• Locating Polish Music (2009)

Locating Polish Music

Keynote paper delivered on 2 May 2009 at the conclusion of the international conference ‘Polish Music since 1945’ held at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK.


This paper is a series of personal observations, in which I have drawn on 40 years of immersion in Polish music, rather than a musicological discourse.  What I have to say today may not be everybody’s ‘cup of tea’.  But I would like, for better or for worse, to air some of my reactions to the past six decades, when Polish music and its contexts have shifted radically while maintaining distinctive commonalities.

Szymanowski, folk music and pre-existing sources

The best-known 20th-century quotations about Polish music come from Karol Szymanowski.  The one that I return to is from his 1920 article, ‘On Contemporary Musical Opinion in Poland’ (in the translation by Alistair Wightman):

Let all streams springing from universal art mingle freely with ours: may they impregnate, differentiate and transform it in accordance with its particular attributes.  We ought not to lose organic connection with universal culture, because it is only on such a plane that a truly great, living art, including nationalistic music, can flourish. (1)

We should note that Szymanowski sees the process as one-way; it does not yet envisage a reciprocal, outward-bound influence.  Today, the question of locating Polish music and its influence in a wider context is an important one, but it is beyond the immediate scope of my paper, as is consideration of Polish musical activities outside Poland.

A few sentences later on in his article, Szymanowski ends with the most cited of his views on Polish music:

I shall always assert stubbornly that Polish national music is not the grim phantom of a polonaise or a mazurka, …  It is rather the lonely song, joyous and free, of a nightingale singing spontaneously in the fragrant May nights. (2)

I cannot be the only one to be slightly puzzled by this remark, which is rarely queried.  First of all, I have never been sure precisely which performing or compositional tradition of these Polish dances it is that Szymanowski is railing against.  Secondly, in what sense is his evocation of a nightingale in Polish May nights peculiar to his self-perception as a loner and his own brand of sentiment, or a specifically Polish tradition that is different, for example, from May nights in Canterbury!

In 1936, just four months before his death, and despite sometimes having included borrowed material, as in his ballet Harnasie (1923-31), Szymanowski professed his opposition to anything approaching direct quotation: ‘… folklore is only significant for me as a fertilising agent.  My aim is the creation of a Polish style … in which there is not one jot of folklore …’. (3)  His term ‘fertilising agent’ is a useful one.  Was he, we might ask, ambivalent about his use of actual highlander melodies in Harnasie and happier with references to, rather than direct quotations of, Sabała scales in Słopiewnie (1921) and the Mazurkas op.50 (1926)?  The final passages from this 1936 interview is telling for its even more categorical disapproval of reliance on pre-existing material, and it provides a salutory context for any discussion of such practices in following decades: ‘The national character of a composer does not depend on quotations from folk-music, the most splendid proof of this being the work of Chopin’. (4)

With this in mind, let me return briefly, but I hope pertinently, to the matter of the translation of the key quote from Szymanowski’s article ‘On Contemporary Musical Opinion in Poland’.  Wightman’s translation ‘grim phantom of a polonaise or a mazurka’ does not quite give the full flavour of Szymanowski’s original, ‘skrzeple widmo polonezu czy mazurka’.  Where Wightman has ‘grim phantom’, Jim Samson has ‘stiffened ghost’, which is a little closer.  In Szymanowski’s Polish phrase, ‘widmo’ does mean apparition, spectre, phantom or ghost.  But ‘skrzeple’ means clotted or coagulated, or even, as has been suggested to me, lifeless, bloodless or drained.  So ‘coagulated spectre’ might be a closer, if more gruesome rendition.  Szymanowski’s achievement, whether or not he leaned on existing sources directly, was to free the blood of folk scales, melodies and rhythms – coagulated over time by Polish composers since Chopin – so that it was able to flow freely.  To take a specific and, in this context, symbolic example: who can fail to be moved by the imitative waves of slow-motion descents of the Sabała motif in Słopiewnie’s ‘Wanda’ as the princess drowns to save her country?

