There is a moment, a little less than four minutes after the start of the 1980 Symphony No. 2, with the lush score and intensely romantic feeling of Penderecki, where after a swirling crescendo tense up to a clueless climaxing cry , the music ceases its struggle and is reduced to one, exhausted, kept note in the brass. The key has been choppy, but this note is distinctly minor and the atmosphere of grim despair seems insurmountable. Still, Penderecki has a surprise in store, as soft clarinets suddenly come in, lift that note, and instead use it to sing the warm, serene and major first line of the Christmas carol, Silent night. And so begins a symphonic battle between darkness and light, its language both clearly of the 20th century and clearly indebted to the 19th century symphonic tradition, which could not be more different from the avant-garde. horror-filled and experimentally. Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima with which Penderecki had launched his career 20 years earlier.
All this to say what a fascinating and often intense musical journey it has been for me to prepare and present for the Adam Mickiewicz Institute five podcasts on the music of Penderecki, alongside five others by my colleague journalist Jack Pepper, to mark this which would have been Penderecki’s 88th birthday on November 23, had he not passed away on March 29, 2020. Few composers have undergone such a profound stylistic change as Penderecki during their careers, yet still retain their linguistic DNA essential. Few composers have made it their career-defining mission to use their music to reflect on and comment on world events. And therefore, a defining characteristic of our podcasts is the degree to which each of them is as much a political and social exploration of the world of Penderecki – a life lived in Poland that saw him old enough to witness the horrors of the Second. World War, followed by more than 40 years of struggle under the communist regime – for it is a musical struggle.
From Jack we have podcasts on: How Penderecki Polish Requiem traces the troubled history of Poland; how his String Quartet No. 3 was a reaction to the events of World War II; a glance Aulodia and Ekecheiria in the context of Penderecki being a commissioned composer for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and his wider use of electronic music; a celebration of Penderecki’s score for the classic Polish film, The Zaragoza manuscript; using Symphony No.7 as a starting point to discuss Penderecki’s radically varied musical language mentioned above. My own five then begins with Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima, followed by a return to the impact of Penderecki’s personal wartime experiences through his rarely performed Death squad for the narrator and the electronics; the The Passion of Saint Luke, and Penderecki’s attitudes towards sacred music; an exploration of Penderecki on the lyrical scene through his two main operas, The devils of Loudun and Ubu rex; a celebration of Penderecki’s rich creative partnership with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, focusing on her second violin concerto, Metamorphose.
Podcasts aren’t the only part of birthday celebrations, however. Penderecki’s other great passion was botany. He had channeled that passion into the maintenance of a large garden in Lusawice, and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute has now used 3D laser scanning technology to create the Penderecki’s Garden Project: an immersive and ever-expanding online version of the reality that allows you to take a dreamlike virtual walk through its landscape on the soundtrack of Penderecki’s music, with the possibility of entering portals for more in-depth explorations of his works and biography, and performances filmed. Just visit pendereckisgarden.pl/en to see what I mean.
Back in the physical realm, the Institute joined forces with Polish diplomatic missions around the world to plant real trees in memory of Penderecki. For 2021, that means trees for the Meise Botanical Garden in Brussels, Confederation Park in Ottawa, Augustusplatz in Leipzig, Kaunas Botanical Garden in Lithuania and, later this year, Lumpini Park in Bangkok. On November 23, the composer’s birthday, a tree is to be planted at The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore.
All in all, it’s quite the birthday party. Also one that I think would have touched Penderecki a lot. Especially the trees.
Discover the Penderecki Garden: pendereckisgarden.pl