Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Ethel Smyth: Songs and Ballads - a new recording from SOMM

In 1877, Ethel Smyth, aged just nineteen, travelled to Leipzig to begin her studies at the German town’s Music Conservatory, having finally worn down the resistance of her father, General J.H. Smyth.

Wagner: Excerpts from Der Ring des Niebelungen, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Järvi, RCA-Sony

This new recording of excerpts from Wagner’s Der Ring des Niebelungen is quite exceptional - and very unusual for this kind of disc. The words might be missing, but the fact they are proves to have rather the opposite effect. It is one of the most operatic of orchestral Wagner discs I have come across.

Wagner: Die Walküre, Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Simon Rattle, BR Klassik

Simon Rattle has never particularly struck me as a complex conductor. He is not, for example, like Furtwängler, Maderna, Boulez or Sinopoli - all of whom brought a breadth of learning and a knowledge of composition to bear on what they conducted.

Dvořák Requiem, Jakub Hrůša in memoriam Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák Requiem op.89 (1890) with Jakub Hrůša conducting the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. The Requiem was one of the last concerts Jiří Bělohlávek conducted before his death and he had been planning to record it as part of his outstanding series for Decca.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):