Quantifying Szymanowski’s influence is tricky.  One might deem the oberek finales of Grażyna Bacewicz’s Piano Concerto (1949) and Second Piano Sonata (1953) as relatively stiff, though not bloodless descendants of the oberek finale of Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony, Symphonie-concertante(1932).  On the other hand, the exquisite subtlety with which Witold Lutosławski fashions the opening of his Concerto for Orchestra (1954) demonstrates that oberek rhythms can be flexible, symphonic, and radically mutable.  So adept was he in this that only recently has it been realised that embedded in the canonic texture are fragments of two more melodies than previously thought.

The return to folk materials in the 1970s by Wojciech Kilar, Zygmunt Krauze and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was not expected, but was part of the large-scale escape from the Western avant-garde, mostly by those born in the 1930s.  It was an assertion of independence.  Kilar followed Szymanowski’s dictum of not necessarily including pre-existing folk materials, but rather inhabiting their sound-world.  Krauze followed Szymanowski and Lutosławski in his heterophonic presentation of światówki in Aus aller Welt stammende (1973), even though a year earlier he had gone outside national boundaries in Folk Music (1972), where the majority of the assembled tunes were non-Polish, tumbled together in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  Górecki has always been deeply reverential to his sources (although the Harpsichord Concerto, 1980, shows that reverence does not equal solemnity).  In the finale of his Third Symphony (1976), his iconicism was heightened by seeing the possibilities for combining at their original pitch (a) a melody from the region of Opole, (b) the opening two chords of Chopin’s Mazurka op.17 no.4, and (c), in a gesture that remained unheard by everyone else for many years, a reference to Beethoven’s own Third Symphony.

The 1970s were the heyday of using folk materials in fairly recognisable form.  Górecki’s use of such elements in his string quartets (1988, 1991, 1995/2005) is marked by a postmodern, although non-ironic distance between the source and its reincarnation.  His First Quartet, for example, has a passage that sounds like the accompaniment, heard from afar, to an inaudible folk melody.  The reference to a Chopin polonaise in the Second Quartet is as oblique aurally as Paweł Szymański’s to Szymanowski’s Mazurka op.62 no.2 in his Sonata for strings and percussion (1982).  Frontline, iconic citation had given way to discrete development and ironic stances.

It will not have escaped your notice that these last two pieces refer not to folk music but to other composers’ interpretation of it.  In recent years this has been fruitful territory for cross-over and jazz musicians.  The Jagodziński Trio has extemporised on Chopin, and so has the pianist Leszek Możdzer in even more radical form, as in his thoughtful version of op.17 no.4.  It is but a small step for such performers to cover other, non-folk-based pieces.  The Nahorny Trio has restructured Karłowicz’s Violin Concerto (1902) with Konstanty Kulka; the cellist Andrzej Bauer, working with Możdzer and M.Bunio.S, an artist from the DJ club scene in Poland, has devised a project called ‘Lutosphere’, (5) and the Motion Trio of accordionists reworked pieces by Penderecki and Górecki at the Polish music festival here a few nights ago.

I am tempted here to invoke Joseph Conrad.  He seemed to warn, back in 1920, against relying on the past.  In his Author’s Note to The Arrow of Gold, he wrote: ‘In plucking the fruit of memory, one runs the risk of spoiling its bloom’.  Tellingly, he continued: ‘especially if it has got to be carried into the market-place’. (6)  I do not get the feeling the Conrad’s warning has had much currency with some of the older Polish composers who have shown a strong tendency to anchor themselves to pre-existing Polish music.

Of the generation born in the 1930s, it is noticeable that Górecki chooses lesser-known materials, for their suggestive rather than obvious connective qualities.  He also, significantly, sees his folk and sacred impulses as being two sides of the same coin.  On the other hand, when Penderecki, ever mindful of the public dimension of his music, does tap into this religious repertoire, he goes for well-known melodies such as Boże, coś Polskę (God, Who has Protected Poland) and Święty Boże (Holy God); he shows no interest in folk material.  There is a further gulf, it seems to me, between their two practices, even though they are both essentially citatory in nature.  And this has to do with what, for want of a better word, I will call memorialisation.


