and Pan Tadeusz (Mr Thaddeus, 1999).  Both accounts display Kilar’s mastery of the complementary score, sometimes in the most minimal way, an approach which often pays dividends in the cinema.

Both interviews have been recently uploaded by the Polish Music Publishers, PWM Edition, as part of its celebration of Kilar’s life and work.  There are also YouTube interviews with two Polish conductors: Antoni Wit (who has recorded several CDs of Kilar’s work for Naxos and other labels) and Wojciech Michniewski.

The interview with Michniewski, who has a background as a composer, is particularly engaging.  He gives a fascinating and anecdotally rich account of his connections with Kilar, concentrating on Orawa (1986) and Siwa mgła (Grey Mist, 1979), including the delightful inscriptions that Kilar wrote in his copies of these scores.

• Kilar at 80

Wojciech Kilar (photo from the 1970s?)

Wojciech Kilar is one of the stayers of Polish music.  He turns 80 today. Of his fellow internationally-known composers, only Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) has reached the same milestone.  Two months ago, the Polish president awarded Kilar the country’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle.  I hope that this is not an omen of mortality, as its conferral on both Lutosławski and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki took place when they were on their deathbeds.  Equally, I’m not anxious to mark this event with anything like an obitual ode, and I’ll draw a polite veil over Kilar’s concert music of the last twenty years or so.

Although many other Polish composers have written film music, Kilar is undoubtedly the best-known, with well over 100 film scores to his credit (his first was in 1958).  He’s worked on a wealth of Polish films, such as Kazimierz Kutz’s Sół ziemi czarnej (Salt of the Black Earth, 1969), Krzysztof Zanussi’s Struktura kryształu (The Structure of Crystal, also 1969), Andrzej Wajda’s Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land, 1974) and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Przypadek (Blind Chance, 1981).  Kilar became internationally famous for his work on English-language films, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady (1996).  He has a gift for a catchy melodic hook, like that which haunts his score for Roman Polański’s The Pianist (2002).

Kilar’s concert music follows a similar trajectory to those of his Polish contemporaries, at least from the 1950s through to the 1980s.  It’s not often realised, however, that he was known as an up-and-coming talent several years earlier than Krzysztof Penderecki and Górecki, who were born just a year later.  His music of the early-mid 1950s unsurprisingly shows a neoclassical bent (Horn Sonata, 1954; Little Overture, 1955).  After his Ode in memoriam Béla Bartók (1957), he seems to have taken a compositional breather, while other composers were sorting out their responses to the Western avant-garde in public at the new, ground-breaking ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festivals.  Kilar stormed back in the fourth, fifth and sixth festivals in 1961-63 with Herbsttag (1960), Riff ’62 (1962) and Générique (1963).

Although they challenged the audiences, these scores were quite different to those of Penderecki and Górecki. Kilar’s music was more febrile, less obviously unified, less closely wedded to the sonoristic movement of his contemporaries.  It was lighter than Górecki’s equivalent pieces (Elementi, 1962) and less homogenous than Penderecki’s, as the jazz and rhythmic components in Riff ’62 shows.  For a while in the late 1960s, Kilar seemed close to Górecki (they both lived and worked in Katowice) as they moved towards a more consonant idiom, but their paths started to diverge.

I once characterised their differences as Kilar preferring the major third while Górecki went for the minor.  This pat observation has a certain element of truth, in the sense that Kilar developed a sweeter compositional tooth than Górecki.  This is borne out when comparing two works from 1972: Kilar’s Przygrywka i kolęda (Prelude and Christmas Carol) and Górecki’s Second Symphony ‘Copernican’.  Kilar was the first (after Zygmunt Krauze’s Folk Music, 1972) to plunge wholeheartedly into the world of folk culture, and in 1974 he came up with a stunner that remains one of his most-performed orchestral works.

 

Krzesany (Sparking Dance) is a vigorous re-imagining of one of the Polish highlanders’ most characteristic dances. It’s hard to realise 40 years on how refreshing and jovial this piece was, bringing together as it did elements of sonorism and national music.  Polish folk music, which twenty years earlier had been somewhat tainted among composers for its role in promoting communist socialist realism, had been released by Krauze and Kilar.  For my money, Kilar’s Orawa for strings (1986) is a more successful and if less obviously colourful example, and I remember having great fun when conducting it many years ago, though the players had to work harder than I did!  There are two intervening symphonic poems which also draw inspiration from the Podhale region north of the Tatra Mountains – Kościelec 1909 (1976; the title refers to the mountain where the composer Mieczysław Karłowicz met his death by avalanche) and Siwa mgła (Grey Mist, 1979).

With Bogurodzica (Mother of God, 1975), Kilar got into his stride with religious contextualisation or historical memorialisation.  Subsequent pieces include Victoria (written for Pope John Paul II’s second visit to Poland), Angelus (1984), Piano Concerto (1997), Missa pro pace (2000) and September Symphony (2003, his response to 9/11).

The most notorious of these pieces was Exodus (1981).  Krzesany had created a sensation at the 1974 ‘Warsaw Autumn’, and Exodus did likewise at the 1981 festival. This was at the height of the Solidarity movement and just three months before the imposition of martial law, so Kilar’s reference to the Old Testament story accumulated contemporary symbolism.  Here, the ‘major third’ aspect of Kilar’s aesthetic came to the fore, allied to a Boléro-like structure.  And there’s no doubting the filmic aspect too – it’s as if Kilar was writing for  a Hollywood biblical epic.  I was present at the premiere in the Philharmonic Hall in Warsaw.  The audience became very excitable, provoked by the repetitious refrain (some even joining in), and as Exodus reached its final choral-orchestral flourish, someone next to me let out a loud ‘Mehhhhhhh’.

Here’s a video put up yesterday by the Polish Music Publishers, PWM Edition.  It’s a live performance of BogurodzicaAngelus (starting at 11’08”) and Exodus (starting shortly after 31’55”).  (Warning: there are virtually no gaps between pieces in this tightly edited video.)   The concert was given on 1 May this year in the presence of the composer at the monastery church at Częstochowa, where Kilar has long had a private retreat.

Whether by design or in naivety, Kilar’s music of the past 40 years has divided audiences as violently as the parting of the Red Sea.  In his pared-down, transparent pieces since 2000, some hail him as having a mystical link – through his music – to the Almighty.  Others see an updated version of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  But no-one can accuse him of not following his compositional instincts, and his music continues to touch audiences and film-goers across the world.

%d bloggers like this: