• WL100/49: 22 July 1949 and a letter

In 1999, in a Polish archive, I came across a letter that was something of a surprise, to put it mildly.  Dated 8 April 1950, the letter was from Lutosławski to the Board of the Polish Composers’ Union ZKP, concerning its special call for scores (27 March).  The Composers’ Union letter had read:

To members of the ZKP, with the exception of musicologists and non-residents.

In connection with the forthcoming Festival of Polish Music, which will take place between November 1950 and March 1951, we kindly request prompt replies to the following questions:

1. What are you composing, or planning to compose, with the intention of submitting to the festival?  You should give an indication of the proposed title, the make-up of the ensemble, the duration and the completion date of the composition, on the understanding that

(a) pieces for symphonic forces should be sent in by September 1, 1950,
(b) smaller pieces for amateur, chamber or choral ensembles, and mass songs should be sent in by July 15, 1950, to the festival office: ul. Zgoda 15, Warsaw.

2. What ameliorations (journeys, vacations) as well as what expenses do you anticipate?

Irrespective of any grant which might be awarded by the Ministry of Culture and Art, the pieces which you send in could be commissioned by the Composers’ Commissioning Board of the ZKP or by other institutions, for example Polish Radio, the House of the Polish Army, the Union of Polish Youth, etc.  Pieces of the second type (under 1.b) are particularly sought by the festival Committee.


The contents of Lutosławski’s reply are astonishing, especially in light of his later comments on his music of the late 40s and early 50s, when socialist realism was at its height.  Here is his letter, with my translation.

WL letter re Lipcowy wieniec

Warsaw, 8-IV-1950
To the Board of ZKP

In rep[ly] to the enquiry dated 27-III-1950 (L.Dz.565/50), I notify you that:

1.a) – I cannot yet at this moment give detailed information relating to the symphonic work proposed by me for the Festival. I would request the possibility of submitting it later.
b) – relating to broadly-based music I offer: 1) A folk suite for unison choir, solo voices and small orchestra, ent[itled] “COURTSHIP,” dur. c. 20′.  The score and parts are to be found at Polish Radio.  2) A triptych for solo baritone, male-voice choir and symphony orchestra ent[itled] “JULY GARLAND” (a piece written to words by K. I. Gałczyński, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the July Manifesto), dur. c.10′.  The score is to be found at the House of the Polish Army.  Please pass on the above-mentioned notification to the Festival organisers. –
Witold Lutosławski

That Lutosławski should have composed a work with such a blatant political purpose is extraordinary.  It never surfaced during his lifetime – it never appeared in his list of works – and one suspects that he had blanked it, understandably, from his memory.  Although its link with the preceding post – WL100/48: 22 July 1944 – is self-evident, much else remains to be explained.  The next post – WL100/50: Volcano in Łowicz – looks at Lutosławski’s collaboration with Gałczyński (1905-53), one of Poland’s most distinguished poets.

• WL100/48: 22 July 1944 and after

Just days before the valiant but ultimately disastrous Warsaw Uprising on the west bank of the River Vistula, the nascent Polish Communist party issued a declaration.  Its leaders were east of the river, in Lublin, under the protection of the Soviet army.  The declaration of 22 July 1944 was headed by the Polish eagle, deprived of its crown, and the words “Manifest i pierwsze dekrety Polskiego Komitetu Wyzwolenia Narodowego (Manifesto and First Decree of the Polish Committee of National Liberation).  PKWN_Manifest

Within a few years, opposition had been eliminated and the date of 22 July came to symbolise the creation and reinforcement of Poland’s Soviet-backed political structure.  Major projects in the rebuilding of Warsaw were often opened on this date.  In 1949 it was Trasa W-Z (E-W Route), a road and tram route over the Vistula from Praga, past the (then still ruined) Royal Palace and through a newly-constructed tunnel westwards.  This date in 1950 and 1952 also ‘book-ends’ the building of the socialist-realist housing and shopping complex MDM around Plac Konstitucji.  In 1955, 22 July was chosen for the opening of the Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s ‘gift to Warsaw’, which still towers over the city.

22 July was also an occasion to dish out honours to worthy citizens, from bricklayers to cultural figures.  Lutosławski could not escape such attention.  On 22 July 1955 – the same day that the Palace of Culture and Science was handed over – he received the Order of the Banner of Work (Order Sztandaru Pracy), but only Second Class (on the right, below), even though his Concerto for Orchestra had been successfully premiered eight months earlier.


