• (2012-13) BBC SSO: Muzyka polska

Polish Music

introduction written for the
BBC Scottish SO 2012-13 season brochure,
including its ‘Muzyka polska’ series

BBC SSO Muzyka PolskaThe Poles are a resilient nation.  Their country has been invaded by the Mongols (13th century), by Sweden from the north and by Turkey from the east (17th century), and was occupied and partitioned from the 1790s to 1918 by Prussia, Russia and Austria.  And that’s not to mention being overrun by Nazi Germany in 1939 and completely reshaped in 1945 under Stalin’s watchful gaze.

The miracle has been that its creative artists, particularly since the 1890s, have successfully fought for their ideas against the odds (not for nothing does its national anthem begin: “Poland has not yet perished’).  This survival instinct has produced music with a unique character, blending lyricism with exuberance, drama with exoticism.  Chopin remains a touchstone of such Polish sensibilities, especially in his two Piano Concertos (11 Oct & 14 Mar) composed before he fled Poland in 1830.

By 1900, composers were looking West, as can be heard in the Straussian influence on Karol Szymanowski’s 1905 Concert Overture (11 Oct).  At the same time, Mieczysław Karłowicz was composing his breathtaking tone-poem Eternal Songs (15 Nov), in which he combines his passion for the mountains (which killed him just a few years later) and a mystical yearning for “the ultimate truth about life and death”.  Szymanowski soon sought to distance himself from the Austro-German tradition, and he found inspiration in the poetry and music of North Africa and Arabia as well as in French music.  Against the backdrop of the Great War, he composed not only the fantastical and impressionistic First Violin Concerto (15 Nov), but also two cycles about love, Songs of a Fairytale Princess and Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin (17 Jan), with their ecstatic vocal arabesques and bewitching orchestration.

In the 1920s, Szymanowski’s search for another world of experience translated itself into a fascination with home-grown exoticism: Polish folk music.  Subsequent composers, like Witold Lutosławski, followed his lead, although not always willingly.  After the Second World War, the communist government required ‘music for the masses’, which generally meant using national folk music as a source.  Lutosławski’s 1954 Concerto for Orchestra (17 Jan) remains the most outstanding Polish work of the time in its symphonic use of folk tunes and its brilliant orchestral sound-world.  The one composer who generally bypassed the folk-music trend was Grażyna Bacewicz; her neo-classical Concerto for String Orchestra (25 Oct) was an immediate hit at its premiere in 1950 and is still frequently performed.

By the late 1950s, Polish music had liberated itself from government restriction, as well as from folk music and neo-classicism, and had become among the most avant-garde in the world.  The most famous of a new generation of composers was Krzysztof Penderecki, whose 1961 Polymorphia (17 Jan) was one of several of his pieces later used to terrifying effect in horror films such as The Exorcist and The Shining.

The less overtly experimental Lutosławski, whose centenary falls in 2013, developed into the most significant Polish composer since Szymanowski.  In 1970, he wrote the ground- breaking and dramatic Cello Concerto (28 Feb) for Rostropovich who, at the height of the Cold War, believed that it represented his own battles against dark forces. Lutosławski, however, believed in the power of pure music and ended his distinguished career in 1992 with the lyrical Fourth Symphony (17 Jan).

In that same year, Paweł Szymański, the most intriguing composer born in the 1950s, finalised his meditative A Study of Shade (17 Jan).  Poland had recently cast off the shackles of communism, thanks to the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, and the country began to celebrate its longest period of real independence for over 200 years.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas

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