Memorialisation is a striking feature of Polish music over the past 40 years or so, especially to an outsider.  The intensity of this patriotic element is quite possibly unique to Poland.  It seems to have little or no grounding in Polish precedent, except in those works that referred before independence in 1918 to the Dąbrowski Mazurka, such as Noskowski’s Second Symphony ‘Elegiac’ (1879) and Paderewski’s Symphony ‘Polonia’ (1909).  (It should be noted, however, that literature and the visual arts were much more prone to this trend in the same period; indeed, Paderewski’s Symphony was inspired by Artur Grottger’s powerful series of drawings (above) commemorating the 1863 Uprising.)  The dominance of memorialisation in certain quarters in the 1960s, 70s and 80s was, perhaps, a delayed response to the atrocities of World War II, on top of a history of national tragedy stretching back to the late 18th century if not earlier.  Such a response was not possible in the late 1940s and early 50s, when the socialist-realist drive for optimism prevented what its promoters thought of as negative retrospection, nor was it at the forefront of composers’ minds in the avant-garde whirlwind of the late 50s.

The first major Polish memorial work was Penderecki’s Dies Irae (1967), dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz, although it had been preceded by Roman Maciejewski’s Missa pro defunctis (1946-59) and Zbigniew Bujarski’s Kinoth and Chamber Piece (both 1963).  These commemorations have been followed by many more, such as Marta Ptaszyńska’s Holocaust Memorial Cantata (1992), and the practice has continued into the 21st century.  Many works double up as sacred monuments, none more impressive than Penderecki’s Polish Requiem (1980-84, 93).  Here the scope of tragedy and its ramifications comes right up to date to reflect Poland in the early 1980s.  It is as much a memorialisation of the present as of the past.

To illustrate the gulf of understanding between Polish and non-Polish reception, let me turn to the particularly virulent responses to two concerts of Penderecki’s music at the Brighton Festival in May 1984, exactly 25 years ago.  The performance of excerpts from the Polish Requiem met with little empathy on the part of critics.  In The Times, Paul Griffiths wrote one of the most scathing reviews I have ever read of a Polish piece:

If one were to commit the error of considering this Polish Requiem as a work of art, then of course it would have to be judged unbearably pretentious. …  Penderecki spreads the melodic material of a nursery rhyme over the dimensions of a Bruckner adagio. …  Penderecki’s counterpoint is shamelessly tentative, rarely venturing beyond two frailly coupled parts. …  In this sub-tonal music the triad remains the surprise it was in the atonal Penderecki of yesteryear, but only because the harmonic reach is so tiny and the existence of three notes at the same time is so stunning an achievement. (7)

Griffiths’s modernist sympathies are well-known, so his reaction was hardly a surprise, but it has to be said that Penderecki’s new ‘romantic’ direction generally did not find much favour with musical opinion here for many years, although it has softened since the mid-1990s.  Nevertheless, Griffiths is perceptive of one feature of the Polish Requiem that happens to be germane to my topic of memorialisation.  He also wrote: ‘We were witnessing not a musical composition, not a religious event, but a national act of remembrance’. (8)

Stephen Pettit, reviewing in The Times two days later, accused Penderecki’s Te Deum (1980) of being

scarcely less ambitious and no less occasional. …  But, just as the Polish Requiem means much simply for being Polish, so this work’s reflection of a religious nation’s cry to God for help gives it infinite excuse. (9)

These English reviewers picked up on the local significance of these two works as being an alienating factor, one which viewed their ‘Polishness’ as an ‘infinite excuse’ for musical inconsequentiality.  In other words, they ignored Szymanowski’s rallying cry, coming across as particular, not universal.

