I was delighted to learn that Krzysztof Penderecki, the 75-year-old Polish composer, would be conducting two of his own compositions and one of the late and great Russian, Dmitri Shostakovich, on 25 August 2008—at Berwaldhallen, the beautiful concert hall of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir.
This was one of eleven concerts given under the heading Östersjö-festivalen (Eastern Sea Festival), or Baltic Sea Festival, August 21 through August 30, 2008. The Festival was offered to the public as “… a musical symbol as a uniting force and belief in the future,” with special focus on the nine countries and peoples that touch the Baltic Sea.
Although I have appreciated Shostakovich’s music for decades, I have only recently become acquainted with Penderecki and am still learning his particular idioms and style. There is nothing like attending a live concert to get to know a piece of music and to intuit the nature of the composer. Penderecki traveled with Poland’s Sinfonia Varsovia to present three pieces this evening: Penderecki’s Agnus Dei and Violin Concerto No. 2, Metamorphoses; and, Shostkovich’s Symphony No. 6. I had not previously heard either of Penderecki’s pieces, nor Shostkovich’s 6th symphony (I possess CDs of his 5th and 7th).
Agnus Dei, or “Lamb of God,” is part of a larger piece, The Polish Requiem, which Penderecki dedicated to his country’s sufferings. Penderecki wrote the Agnus Dei portion upon hearing of the death, in 1981, of his friend Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.
I took notes during the concert and wrote these for Agnus Dei: “tragic; dramatic; world made good; movie music; not quite mournful–too energetic.” I had not read the English program notes prior to my hearing the piece, nor did I know it was in memoriam for Penderecki’s friend. This tells me that the composer communicated his feelings well.
The program notes are so concise, I cannot help but plagiarize them, without even having asked permission:
Krzysztof Penderecki was a child during World War Two (and) witnessed at close hand the German occupation of Poland and the terror and devastation it brought…Having grown up in a warm-hearted Catholic home, he developed a commitment to humans in suffering.
In the power struggle between the church and the former communist state Penderecki was openly on the side of the church. (A) close friend was Cardinal Stefan Wysznski. The night after hearing of (his) death… Penderecki composed Agnus Dei, originally a piece for choir.
Violin Concerto No.2 Metamorphoses (1992-1995) sounds as if the whole of Poland’s history is sweeping past, with all its sorrows and difficulties. The music ends in a beautiful meditative solo that floats high up over a web of mysterious orchestral sound…
According to Wikipedia:
Some of Penderecki’s music has been adapted for film soundtracks. The Shining (1980) features six pieces of Penderecki’s music. The Exorcist (1973) features “Polymorphia” as well as “String Quartet” and “Kanon For Orchestra and Tape”. David Lynch has used Penderecki’s music in the soundtracks of the movies Wild at Heart (1990) and Inland Empire (2006). Penderecki’s piece, “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” was also used during one of the final sequences in the film Children of Men.
Hearing musical phrases that reminded me of Shostakovich caused me to seek what relationship there may have been between the two composers. I found this:
I don’t know how accurate this is or how the relationships are determined, but I thought it interesting enough to show here.
The last piece of the evening, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6, started with the string section in a dark mood. Throughout the piece the individual woodwinds were featured, especially the piccolo. Toward the end of the piece I felt there was mockery or irony, with hints of Sergei Prokofiev-like playfulness and with direct musical reference to his Lt. Kijé suite. The plot of Lt. Kijé is a satire on the bureaucracy of Emperor Paul I of Russia.
Here, again, from the printed program:
Dmitri Shostakovich was constantly performing a balancing trick between expressing what he wanted in his music and being accepted by the Societ machinery of power. He offered his Symphony No. 6 as a tribute to Stalin. But it didn’t turn out like that. The symphony is not a tribute by nature. What happened? Nobody knows, but we have Shostakovich’s own words: “It’s a special form of self defence; you assert that you’re planning a composition of one kind or another—something with a powerful and striking title—that’s how you avoid the punishment of stoning.”
The audience was quite happy with the performances; they stood and applauded until the conductor-composer returned to lead the orchestra in an encore, the title of which escaped me. It was a sweet, romantic theme played mostly by the string section that may have been written for film by Penderecki.
To end this week’s column, here is a “rare” YouTube video of the young Shostakovich playing one of his piano pieces.