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Adrian Thomas: Polish Music since Szymanowski
23 Aug 2005

THOMAS: Polish Music since Szymanowski

Throughout the history of Poland, music has been an enduring force in its culture, and Polish composers were at the forefront of a number of developments in the twentieth century.

Adrian Thomas: Polish Music since Szymanowski
Music in the 20th Century (series).

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xxiii + 384 pp. Includes music examples and tables.

ISBN-10: 0521582849 | ISBN-13: 9780521582841


For some, figures like Andrzej Panufnik, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, and others found a uniquely effective mode of expression in the avant garde, which sets them apart from some of the serialist and post-serialist composers in the West. Their accomplishments seem incredible in the context of the turbulent politics and difficult social situations in Poland for the better part of the twentieth century. Given the many issues that Poles faced in dealing with various governments, music should have been sidetracked until the political situation would have allowed for the arts, as often happens in the West. Perhaps the arts function differently in Poland, since the pressures at work in that culture seem to have caused music to flourish, just as some plants put forth some of their more spectacular blossoms when stressed.

In this book Adrian Thomas focuses for the most part on music in Poland in the twentieth century, and takes as his point of departure the death of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1935). He may be seen as a crucial figure, with his work bridging the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thomas offers a comprehensive and organized review of new music in Poland that encompasses efforts during World War II, music under the Soviet regime, and the new wave of contemporary music after the collapse of the USSR. His study essentially ends with the death of Lutosławski (1913-94), and the focus that Thomas contributes results in a vivid discussion of one of the most creative cultures of the twentieth century.

Thomas’s knowledge of Polish music and politics informs various discussions throughout the book. His comments often reflect a firm understanding of the various traditions that existed and to which Polish artists reacted. Thus, the comments in the first chapter about the Young Poland Movement offer some useful perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of that group (pp. 6-7). The coverage of music during World War II (pp. 16-25) serves as a prelude to the challenges that composers faced under the Soviets and their various responses to the restrictions placed on artistic expression. The latter section comprises the main part of the book, where the counterpoint between politics and art may be seen to emerge in a number of works, which Thomas puts into perspective masterfully.

Again, some of the social elements may be seen to reflect those in the arts, with the end of the Nazi domination of Poland at the end of World War II offering the potential for improvement. Yet the ideals of the Soviet state gave way to the reality of party dictates when hard-liners imposed their guidelines at a conference of composers held in Łagów Lubuski in August 1949, as Marxist philosophy set the tone for music and the other arts. Polish composers met the challenge in various ways, and while some felt victim to the Soviet regime, others found ways to express themselves and, at the same time, respect the wishes of the state. Thomas calls attention to works like Tadeusz Szeligowsk’s opera Bunt żaków [The Scholars’ Revolt] (1951) and Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), which were composed when these artistic sanctions were in force.

In the course of his discussion, Thomas establishes the ascendancy of the symphony in Poland in the mid-twentieth century, which may seem out of place in the West, where symphonic composition had peaked by the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This sets the stage for later discussions of formalist approaches to music, a stance that was often at odds with the proscriptions of the Soviet regime. Notwithstanding some of the controversies that arose over some works in the genre, the symphony became a vital part of contemporary musical culture. In his discussions of responses to Soviet realism, Thomas raises intriguing issues about the aesthetics involved, which he supports with a firm grasp of the structure of the works discussed.

With such a footing clearly established in the first section of the book, he moves seamlessly into a discussion of the “Warsaw Autumn” that occurred in the early 1950s after Stalin’s death. With the change of leadership in Moscow, music composition benefited from a less oppressive atmosphere, and the result is evident in the annual festivals that took place in the Fall of each year (a list of the works performed is found on pp. 324-31). The “Warsaw Autumn” festivals were an opportunity for an interchange between East and West, since performers like David Tudor were part of the program, as occurred in 1958. More abstract music, like that of Elliott Carter, was performed in Poland, where such music had been proscribed, and native Polish composers composed some of their finest works for these events, with Lutosławski’s Venetian Games and Penderecki’s Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima both premiered at the 1961 festival.

In this study Thomas goes beyond any sort of linear historiography. Rather, he includes in his discussion well-thought discussions of individual composers and their styles, as found in the middle section, which concerns the “search for individual identity.” Through Thomas’s perspective, it becomes clear that Polish composers explored the avant-garde with an eye – or, perhaps, ear – toward personal expression. Novelty does not exist for its own sake, and the quest for new sounds and approaches may be seen as a means of expressing individual voices, as is the case with Baird (see the section devoted to him on pp. 120-32). Likewise, Thomas explores Lutosławski’s style deftly to offer some insights into the composer’s balance between his association with tradition and also the composer’s fascination with new ideas.

In discussions of Lutosławski, Penderecki and others, Thomas reveals his understanding of convincing works, and never sacrifices his enthusiasm for innovation alone. Thus, he establishes a context for Penderecki’s exploration of new sounds and techniques that may have escaped other commentators. His comments about some of Penderecki’s sonically innovative works of the early 1960s not only convey a useful perspective on such pieces as the Threnody, Anaklasis, and others, but they are also apt when it comes to discussing some of the composers of that generation:

They are evidence of Penederecki’s exhilarating sense of freedom, not just from the stifling neo-classicism of his youth but also from what he saw replacing it in Polish music, the insidious avant-garde hegemony of serialism. More than that, he felt free from the construction of traditional musical parameters: rhythm and metre, harmony and melody, and many aspects of form. . . . (p. 165).

These comments help to establish a context for discussing the works that Penderecki composed later in the 1960s and 1970s, and also individuals like Gorecki, Szalonek, and others. Those composers continued to explore music in the following decades, as did Penderecki, and while some of their music may be no longer performed, their contributions may be seen as a tangible connection to some of the contemporary trends that Thomas explores in the later part of this study. With the openness to Western culture that emerged after the 1970s, the potential for personal expression offered a new impetus for composition, which may be perceived not only with those composers, but also others. The well-known Third Symphony of Gorecki is just one example from this time, and Thomas explores Gorecki’s music, as well as that of other composers, as he takes the reader to the present, when “Young Poland” is again a term used to describe the creative spirit that persists to the present. It is clear that Poland has much to offer contemporary music, and beyond the works that circulate in printed and recorded form, the enthusiasm for new music that exists in Poland is one of its most powerful attributes. Thomas conveys that spirit in this book, which is an effective study of a remarkable music culture. The various technical apparatus that are part of the study, the lists of composers and their works, a chronology of events from the late 1960s to the 1990s, and the comprehensive bibliography (of both general works and studies connected to individual composers) are tools that are invaluable to future explorations of this music. For those who appreciate Polish music and others who may want to know about it, Polish Music since Szymanowski is an important publication that should endure as the present generation of composers takes its audiences into the twenty-first century.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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