Such medals were accepted as an unavoidable part of life, especially in the early post-war decades.  But even 22 years later, in 1977, when dissident groups were making waves (it was only two years before Cardinal Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II and three years before the establishment of the free trade union Solidarity), it was hard to avoid them.  That year, Lutosławski was taken unawares when he was awarded the Order of the Builders of People’s Poland (Order Budowniczych Polski Ludowej).  This Order was normally awarded for political service and, of the 18 recipients in 1977, several were top party functionaries.  Lutosławski was the only composer given this award during its entire history (1949-85).  The ceremony took place on the eve of 22 July.*


Fortunately, there were many more awards from abroad, and later in democratic Poland, that brought Lutosławski pride and joy.  He received the last of these, the Order of the White Eagle (Order Orła Białego), Poland’s highest honour, as he was dying in 1994.  (He was only the second person to be so honoured in modern times; the first was Pope John Paul II, in 1993.)  It was carried ceremonially ahead of his casket at his funeral a matter of weeks later.


The next post in this mini-series – WL100/49: 22 July 1949 and a letter – uncovers an unknown work by Lutosławski.

* information from Danuta Gwizdalanka and Krzysztof Meyer, Lutosławski. Droga do mistrzostwa (Kraków: PWM, 2004), 230-31.

• 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.”


• WL100/23: 9-10 March 1957

Lutosławski Speaks Out (1957)

Lutosławski chose his moment to make statements of a political-artistic nature.  He stayed noticeably silent during the discussions at Łagów on 5-8 August 1949, when politicians, composers and performers tried to determine what constituted socialist realism in music.  On 9 March 1957, however, he opened the 9th General Assembly of the Polish Composers’ Union (9-10 March) with a short speech.  At a pivotal moment in Polish culture, six months after the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival and before any music from the Western avant-garde had been played in Poland, Lutosławski reflected on both the creative trauma of the past seven and a half years and the creative opportunities that lay ahead of Polish composers.

Our Assembly, for the first time in a very long while, is taking place in an atmosphere of true creative freedom.  No one here will persecute anyone for so-called formalism, no one will prevent anyone from expressing his aesthetic opinions, regardless of what individual composers represent.

Zjazd nasz po raz pierwszy od dłuższego już czasu odbywa się w atmosferze prawdziwej wolności twórczej. Nikt tu nikogo nie będzie prześladował z tzw. formalizm, nikt nikomu nie przeszkodzi wypowiedzieć swych poglądów estetycznych niezależnie od tego, co reprezentują poszczególni kompozytorzy.

When today, from the perspective of eight [sic] and a half years, I look back on the notorious conference in Łagów in 1949, when the frontal attack on Polish musical creativity began, I go cold just remembering that dreadful experience.   In fact, it is hard [to find] a more absurd argument than this – that one should erase the output of recent decades and return to the musical language of the nineteenth century.  But they still tried to make us believe this argument.  What is more, they frequently tried to promote works that were imitative and bland, simultaneously closing off the route to the concert platform for works that were original and creative.  We all know that this was the work of people to whom the very idea of beauty is totally foreign, people for whom music is of no interest unless there is some tale or legend attached.

Gdy dziś, z perspektywy ośmiu i pół lat, patrze na sławetny Zjazd w Łagowie w 1949 roku, kiedy to zapoczątkowano frontalny atak na polską twórczość muzyczną – zimno mi się robi na wspomnienie tego okropnego przeżycia.  W istocie trudno o bardziej absurdalną tezę niż ta, że należy przekreślić dorobek ostatnich kilkudziesięciu lat i powrócić do języka muzycznego XIX stulecia.  A jednak starano się tę tezę nam wmówić.  Mało tego – starano się nieraz lansować utwory epigońskie i jałowe, zamykając jednocześnie drogę do estrady dziełom oryginalnym i twórczym.  Wszyscy wiemy, że działo się to za sprawa ludzi, którym obce jest najzupełniej samo pojęcie piękna – ludzi, których nic nie obchodzi muzyka, jeśli nie można do niej doczepić jakiejś historyjki, jakiejś legendy.

