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Krzystzof Penderecki: Symphony no. 7 “Seven Gates of Jerusalem”
19 Apr 2007

PENDERECKI: Symphony no. 7

Krzyzstof Penderecki (b. 1933) has contributed a body of works to the modern repertoire, and his Symphony no. 7, which he composed 1996 (premiere 1997 in Jerusalem), is an impressive composition.

Krzystzof Penderecki: Symphony no. 7 “Seven Gates of Jerusalem”

Olga Pasichnyk, soprano. Aga Mikołaj, soprano, Ewa Marciniec, alt, Wiesław Ochman, tenor, Romuald Tesarowicz, bass, Boris Carmeli, narrator, Warsaw National Phiharmonic Choir, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, Antoni Wit, conductor.
(Full text and translation available here.)

Naxos 8.557766 [CD]

$7.99  Click to buy

This oratorio-like work was commissioned to celebrate the third millennium of Jerusalem, and in approaching the work, Penderecki made some overt connections to the city. The traditional seven gates of the city in the title are reflected in the seven-movement structure of the work and, as indicated in the notes that accompany the recording, Penderecki used the figure seven in various ways throughout the work. By using texts from the Old Testament that call to mind various aspects of the city, not just as a place, but a site laden that anchors spiritual associations. (The texts for the movements are organized as set forth in the table below.)

A close reading of the text shows that Penderecki shaped the verbal content carefully. By selecting verses to be sung, he gave the text focus and clarity so that the piece could contain the specific phrases that he wanted to use, rather than carry along verses for the sake of completeness. Taken together, the verses for the first movement are, for example, essentially a new text, albeit one redolent of the psalter. With other movements, though, the choices are more complicated, and suggest an internal dialogue that places prophetic statements alongside the adulatory — or sometimes admonishing — ones from the psalms. With the last movement, to cite another example, it is possible to see a development of textual ideas, as Penderecki combines verses from three prophetic books, and then returns to the psalms, eventually bringing back the verse with which the Symphony opened. This suggests a level of composition that bears further consideration for the structural organization that is linked to the musical structure of the work.

As to the style of the work, Penderecki’s Symphony no. 7 is relatively conservative, with the nuances of texture and timbre having given way to some of the innovations associated with his earlier pieces. To put the Symphony in perspective, the comments of Adrian Thomas offer a point of departure. In discussing some of Penderecki’s later symphonies, Thomas suggests that: “Given that Penderecki’s focus is habitually on line, timbre, tempo and dynamics, his concert music of the past quarter century relies on plain-speaking rhetoric, on readily absorbed intervallic and rhythmic repetitions, and on the reinterpretation of models drawn from major symphonic composers of the past….” (Adrian Thomas, Polish Music since Szymanowski [Cambridge University Press, 2005] p. 251). This précis fits this work well, as it captures the stylistic elements that operate in this work. Like the symphoniae sacrae of seventeenth-century composers like Heinrich Schütz, Penderecki used voices and instruments to present concerted settings of texts from the Bible. The scope of Penderecki’s effort in his Seventh Symphony differs because of the multi-movement structure he used to create this musical reflection of the city of Jerusalem. In finding such a locus for his musical structure, Penderecki echoes, however distantly, his earlier Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima, another work in which the evocation of a city results in a work that has universal resonance.

This work also belongs to the choral symphony of the nineteenth century, reminiscent in a sense of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for its use of voices throughout the work. Similarly, Mahler’s efforts to bring together different texts — in the case of the Eighth Symphony, the Latin hymn “Veni creator spiritus” and the final scene from the second part of Goethe’s Faust, Penderecki combined verses from various psalms, as well as different parts of the Old Testament. Psalms and prophetic texts are brought together in this Jerusalem-inspired work which, in this sense, reflects those aspects of the old city as a place of worship and a locus of prophetic vision. In this sense, it is a return to those seventeenth-century composers, whose works use large forces along with concertato sonorities to prsent biblical texts, but conceived along much larger lines.

