Music since 1960: Penderecki: Threnody

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

Unexpectedly, my list of great works in modern composition since 1960 became one of my most popular posts here. In it I hinted that each of the works I listed was chosen not just because of their individual qualities, but also because of what they meant personally to me, and suggested that one day I might write all those stories here. Well, beginning with 1960, and Penderecki's Threnody – To the Victims of Hiroshima, that is just what I'm going to do, roughly once a week for around the next 40 weeks. Since this is a blog, and by definition a sequential, chronological piece of writing that made sense – and anyway, as a boy I'm compelled to believe that making and annotating lists is the only valid form of intimate communication…

P.S. I have never read any Nick Hornby. Honest.


Almost since his career began, Penderecki has receieved at least as many brickbats as bouquets, but Threnody, one of his first breakthrough works, remains as stunning, visceral, shocking and thrilling as anything in or out of the repertory. Penderecki's music itself is a key part of my work-in-progress PhD (three other composers on this list are too), and while I therefore felt I had to include some of his music in such a personal list, this piece would have easily made it on merit alone.

Threnody (recording) is composed for 52 strings, very often dividing into 52 seperate parts. It is a classic of the so-called 'sonoristic' style, it is written in a semi-graphic (although precise) notation, and makes great demands on its players – and their instruments – with numerous extended playing techniques. In trying to describe it once upon a time to milady, I said that its beginning at least was like a cat sliding down a blackboard, knocking over a large box of pens and stationery on the way down. This is one of the ultimate examples of 'squeaky door' music, but – accidentally, as it happens – one of the most powerfully moving pieces in the postwar canon.

I say accidentally, because the evocative title – which marries so well to the white noise of screams and sirens evoked in the opening moments – was not Penderecki's initial choice. The piece was originally given the anti-programmatic title 8' 37", but on a recommendation after the first performance, Penderecki changed it. Rumours abound as to why or how this actually happened, but the current consensus leans towards the suggestion coming from either a Polish radio official, or Penderecki's publisher. In any event, the new title proved to be the making of the work – and Penderecki himself – and Threnody was a major success at the 1961 ISCM Festival in Amsterdam.

But while the title obviously gives an accessible entry point into the music, and accounts for a great deals of the work's critical success, there is more to this piece than the program of post-nuclear lament. In fact, I'd argue that in some ways, whilst it served Penderecki well in this case, there is a lazy undercurrent of thought that draws a conclusion from examples such as Threnody, Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score and Stanley Kubrick's use of Ligeti in 2001 that postwar composition is capable of expressing nothing but terror, usually awesome. This does nobody – least of all the works – any favours, and is one view I hope can be challenged in this little survey of mine.

Actually, another way of thinking of Threnody is as a set of variations upon a cluster. A cluster is a 'chord' made up of three or more notes adjacent to one another. It's not a harmony in the conventional sense, but a sound, and Threnody is full of them. The biggest and most dramatic of these occurs at the very end of the work, when each of the 52 instruments sustains a note one quarter-tone different from its neighbour. The effect is shattering and magical – catgut and horsehair become glass bells and iron gongs as the harmonics beat against one another. Of all the clusters in the work, this is the purest – it is held for a full 30 seconds, with the only marking a slow diminuendo from triple fortissimo down to nothing. If Threnody may be read as a set of variations, this white noise totality is its theme.

The preceding sections of the work each explore this totality of noise, the obliteration of melody, harmony and rhythm to the service of sound that this final cluster represents, through a variety of means. Some are sequences of smaller interlocking clusters, others are more kaleidoscopic. The piece as a whole is an attempt to create musical shape in the almost total absence of any traditionally recognised musical elements, and, therefore, in the almost total absence of anything recognisably programmatic or representative. After the relaxation in 1956 of Soviet control over the arts in Poland and elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, programmatic music and musical representation, with their suggestion of Socialist Realism, became anathema to young Polish composers, and musical abstraction became a highly-valued avenue of expression. The development of a musical form, its own internal tensions and coincidences are meaning and expression enough.

Too easily we forget to revel in the qualities of sound for its own sake, in music without 'meaning'.

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