Polish Requiem – a witness of history

“I consider it a very special piece. I always empathise with its performance,” says Krzysztof Penderecki in an article by Beata Boles³awska-Lewandowska.
It all began with Lacrimosa, a several-minute-long lament for a soprano voice, choir, and orchestra, which Krzysztof Penderecki composed on the request of Lech Wa³êsa. The work was presented on 16th December 1980 in Gdañsk at the unveiling of the monument to the shipyard workers murdered 10 years earlier by communists. Asked about the world premiere, the composer reminisces: “It was an extraordinary experience. The concert, or rather the playing of the recording of my piece was just a small part of the ceremony. A million people were reportedly gathered at the foot of the monument in falling sleet. With weather conditions like that, the spotlights provided uncanny lighting. A few days later, Lech Wa³êsa phoned me saying “Mr Composer, your colleagues refused, would you agree to write a piece for the ceremony of the unveiling of the monument to the murdered shipyard workers?” They refused because they were afraid; the event was not favourably looked upon by the powers that be. I agreed, and wrote Lacrimosa in the matter of just a few days. Antoni Wit recorded it with the Polish Radio Choir and Orchestra in Kraków, with Jadwiga Go dulanka as the soloist, and the recording was played in Gdañsk.
[All Krzysztof Penderecki quotes come from the author’s telephone conversation with the composer, held on 26th January 2012].
Several minutes long, highly melancholic and lyrical, Lacrimosa with its memorable introduction of the soprano became the germ of the monumental – in terms of both form and content – Polish Requiem, one of the most extraordinary pieces in not only the oeuvre of Krzysztof Penderecki, but also the history of Polish music. There is no other work that is so strongly bound to the historical and political context and the time when it originated. The symbolic layer was emphasised with significant dedications, binding the ideas of the successive movements to specific events. The Polish Requiem was years in the making, gradually taking its final shape. Even long after composing Lacrimosa, Penderecki did not intend to include it in a greater whole, even though – as he repeatedly admitted – the idea of writing a funeral mass came about in his head much earlier. Laughing, he recalls that at the time he was afraid of the superstition that, much like in the case of Mozart, the Requiem could become the last of his pieces. He was waiting for an appropriate moment, and lo and behold the political situation in Poland of the early 1980s made him decide on a mass. “And I succeeded in surviving my Requiem,” the composer says.
Agnus Dei
The plan to compose the Requiem began to bud in 1981. The Primate Bishop of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyñski, a man Penderecki knew in person and thought extremely highly of, died in May. “He was a great man, with exceptional charisma. Alongside him, I always felt small, even though that does not happen to me often,” the composer recollects. In the morning following the death of the Cardinal, the composer was called, and embarked nearly immediately on writing Agnus Dei for choir a cappella. The work was to be performed during the funeral ceremonies on 31st May 1981. Penderecki says that when he arrived in Warsaw together with the Kraków choir, nobody wanted to let them into the cathedral, explaining that there had been no such agreement. So Penderecki simply pushed aside the parish priest standing at the doorstep of the cathedral, and together with the singers made for the crypt, where the several-minute-long Agnus Dei, brimming with sadness and captivating with the beauty of the warm and euphonic sound of the choir, resounded during the funeral for the first time.
Dies irae
Lacrimosa, much like Agnus Dei, was meant to function as an independent composition. Still, for some time yet the idea to compose an entire funeral mass began to take shape slowly in the composer’s mind. Six successive fragments of the work based on the sequence of Dies irae emerged in the autumn of 1983; they are Quid sum miser, Rex tremendae maiestatis, Recordare Jesu pie, Ingemisco tamquam reus, Preces meae, and Confutatis maledictis. Together with the earlier ones – Lacrimosa and Agnus Dei – they built the first version of the Polish Requiem, performed for the first time on 23rd November 1983 in Washington, on the 50th birthday of Krzysztof Penderecki under Mstislav Rostropovich, who – enchanted with Lacrimosa – “booked” for himself the opportunity to conduct the world premiere of a fuller version of the piece. Less than a year later, on 28th September 1984, in Stuttgart, he conducted the international premiere of the new version of the work enriched with successive movements: the initial Requiem aeternam, Kyrie, Tuba mirum and Mors stupebit, and the Lux aeterna, Libera me, Domine and Finale closing the work.