Although Polish composers have by now largely exhausted ‘local’ subjects for what Griffiths called ‘national act[s] of remembrance’, that has not stopped what for some seems to be the irresistible magnet of memorialisation.  How else to explain Penderecki’s reaction to the events of 11 September 2001, when he abruptly changed direction partway through what was planned as a capriccio for piano and orchestra and emerged as the Piano Concerto subtitled ‘Resurrection’ (2002)?  Kilar, not to be outdone, wrote his September Symphony a year later.

The musical emptiness of Kilar’s recent music is particularly puzzling and dismaying, no less than that of the public response to and acceptance, even adulation, of the recent slew of sacred and other pieces that has poured, like a lazy Balzac novel, from his pen (Magnificat, 2007; Te Deum, 2008).  Nothing, however, can be worse than his Missa pro pace (2000).  Does no-one else feel that we are witnessing repeat performances of that old tale of the Emperor’s new clothes?  Górecki is at least more sensitive and considered, yet even his output of the past fifteen years is negligible, weak and lacking in compositional impetus.  I sometimes wish that the Elektra-Nonesuch recording of his Third Symphony had never been made, because its ramifications for his creative life have been catastrophic.

Capsule I: Titles

At this point I am going to make the first of two small detours, borrowing from Norman Davies’s practice of self-contained ‘capsules’, dotted through his masterly Europe. A History.  This first ‘capsule’ is about titles.  Take Missa pro pace.  There is little in this music that illuminates the title (the Credo is a case in point), unless its supine character is sufficient justification.  But most titles are helpful clues and a way for the composer to shape the audience response.  Most help to locate their musical content or compositional intent.  Generic titles are non-committal beyond their generic expectations (which can of course be confounded), but in quite a few cases there is more to discover and discuss.  Let me suggest three examples.  Do we think differently about Lutosławski’s Livre pour orchestre (1968) now that Nicholas Reyland has discovered that the composer wanted – too late – to change the title to Symphony? (10)  Our knowledge is surely enriched by knowing that the work’s composition went beyond Lutosławski’s original intention.  This information further illuminates the fact that Lutosławski’s written commentaries on the Third and Fourth Symphonies (1983, 1992) do not properly match the finished works, whose expressive and fantasy-like structures owe more to Szymanowski’s example, particularly the First Violin Concerto (1915), which Lutosławski continued to admire. (11)

In very different circumstances, the title of Panufnik’s Heroic Overture (1950/52) has meant different things at different times.  Once he had left Poland (in 1954), Panufnik emphasised the work’s connection with the brief, valiant Polish resistance to the Nazi invasion in September 1939, which was when he made his initial sketches.  But, when the first performance of the completed work was given in Kraków in 1950, he cannot have been unaware that his chosen adjective ‘heroic’ would have a triumphal, socialist-realist significance for the audience. (12)  After his revised version won a Polish pre-Olympic competition in Warsaw two years later, he was interviewed by a sports reporter and felt compelled to redefine the piece as a work specific to the heroic athletes of the forthcoming Olympic Games in Helsinki. (13)

My third example is more familiar, and it is the one work which many if not most non-Poles will mention if asked about post-war Polish music – Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961).  Those who are familiar with the history of Polish music know that the work was given this title after it had been composed.  It is therefore understood that the music has no inherent connection with Hiroshima.  I prefer to think of it as being De natura sonoris no.0 (to follow an appropriately Brucknerian pattern).  Yet time and habit have meant that the general listening public believes that it is deliberately programmatic.  They hear anguish and sirens when there are none.  The composer himself perpetuates this myth, as he wrote in 1996: ‘The external world often invades brutally my internal life.  It makes me compose such as pieces as: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Dies Irae or Polish Requiem’. (14)

Does this matter?  I think it does, because by his action of changing the title from 8’37” to Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima Penderecki recognised that something in his creative language had huge extramusical potential.  The Polish trend towards memorialisation stems from this action.  As far as Penderecki was concerned, it became a major plank in his compositional career and he decided to explore grand statements connected to religious themes and major public events.  This was in crucial ways a truly liberating experience for him, yet his music can often be more expressive and universally understood when, as in his Third Symphony (1988-95), there are no overt ties to the ‘external world’.


