2 May 2020

On March 29, 2020 Krzysztof Penderecki passed away. I am not exaggerating when I say this man was like the Beethoven of the 20th century. He broke all the rules and forced us to consider all sound as music. He wasn’t the only composer of his generation to do that, but he was certainly one of the best. He fired up our neurons and rattled our eardrums through the experience of being fully engulfed in aural stimuli. Is there a single college-educated musician alive today who cannot remember the moment they first heard his 1960 ground-breaking masterpiece Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima? Even those who don’t like the piece must admit to its impact. It shook the foundations of everything we thought we knew music to be.

Probably the most well-known and ground-breaking of his compositions are Threnody (as it’s come to be known) and his 1968 oratorio St. Luke Passion, inspired by the Passions of J.S.Bach. These innovative, aleatoric compositions were part of Penderecki’s reactionary outburst that began during his college years when Stalin was overthrown, freeing artists and composers to break with tradition and swing the creative pendulum waaaaaay outside the box. But then, in the 1970s, Penderecki veered away from youthful revolutionary experimentalism, and began to embrace some of the forms and foundations laid by his musical forebears.

My favorite among these later works is another of his oratorios: his 1980/84 Polish Requiem. I am fascinated with Requiem Masses anyway, and even developed a course (for non-music majors) on the subject at Manchester University. Penderecki’s is one of my favorites from this genre. Although the overall form is traditional in nature, the expression of sound clearly reflects his own unique harmonic language, developed during those years of experimentalism. This work grew from a single commission in 1980 by Solidarity (the Polish trade union) for the unveiling of a statue at Gdańsk Shipyard commemorating those killed in the 1970 anti-government riots in Poland. Several other commissions followed with dedications of a similar nature, so Penderecki decided to combine them all together into one Requiem Mass dedicated to Polish people who have suffered persecution or worked to protect victims of persecution in the 20th century. It uses the traditional Latin Requiem Mass text, with occasional interpolations of the Trisagion (a Polish prayer in times of danger).

Some movements are dedicated to specific persons or are in memory of certain tragic events in recent Polish history:

  • Dies Irae commemorates the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 to liberate Warsaw from German Occupation during WWII
  • Recordare Jesu pie is dedicated to Maximillian Kolbe, a Franciscan Friar who volunteered to die in place of another prisoner (a stranger to him) at Auschwitz.
  • Lacrimosa is dedicated to Lech Walęsa, 1983 Nobel Prize winner, and the first President of Poland elected by popular vote
  • Ciaccona (an instrumental movement: strings only) is dedicated to Pope John Paul II
  • Libera me commemorates the 22,000 victims of the 1940 Katyn Massacre in which the Soviet Secret Police killed its own citizens and buried them in mass graves in the Katyn forest.

The entire mass offers four “experiential planes of absorption.” This involves more than hearing. Penderecki’s creative genius is his ability to transport us to a time and place where his sounds completely envelop us in the empathic vibration of an event. We know in our gut what the dedicatees heard, saw, smelled, tasted, and felt. The four planes are: 1) the Horror of Victimization, 2) Communal Prayer, 3) Human Introspection, and 4) Historical Reflection – like a Greek chorus reminding us of lessons learned and warning us not to repeat history’s horrors.

One of my favorite movements is the Agnus Dei, in which the orchestra falls silent and the chorus offers an a cappella plea to the Lamb of God for the eternal rest of the dead – specifically the persecuted victims of Poland’s tragic past. This movement is dedicated to Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński who worked to hide Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII. He also resisted post-war communism and was imprisoned and tortured for his activism. He is scheduled for canonization on 7 June 2020, so it seems fitting to listen to this particular movement at this particular time.

The translation of Agnus Dei is simple: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest eternal.” In this movement, Penderecki strips away the orchestra to surround us in the sacred atmosphere of communal prayer. What fascinates me about this movement is that it forms a perfect arc from utmost humility, quietly murmuring and prostrate before Christ, through the mournful cries of pain and suffering, which seem to mix with echos of Gregorian chant as if we are struggling between some presumed obligation to piety and our yearning to be heard by God. Finally, at the pinnacle (and on the word “peccata” or “sins”), we find ourselves shouting and shaking our fists in the face of God as if to say “Why do you allow these things to happen?” “What sort of God are you, anyway?!” This is the most dissonant and heart-wrenching moment in the movement, and for me the entire Requiem. After a grand pause, Penderecki sends us back down the path we already trekked and returns us to awestruck, or perhaps awful silence. No matter where you are in your faith journey or your current attitude before deity, this movement hits home at some point or another.

As we consider the times in which we find ourselves now – faced with this pandemic that has taken (and continues to take) so many lives all over the world  – I invite you to find a quiet space and take 7 minutes to listen to this movement with your eyes closed and nothing to distract you. Let Penderecki’s sounds take you through the gamut of emotions we all feel now. Join in this communal prayer (regardless of your own faith background or current belief) and remember victims who are helpless to save themselves and wholly dependent on the mercy of others (or destiny, or even God). Look inside yourself and think about what you can do to make the world better for someone, anyone. Then heed the warning of the chorus not to return to ignorance but to move forward, enlightened and aware of those who have truly suffered and those who suffer still. Let this great composer lead you to these mystic planes. Allow yourself a few moments of vulnerability and absorb the humanity of your soul.

Recording: Jadwiga Gadulanka & The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Chorus (Chandos 1996)