The period of which I speak may not have lasted long, because it actually passed a couple of years ago, but it was nevertheless long enough to have visited tremendous damage on our music.  The psyche of a creative artist is an extremely delicate and precise instrument.  So the attack on that instrument and the attempt to subdue it caused not a few of us moments of severe depression.  Being completely cut off from what was happening in the arts in the West likewise played no small role in that dismal experiment to which we were subjected.

Okres, o którym mówię, trwał może niedługo, bo faktycznie minął już parę lat temu, dość jednak długo na to, aby wyrządzić naszej muzyce olbrzymie szkody.  Psychika artysty twórczego jest instrumentem niezmiernie delikatnym i precyzyjnym.  Toteż zamach na ten instrument i próba zawładnięcia nim przyprawiły niejednego z nas o momenty ciężkiej depresji.  Całkowite odcięcie od tego, co działo się w sztuce na Zachodzie, odegrało również niemała rolę w tym ponurym eksperymencie, jakiemu nas poddano.

Have we shaken ourselves free of this state of dejection?  Do we have enough enthusiasm for new, creative explorations?  Certainly yes.  But even so our situation is far from easy.  Before each of us stands the problem of finding our place in the tumult represented by the arts of our time.  This problem is sharply drawn particularly for those of us who, after a gap of some years, have established contact with Western European music.  Not all of us have a clear view on what is happening in this music, where it is going.  I believe, however, that it is only a question of time, that not only will we reach a clear view on the situation but also that we will play a positive and not insignificant role in it.  This optimistic feeling allows me above all to cherish the fact that today we are breathing an atmosphere of true creative freedom.  And that is the first and indispensable requirement for the development of every art.

Czy otrząsnęliśmy się ze stanu przygnębienia?  Czy mamy dość zapału do nowych, twórczych poszukiwań? Na pewno tak.  Ale mimo to sytuacja nasza nie jest bynajmniej łatwa.  Przed każdym z nas staje problem znalezienia swego miejsca w tym zamęcie, jaki przedstawia sobą sztuka naszej epoki.  Szczególnie ostro rysuje się ten problem przed tymi z nas, którzy po kilkuletniej przerwie nawiązali kontakt z muzyką zachodnioeuropejską.  Nie mamy tu wszyscy jasnego poglądu na to, co się w tej muzyce dzieje, ku czemu ona zmierza.  Wierzę jednak, że jest to tylko kwestią czasu, że nie tylko zdobędziemy jasny pogląd na sytuację, ale że odegramy w niej pozytywną i wcale nie najmniejszą rolę.  To optymistyczne uczucie pozwala mi żywić przede wszystkim fakt, że oddychamy dziś atmosferą prawdziwej wolności twórczości.  A to jest pierwszym i nieodzownym warunkiem rozwoju wszelkiej sztuki.

Lutosławski’s opening address was printed in Ruch Muzyczny no.1 (1 May, 1957), pp.2-3.  Ruch Muzyczny resumed publication with this number, having been ‘liquidated’ by the authorities late in 1949 for being too independent.  My translation above appeared in a slightly shorter form in Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005), p.92. Steven Stucky provided his own translation in Lutosławski and His Music (Oxford, 1981), pp. 63-4, and Zbigniew Skowron reproduced it in Lutosławski on Music (Scarecrow, 2007), 231-2.

• 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.


• WL100/11: ‘The Hidden Composer’

The Hidden Composer: Witold Lutosławski and Polish Radio

An exhibition first shown as part of the Breaking Chains festival,
Barbican Centre, London, 13-19 January 1997

I put this exhibition together in order to illuminate an area of Lutosławski’s life and work that had been obscured by history and largely ignored by commentators.  Lutosławski himself consistently drew a veil over it.  Yet it reveals much about the creative artist’s dilemmas at an extraordinarily difficult time.  Since 1997, other facets have come to light (I will return to them later in the series), but I have reproduced the exhibition faithfully rather than update it.  I have, however, added a few sound files which I could not incorporate at the time.  The illustrations were never of top quality, having been photocopied in Poland, but I hope that they give a flavour of the period and the publication from which they come.

Accompanying brochure

In these days of the Internet, it is hard to imagine how limited were the means of communication in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  It took, for example, until the 1950s for a full network of radio stations and masts to be established (this was, of course, before television).  Each and every technical development was celebrated in Polish Radio’s listings magazine, Radio i Świat (‘Radio and the World’).