Penderecki is a key figure, not least because he straddles the programmatic and the abstract, the sacred and the secular.  The programmatic and the sacred do, however, seem to dominate discussions of musical Polishness.  This is understandable, because of the immediate connectivity that they offer, especially to Polish audiences.  I too have followed down this route, although frankly I sometimes become a little jaded with its ‘infinite excuses’.  We need, however, to correct any impression that it is the programmatic and sacred that represent Polish creativity since the 1960s by emphasising the strength of its counterparts, the abstract and secular streams.  Evidently, these dominated the white-hot years of the early ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festivals after 1956, until the second ‘thaw’ when Polish composers challenged the coolness of the Western avant-garde in the 1960s.  There are major composers, notably those born before 1930, most of whom remained resolutely secular and/or modernist for the rest of their careers: Bacewicz, Lutosławski, Kazimierz Serocki, Tadeusz Baird and Witold Szalonek.  Are they less Polish because of this?  Obviously not.  They simply demonstrate that Polish music is not monolithic but pluralist.

Lutosławski is too well-known in Poland and outside for me to add anything at this point, apart from making one observation.  Lutosławski rarely looked to others for what might be termed moral support.  When he did, it was primarily to Joseph Conrad.  He is on record, twice in 1971 (in Poland and in Cleveland) and twice in 1993 (in Stockholm and in Kyoto), invoking Conrad’s preface to the American edition of The Nigger of the Narcissus.  Conrad had written that fiction ‘must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music – which is the art of arts’. (15)  The idea of music’s ‘magic suggestiveness’ clearly appealed to Lutosławski.  Quite apart from its relevance to his own aesthetic, this phrase might also be said to represent the abstract stream of Polish music, including that implied by Szymanowski’s evocation of Polish May nights, rather than that which makes concrete links with the past.

Of the four other composers I mentioned a moment ago, none has major recognition outside Poland.  Bacewicz’s centenary year has so far gone unnoticed here.  Serocki and Baird, who were more exploratory, are even more ignored, almost thirty years after their deaths in 1981, while Szalonek, who died in 2001 and was as experimental a Polish composer in the 60s and 70s as any other, is already in danger of becoming a mere historical curiosity.

Yet such composers provide distinctive and intriguing perspectives.  There is little or no ‘residue’ of external referencing, as Penderecki put it when commenting on Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996). (16)  There are many rarely-heard riches hidden in this repertoire.  I recall the shock of pleasure and excitement when I heard Baird’s Psychodrama (1972) at the 1998 ‘Warsaw Autumn’.  Here was an aural landscape of stunning power, all but forgotten.  As for Serocki, his exploratory ear produced works in the 1960s and 70s which, I argue, would stand comparison with anything contemporaneous elsewhere, were it possible to hear them.  Such black holes in the surviving repertoire are a major crisis for the understanding of post-war Polish music.

Capsule II: Painting and Literature

There are still outstanding areas of inquiry that may help to locate Polish music, particularly for outsiders.  Let me consider two of these in the second of my ‘capsules’: painting and literature.  I will deal with the first of these briefly, just to mention the significance of art in general to Lutosławski, as was evident in the exhibition held in the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw in 1996 (a number of pictures from Lutosławski’s house was on display) and in the connections between the musical textures of his Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963) and the graphic mobility of Michaux’s mescalin-induced drawings.  Penderecki’s citing of the importance of Paul Klee and Yves Klein with regard to his Dimensions of Time and Silence (1960-61) opens up further possibilities, as do Krauze’s links to the Polish modernist Władysław Strzemiński, without whose influence he would not have the written the understated Piece for Orchestra no.1 (1969) nor the flamboyant Folk Music which I mentioned earlier.  And how are we to construe the creative relationship between the music and paintings of Bujarski, the contemporary of Kilar, Penderecki and Górecki?  Teresa Malecka’s illustrated monograph on Bujarski invites us, at the very least, to set side by side his two very creative personae. (17)  This is not even to mention the complex tangle of artistic influence and output that is embodied in the several careers of the singular Bogusław Schaeffer.

