Greatest Polish composers and how they influenced Polish music through the turmoil of the 20th century
John Allison explores how Poland’s turbulent history has left an exceptional musical heritage
It is hardly surprising that interwar Poland was such an artistic hothouse. For almost a century and a half, following the First Partition of 1772, the history of Poland had been one of artistic ideas rather than material substance.
After the Third Partition in 1795, Poland had ceased to exist as a state — Russia, Prussia and Austria had joined forces in dividing up the land of the mazurka and polonaise.
Political activity was suppressed, but it found artistic expression and the arts became not just a reflection of events but a replacement for them.
Great Polish composers
It was in this climate that the musical genius of Chopin flourished, both before and after he went into exile in Paris.
He was not alone, and other important Polish composers of the 19th century included;
- Stanisław Moniuszko (celebrated especially for his operas and songs)
- Henryk Wieniawski (also a virtuoso violinist)
- Juliusz Zarębski (a pupil of Liszt who died tragically young, aged 31)
- Zygmunt Noskowski (teacher of almost all the Young Poland composers)
- Władysław Żeleński (something of a late Romantic who lived long enough to witness Poland’s return to nationhood).
But to understand the depth of Polish musical culture in the 20th century and beyond, it’s necessary to remember not only Chopin’s direct predecessors – Maria Szymanowska, Karol Lipiński, Franciszek Lessel, Józef Elsner and Karol Kurpiński – but the much earlier figures who are only now beginning to gain recognition in the wider world. Indeed, through a line of such figures as Mikołaj of Radom (born around 1400) to Mikołaj Gomólka and Bartłomiej Pękiel, Poland can claim some of the greatest Renaissance and Baroque composers.
Of special significance are Mikołaj Gomołka’s settings of Jan Kochanowski’s Psałterz Dawidów (Psalms of David). Kochanowski was the greatest poet of the entire Slavonic world before the 19th century, and (as the historian Norman Davies puts it) ‘his Psalter did for Polish what Luther’s Bible did for German’.
Born in Kursk in 1860, Ignacy Paderewski was plunged into a dual life of music and political activism. Largely self-taught, he started to grab attention as an exceptional pianist and improviser, though his career didn’t really take off until he was in his mid-20s. After a breakthrough in Paris in 1888, he toured widely, gaining something of a cult reputation as audiences were wowed by his stage presence and thrilling virtuosity.
During World War One, he saw concert tours as an opportunity to champion and raise funds for the burgeoning Polish independence movement, and when Poland achieved its desired political status at war’s end, Paderewski had become too influential a voice to ignore – he was soon appointed both Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
As the political sands shifted around him, Paderewski did not stay long in post, but he did remain a respected elder statesman as he revived in earnest his career as a pianist. When he died in 1941, aged 80, it was, appropriately, while on a tour in the US in order to drum up support for his homeland’s cause in the Second World War.
In any ranking of more recent Polish composers, Szymanowski must be regarded as second greatest after Chopin. An almost exact contemporary of Bartók, Kodály, Enescu and Stravinsky, he occupies a similar place to them on the cusp of modern music.
The heady opulence of some of his biggest, middle-period works has led to him being viewed as even perhaps ‘the last Romantic’, but his late style – an attempt to summon up the primitivism of traditional Polish music that coincided with the emergence of an independent Poland – is of greater significance.
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From the early 1920s onwards he fell increasingly under the spell of the music of the Tatra mountain people, with results that can be heard in such works as the ballet Harnasie, the Fourth Symphony (a Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra), the Second Violin Concerto and the Stabat Mater. Dying of tuberculosis in 1937, he was spared witnessing Poland’s almost total destruction during World War Two.
The musical flowering of these interwar years was intense but short-lived. It was also quite widely spread, since not all Polish composers were to stay at home. ‘Un compositeur polonais’ is how Alexandre Tansman always described himself – while speaking French at home in Paris and rubbing shoulders with such figures as Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger and Milhaud.
His Polish and, more specifically, Jewish roots were to find expression in some of his most important postwar works. Another composer who followed the well-trodden path to Paris was Szymon Laks; surviving Auschwitz, he was luckier than Józef Koffler, Poland’s first dodecaphonic composer who was murdered by the Nazis in southeast Poland.
