Polish composers: radical innovation

Krzysztof Penderecki, who will conduct the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, on Frederick Chopin's lasting appeal.

Back at school, when we were aged about 12, our music teacher, Mrs Grant, was on a mission to broaden our tiny, Kylie-addled minds. Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Ravel... The world of classical music was slowly opening up to us. And one day, she sat us down on our wooden chairs and played the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It is one long, agonised scream of a work that leaves the listener exhausted from sheer emotional catharsis.

To all intents and purposes, the 1960 composition is part of the avant-garde canon that caused the 20th century's classical music scene to become a mere sideshow to the main attractions of jazz and pop, listened to only by those with an academic musical education that encouraged them to value intellectual worth over listening pleasure. Yet this was a piece that left 30 12-year-old girls with tears in their eyes, desk graffiti momentarily suspended. It was a piece that made it into a song by the alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers called You Love Us and that was used in the soundtrack of the 2006 movie Children of Men. It is that rare thing: a piece of contemporary classical music that ordinary people actually relate to.

The same can be said of the music of Poland's other great composer, Frederick Chopin, born 200 years ago this year, and it is in celebration of the composer's anniversary that Penderecki will be conducting in Abu Dhabi this week. He will open the Abu Dhabi Festival 2010 as the conductor of the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, which will perform Chopin's First Piano Concerto as well as Schubert's Fifth Symphony and two of his own works, Ciaccona for String Orchestra and Serenade for String Orchestra.

"Chopin is a great composer who influenced many, many important composers," says Penderecki. "He was a great innovator, especially in harmony. Chopin, especially in Asia, is composer number one, more played than Mozart and Beethoven or Mahler. "I heard, you know, that in China last year 40 million young kids started to play piano," he adds. "And all of them will later play Chopin." In fact, the celebration of Chopin will include events all around the world, from Paris, where the composer made his home, to Abu Dhabi - where, as well as Penderecki's concert, we have seen the inaugural Gulf International Chopin Competition for young pianists; Valentina Lisitsa playing his work (together with Schumann's) at the Al Ain Classics season, and can look forward to the Emirates Youth Symphony Orchestra's Peace Music Festival in April, which will this season concentrate on the works of Chopin.

Penderecki is a willing participant in the organised revival of the composer's work - though he does rather wearily remark that the music is once more to be heard on Polish radio "every day". Indeed, he is halfway through composing a song cycle in tribute to Chopin, commissioned by the Chopin Institute in Warsaw, in which he will set the works of some of Chopin's poet friends (including the towering Romantic figure Adam Mickiewicz) to music. Why a song cycle, a form more commonly associated with Robert Schumann (who shares the anniversary this year)?

"Chopin is of course a great composer, but you cannot imitate this music because it was very special music. But instead, I'm using this poetry, which he loved very much. It would be too easy to write Piano Concerto No 3. Chopin No 3! No, I'm commemorating the year of Chopin, our great composer, not copying him." Indeed, at first glance, it might seem that their nationality and their popularity are all that the two composers have in common. Certainly as a young rule-breaker, Penderecki, now 76, actively threw off the phantom of Chopin that haunted all music students of his day.

"I was growing up in a communist time, especially, and the other music, the western music, was banned, so on radio half of the music was Chopin," he says. "So my colleagues and I were a little bit allergic to this music because it was everywhere - everywhere! I didn't write any piano music, actually, until 2001, when I wrote the piano concerto." In fact, he was an arch avant-gardist for much of his early career, influenced by atonalists and 12-tone serialists such as Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez - composers who eschewed traditional musical traits such as melody and harmony - as well as the more approachable modernists such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Yet to think of him simply as a modernist is to do him an injustice.

"I began as a child, 70 years ago, to write music, and my music was changing every 10 or 15 years. I started with very tonal 19th-century music because I wanted to be a violinist as a child. So this was my first music, and then I was very much influenced by Stravinsky and Shostakovich in the 1950s. But I was starting to develop my own style," he says. "Then there were a couple of years in which I became very much involved in avant-garde music of the middle 1950s until, I would say, 1972 or 1973, and then I think I started to really develop my own music, so since that time my music is actually not changing much, in the last 40 years."

Aside from Threnody, it is Penderecki's later work that has led to such great acclaim and an amount of airplay that is remarkable for music of this genre. His Third Symphony and Fluorescences form part of the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's new film, Shutter Island, and his music has also been used in David Lynch's Wild At Heart, The Exorcist and The Shining. His brief return to the post-Romanticism of Bruckner aside, he puts his success down to something he believes he does have in common with Chopin: a melodic gift.

"I think there is some similarity with Chopin, which is that I'm also using melody. Melody was banned from music by the composers of the avant-garde. I was unique among them in always using and writing melody and so I think this is why I've shared my music, why they can have also pleasure, not only an interesting structure. I think that is why my music is played not only in the ghetto of the avant-garde but in the so-called 'normal' concerts."

Poland is, of course, a country with a great respect for the traditional crafts that also succeeds in breaking new ground. To visit the old town of Warsaw - destroyed during the Second World War and then rebuilt, stone by stone, complete with exquisite carvings and friezes on the facades - is to see this made manifest, with a simultaneous drive for modernism in the city's poster art, photography and, indeed, music. The National Theatre, which has played host to many of Penderecki's performances, is a masterpiece of 1960s design, replacing rather than replicating the theatre that had been destroyed in the war.

It is fitting, then, that Penderecki's task is to rebuild the tenets of music exploded by the iconoclasts of the first half of the century, yet to recreate them in a new way, combining those old crafts with new constructions, even new notations. For him, the foundations remain melody and harmony - and it is to these that he attributes Chopin's popularity. "I think it is his enormous ability to write beautiful melodies that are unforgettable," he says of Chopin's appeal. "You hear one Chopin mazurka once, you will remember it. This is something special. There were few composers who could so easily write in each piece such beautiful melodies. And also, the harmony, which is unique for its time, was ahead of Wagner even.

"He also is taking a much more serious place in the history of music than he used to be. I remember I was living in Germany in the Sixties and Chopin was still considered a salon composer: a composer of brilliant style, but not really a serious composer. But now this all changed." The accusation of not being a "serious" composer is one that cuts to the quick, and yet is a risk for any writer of music that achieves popularity - possibly the reason that so many avant-gardists cling tightly to their impenetrable noises. For Penderecki, a spreading reputation is a pleasure, and he is delighted with his concert date in Abu Dhabi.

"I am sure that never a note of my music was played in Abu Dhabi before, so I am happy that I will bring my music to Abu Dhabi and maybe I will find in the future some people they will be interested in my music," he says. "My music is very often played with the great classics, with Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, so I am very proud that I'm not really banished to these special concert halls for avant-garde composers because I consider myself a composer, not avant-garde.

"The avant-garde exist only to be avant-garde, and nobody's interested any longer. So I think if the music has something that the people appreciate or understand, this is the greatest gift it can have." For more details on Abu Dhabi Festival 2010, visit www.abudhabi-festival.ae.

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