The reach of literature is even greater and usually more tangible than that of the visual arts.  If we are looking for textual universality, we need go no further than Penderecki, whose appetite for the conjoining of diverse literary sources is second to none.  From Dies Irae to the Eighth Symphony ‘Lieder der Vergänglichkeit (Songs of Transience, 2005), here is a composer for whom literature is key. (18)  Baird was one of the greatest composers of lyrical vocal music in the post-war period, and an understanding of his non-vocal composition can be fully appreciated only with a knowledge of his reading of literature.  An obvious example is the influence of James Joyce on Epiphany Music (1963).  His opera, Tomorrow (1964-66) gives substance to the influence that Conrad had on certain composers.

I became particularly interested in Conrad while writing my forthcoming monograph on Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto (1970), and this brings me to the hidden, and therefore speculative, influence of literature on Polish composers.  Little or nothing on this issue has been said with regard to Lutosławski.  He commented in his conversations with Tadeusz Kaczyński that his vocal works (all of which set French texts from Trois poèmes onwards) followed the poetic structure, describing his compositional process with words such as ‘instinct’, ‘unconscious’, ‘subjective’ and ‘intuitive’. (19)  I believe that his late, purely instrumental works also need to be approached from this perspective.

Lutosławski became notoriously hyper-sensitive when the subject of the ‘drama’ of the Cello Concerto was raised.  His default line was that the drama was not extra-musical but could be related to theatre.  He was never more specific than this.  Yet the structural and titular divisions of the Cello Concerto clearly derive from Greek classical tragedy, while at the same time in the solo Introduction he pays homage to the tradition of the contemporary monologue (he mentioned Beckett’s En attendant Godot and Ionesco’s Tueur sans gages in his Notebook of Ideas in 1959). (20)  A study of the literature which he discussed in his conversations with Irina Nikolska and with Kaczyński reveals further pathways for our understanding, ranging from Dostoyevsky and Knut Hamsun to his preference for the precision of Flaubert over the garrulousness of Balzac.  He had a deep admiration for Conrad, as I have already mentioned, especially for Conrad’s explorations of rites of passage, as in The Shadow-line.  And this is too close to the narrative trajectory of the Cello Concerto to be ignored.

New Generations

Generations come and go.  With the death of Lutosławski a major era ended.  Of the next generation, only Penderecki is firing on all cylinders.  Yet it is all too easy – and I am as guilty of this as anyone – to focus on the ‘major’ figures.  But locating music anywhere through just a few composers is inherently unstable.

How many non-Poles have even heard of Tomasz Sikorski, a crucial if constricted figure who died in 1988, aged only 48?  Zygmunt Krauze, his friend and contemporary, is another underrated figure, far more significant than he is given credit for.  He it was who anticipated and developed many of the principal trends in Polish music since the 1960s, including improvisation, happenings, site-specific installations, folk and mechanical experiments, as well as postmodern approaches to material that went on to inspire the next generation.

Those born in the 1940s have become something of a forgotten generation, partly because they were overshadowed by older compatriots who had been in at the start of the post-1956 era and partly due to the fact that many of them took opportunities in the 70s and 80s to move abroad.  Regrettably, all too common in such circumstances, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  The 50s generation, which was particularly active in the Solidarity years of the 1980s, has been ‘running’ Polish music for some time, and a good job it has made of it.  The development of the ‘Warsaw Autumn’, under the leadership of composers such as Krzysztof Knittel and Tadeusz Wielecki, has, over the past twenty years, and against formidable financial odds, been nothing short of miraculous.  The old, comfortable and well-worn path between concerts at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall and the Academy of Music is long overgrown.  Instead, a newly rejuvenated audience goes hither and thither, to ever more alternative venues, casting off the halter of what can sometimes seem like the outdated orchestral and chamber-music traditions of their elders, in search of a much more varied diet of experimentation and innovation.  This stimulation has come from the vigour and enterprise of Polish music working outside the system.  It is yet another ‘thaw’ and one to be welcomed, even though it means the fragmentation of the much-cherished unity that seemed – often mistakenly – to characterise Polish musical endeavour at the height of the international renown it gained in the 1960s.