Radio i Świat logo3Like The Radio Times in the UK, Radio i Świat was intended as a printed information service for its listeners, primarily for its broadcast programmes.  But it was much more than that.  It first appeared in 1945 and for several years included technical diagrams for those wishing to build their own wirelesses.  Its listings, at least in the early years, also included details of foreign radio programmes, such as those on the BBC Home and Light Services.

When, however, the political situation began to change in 1948, Radio i Świat changed with it.  Whereas newspapers and journals promulgated the main shifts in Party policy, a magazine like Radio i Świat reflected them in ways which have not generally been regarded as quite so significant.  Its pages, however, are often more vividly revealing and surprising than other sources in the musical detailing of this momentous post-war period.

The Hidden Composer looks at Lutosławski’s musical profile and his cultural-political context from the end of the war until the early 1960s, as through the eyes of a reader of Radio i Świat.  It is not the whole story, but it is an important part of it.

[The following summaries accompanied the six panels of the original exhibition.
You will find the full texts, images and sound files for each of these panels
either by clicking on the relevant heading below
or by scrolling the ARTICLES tab above.]

PANEL 1: 1945-48  RADIO i ŚWIAT

In the early years after the war, Radio i Świat had a generously international outlook.  Photographs from the UK, for example, included Princess Elizabeth at a BBC microphone.  But increasingly the magazine looked inwards, as did Poland as a whole.  Photographs included one of Lenin, but more frequently the front covers featured the country’s most outstanding classical musicians – Fitelberg, Palester, Bacewicz and Panufnik – as well as popular singers like Godlewska and the male vocal quartet ‘Czejanda’.  Polish Radio’s Festival of Slavonic Music in November 1947 was a signal of the post-war grouping into Eastern and Western European spheres of influence.


RiŚ 48:16Lutosławski reached the front cover of Radio i Świat in April 1948, shortly after the premiere of his First Symphony (it was banned a year later).  During the 1940s and 1950s, his most secure source of income was his work for Polish Radio.  He wrote incidental music for poetry programmes and for radio drama (some forty productions).  Early titles included Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and a children’s programme based on Kipling’s The Cat that Walked by Himself.  Prawda o Syrenach (The Truth about the Sirens, 1947) exhibits the use of jazz, while Fletnia chińska (The Chinese Flute, 1949) shows the increasing politicisation of radio broadcasting.  Lutosławski’s short cantata Warszawie-sława! (Glory to Warsaw!) is a tribute to the post-war rebuilding of the Polish capital, an undertaking that was frequently praised on the covers of Radio i Świat.


The politicisation of all public bodies came to a head culturally with the import of socialist realism (socrealizm) from Stalin’s Soviet Union.  Composers were cajoled to write for the mass of the people.  Music was subject to peer review at Polish Radio and the Composers’ Union, and Lutosławski had little choice but to accede to ‘requests’ for mass songs.  Most of these were published in Radio i Świat and broadcast on Polish Radio, where tapes of some still exist.  His least political song – Wyszłabym ja (I Would Marry) – was his most popular, and he even recorded it himself in 1950 (the tape is no longer extant).


After Stalin died, in March 1953, there was a protracted period of transition towards greater artistic freedom.  Radio i Świat reflected many of these changes.  Mass songs became less political, although two of Lutosławski’s soldiers’ songs appeared and arguable his best song – Towarzysz (Comrade) – was included in a special programme ‘Songs of the Fatherland and the Party’ as late as July 1955.  Radio i Świat also indicates that the ban on Lutosławski’s First Symphony was not as watertight nor as long-lasting as has been previously assumed (it was bropadcast in August 1954).  And, gradually, music from the ‘decadent’ West was published in the magazine, beginning with Mississippi (Ol’ Man River) in March 1954.

PANEL 5: 1956-59  NEW MUSIC

The arts played a significant part in the cultural renaissance of Poland in the mid-1950s.  Music advanced on the popular front and in the appearance of the first ‘Warsaw Autumn’ International Festival of Contemporary Music on 1956.  Radio i Świat maintained its educational tone by publishing articles, with musical examples, on twelve-note music by Berg and Webern.  Has any other radio listings magazine ever provided such a service to its readers?  Lutosławski kept a fairly low public profile while he developed a new musical language in Five Songs (1957), Funeral Music (1958) and Jeux vénitiens (1961), works which would launch his international career.

