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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 4 The Third Revolution
Richard Taruskin

The laborious exactitude of the notation in Atmosphères, and the sheer immensity of the score thus produced, were among its most impressive features. They gave the work the same heroic aura of devoted drudgery—of sacrifice in the name of art—that the tedious “classical” techniques of the tape studio enjoyed. A more direct and radical approach to the project of recreating the sound world of electronic music in live performance was adopted by a group of Polish composers who came to prominence during the “thaw” decade that followed the death of Stalin in the countries of what by then was known as the Soviet Bloc.

That period was marked by considerable social turbulence in the countries that had been “liberated” from fascism by the Red Army, and were now governed by Communist dictatorships underwritten by the threatened return of the Soviet occupying force. The first armed Soviet intervention took place in East Germany in July 1953, to quell a labor uprising in the immediate aftermath of Stalin's demise. A much more serious (because temporarily successful) rising against Communist authority in Hungary was violently put down, as we know, in 1956. During the same year an illegal strike at a metallurgical plant in Poznan, Poland, spread to other cities, and Poland faced the prospect of a similar Soviet invasion. The Communist Party there sought by means of an internal reform and some liberalization of policies to avert that eventuality. In a manner somewhat reminiscent of the measures taken in the Soviet Union itself during World War II, the new leadership (headed by Wladyslaw Gomulka, a Party official who had fallen under suspicion of excessive nationalism in the Stalin years and was briefly imprisoned) sought to recapture the loyalty of the cultural and intellectual élite by relaxing censorship on journalism and the arts.

One of the results was the granting of some administrative autonomy to the Polish Composers Union, including permission to open a window on the West through the so-called Warsaw Autumn Festival, an international showcase for contemporary music. Like most Communist reforms, the Polish liberalization under Gomulka was largely a matter of window-dressing without significant impact on substantive political or social issues. But insofar as the arts were the window, and as long as toleration of modernism was (however cynically) considered a good public-relations investment, Polish composers were allowed some genuine creative freedom.

The way they chose to advertise that freedom, of course, was to emulate the Western avant-garde en masse. In retrospect that may seem merely another sort of conformism, imposed from a different quarter and maintained by a different pattern of incentives and risks. But the subjective experience of many composers was buoyant and optimistic, especially insofar as it vouchsafed contact with counterparts in the West while artists everywhere else in the Soviet Bloc remained isolated. The creative ferment thus engendered, known as the “Polish renaissance,” was for a time the wonder of the musical world.

The most forceful impression was made by Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933), who announced his presence on the scene in 1959 by winning all three prizes in a competition for young composers sponsored by the Union. The prize money paid for his first trip abroad, where he won the support of Luigi Nono in Italy, Pierre Boulez in Paris, and—most significantly—Heinrich Strobel, the music programmer of the Southwest German Radio in Baden-Baden and director of the Donaueschingen Festival, Germany's oldest and most prestigious new-music scene, which became Penderecki's principal showcase.

For the Donaueschingen Festival of 1960, Penderecki, who was trained as a violinist, wrote Anaklasis (“Light refraction”) for strings and percussion, in which he exploited many unconventional playing techniques on the border between definite and indefinite pitch. It was one of several early Penderecki scores with titles that pertained to sensory qualities, like Fluorescences (1962) for orchestra, Polymorphia (1961) for strings, and De natura sonoris (“Of the nature of sound,” 1966). Full of tone clusters, extreme registers, unusual timbres, they were designated “sonority-pieces” by the composer. Several choral pieces—Stabat Mater (1962), St. Luke Passion (1963–66)—combined similar “sonorist” techniques with Christian sacred texts, as if to identify one expression of cultural nonconformism, within the context of Communist rule, with another.

Far and away the best known of these compositions, indeed the most famous representative of the whole Warsaw Autumn phenomenon, was the piece for fifty-two solo strings that Penderecki published in 1961 as Tren ofiarom Hiroszimy (“Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima”). In conception and effect it is very similar to Ligeti's Atmosphères, but its notation is very different. The same long-held, gradually changing tones that Ligeti wrote with conventional note values and very slow metronome settings are notated here simply in terms of their durations in seconds, as measured across the page from left to right. And instead of fixing every pitch in the conventional way, thus building up his clusters by discrete semitones, Penderecki realized (as a string player would) that there was an easier way to obtain indeterminate “frequency bands.” The range of a string instrument does not have a precisely determined upper limit. Therefore, to ask a group of violinists to play “the highest note on the instrument” is to guarantee a cluster.