Running through mind during the conference has been the question: if I were starting out today on my adventure with Polish music, would I be better or worse off in finding materials than I was 40 years ago?

In 1970, Lutosławski was 57, Górecki 37.  Their equivalents today might be Szymański (58) and Paweł Mykietyn (38).  On my first visit to Poland, in 1970, published scores (from PWM) were plentiful, recordings (from Muza) remarkably available.  There were a few publications (in Polish and English) onLutosławski, but nothing on Górecki.  Today, scores of music by Szymański and Mykietyn are thin on the ground, books non-existent.  The drastic depletion of PWM’s score publishing and the demise of other initiatives that sprang up over the years, such as the Author’s Agency and Brevis, have impoverished the access to swathes of Polish music.  We should, however, bear in mind that this situation is being experienced elsewhere, as tightening finances, changing public focus and new technologies shift access into new media.

As far as performances and recordings are concerned, few dead Polish composers from our period still appear at all regularly on concert platforms in Poland, let alone abroad, and only a favoured few have made it onto CD or into mp3 downloads.  Yet there have been some important initiatives for living composers: Polish Radio’s ‘Music in Our Time’ series, with CDs of Knittel and Bargielski, Paweł Łukaszewski’s ‘Musica Sacra Edition’, and innovative DVD releases of Szymański’s music, to name but a few.  At least living composers, if they are so minded, can be contacted via the web or have websites with downloadable material.  That is a big plus with great potential to solve an access problem that has been building up for over 20 years.

It is through scores and recordings that music can cross national boundaries most easily.  Written information on the music is a quite different matter.  Books from PWM are now rare, the substantial volumes on Górecki, Panufnik and Lutosławski being their best known.  Meanwhile, the Sutkowski edition has stopped.  PWM’s Encyklopedia Muzyczna is struggling gradually to its goal of completion.  It is in this sphere of the written word, however, that there have been real changes.

One of the real success stories in the past 20 years has been the growth of publications from the music academies and university music departments.  Without them, where would we be?  To these two types of institution we owe significant publications on Lutosławski, Penderecki and Panufnik, on lesser-known composers such as Bujarski, on younger composers, especially those born in the 1950s such as Eugeniusz Knapik, Aleksander Lasoń and Andrzej Krzanowski.  There are also journals, such as Warsaw University’s Musicology Today and the Iagellonian University’s Witold Lutosławski Studies. Yet a non-Pole is still barred from much of this valuable material by matters of language.  No-one can conjure up financial miracles these days, and even web-based publishing is not cost-free.  But putting the results of Polish musicology on line, even in Polish, would be a huge step forward for non-Polish-speakers.

I would propose the following three initial projects for developing further access to Polish music since 1945: (i) the audio release online of a broadly-based repertoire from the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festivals, (ii) a coordinated focus, by all media outlets, on neglected composers (Baird and Serocki are foremost here, not least because the 30th anniversary of their deaths falls in 2011), and (iii) an internationally advertised and available ‘publish-on-demand’ scheme for PWM’s back catalogue.  Clearly, there are other areas too, such as the sometimes vexed issues and materials of the post-war decade or the burning matter of increasing foreign-language coverage of Polish music in print and online.


I began by evoking Szymanowski.  Let me end by reinterpreting his admonition about mazurkas, May nights and nightingales.  If – and for some it may be a very big ‘if’ – we accept his prognosis about the nature and character of Polish music, then we can do no better than to look at those composers, of whatever generation, who are not stuck in a rut, who are not grandiloquent, who do not feel bound to pluck at Polish heart-strings.  Equally, let us not put any composer on a pedestal or deify him or her, least of all younger composers like Mykietyn, as if their role was to be potential saviours of Polish musical honour.

