A Polish Requiem
A Polish Requiem is one of
Penderecki’s most important works, and one that took a very long time complete
– its final version emerged after 26 years. It originated in the unrelated,
smaller-scale pieces Lacrimosa (1980),
commissioned by Lech Wałęsa, and Agnus
Dei (1981), composed on impulse after Cardinal Wyszyński’s death. Dies irae, composed in 1983, consists of six sections setting the stanzas of the Requiem
mass sequence: Quid sum miser, Rex
tremendae maiestatis, Recordare Jesu pie, Ingemisco tamquam reus, Preces meae and Confutatis maledictis. These were the three parts of the original Polish Requiem, first performed in
Washington, D.C., for the composer’s 50th birthday.
In Stuttgart less than a year later, Mstislav Rostropovich conducted a new version that included Requiem aeternam, Kyrie, Tuba mirum and Mors stupebit from the Requiem sequence as well as Lux aeterna, Libera me, Domine and Finale. This was not yet the final version of the mass. The composer added a Sanctus in 1993, then incorporated his Chaconne per archi, composed in 2005 after the death of Pope John Paul II. The resulting cycle is monumental, scored for soloists, choir and a very large orchestra including quadrupled woodwinds, six horns and a huge percussion section.
It is impossible to discuss a Requiem mass without referencing the genre’s great tradition: Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, Stravinsky, Britten. Penderecki draws abundantly on this tradition, including the musical symbolism of death and redemption. Still, he creates a new quality both with regard to dramatic construction of the great form and to the means of musical expression. In Penderecki’s pluralist language, there is room for elements related to “pure sound”, for atonal chromatisisms and for tonal references in the form of established tonal centres.
A Polish Requiem opens with an Introitus, which leads to a culmination with bells. Then comes the Kyrie (from 3’56” on our recording) with choir and soloists as well as an extensive funeral sequence (from 8’18”). Tuba mirum is dominated by brass and the solo tenor, Rex tremendae by the solo bas. After a dramatic pause, the Recordare begins (from 24’56” on our recording), which can be viewed as the cycle’s expressive and conceptual centre. In this section, along with the Latin verses, the composer uses a fragment of the Polish-language supplication Święty Boże, Święty Mocny [Holy Almighty God] with its characteristic four-tone head motif introduced by the choir.
After six more stanzas from the sequence Dies Irae and the lyrical-contemplative Lacrimosa (from 48’) we hear the solemn Sanctus (from 52’46”), in three sections, based on a dialogue of the solo voices and the choir, followed by the Chaconne for strings(from 1h 6’45”) and the unaccompanied Agnus Dei (from 1h 12’47’’ on the recording of the entire cycle). Lux aeterna (from 1h 19’54”) brings a significant change of sound, achieved by means of sonoristic techniques. After the responsorial Libera me, Domine, comes the Finale (from 1h 32’53”), which recapitulates the main thematic ideas of the cycle and introduces new elements, for example two lines from the Offertory that are missing from this section in the conventional Mass.
On the emotional and expressive level, Penderecki’s Polish Requiem is a constant interplay between death and the Last Judgment on one hand, and prayer and hope on the other. Critical interpretations of the cycle stress the historical and political context in which it originated, during martial law in Poland, as well as the symbolic layer related to dedications of the different parts, which refer to tragic events or to the key figures in Poland’s recent history. The last verse, “Fac eas, Domine, de morte transire ad vitam” (“Grant, O Lord, that they might pass from death into life”) is often interpreted as an optimistic vision of the end of the nation’s suffering, and the full cycle as an effort to uphold the national spirit.
In a 1993 interview for Studio magazine, Penderecki emphasised his politically involved stance: “While composing the Requiem, I intended to take a definite standpoint, to show which side I was on”. Years later, however, in the first of his Five Addresses, he also discussed the dangers of such an approach: “I cannot be sure that I have not sinned too much, especially towards the free 'I', in yielding to the imperatives of power and the national ethos. Works like the Polish Requiem – even though they have their independent artistic life – are liable to be read as journalism. I do not want these orders to be mixed and I do not wish that music, though written at a specific moment of time, to be seen as a background for anything else, because this would make it shallow". [Labyrinth of Time: Five Addresses for the End of the Millennium. Conversations at the End of Millennium, Chapel Hill: Hinshaw Music 1998, p. 18]