Sanctus and Chaconne per archi
The Polish Requiem retained that shape for many long years. Yet the composer sensed that that was not yet its end, and so in 1993 he added the Sanctus overflowing with internal light, and 12 years later the place between Sanctus and Agnus Dei was filled in by the instrumental Chaconne per archi, composed after the death of John Paul II. Only then was the form of the Requiem complete. “I always set great store by the formal shape of the work, irrespective of whether it lasts for five minutes or two hours. This is why I knew precisely well that a purely instrumental part to follow Sanctus would be composed”, Penderecki explained. “A piece of music always lives its own life, acquires value with time, and matures; which is why I needed time, impulse, and an appropriate moment to fill in those missing gaps. The case was similar with a number of other compositions, e.g. Symphony No. 3,” the composer added.
A poke in the eye of the authorities
Today, the Polish Requiem is an enclosed whole, a nearly 2-hour form that is complete in its narration and dramaturgy. The composer does not intend to add anything, hoping by the way that he will not be given to experience any more national traumas similar in their character to martial law.
The Polish Requiem, composed by Penderecki “to brace the hearts” at the time of the birth of Solidarity, was beyond doubt an act of daring. Penderecki was not the only Polish artist who decided to dedicate his work to Poland in the 1980s – suffice it to mention Sinfonia votiva (1980/1981) of the émigré Andrzej Panufnik and Krzysztof Meyer’s Symphony No. 6 “Polish” (1982). Yet it was Penderecki’s piece that became the most significant musical symbol of the time.
Dedications of the successive movements of the Polish Requiem made reference to the most important events in the contemporary history of Poland, they were a poke in the eye to the authorities of the time to a degree that initially earned them a printing ban, so that they could not be published as scores and parts of concert programmes.
The power of music
In the case of the Polish Requiem, it is vested – besides the historical and political context – in the aesthetic qualities of the piece, initially strongly criticised by the partisans of the musical avant-garde, who accused Penderecki of betraying their ideals. The Requiem is a synthesis of 20th-century musical means, thanks to its free combination of tonal and sonorist elements, the lyrical and the dramatic, and peaceful and the tumultuous expression: all this consummately interwoven to render the dramaturgy of the subject. Here, the realm of death and the final judgement very clearly interpenetrate prayer, contemplation, and hope, both in the textual layer and in the music itself.
Death inspires awe with the dark shades and clustered, sonorist sounds of Dies irae, Mors stupebit, and Ingemisco. The imploring prayers for divine protection are spoken out in Recordare, Jesu pie. A quotation from the melody of Œwiêty Bo¿e…, the Polish version of the Trisagion, penetrates the extended, counterpoint and polyphonic construction of the sequences.
The side of light and hope is represented in turn by the lyrical and lamenting Lacrimosa, the neo-tonal Sanctus, the string Chaconne resounding with baroque, and the subtle, choral Agnus Dei. The following two movements – Lux aeterna and Libera me, Domine – still resound with sonorism (Lux aeterna), and all the threads in the narration of the entire work are synthetically summed up in the Finale, clearly built on the model of Beethoven’s symphonies (especially The Ninth). The last word belongs to the world of hope and light, as expressed in the verse “O Lord, make them pass over from death to life”.
A piece of exceptional significance
Analysing the origin and functioning of the Polish Requiem, it is worth remembering that references and symbols contained in the composer’s dedications and in the Œwiêty Bo¿e melody of the Trisagion, which Poles unmistakably associate with prayer to God at the times that the nation finds most difficult, quoted in Recordare – lose their emotional significance for foreigners.
“It is, after all, music that counts most”, the composer emphasised. This is the purely musical power of expression contained in this piece that means that it is received exceedingly well all over the world, frequently performed, and also understood beyond the strictly Polish context. Yet special moments still do occur. The composer remembers clearly, for example, the concert in Boston when all the audience stood up during Lacrimosa: “It must have been prepared somehow, somebody orchestrated, yet the experience was extraordinary”.
Nonetheless, the Polish Requiem will remember a witness of its times for ever, and perhaps also the strongest testimony to the national identity of its author; a gallant reaction of the composer to the tragic and entangled history of Poland in the 20th century. Krzysztof Penderecki admits that it is due to its history and the time of its composition that he sees Requiem as a piece of special significance.