Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Krzysztof Penderecki

by tacet

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s oppressive, malevolent music has screeched through the last half century, fusing avant-garde technique and commercial recognition to reach a kind of traumatized blockbuster status. Penderecki’s bleeding, cavernous soundscapes have long been forced out of the concert hall and put to use in the cinema, from Friedkin’s The Exorcist to Kubrick’s The Shining. Indeed, his searing sonorities have become the hallmarks of film composition itself – the sonic evocation of the disturbed imagination. In many ways this encapsulates Penderecki’s problematic character: the enfant terrible responsible for Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima would end up as cinema’s darling.

While working in a Warsaw electronic music studio in the 50s, Penderecki had started to realise new sounds via unconventional instrumental techniques. Much of his early music is essentially intended as an acoustic transcription of electronic textures; novel combinations, rapid orchestral shifts and new textures marked his early 60s compositions. Articulate Silences opened with an exploration of Ligeti’s 1961 work Atmosphères – and in some senses Ligeti’s and Penderecki’s experiments in sound sculpture during the early 60s shared a similar interest in building an orchestral mass of sound. But whereas Ligeti’s clouds of sound were filled with carefully etched internal detail, Penderecki assumed a much broader, brooding wash of colour.

Threnody is a classic product of the composer’s experiments with sound during the 60s. The piece spans 52 string instruments, melding them together in sonoristic manipulation and counterpoint to brutal effect. Threnody’s sustained clusters, faceless convergences in sound and undulating clouds run the full gamut of extended technique – a riot of varying vibrato, slapped instruments, playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge – matched by a sinister symbolic notation full of thick black lines. At times Penderecki takes an aleatoric approach, offering the players a choice of techniques or demanding irregular degrees of vibrato, but the piece is also marked by a considerable rigour in its timing indications, notated in seconds, as well as specific note clusters. The use of quarter tones, clustered pitches and sound mass accumulate in a reservoir of hypertonality.

As an experiment in sound and notation, Threnody is not particularly unusual for the period – so why has it attained such a unique place in the cultural canon? The answer lies in its title. Originally called 8’37” (a nod in the direction of American composer John Cage and his 4’33”), Penderecki later settled on the more emotive dedication after hearing the piece performed for the first time; as such, Threnody embodies a pairing of new sounds and public emotion, meeting the horror of mass death with the perfection of extreme musical tension.

It is in such terrifying, physical and uncompromising works as Threnody that one finds classical music’s unceasing taste for extreme drama and liberation of the borders of sounds.

Below is a recording of Threnody followed by a brief listening guide.

Threnody can be split into 3 parts: Part 1 at 0:00 opens with the musicians bowing their highest notes, with the 52 players gradually brought into a mass of sound. At 0:18 slow quarter tone vibrato is combined with fast, regular vibrato in the violins and violas. At 0:52 the playing descends into percussive effects with the musicians offered a choice of “musical patterns” to follow. Sounds overlap, slide apart, and build to a cacophonous cluster at 4:50 before dropping to a single sustained cello line by 5:33 and then a fade into 5 seconds of silence at 5:50. Part 2 at 5:56 marks an abrupt change in texture with a scattered collection of sounds feeling almost improvisatory, and yet bound in the veiled symmetry of a 36-voice canon. Part 3 returns to the music of the opening by 7:30, with overlapping clouds of sound building to a huge tone cluster.

The recording above comes from the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit for Naxos. The recording made by the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig under Herbert Kegel, available on the Berlin Classics label, is highly recommended.

For those interested in exploring Penderecki’s developing style, the 1971 Cello Concerto No. 1 written for the cellist Siegfried Palm is worth a listen. Based on a work from 1967, it shares the violent sound-world of Penderecki’s early compositions, never descends into superficial virtuosity and displays eccentric instrumentation – the orchestration includes a saxophone, accordion and electric guitar.

Artwork: Painting, Philip Guston

by En Liang Khong