Renaissance or Co-optation?Renaissance or Co-optation?

ex. 4-6 Krzysztof Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, beginning

On the first page of the Threnody score (Ex. 4-6), all the instruments are asked to take their “highest notes”; the result is a truly memorable stridency, a veritable scream, fitting indeed for a piece with such a horrific subtext. Other sound material in the piece is generated by rapid alternations of indefinitely high pizzicati with sounds made by bowing below the bridge, bowing right on top of the bridge, even bowing on the tailgut, striking the string with the wood of the bow, knocking on the belly of the instrument (as in Xenakis's Pithoprakta), as well as the more ordinary gamut of ponticello, col legno, and sul tasto effects. One English reviewer noted dryly that Penderecki asked his players to “do everything possible on their instruments short of actually playing them.”56

For each of these stunt effects Penderecki devised a notational symbol, which (before the advent of computer typesetting) had actually to be cast in type by the publisher. Sometimes these symbols succeed one another in groups that are subjected to retrogrades and canons; but again, as in the case of Atmosphères, these canons and retrogrades are not really thematic. They are just means of generating complex textures by using an ad hoc algorithm. The effect of widening and narrowing pitch bands is notated graphically for the benefit of the conductor's or analyst's conceptualization of the effect; in the parts, notation by normal chromatic pitch notation (sometimes augmented by special signs for quarter tones) is necessary, since unlike the opening high clusters, these have to be precisely calculated.

Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was a very difficult and expensive score to print. The fact that the Polish State Publishing House for Music was willing to make the considerable outlay seems related to the similar expensive promotions accorded avant-garde works by Stockhausen and, especially, Ligeti in Western Europe. In both cases, to showcase the avant-garde was to display a commitment to creative freedom, of propaganda benefit in the cold war. But in Penderecki's case, unlike the others, there was a more overtly political component as well. Calling attention to the United States Army's deadly attack on Japanese civilians, the most destructive single military act in history, was of propagandistic benefit to the Soviet Bloc, the Hiroshima bombing often being cited as a symbol of the American militarism, not to say savagery, that contributed to the breakup of the old wartime alliance against fascism. It made the performance of Penderecki's avant-garde music in Poland a politically correct exercise. That was an adroit feat of cultural politics in itself.

In later years, Penderecki let it be known that the piece published as the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was first performed under the decidedly neutral, vaguely Cageian title 837″, and had been rejected by the publishing house as too expensive a prospect for printing. He gave it (he said) the politically fraught title ex post facto, at the suggestion of the director of the Polish Radio, so as to make it an attractive commodity for promotion by the Communist government—at first in Paris, where it was officially entered in a prize competition under the auspices of UNESCO.57 The story is plausible, if only because once past the opening “screams” there is nothing in the piece of a comparably pictorial or suggestive character. The screams are screams, it would appear, only because they have been so labeled.

Does this make the composer out to be a cynic? A careerist? Or just someone who knew how to outsmart a formidable and often oppressive state bureaucracy, and thereby score a symbolic victory over authority and oppression (and who might well, like countless others, have sincerely deplored the bombing of Hiroshima)? And was the bureaucracy even outsmarted? Did it not also score a symbolic victory? Co-optation was a game played on both sides of the cold war, in any case; it is a game played on all sides of all fences. Ligeti benefited from it too, in 1968, when Stanley Kubrick exploited Atmosphères as, well, atmosphere in the soundtrack for his futuristic fantasy 2001, and reaped for the composer a gold mine of publicity and name-exposure if not royalty payments from the marketing of record albums (out of which Ligeti has complained of being cheated) such as no avant-gardist had ever dreamt of.

What both of these stories prove, if nothing else, is that not even the avant-garde, which by virtual definition (or by defined purpose) resists commercial or ideological exploitation, has been able to resist it as the twentieth century, that most commercial and ideological of centuries, ran its course.


(56) Frank Howes, The Times; quoted in Bernard Jacobson, A Polish Renaissance (London: Phaidon, 1960), p. 147.

(57) Ludwik Erhardt, Spotkania z Krzysztofem Pendereckim(Warsaw: Polskie Wydawnistwo Muzyczne, 1975), Wolfram Schwinger, Penderecki: Begegnungen, Lebensdaten, Werkkomentäre(Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstadt, 1979). My thanks to Tim Rutherford-Johnson for the references.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Mar. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 4 The Third Revolution. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 4 The Third Revolution." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Mar. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-004012.xml