Danuta Gwizdalanka
100 Years of Polish Music History

Gwizdalanka sets the history of Polish music against political and social backgrounds

Much as composers had previously created new melodies or harmonies, now they were looking for new sounds. In Poland, music associated with the “Polish School” was usually called Sonorism, from the Latin word sonus meaning “sound”. The originator of this term was the musicologist Józef M. Chomiński, who, in studying the evolution of music, noticed a growth in the meaning of colour after periods in which melody, rhythm and harmony had dominated. The expanding orchestra, to which new instruments were introduced, allowed for a continual broadening of the sound colour palette. In the mid-20th century, a multitude of new colouristic effects emerged from unusual ways of producing sounds from instruments.

In his works, Krzysztof Penderecki – who had taken violin lessons in his youth – required violinists, violists, cellists and double bassists to tap the bodies of their instruments or rub their top plate with the bow, to play between the bridge and the tailpiece or on the tailpiece. If the audience was prompted with a suggestive programme, then they approved of such unconventional sounds. In this way, Penderecki beat a path to the concert hall for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. This music dedicated to the victims of the first atomic bomb was heard by the audience as a poignant illustrative and programmatic piece; they did not expect nice sounds or a predictable musical process.

Listeners reacted differently to music in which what underwent transformation was the colours, density of sound, volume and mobility of individual sounds or motifs than they did to works in which melody and harmony were the most important thing. Such music evoked feelings of awe, amazement, and even terror. This was quickly discovered by horror film directors. In 1973, William Friedkin used Penderecki’s music in The Exorcist, and soon after that, Stanley Kubrick used it in The Shining, where he had a “sound salad” comprised of four tracks (De natura sonoris II, Canon, Polymorphia and Utrenja_II) montaged for the film’s finale. The unusual sounds produced from acoustic instruments, as well as the whispers and screams of the choir, were exceptionally effective in intensifying the horror of the world in which the ghosts inhabiting the Overlook Hotel lived, and in reinforcing the atmosphere of madness engulfing the main character. These examples proved contagious, with Martin Scorsese making use of Penderecki’s music for the horror scenes in Shutter Island, and David Lynch making use of it several times as well. In his homeland, the composer is considered the personification of patriotic-religious and spiritual music; abroad, he is associated with horror films and ghosts.

Kazimierz Serocki created a different sonic landscape in his works. He had a predilection for using delicate, diverse, often vibrating sounds. From segments of contrasting instrumentation, full of unconventional sounds, he created pieces of diverse dramaturgy, sometimes based on classic models. In 1965-66, he composed the first important piece in Polish music for percussion alone: Continuum. Six musicians positioned around the audience produced subtle sounds from 123 instruments in a quiet dynamic. Serocki was a pianist, so he displayed an inclination toward finding new ways to play the piano. He prepared the instrument, required the performer to pluck or strike the strings, or tap on the instrument’s wooden parts as if playing the drums. Phantasmagoria was scored for his favourite instruments, i.e. percussion and piano. The pianist plays on the keys and the strings with hands and sticks.

Excerpt translated by Karol Thornton-Remiszewski and Michał Szostało

Full English manuscript available


Danuta Gwizdalanka
100 Years of Polish Music History

Gwizdalanka sets the history of Polish music against political and social backgrounds

Publisher: PWM Edition, Kraków 2018
Translation rights: PWM Edition,

Musical compositions form a part of the greatest accomplishments of twentieth-century Polish culture. Beginning with Karol Szymanowski, an entire pantheon of neoclassical composers (such as Grażyna Bacewicz and Michał Spisak) leads to the post-war “Polish School” (Witold Lutosławski, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, and Krzysztof Penderecki) all the way to the composers at the turn of the twenty-first century (among others: Paweł Mykietyn and Agata Zubel).

Danuta Gwizdalanka’s book speaks of this phenom- enon in atypical fashion. For she sets the history of Polish music against political and social backgrounds from the restoration of Poland’s independence in 1918 through the cosmopolitanism of open borders and Poland’s accession to the European Union in The history of Polish music, as well as the history of its institutions and festivals (chief among them being the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contempo- rary Music) reflects the stormy history of the nation as a whole: the interwar period of the Second Republic, occupation during World War Two, the imposition of communism, the pontificate of John Paul II, the rise of Solidarity and the final fall of the communist dictatorship. The author also considers music from other perspectives: aesthetic controversies, Polish religiosity, folk music and folklorism, the work of Polish émigré composers (above all, Andrzej Panufnik), the situation of female composers and… musicologists. A separate chapter is devoted entirely to opera, and Gwizdalanka’s summation is a reflection of the mythology that has developed around Polish music.

The book is addressed to the general reader. Written with zest and wit, it avoids specialist jargon. Its rich illustrations give it a special value. The photos and reproductions, along with their captions, can be considered mini-essays, which emphasise characteristic events, phenomena, and figures.

The genesis of 100 Years in the History of Polish Music can be found in the “100 for 100” project, which celebrates the centennial of the restoration of Poland’s independence. Another aspect of this project is a box set of 36 CDs presenting recordings of 101 musical compositions, one for each year of the century 1918-2018.

Marcin Trzęsiok

Translated by Charles S. Kraszewski

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