Dies irae for 3 solo voices, choir and orchestra
The composition consists of three parts, each with its own epigram: Lamentatio – “The sorrows of death compassed me…”, Apocalypsis – “…and the pains of hell got hold upon me”, and Apotheosis – “Death is swallowed up in victory” [translations after the King James Bible]. These epigrams can be read under the titles of the three parts in the score; the last is also used in one of the vocal parts.
The title of Penderecki’s Dies irae is of purely symbolic significance, as the text does not come from the Latin sequence used in the mass for the dead. Instead, Penderecki uses a selection of biblical texts from The Book of Revelation, First Epistle to the Corinthians and Psalms, as well as contemporary Polish and French poetry translated into Latin by Tytus Górecki: Władysław Broniewski’s Bodies, Tadeusz Różewicz’s The Plait, Louis Aragon’s Auschwitz and Paul Valéry’s Le cimetière marin. In the second part, he quotes Aeschylus in Greek, from The Eumenides in the Oresteia trilogy. Those words come from the Eumenides or Furies, deities of wrath, vengeance and punishment: “Weave the weird dance — behold the hour / To utter forth the chant of hell, / Our sway among mankind to tell, / The guidance of our power” [translation by E.D.A. Morshead].
The work is dominated by choir and solo voices, and in the orchestral part by winds and percussion. The choir presents the texts in many different ways, accompanied by clusters, glissandi, microtones and “bruitist special effects” produced for example by chains (catena), a siren, a whip (frusta) or a cog rattle (raganella). Melismatic solo singing is interwoven with responsorial sections, choral sprechstimme, whispers, whistling and shouts. These various techniques have created the view of Dies irae as an extreme work in terms of expression and artistic means, which led to equally extreme critical reception: from enthusiasm to condemnation.
However, from the distance of many years and from a non-emotional
perspective, we should stress the fundamental values of Penderecki’s work. The
combination of Latin and Greek, of religious and secular texts into one
monolithic, logical narration served to highlight the common ancient tradition
shared by Jews and Christians. In this way, the composition attained a symbolic
dimension. The composer saw his piece, in an interview with Anna and Zbigniew
Baran entitled Passio artis et vitae,
as “an image of the victory of life over death – from an apocalyptic, but also
from a purely human perspective. The last part ends with the words: ‘Wind is
rising. Let us try to live.’”