PANEL 6: 1957-63  ‘DERWID’

Lutosławski’s compositional ties with Polish Radio continued into the 1960s, partly providing incidental music for radio dramas (such as Słowacki’s tragedy Lilla Weneda), partly writing some three dozen popular songs – foxtrots, waltzes, tangos – under the pseudonym ‘Derwid.  ‘Derwid’ is the harp-playing king in Lilla Weneda, although a different pseudonym appears on the manuscripts of the first six songs.  Lutosławski-Derwid had an evident affinity with popular idioms if the quality of these songs is anything to go by.  Among the most memorable are the Gershwinesque Zielony berecik (The Little Green Beret) and the tango Daleka podróż (Distant Journey), with its quote from Debussy’s La Mer.  Nie oczekuję dziś nikogo (I’m Not Expecting Anyone Today) was his most popular song and the only one to win ‘Radio Song of the Month’.  It was also one of some ten Derwid songs printed in the ever-informative Radio i Świat and its 1958 successor, Radio i Telewizja.


This exhibition was funded by Cardiff University of Wales and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.  Valuable assistance was also given by Polish Radio and the National Library in Warsaw and the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel.  Sincere thanks are due to a number of people without whose help and advice the exhibition would not have been possible: Urszula Kubicka, Michał Kubicki, Elżbieta Markowska and Bohdan Mazurek in Warsaw, Martina Homma in Köln, Alasdair Nicolson, Alessandro Timossi and Tomasz Walkiewicz in London, and David Hopkins, Sue House and Sue Sheridan in Cardiff.

© 1997 Adrian Thomas

• New Article (Lutosławski’s Parallel Lives)

I’ve just posted a new article – ‘Parallel Lives of a Captive Muse’ – which has been published at www.woven-words.co.uk as part of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s celebration of the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth next year.

• Prix Europa for ‘Warsaw Variations’

Huge congratulations to Alan Hall of Fallingtree Productions on winning ‘Best European Radio Music Programme’ last week at the 2012 Prix Europa in Berlin. The award was given for his half-hour programme ‘Warsaw Variations’, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 20 December 2011.

‘Warsaw Variations’ charts the musical friendship of Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik during and after World War II.  Among its interviewees are Camilla Panufnik, my former PhD student Beata Bolesławska and myself. Alan was one of my colleagues at Radio 3 in the early 1990s.  He later went independent and is one of the most inventive and insightful producers around.  It was an absolute delight to work with him again.

You can hear the programme via the Fallingtree website:
• http://fallingtree.co.uk/listen/warsaw_variations

A few other links:
• http://www.thenews.pl/1/11/Artykul/116810,BBC-radio-feature-on-Polish-music-wins-Prix-Europa-
• https://www.facebook.com/fallingtreeproductions

• 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.

• New CD Note (Górecki/Decca)

Two fine new CDs of Górecki’s choral music have appeared recently, one by British performers, one by Americans. First out was ‘Henryk Górecki: Totus Tuus’, sung by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, conducted by Mike Brewer, on Delphian (DCD34054).  Second to appear was ‘Górecki: Miserere’, sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by Grant Gershon, on Decca (478 3537).  The NYCGB seems to be marginally the larger of the two sizeable choirs.  Both are superbly blended and able to sustain the long and often quiet lines and harmonies of Górecki’s music.  The two repertoires complement one another nicely, with only the previously unrecorded Lobgesang (2000) on both discs.  Together, they give as representative a survey of Górecki’s sacred choral music (mostly a cappella) as you could wish for.  And you can also appreciate the contrasts between young and mature voices.

The Delphian CD contains Euntes ibant et flebant (1972), Amen (1975), Totus Tuus (1987), Lobgesang and Salve, sidus Polonorum (2000).  The excellent booklet note is by Ivan Moody.  The full texts are included, in Latin/Polish and in English.

The Decca CD contains Miserere (1981), Five Marian Songs (1985) and Lobgesang. The full texts are included, in Latin/Polish, German, French and English.

Here’s the link to my booklet note for Górecki: Miserere, or you can scroll the CD NOTES tab above.

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