Aleksander LASKOWSKI: Krzysztof Penderecki. Sacrum and avant-garde

Krzysztof Penderecki. Sacrum and avant-garde

Photo of Aleksander LASKOWSKI

Aleksander LASKOWSKI

Spokesman of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute.


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By creating sacral works and presenting them in communist Poland, Krzysztof Penderecki became actively involved in the social and political movements that resulted in the overthrow of communism, writes Aleksander LASKOWSKI

.At the very beginning of his illustrious career at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s, Krzysztof Penderecki rapidly gained worldwide recognition, largely due to the work Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. But after the premiere of the St Luke Passion in Münster in 1966 the German circles labelled him a ‘traitor to the avant-garde’. Why? Strongly influenced by the ideals of the post-war left, the world of avant-garde music perceived Krzysztof Penderecki’s entry into the sacral sphere as a kind of secular sacrilege. However, a distinguished German musicologist Hermann Danuser suggests that Penderecki was never as radical as the German music community of that period believed him to be. Although he used avant-garde language in his compositions, fundamentally, at the core of his musical thinking, he continued the tradition instead of dismantling it, as his later pieces clearly show. Undoubtedly, in creating sacral works and presenting them in communist Poland, Krzysztof Penderecki became actively involved in the social and political movements that resulted in the overthrow of communism.

This aspect of his work is emphasised by Clytus Gottwald, a German composer, conductor and musicologist (born in 1925 in Bad Salzbrunn, now Szczawno-Zdrój), who specialised in sacred choral music. Over the years, he has closely collaborated with many contemporary composers, including Pierre Boulez, whose sceptical attitude to Krzysztof Penderecki’s creations is well-known in musical circles, especially in France. Gottwald devoted an extensive study to the relationship between religion and the musical avant-garde, entitled Neue Musik als spekulative Theologie: Religion und Avantgarde im 20. Jahrhundert. This publication is, in my view, essential for understanding the phenomenon of Krzysztof Penderecki. Gottwald discusses his sacral works in the context of a profound philosophical reflection on the essence of the sacred and its translation into the language of music, specifically contemporary music, entangled in the fields of history, ethics and aesthetics of its time. Gottwald navigates his contemplation along the chronology, analysing compositions by such musical luminaries as Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, then advancing to Olivier Messiaen, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Krzysztof Penderecki. Penderecki is often portrayed as a ‘traitor to the avant-garde’:

‘Few composers from the 1925-1935 generation are as skilled as Krzysztof Penderecki in truing his professional colleagues against him. Since his beginnings were so spectacular and so full of innovation that “they justified the boldest hopes”, his withdrawal through the religious works drew serious accusations. He seemed to have violated a taboo, to have broken the contract he had signed when he composed Dimensions of Time and Silence and Anaklasis. The solidarity of the avant-garde, although nowhere codified, commanded the rejection of bad performers. (…)The St Luke Passion was Penderecki’s “original sin”. (…) From the very beginning, the Passion was accompanied by the suspicion that when a composer resorts to religious themes in his pursuit of a grand form, he does so to ward off and deflate criticism. There were also doubts whether his avant-garde compositional technique was sufficient to sustain a great work.’

Gottwald distances himself from these accusations and instead presents his own perspective that considers Polish social and historical circumstances. Above all, he explains the meaning behind Krzysztof Penderecki’s sacred music, which was of paramount importance to the artist. As a composer and thinker (like Krzysztof Penderecki), Gottwald also deeply believes in the necessity and significance of such music:

‘Mauricio Kagel said, “Perhaps not every musician believes in God, but they all believe in Bach”. And Penderecki is no exception. (…) The West misinterpreted his new inclination towards religious creativity as a shift. With limited knowledge of the situation in Poland, people in the West were unable to comprehend that political opposition could take the form of sacred art – or that it was, in fact, the only form in which such opposition had a chance to manifest. The credit for highlighting this form of resistance to the communist regime goes to Peter Andraschke. In the letter from Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski to Andraschke we read: “Here, every sacral work is a statement of political significance. In addition, there is a particular assortment of sacred texts that our audience unequivocally reads within a religious framework. For us, these texts are full of allusions and references”. Besides Penderecki and Górecki, Andraschke lists eight other Polish composers who have devoted a substantial part of their work to sacral music. Next to the religious component – religion as a possibility of resistance – there is also a social element. In the 19th century, the avant-garde in literature, art and music could appeal to the progressive bourgeoisie in Central and Western Europe, even if per negationem. Until 1918, the social structure of Poland was based on the nobility and the peasantry, with the bourgeoisie playing a subordinate role. (…) The period of German and Russian occupation did not foster the formation of a modern bourgeoisie. After the Second World War, Polish composers had to take this into account if they wanted to contribute to the national resistance movement, which meant they had to write as conventionally as necessary and as avant-garde as possible. Given the role of religion and the Church in shaping both the resistance movement and national identity in Poland, music had to follow a path parallel to the national search for identity. Penderecki once described himself as a left-wing Catholic. (…) He does not doubt that God exists nor that He reveals Himself through the Church, however imperfect it may be. Penderecki saw (and still sees) religion as an indefeasible pillar of protection against barbarism. However, as the opera The Devils of Loudun shows, he is aware that barbarism is not only the sin of “the world” but also of the Church’.

.Thus Clytus Gottwald highlights the meanings crucial to understanding the vast majority of the works of Krzysztof Penderecki, often referred to as the ‘great social composer’. One could even go further and try to place him among the musical bards. Except, this ‘national bard’ eluded his local identity right from the start and surpassed the boundaries of Poland, Polish history and Polish historiosophy. His musical gestures are universal.

Aleksander Laskowski

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