Then there was Mieczysław Weinberg, dubbed ‘the Jewish Shostakovich’. Forced to flee east after the Nazi invasion, he lived in the Soviet Union from the age of 20 and was a friend of the famous Russian composer. Weinberg’s Jewish Polish background had formative influence on his style. Perhaps his single most important work is the opera The Passenger, inspired by the writings of the Polish Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz and revived around the world in recent years.
Poland was unlucky again after the war, falling under Soviet domination. Even before the declaration of the Polish People’s Republic in 1952, musical life – which had begun to pick itself up in 1949 with the centenary of Chopin’s death – came under the strictures of socialist realism.
But some composers succeeded in steering clear of the dogma, including Grażyna Bacewicz, who made her name early on as a violinist and was the first 20th century female Polish composer to achieve global renown.
One of the most significant composers to emerge during these years, Witold Lutosławski (who survived the war giving ‘underground’ concerts in cafés, often in piano-duo partnership with his friend Andrzej Panufnik) resisted pressure to write in a socialist realist style, but during the dark years of Stalinist intervention he found a way of satisfying the authorities.
His major work from this time, the Concerto for Orchestra, used a Bartókian model and incorporated folk music, saving Lutosławski from the self-abasement of many of his colleagues.
Panufnik, by contrast, found the pressures placed on him unbearable, and in 1954 slipped minders in Switzerland and sought asylum in Britain. A position as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra helped him establish a new career, and from the 1960s onwards he was able to devote himself almost entirely to composition.
Another composer who settled in England was André Tchaikowsky, who used his success as a pianist to study and participate in competitions abroad during the second half of the 1950s, while Roman Palester emigrated to France.
But this period was also to see a cultural thaw, one that enabled the creation of the Warsaw Autumn festival in 1956, set up by the progressive composers Tadeusz Baird and Kazimierz Serocki as a platform for contemporary music and a vital window onto the outside world. Though there was no festival in 1982, under the martial law imposed in response to the protests of Solidarity and other pro-democracy organisations, Warsaw Autumn remains an annual event and one of the world’s leading celebrations of new music.
Many historians of the Cold War agree that the process that ultimately saw the collapse of communism in Poland actually began with the first papal visit by John Paul II in 1979. The Polish pontiff was to make several visits to his homeland, and nothing captures the vital spirit of Polish Catholicism during this period better than Henryk Górecki’s hypnotic and haunting Totus Tuus, written for one of those papal visits.
This outwardly simple work belongs firmly to the composer’s post-firebrand phase, inaugurated in 1976 by the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Initially one of Poland’s well-kept musical secrets, its eventual chart-topping success – propelled by a 1992 recording with Dawn Upshaw that sold over a million copies – surprised no one more than the modest composer himself.
While being regarded as a moral beacon on the Polish arts scene, the frequently misunderstood Górecki had started out as a leader of its avant-garde, making his name initially with the aural violence of his 1958 Warsaw Autumn commission, Epitafium.
His exact contemporary Krzysztof Penderecki travelled a similar route from reckless avant-gardism to post-Romanticism and is now the most widely performed of all living Polish composers.
He came to prominence with the 1961 Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, one of his ‘sonorist’ works from the early 1960s, yet unusually for a composer of this time and place he began to focus on choral music; his most mould-breaking work was the St Luke Passion of 1966, a celebration of the millennium of Polish Christianity and the first large-scale oratorio by a Polish composer since the 19th century. Penderecki remains that rare thing: a modern composer able to speak to audiences.
Other important contemporaries of his include Witold Szalonek, Zygmunt Krauze, Krzysztof Meyer and Bogusław Schaeffer, and among leading composers of the next generations are such names as Paweł Szymański and Agata Zubel.
Those who have created Poland’s music over this turbulent century could not have done so without the country’s resilient musical infrastructure.
Poland has produced many of the greatest pianists of recent times, and numerous famous violinists and opera singers. Its institutions continue to lead the way – the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice has recently opened one of the world’s finest concert halls.
Even the world’s most important musical contest, the International Chopin Piano Competition, is not resting on its laurels: its organisers are using 2018 to launch a new Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, celebrating the historical performance trends of which Warsaw has been at the forefront. In Poland, musical history never stands still