While it is possible to find such lines of thought in the work, Penderecki’s Seventh Symphony also belongs to thecomposer’s other works in this genre. Composed over a quarter century, Penderecki’s symphonies differ from each other in ways reminiscent of Mahler of Shostakovich and, as with those composers, also reflect some aspects of Penderecki’s other music. With its use of Latin, it resembles the composer’s St. Luke Passion with a language that at once offers a lingual neutrality through a ritualistic, language that is no longer used in the vernacular.

Regarding the musical language, though, Penderecki uses blocks of sound that convey a sense of the solidity of his structure. The opening gesture itself presents an intensive mass on which he builds what becomes a refrain for the movement. The opening sounds of the chorus punctuated with percussion and intersected with low-brass figures is an impressive, almost ritualistic gesture that introduces the first movement. The tutti orchestral cadences further define the vocal phrases of this massively conceived piece, which offers a paean in music that transcends the artificial boundaries of religion. Yet as the text of the verses of the psalm occur, the subtler presentation with solo voices becomes a textural foil for the larger forces that occur in the refrain.With the second movement, Penderecki draws on the orchestra for gestures that set a different tone and at once suggests the Penderecki’s style in other, similar pieces for that combine orchestral forces with choral ones. At times the textures contain some distantly related sounds that, in turn, suggest musical space that reinforces the distance connoted in the text “If I forget you, Jerusalem.” As with the first movement, the second is effective in presenting its text in a unique way. In fact, each of the movements is distinct enough to stand on its own merits, yet when conceived together, form a cohesive symphonic structure.

The work is in Latin, with the sixth movement, the most dramatic of the entire work, in Hebrew, with the text from Ezekiel presented by a speaker. In this recording, Boris Carmeli, a voice otherwise associated with opera, is effective in presenting the text with aplomb and clear enunciation. This piece moves away from the choral forces, to create a different kind of sound through the combination of spoken text with the pointillistic orchestral texture that supports it. While the work is well served with the solo voices that occur in various movements, the use of spoken work calls attention to the text, which demands notice because of the chosen mode of presentation that takes the words outside the bounds of singing. As such, the composer demands attention to the text, and thus forces this piece to stand apart from the other movements. At times unsettling, the movement is an effective setting of a challenging text that holds a crucial place within the overall framework of the Symphony.

With several recordings of this work available, audiences have the rare opportunity to select between various performances. This reading by Antoni Wit has much to offer through its highly polished and finely shaped choral sonorities, and equally adept instrumental forces. Naxos has made much of Penderecki’s music available through recordings that are at once reliable and affordable, and the addition of this title to its offerings should bring this powerful work to a wide, international audience. In this work the twentieth-century symphony, which has been a mode of expression for Polish modernists, takes on new formal dimensions in one of Penderecki’s fine recent pieces.

James L. Zychowicz

Outline of Texts
Mvt Title Texts
1. Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis in civitate Great is the Lord, and to be praised Psalm 47 (48):1
Psalm 95 (96):1-3
Psalm 47 (48):1
Psalm 4 (487:13
Psalm 47 (48):1
2. Si oblitus fuero tui, Ierusalem If I forget you, Jerusalem Psalm 136 (137):5
3. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine Out of the depths, have I called you, O Lord Psalm 129 (130): 1-5
4. Si oblitus fuero tui, Ierusalem If I forget you, Jerusalem Psalm 136 (137):5
Isaiah 26:2
Isaiah 52:1
Psalm 136 (137):5
5. Lauda, Ierusalem, Dominum Praise the Lord, Jerusalem Psalm 147:12-14
6. Hajetà alai jad adonài, The hand of the Lord was upon me Ezekiel 37: 1-10
7. Haec dicit Dominus Thus says the Lord Jeremiah 21:8
Daniel 7:13
Isaiah 59:19
Isaiah 60:1-2
Psalm 47 (48):1
Isaiah 60:11
Psalm 95 (96):1; 2-3
Psalm 47 (48):1
Psalm 47(48):13
Psalm 47(48):1
Psalm 47(48):13

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