Symphony No. 2 “Christmas Eve”
Symphony No. 2 is a kind of homage to post-Romantic music. It draws on the symphonic idioms of Bruckner and Tchaikovsky, Mahler and Richard Strauss, Wagner and Mieczysław Karłowicz, Sibelius and Shostakovich. Penderecki “heard” them all in his new musical language that entered into a dialogue with tradition and continued that tradition in the spirit of “new romanticism”.
The radical nature of this aesthetic turn, already anticipated in the Violin Concerto No. 1 and in Paradise Lost, was reflected in the use of third chords (in the key of F sharp minor) and in the dramatically conceived musical narration divided into phases that corresponded to the sonata form’s exposition, development, reprise and epilogue. Evidently the composer had decided that the language of the avant-garde could not represent dramatic ideas as efficiently as melodic expression.
The key motif of Symphony No. 2 undergoes constant transformations, is revised and rearranged. In this process the musical substance of the work emerges out of two motifs: one linear, and one built of two chords. Additionally, we hear a four-note motif from the Christmas carol Silent Night (1818) – a nostalgic, simply harmonised fragment – as well as a minor third motif described as “Polish”. The reprise contains a long culmination, summing up the earlier culminations. Here the Polish motif recurs again at the emotional peak of the composition, then in the epilogue the carol fragment reappears for the last time in tempo lento.
After Symphony No. 2, Penderecki was accused
of an academic approach and of being burned out; he was even advised to take a
break from composition. This was not, however, a creative crisis. Rather, the
composer was actively absorbing the language of late Romanticism, which was
soon to become part of another great personal synthesis.