Brigade of Death
completed his Brigade of Death – produced in the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio –
in May 1963. The piece was written for the radio, for the 20th anniversary of
the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Before the radio
premiere, the work was presented in the Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Music Hall
on 20th January 1964, accompanied by visual effects created by blue and red
spotlights. The audience reaction, however, meant that the piece could only be
presented on the radio decades later.
Those reactions were not immediate. The audience left the hall in silence. The first performance was attended by Lutosławski, the editor and composer Zygmunt Mycielski, the writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and the head of the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, Józef Patkowski, among others. They were all filled with disgust. Iwaszkiewicz later wrote in the journal Twórczość, in an article entitled significantly “Weight and Proportion”: “This piece, presented to a concert audience seated comfortably in a warm hall, seemed to be addressed to the worst human instincts”.
Why was the work so resolutely rejected tht its next performance in Poland took place at the Warsaw Autumn of 2011? The problem lay as much with the idea as with its musical realisation. Brigade of Death (Sonderkommando 1005) was the wartime diary of a young Jew, Leon Weliczker, brought to the composer’s attention by Jerzy Smoter. Penderecki expressed his interest in creating the radio adaptation and, together with Smoter, selected the text. The “libretto” was recorded by the renowned actor Tadeusz Łomnicki, and the composer’s ideas were acoustically realised with the support of sound producer Eugeniusz Rudnik and his collaborators, Bohdan Mazurek and Krzysztof Szlifirski. The audience was presented with Weliczker’s account of his work as prisoner in the Sonderkommando in 1943, when they were forced to help cover up traces of German crimes by digging up and burning corpses of victims of massacres around Lviv in what is now Western Ukraine.
Penderecki’s Dies irae, which met with a similarly negative reception because of its schematic, brutal treatment of the subject, did not set a text that made such a tremendous impact on the audience, which is probably why it managed to withstand criticism. In his confessions of “faith, fear and hope” – as Mycielski wrote of the piece from 1967 – Penderecki was justified, as he had been a witness to the hell of the Holocaust. In the case of the Brigade, however, such a justification did not suffice.
The setting of the text was extremely suggestive (with the sound of the heartbeat and passages of orchestral piercing sound), but far from illustrative. Eugeniusz Rudnik recalls: “Even then I could easily burn the corpses of those prisoners and make then sizzle unbearably with my technology. Penderecki’s greatness lay in the fact that we were not carried away by naturalism; we did not imitate the cracking of skulls in roaring flames. […] There is only a very subtle and intelligent, delicate multiplication of the actor’s text […]”. The “effects” were subordinated to the narrative sometimes meaningfully replacing the words, but they did not illustrate the text. The musical setting did not derive from the “represented reality”, but rather supported the verbal “representation of reality”.