Instead, let us consider his music and that of his contemporaries as examples of a fresh, untrammelled attitude to music, culture and history, free from the ‘residue’ of the past.  This was embodied for me last week, when Andrzej Bauer brought his Cellotronicum project to my university in Cardiff.  Bauer included Mykietyn’s recently revised An Album Leaf for cello and electronics (2002).  Here was Szymanowski’s ideal of the lonely song, joyous and free.  What matter that it ended not with ‘a nightingale singing spontaneously’ but the mutterings of Sarah Bernhardt and the haunting cry of a seagull?

© 2009 Adrian Thomas


(1)  Karol Szymanowski, ‘On Contemporary Musical Opinion in Poland’, Nowy Przegląd Literatury i Sztuki (New Review of Literature and Art), July 1920, reproduced in Alistair Wightman, Szymanowski on Music (Toccata, 1999), 93
(2)  ibid., 93-94.  The original reads: ‘… polska muzyka narodowa to nie skrzeple widmo polonezu czy mazurka … lecz samotna, szczęśliwa i wolna w nietroskliwości swej pieśń słowicza wśród wonnej, majowej, polskiej nocy!’.
(3)  Karol Szymanowski, interview given to Antena, 7 November 1936, ibid., 113-114
(4)  ibid., 114
(5)  This apparently includes a version of Sacher Variation (1975).  Możdżer has said that he improvised on one of Lutosławski’s Two Etudes (1941) as early as 1992
(6)  Joseph Conrad, ‘Author’s Note’, The Arrow of Gold (1920)
(7)  Paul Griffiths, ‘Cracow RSO/Penderecki’, The Times (16 May 1984), 13.  The reception given to Penderecki’s (First) Violin Concerto (1976) in the same concert was just as dismissive.  Griffiths concluded his review: ‘[it] had no national significance but only the superb confidence of the soloist, Konstanty Kulka, to mask its vacuity’.
(8)  ibid., 13
(9)  Stephen Pettit, ‘Diversity all too ill at ease’, The Times (18 May 1984), 9
(10)  Nicholas Reyland, ‘Lutosławski, Akcja, and the Poetics of Musical Plot’, Music and Letters 88 no.4 (November 2007), 604-631
(11)  Adrian Thomas, One Last Meeting: Lutosławski, Szymanowski and the Fantasia
(12)  The all-Polish programme began with Heroic Overture and ended with Jan Krenz’s Two Cities (1950).  When Heroic Overture, in its revised 1952 form, was played in Kraków in 1954, it was programmed to celebrate May Day and the concluding item of the concert was Stanisław Skrowaczewski’s Cantata for Peace (1951).
(13)  A. Brzezicki, ‘Uwertura bohaterska Andrzeja Panufnika’, Przegląd Sportowy, (Warsaw, 27 July 1952).
(14)  Krzysztof Penderecki, ‘Foreword’, Itinerarium (Kraków, 1998).
(15)  Joseph Conrad, ‘Preface’, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (New York, 1914)
(16)  Krzysztof Penderecki, CD booklet, Seven Gates of Jerusalem (Accord ACD 036), 19
(17)  Teresa Malecka, Zbigniew Bujarski. Twórczość i osobowość (Kraków, 2006)
(18)  The texts for Dies Irae are drawn from Broniewski, Aragon, Różewicz, Psalm 116, Book of Revelation, Aeschylus’s The Eumenides, St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians and Valéry.  Those for Symphony no.8 are by Eichendorff, Rilke, Kraus, Hesse, Goethe and von Arnim.
(19)  Tadeusz Kaczyński, Conversations with Lutosławski (London, 1980), 33, 73
(20)  Witold Lutosławski, Notebook of Ideas, reproduced in Zbiniew Skowron (ed.), Lutosławski on Music (Lanham MD, 2007), 294

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